For many Irishmen, says novelist J.P. Donleavy, their country is little more than a “shrunken teat on the chest of the cold Atlantic.” But in the Irish diaspora, he adds, Ireland is a sweet and glowing emerald vision devoid of poverty, dampness or cold. Donleavy, born and raised in New York City by Irish immigrant parents but a resident of Ireland for more than 30 years, is distinctly qualified to speak from both sides of the Celtic fence. Donleavy was 20 when he moved to Dublin in the fall of 1946. J.P. Donleavy's Ireland chronicles the years that preceded publication of his first novel, The Ginger Man, in 1955. Filled with scenes of debauchery and mayhem, it is the story of one man’s ribald return to his roots.
Donleavy’s account reveals the source of such rollicking Donleavy fiction as The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B and A Singular Man. Donleavy and his friends once ran naked up Dublin’s busy Grafton Street to Davy Byrnes’s pub—a feat he calls
“the deed of the nude velocity.” But his drinking binges took place everywhere from “boisterous saloons, where spouting a sonnet would get you a fist in the gob,” to the high-class Shelbourne Hotel, “where you might be whipped unceremoniously with a riding crop for calling a hound a dog.” When the bars of Dublin closed, there were perilous rides into the mountains to continue drinking after hours at country pubs.
Reminiscing about his “close enemy,” author Brendan Behan, Donleavy recalls that they once abandoned a planned fistfight because no one would leave the cozy pub to watch them do battle outside. But they were also literary allies. One day, Donleavy writes, he returned home to find his cottage outside Dublin in disarray. On the desk beside his manuscript of The Ginger Man, Behan had placed a stained and tattered early version of his book Borstal Boy.
More than just a string of drinking stories, the book documents Donleavy’s metamorphosis from young American to Irish artist. And like the convert who embraces a religion more fervently than its priests, Donleavy frequently sounds more Irish than the Irish themselves. It is a joyous, passionate and resonant cry.
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