Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Candidate


The first time I met John O’Mahony was in the autumn of 1970. I was sitting at a table in the Rest in UCC surrounded by my cronies. I was in Second Year and an established figure amongst the arty set, being involved in both the Dramat (the studen drama society) and  Aire, the student magazine. I had also been selected for the UCC tennis team that year. A made man in our little world. Our table was approached by this slightly agricultural figure in a black duffle-coat with a shock of dark dishevelled hair and a ruddy complexion.  I had never seen him before. “Are you Johnny Sullivan?” he asked me directly. “I am” I conceded, wondering what does uncouth fellow could want of me. “Didn’t you do English and Philosophy last year?” he continued. I agreed that was so. “Can I have your first year notes?”  the young pup had  the temerity to ask. I was so taken aback at the brazenness that I meekly agreed and arranged to meet up with him the next day.

 Thus began my relationship with John O’Mahony who died full of life earlier this year in New York. That opening encounter captured one of John’s abiding characteristics – the ability not to pussy foot about but go directly for  what he wanted. This had its down sides of course, especially where women were concerned, but it took him to many places a politer person would not have reached. In Cork, that most acidulous town, he quickly came to be called The Candidate – after the 1970 film of the same name about an upwardly mobile politician. To this day old acquaintances from Cork refer to him thus.

 He too got involved in the arts scene in UCC and we frequently coincided at theatrical events and the associated social occasions. We both liked drinking and carousing. He managed to alienate himself from the affections of many of his peers at UCC when he decided to piss in the corner of a mutual friend’s living room during a party. It wasn’t so much the pissing she resented as the fact that he splashed a couple of other attendees sitting nearby. Occasionally we may even have had a girl-friend or two in common but we studiously avoided getting into any discussions about that. We were always friends but never very close friends. I knew little about his background except that he was an only child from Bantry and that his mother had died when he was in his early teens.

 Our last UCC involvement came when we both happened to do the Higher Diploma in Education a few years after graduating. We decided that it would be wise to go after an honours diploma with the associated salary boost it gave teachers. To this end we collaborated in studying separate sections of the course and exchanging notes. It worked well and we both got honours but alas neither of us ever made use of this qualification. After UCC we drifted apart. I was on my travels with the oil-rigs and he was working as an arts officer mostly around Cork. 

 After I became tired of risking my life on  drilling platforms  I ran for cover with a software company in Dublin which was looking for technical English teachers to give introduction to computers classes for students from Sweden and Saudi Arabia. It was 1979 and It provided a timely introduction for me into the world of IT.  I flourished there for five years or so. John was going through a period of unemployment and I managed to fix him up with a job there as well. However, it only lasted a few months. We had an office close to Pearse Street Garda Station and would frequently head over to Bowe’s for a pint or two after work. And occasionally during work. John did like a pint in those days and one lunch time he drank not wisely but too well. His afternoon class of Saudi students took umbrage at the state of him (each class had an official representative) and complained to our manager – a woman with a highly-defined commercial streak. Notwithstanding the fact that it was a week before Christmas he was sacked on the spot. No ASTI for him – not even a second chance.

We went our separate ways for a number of years then. I was working abroad while John remained in Dublin where he had some loose association with the Windmill Lane Studios. There was an infamous incident around that time that may have hastened his ultimate departure to the USA. He managed to engineer his girl-friend at the time into a secretarial position at Windmill Lane. She was a pretty girl with a roving eye. This roving eye landed on a singer called Terence Trent D’Arby – a bit of a star at the time and a singularly good-looking lad. She ditched John and took up with the glamorous Terence. John was incensed by this ingratitude and on encountering her in a Dublin night-club he gave her a slap. He was very drunk at the time but this unforgivable behaviour burnt all bridges to the local arts and music scene. So our bould hero hied himself off to New York. 

 He started life with the Irish Echo in New York but soon graduated (if that’s the word) to  the New York Post where he thrived. I visited New York a lot I those days and we’d hook up. His journalist credentials got us into places like the Soho Tavern and other fashionable spots. However he preferred the sleazier side of town. Billy’s Topless, Hogs and Heifer’s and that fine old Bowery bar Milano’s were our favourite haunts. John was always a bit erratic when he drank – especially when he started on the shots. A contrary, insinuating side could emerge. I remember the waitresses in Hogs and Heifers having him kicked out for excessive lip one night. He also committed the awful social solecism of hitting on one of the strippers in Billy’s Topless. Having plied her with dollar bills during her act he followed her over to the bar during the break and tried to get her to go on a date with him. The woman, a professional rebuffer was having none of it but discouraged him gently. God loves a trier.

