Ulick O’Connor, once famous for something literary, vaguely remembered, sits in his three-storey Victorian home in Rathgar, surrounded by books and mementos. He writes, still, and manages his archives, and fulminates about the lies and ineptitude of those in power, and involves himself in theatre.
He is welcoming but tired. “I’ve had a terrible three months, absolutely diabolical, the worst of my life.” The prolonged Abbey controversy, then a new production of an old play of his, then the publication of an anthology of his favourite poetry, have left him somewhat muddled, exhausted. But once he finds his thoughts, he is fluent and impassioned.
His great passion, which has consumed him once again this past year or so, is the Abbey theatre, the National Theatre Society that survived a century but is now destined to become a new, gleaming, public-private partnership in the “Docklands”.
As he proudly told the assembled board and council members at the Abbey’s final general meeting in August, he is a former member of the Abbey board, its second longest standing shareholder, the author of a number of plays staged at the Abbey and a one-time actor on the Abbey stage. He still has a play languishing in the Abbey archives, Mishima, about cult Japanese author Yukio Mishima, commissioned in 1996 by Patrick Mason and, says O’Connor, since neglected.
Now he is furious about the restructuring – and intended relocation – of the Abbey. Indeed, he has been furious since the dismantling of the Abbey actors’ company in 1991, railing against what he sees as the inept and blinkered “reforms” that have desecrated what is “almost a sacred shrine”, the most famous theatre in the English-speaking world. The repertory company was central to the Abbey’s identity, he believes – without it, what’s to distinguish the Abbey from the Gaiety? And now the Abbey, no longer the National Theatre Society created by Yeats and Lady Gregory, but a new national theatre company, limited by guarantee, will move from Abbey St. O’Connor told the Abbey’s final meeting:
“The Irish National Theatre under State control will go its own way. Good luck to it. But it won’t have anything to do with the magic incandescent flame called the Abbey. Call itself for what it is ubt don’t hand that precious name to the entrepreneurs and power hungry bureaucrats already sniffing at the doorways of Abbey Street.”
“I didn’t do any polemics”, he says of his speech, now, and his anger seems muted by the awareness the battle has been lost.
He is 76, not as active as he once was. “I was very surprised to find out I was so old, I hadn’t actually counted the years.”
He talks as if the present was anytime between 1985 and 2005, as if events and scandals from the past 20 years were as current today. Some of them are, of course, and on these he has much to say, learned, passionate, precise. He’s still fit, he says, and walks every day. He only gave up playing football in his 50s, he says, as if it was just last year.
He made his name in part as a regular guest on the Late, Late Show in the 1970s and 1980s. But when was he last on? (He asks the question.) Nineteen eighty-five. His new book hasn’t been reviewed at all on the radio. There was a piece on his most recent theatrical production, but Ulick wasn’t invited on. It is, clearly, a conspiracy, a stationwide policy – not simply the aggregate effect of changing generations, of new waves of RTE researchers who barely know who Ulick O’Connor is, and are unaware that he hasn’t been invited on the Late, Late Show since 1985.
Ulick O’Connor is an ordinary person, a man with a striking literary and rhetorical talent of the kind that animates and enlivens everyday life in newsprint and on the airwaves – but perhaps not the kind that lives on through the generations and becomes part of the national narrative.
He has a new book, a gem of a Christmas present, Word Magic, a collection of his favourite poetry with brief, pithy, anecdotal comments. It’s a collection of his weekly series in the Evening Herald, each chosen for the “person sitting on top of a bus” on the way home.
He sits in a teetering armchair in front of a roaring fire in a top bedroom of the old house, and closes his eyes and recites from it. The chair leans so much it looks like it must give way, and send the coffee cup all over a folder on the floor labelled “1978 A-J” and Ulick’s head against the neglected-looking exercise bicycle. His dressing gown collar props up his neck as he leans back, a foot clad in a bursting old runner thrust forward, one hand raised, the other clenched.
