- 14 Sep 17
The American writer's most famous novel, The Ginger Man, sold more than 50 million copies
Hot Press senior editor Olaf Tyaransen has recalled his encounter with the controversial American writer J. P. Donleavy, who died earlier this week. The internationally acclaimed author of such novels as The Ginger Man, The Onion Eaters and A Singular Man, passed away on Monday at his country mansion in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, following a stroke. He was 91.
Olaf interviewed Donleavy in 2010 but that wasn’t the only time their paths crossed.
“I actually had the pleasure of meeting him on a couple of occasions,” Olaf recalls. “He was a really interesting character, full of stories, and very much a writer’s writer. I interviewed him at his home just outside Mullingar. He lived in a crumbling mansion that had a lot of history. Apparently the Rolling Stones had partied there. A year or so later I met him in the company of Shane MacGowan and [artist and writer] Sebastian Horsley at a book launch in Dublin. Unfortunately, his hell-raising days were behind him at that stage. Still, the conversation was good.”
The author of more than a dozen novels, as well as plays and nonfiction books, Donleavy was born in Brooklyn on April 23, 1926, the son of Irish immigrants. After serving in WW2, he moved to Ireland and studied microbiology at Trinity College on the GI Bill.
Donleavy's 1955 debut and most famous novel, The Ginger Man, was banned in Ireland until 1968. It was also the subject of a long-running legal battle between Donleavy and French publisher Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press. To the author’s fury, the French edition of The Ginger Man was published as pornography. Donleavy ultimately won the case, and wound up owning the notorious publishing house.
A picaresque set in Dublin in post-war 1947, The Ginger Man follows the often racy misadventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, a young American living in Dublin with his English wife and infant daughter and studying law at Trinity College. Donleavy’s friend and drinking companion Brendan Behan was the first to read the original manuscript of The Ginger Man and reportedly exclaimed: "This book is going to go around the world and beat the bejaysus out of the Bible!"
Since its first publication, the novel has sold more than 50 million copies and has been translated into two dozen languages including Hebrew, Korean and Vietnamese. It was adapted into a stage production in London and the Gaiety in Dublin in 1959, with Richard Harris starring as Dangerfield, and a TV movie starring Ian Hendry was broadcast in 1962. Patrick O'Neal starred in an Off Broadway version of the play in New York. In 2005 there were discussions with Johnny Depp about starring in a film based on the novel, with rumours that Shane MacGowan had been lined up for a role. MacGowan took the title of the famous Pogues’ Christmas song ‘Fairytale of New York’ from Donleavy’s 1973 novel of the same name.
In 2013, it was reported that Depp would produce a film version starring Cork actor Cillian Murphy, although it has yet to happen.
In 2015 Depp wrote the introduction to a sixtieth anniversary edition of the book, published by Lilliput.
Donleavy lived in London and the Isle of Man throughout the 1950s and 1960s and returned to Ireland in 1969, settling in a crumbling mansion on a Westmeath farm, where he remained for the rest of his life. The Irish-American novelist was honoured with the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards in 2015. He joined a distinguished list of winners which includes Paul Durcan, John Banville, Maeve Binchy, John McGahern, Edna O' Brien, and Nobel Prize-winning poet Séamus Heaney.
He was married twice; his first marriage to Valerie Heron ended in 1969 and the marriage to his second wife, actress Mary Wilson Price, ended in 1988. He is survived by his sister, Mary, his son Philip and daughter Karen from his first marriage and several grandchildren.
Speaking to RTE Radio One’s Morning Ireland, Anthony Farrell of Lilliput Press paid tribute to his friend, saying; "He was a wonderful character, very warm and very witty."
In 2010, Hot Press' Olaf Tyaransen visited Donleavy at his Mullingar home. You can read the full interview here: http://www.hotpress.com/JP-Donleavy/features/interviews/Reflections-of-a-Literary-Rebel/6341983.html