 Then out of the blue he married an extraordinarily fat girl who was a colleague on the New York Post. This eventually turned out not to have been a good move. However there was a fine wedding in New York culminating in a pipe band from the NYPD escorting them down 5th Avenue. His wife was from California and after an abortive pub venture in upstate New York they headed west to Venice, CA – where they bought property a few minutes from Venice Beach. Things rested so for a number of years. The fat girl slimmed down and set about getting tattoos all over her new body. John was now working for the Bloomberg organisation and getting along fine. A few years ago it all fell apart. The wife fell in love with her tattoo artist and left him – there was some nasty financial fallout  from all this but over time they seem to have arrived at an amiable settlement. John however was never really a Californian so he headed back tout suit to his beloved New York – where he still had his nice rent-controlled apartment.

 Over the years he had health problems. He underwent a major heart bypass operation in the mid-80s. This left with a long scar from neck to navel but otherwise he recovered well and was soon back carousing. Then two years ago he called me for advice about the prostate cancer he had just been diagnosed with. A friend of mine and my brother-in-law had both been similarly afflicted but had come through the operation and resumed their lives in reasonable nick. I hooked him up with both of them and this gave him the data on which to make a decision. Prostate operations frequently offer you the Hobson’s choice of compromised waterworks or compromised erectile function. Being John, he took himself off to Thailand for a month to indulge his carnal side before his ability to do so was impaired. He returned from Thailand and had the operation which was reasonable successful.

 We communicated regularly over Skype for the past few years and we had dinner in Dublin twice in 2016, and went to see Juno and the Paycock. He also sent me a script he'd written for a super hero saga he hoped to have accepted for a pilot TV show. It's not my genre but it seemed pretty good to me and I sent him back some positive comments. My last contact with him was in early December 2016 when he had returned from a very lively holiday in Mexico. He included a YouTube link to demonstrate the carousing he had indulged in down there. Early in the New Year he had a fatal heart attack during a morning yoga class in New York and died surrounded by a crowd of sympathetic women in leotards. A somehow fitting end.      

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Brendan Earley - Back of Beyond

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times culture magazine on 27 August 2017

Brendan Earley operates in the rarified world of art fairs (Art Basel Hong Kong, NADA Miami) with occasional appearances in Irish museums and at Mother’s Tankstation - the mothership for his international ventures. Given the avant-garde nature of much of the work you encounter in this milieu you could be forgiven for wondering if this exhibition is a post-modern exercise in thwarting conventional expectations. The Douglas Hyde web site tells us the show runs from 28 July to 30 September and that it can be viewed in Gallery 2 and the Freeman Library. Visiting it on 21 August I was informed that the Freeman Library was closed until 4 September. Also, the exhibition is promoted with a photograph of Earley’s entitled Back of Beyond which doesn’t feature in the eponymous show. Apart from River Return that lurked unseen in the locked library, the show consists of four minimal drawings on paper of Sixties musicians in sylvan settings and a larger installation using ink on silk. The latter featured Gay and Terry Woods posed appositely amongst the trees beneath a purple parasol. Strangely strange.

Douglas Hyde Gallery
John P. O'Sullivan

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Review of Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine 0n 20 August 2017.

The tragic trajectory of Roger Casement’s life – from humanitarian hero to death on the gallows –  continues to engage historians and novelists. Following Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2012 novel The Dream of the Celt that focused on Casement’s last days in Pentonville Prison, Sabina Murray brings us a more rounded portrait of this intriguing character. Her entertaining and historically persuasive novel blends the personal with the political through his relationships with two friends: Herbert Ward (in photo on left with Casement) and Sarita Sanford-Ward, and a host of contemporary characters. Ward was a famous explorer, writer and sculptor who travelled in the Congo with Casement and became a close friend. Sarita was an Argentinian-American heiress who married Ward and who welcomed Casement into their extended family. 

Murray’s novel borrows and tellingly makes plural the title of Sarita’s 1927 biography of her husband:  Herbert Ward: A Valiant Gentleman. Casement’s unspoken love for Ward is a recurring motif. Only occasionally is it made explicit: “Ward leaned right against Casement’s chest and Casement feels that hope – a mistaken drunken hope – flickering in his heart”. Their friendship was so strong that Ward named one of his sons after him – only to change it by deed poll when Casement was disgraced. Their gradual growing apart began when Casement’s interest in colonial abuse shifted from Africa and the Amazon to Ireland and the final break occurred when Ward heard of Casement’s recruiting activities in Germany.