Dylan Thomas’s ‘Poem On His Birthday’:
That the closer I move
To death, one man through his sundered hulks,
The louder the sun blooms…
His mimics Dylan Thomas’s “posh Swansea” voice, and his voice crackles like Thomas’s on the old recordings.
And my shining men no more alone
As I sail out to die.
Thomas, Hopkins, Yeats – the lines pour out of him, in response to a question about his favourite poems, as he delves into the book of poetry in his head. Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium is “the whole adventure of life as it’s lived, captured in a symbol”.
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees…
But these are the poems of old men, of death. Byzantium is a cold idyll, one of gold, not life, the song of a old poet delusioned with th failures of the flesh and the neglect of intellect.
Not so, says Ulick, it is a poem of the soul- “Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing”, he says, demands.
The house comes down with books, shelves with A4 signs hanging on them to give some semblance of order: “biographers and the art of biography”; “existentialism” (“Alan Bennet’s there, I think that’s the right place for him”). A video sits buried on a mantlepiece, Pamela Anderson and the girls of conquest. Hanging on the walls, throughout the house, are his achievements and friendships, his history. The masks from his Noh plays, produced in New York in 1980. The poster from his one-man Brendan Behan play at the Abbey in 1971, “it ran longer than any one-man show there”. A photo of a rugby team, St Mary’s, 1947/48, Senior Cup Semi Finalists, “the funny thing is that I was a schoolboy and that was the senior team”. A boxing trophy. A collection of wonderful cards sent by a sculptor every year. He knocks over a Christmas card picking one up. “Fucking Christmas cards, haven’t sent one in 30 years and they’re still sending them to me.”
In a main study, downstairs, an old computer signals the intrusion of the 1990s into a dim and dusty world of scattered correspondence and archives. More posters, more stories.
His conversation is strewn with petty boasts and the dropping of names, many of which have long since receded in fame and significance. Yet there is a humility about him, and a gentility, that is charming. He knows his place, it is clear: to heckle and to argue, to write, to entertain himself and others. He has skills, some prowess, and they are there to be used, flaunted even. He makes reference constantly to his successes on the sporting field. It sounds like vanity. But to listen to him talk about art is to see where he places himself. He believes in these things: sport, literature, theatre. He believes they should be done well and, where that is done, celebrated. But he knows where greatness lies, and measures himself humbly against it.
The artist’s duty, he says, is to use his art “like a laser going into society, and to give the truth unencumbered by all the concepts imposed on it by today, by social demands”. In the theatre, the artist’s task lies in “looking through all the fraud in his society and showing it up in this terrifying way… and then having the magical gift, which is almost God-given, of being able to create on the stage real people, men and women… So that the audience then are taken into this whole world where the truth is shown to them, the truth of life, by the artist’s magic wand.”
“Do you have that gift?”
He fumbles, stutters.
“I don’t know, but I’d be doubtful, you know, but I would aspire to it. That’s all I would be interested in attaining, in what I write, in reaching that. You really have no right to say whether you have it or not, in way, because who can judge, but I would aim for that.
“If I had touched on art, even, in what I did, I would feel… I would have justified myself.”
He is proudest of his work in verse theatre, attempting to revive a tradition largely moribund since Yeats biography, and in biography – Celtic Dawn was “a new break in biography”, he believes. The second half of the 20th century through up such extraordinary stories, in the news, that he “felt that fiction had been exhausted”. Instead, he sought artistic truth through biography: “stick rigidly to the facts, you’ve got to absolutely nail yourself to the cross of fact, but having done that, you then use the artist’s insight to create characters and figures that are true…”
It is a sharp December day, a day for walking. He sees me to the door, casts a keen eye over my bicycle, more chat, good wishes, eventually disappears inside. A minute or two later, he appears again: “Oh, are you still there?”
He steps out onto the front steps now, in his burst runners and dressing gown, observes upon the neighbourhood, who lived across the road, how little this part of town has changed. Then he steps up onto the low plynth to the side of the granite steps up to his front door, and stands tall there, looking out, and waving.
Published in Village, December 2005