Murray has stated that “historical fiction distinguishes itself by occupying a culture rendered alien to the reader through passage of time”. Her novel certain fulfils this prescription in transporting us back to the multiple milieus in which Casement and his friends operated. We follow their exploits from the Congo, to New York, London, Cape Town, Paris, Putumayo, Berlin, and there’s even an interlude on Inishmaan where Casement enjoys a pint. Murray displays a deft touch in managing harmoniously these abrupt shifts in locale and time. We are never confused as to where we are and with whom. This is a human all to human Casement. He’s Roddie to his friends (as he was in real life) and we follow the mundanities of his daily round, his eating and drinking habits (he likes a gin and tonic) as well as his excursions to Turkish baths and his adventures in New York bars. 

Murray, like Llosa before her, and most historians, clearly accepts that the Black Diaries were genuine. This is a debate that is still running however and as recently as 2012 the historian Angus Mitchell maintained that they were the result of a carefully managed smear campaign by British intelligence. Whether forgeries or not their judicious leaking had the desired effect. It assured in the short term that petitions for mercy could be ignored and in the long term it was designed to tarnish the legacy of a dedicated enemy of colonialism. The Daily Express of the day referred to him as a “pathic” and a  “moral degenerate”. Murray takes a benign view of all this with the sexual interludes depicted as victimless aspects of daily life. This attitude is confirmed by her employment of the quaint contemporary term “musical” as a synonym for gay.

While the three main characters dominate the action Murray draws in a multitude of historical figures as bit players, with a few tart judgements appended. We meet Joseph Conrad in the Congo, John Devoy in New York (Murray has a dig at the armchair Republican), John MacBride, and the indomitable Alice Stopford Green (an early influence on Casement’s burgeoning Republicanism). We are also introduced to the Irish whiskey heir James Jameson who connives in cannibalism to provide a subject for his watercolours.

Sarita emerges as the most sympathetic character of the three protagonists. The only one who is clear-eyed about her motives and consistent in her allegiances. The Casement we meet  is far from the tortured soul we might imagine from our history. Murray restores his humanity depicting a warm, personable, albeit conflicted man. We encounter him at play with the Ward children and trekking with his beloved dogs. He is at home in hammocks and in chateaux, eating bush rat and veal cutlets, socialising with lords, plutocrats and semi-naked natives. His conflicts arise from his homosexuality (a serious crime at the time) and from his slowly emerging sense that the natives in Ireland are also suffering subjugation and abuse at he hands of their colonial masters, his erstwhile employers.       

 Grove Press UK

 PP 490

 John P. O’Sullivan      

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Rancid Ruminations - August 2017

Heartless Brutes

Writing, whether it's high culture or low journalism, can be a thankless pursuit. Your precious foostering with words and romantic quests for the mot juste are a matter of some indifference to most readers, and alas to many editors. A couple of weeks ago I did a small piece on Nick Miller's fine show in the Catherine Hammond Gallery. The show was called Nature Morte featuring still lifes of flowers. In reviewing it I referred to  "daffodils that haste away so soon" - a not terribly original allusion to Robert Herrick's well known poem (Fair daffodils we weep to see you haste away so soon). A judicious sub-editor in London was having none of it. For him (or her) grammar trumped poetic allusion and my words were amended to the prosaic "daffodils that hasten away so soon". While this hasn't runined my life, it certainly cast a pall over most of that Sunday.

Off the Hook

Newstalk eh - it just gets worse. If it weren't for Pat Kenny I doubt if I'd ever listen to it. The problem is I forget to turn it off after Pat and thus am regularly exposed to George Hook. How can such a thing be? I suspect that after years of riding his hobby-horses over vigorously his brains have become scrambled. His dangerous nonsense about the HPV vaccine is only the latest manifestation of a less than noble mind o'erthrown. He should take his Blueshirt/Pres boy shtick and retire to the corner of the Briar Rose where he can harumph away harmlessly. And he's not even the worst of them. That creature Paul Williams on the Breakfast show clearly loves the Gardai, clearly hates all cyclists, and generally brings his prejudices and a vulgar tabloid sensibility to everything he touches. Shane Coleman isn't too bad - a tad conventional perhaps but a pro. Chris Donoghue's heart is afixed to his sleeve - a little more objectivity lad and don't take the water charges so personally. Sarah McInerney seems to lack the substance required for a heavy news slot (listen to Jeffrey Donaldson run rings around her). Bobby Kerr is harmless but boring. Ivan Yates is a stone philistine and is only interesting when he's talking about Irish politics and occasionally horses. I know that Denis O'Brien loves soccer but there's way too much emphasis on the Premier League in England on Off the Ball. Every English-based journeyman who has ever played for Ireland is brought on to hold forth ad nauseum about fuck all - often in a semi-penetrable accent. People often cite Moncrieff as being a good deed in this naughty world but I don't buy it. His over-reliance on quirky scatological items is a bit schoolboyish and check out how snippy he gets if you text in something critical.     

Tipp Toppled 

The summer of course is now over for me after Tipp's defeat by Galway the weekend before last. It was, remarkably, the third one point margin semi-final in a row between these teams. They are well matched opponents, Galway's physicality countering Tipp's skill. This time the stakes were high as instead of Kilkenny awaiting the victors you had a limited Waterford or an inexperienced Cork. Callanan had been injured and I suspect his off day from the dead ball may have been related. Also, the tubby, self-important prick who reffed (Barry Kelly) gave Galway 17 frees to Tipp's 8 - a crucial factor. So it was hard to take. Could have gone either way if only if only etc. Put your house and your children's school fees on Galway to win the final. (I had a substantial bet on Galway to beat Tipp at 10/11.)  

Things Fall Apart

I have been on the road for much of the summer - in California for 3 weeks, in west Cork for 2 weeks, and over in Clare for a while. A litany of ailments has assailed me on my travels. In California I got a vicious attack of bursitis - a malady with which I was unfamiliar. My right elbow swelled up and became extremely painful - the slighest touch was agony and sleep was difficult. Drink deadened it occasionally but there was a double indemnity to pay next day. A kindly old buffer of a doctor in Santa Barbara eventually killed it with antibiotics and deadened it the while with pain-killers but it blighted my stay. Next up I went down to Bantry for the literary festival where I was performing with John Kelly and attending many of the events. I felt a few twinges in my foot on the way down but blamed it on a walk on Killiney Beach which can be rough and rocky when the tide is in. However it got worse and having to change gear (using the clutch) became a chore. I limped sadly around Bantry for a few days, drove on to Allihies for my wife's exhibition opening, and eventually made it back to Dublin in abject agony. I had to stop for pain-killers on the way back and next morning got my ass into A&E in St. Michael's Dun Laoghaire. (Early Sunday morning is an excellent time to go to A&E).  I explained my Killiney Beach theory to the skeptical doctor and nurses and they dutifully sent me for an X-ray and blood tests. The results of the X-ray showed no physical damage but the blood test clearly indicated gout according to my youthful and very competent Indian doctor. He gave me a prescription for tablets that would be immediately effacacious and told me to see my GP as well. My GP was cool. He had it himself a couple of times and said that I could forget all this nonsense about lifestyle changes and red wine. Here's a prescription he said, just take a few of these if you get it again and it'll be gone in a day or two. We're not finished yet. One of my daughters got me a birthday present of a massage in July. I like a head massage, a foot massage or even a gentle back massage. I also prefer if the masseuse is a female - I just feel more comfortable in that scenario, don't bother analysing it. I dutifully headed off to the venue which was reached through a side door between a pub and a hardware store (somewhere on the South Side). I am used to sweet smelling saloons with lots of smiling girls and a comfortingly oriental vibe. This smelled of sweat and embrocation. I found myself in a small room with a chunky little man with a vaguely East-European accent. Initially I attempted to weasel out of it by telling him about my back problems (that lifting my neighbour episode) but he said he'd go easy on me. He didn't. After about 3 minutes I felt a sharp pain in rib that has been with me ever since. Back to St. Michael's where X-rays revealed that while no ribs were broken, one was cracked. More pain-killers and a big patch on the afflicted area. So I'm off to Schull tomorrow with my lingering back problem, my cracked rib, my subsiding big toe, and an elbow that still reminds me off California. Hey ho. I am clearly disintegrating.    

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Review of: Anne Madden: Colours of the Wind - Ariadne's Thread

An edited version of this piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 13 August 2017.  

 As the muse of Louis le Brocquy, Anne Madden’s place in Irish art history is secure. The permanence  of her reputation as an artist only time will tell. Her work has tended towards the decorative – with a penchant for large scale paintings often in dramatic colours such as cerise, magenta and orange. These are pleasing enough on the eye but somehow lacking that visceral or radiant element that constitutes the real thing. Her current show in the Hugh Lane illustrates her shortcomings. The myth of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur is a dark and bloody tale of sacrifice, lust and betrayal. Its essence is hardly conveyed by a show that consists of an array of candy-coloured panels, a few cosmic streamers, and some dark intimations conveyed by a brace of horned heads. The painting entitled The Labyrinth (above) is a particularly weakly executed piece lacking both geometry and poetry. The gaudy rhetoric of these works seems unlikely to lead us to “a deeper understanding of the nature of existence” which is the artists’s aim according to her blurb writer. It also begs the question as to whether the show merits three large rooms in one of our major art museums.    

 Dublin City Gallery    The Hugh Lane

John P. O'Sullivan