Biographer and comic writer Arthur Mathews may have hogged the spotlight for his work on the memoir 'Well Remembered Days', but now Harry Guerin tracks down its real hero, Eoin O'Ceallaigh, to a retirement home in the West.
Some years ago, author and retired public servant Eoin O'Ceallaigh enjoyed a Connemara sunset with his childhood friend and fellow author Gloinn McTire. And as the big orange ball seemed to fall into the sea, O'Ceallaigh reiterated his opposition to modernisation while McTire replayed his regret that he had never met or indeed married Sophia Loren. It was there and then that O'Ceallaigh, a writer of such critically overlooked books as 'Ireland In Crisis', 'Mammy I'd Rather Play With The Girls' and 'The Rollicking Apron', decided to pen a memoir of his time as a Catholic in 20th Century Ireland.
Despite a lowly position in the Department of Education (and prior to that the National Censorship Board, where he managed to ban "as many books as possible"), O'Ceallaigh has been in the background of many key events in Irish/International history: he hid a pack of sausages for Michael Collins during the Black and Tans' reign of terror, survived both abduction and a cavity search by aliens, escaped from a plane crash on his way to the beatification of a Brazilian nun, founded the no-nonsense crusade of The League of The Mother of God Against Sin and was one of the driving force's behind the Pope's visit to Ireland.
All these events and more are gathered together in 'Well Remembered Days', his scrapbook of many small thoughts and some tall tales, written with help from the comic writer Arthur Mathews, a man who mixes in 'media circles' and has managed to get O'Ceallaigh's book the exposure his other works were denied (in some extreme cases they were forbidden). While his relationship with Mathews has now deteriorated to the extent that they don't even use a carrier pigeon to communicate, the duo have 'created' a remarkable book full of remarkable people like anti-euthanasia campaigner Jimmy 'Kiss Of Life' Traynor, Larry Hoey, the man who blurred the line between corporation official and full-time martyr and the aforementioned McTire, who accompanied the Irish pole vaulting team to the Berlin Olympics and went on to write a book about Hitler (now out of print) before disgracing himself as a TD when a cache of weapons were found in his home.
While critics and ordinary people have claimed O'Ceallaigh and Mathews have been 'economical with the truth' in their assessment of life before, during and after the advent of jazz and television, the 87-year-old is unrepentant, he admits that perhaps his tenancy on earth has been "too long" but says that every minute is true. Here, he discusses his newfound commercial success, his plans for the future and his hopes that his memoir will soon be turned into a mini series.
Harry Guerin: Your memoir, 'Well Remembered Days', has received very positive or 'rave' reviews from the Irish media. Are you shocked at their enthusiasm given your difficult relationship with them over the years?
Eoin O'Ceallaigh: It's been very difficult - both for them and me. I've had many fights with them over the years - both physical and verbal. I remember once a very vicious encounter with the Arts Editor of the Evening Press in a toilet in Galway in which we both ended up losing some teeth. I think their 'enthusiasm' is most likely a cynical ploy to 'build me up' so they can 'knock me down'. We've seen this happen before, most notoriously with the Olympic gymnast, Olga Korbut.
HG: For people who may have been away on holidays when your book came out or have no time for the media, how would you describe 'Well Remembered Days'?
EO'C: It's a memoir of my life during the 20th century - one of the best-remembered centuries in recent memory. I think I've known nearly everyone of consequence during that time; the book is a beautifully written account of my dealings with everybody from Michael Collins to Val Doonican.
HG: You live in a retirement home in the West and your biographer Arthur Mathews divides his time between London and Dublin. How did you meet in the first place?
EO'C: I was putting rubbish in a skip outside my house, and I found him asleep in it. He'd been 'out on the town' with Shane MacGowan and Mannix Flynn the night before and looked more than a little the worse for wear!
HG: How did you work together? Was the relationship good or were there difficulties? Was he a better listener than you were a talker?
EO'C: We communicated mostly be phone, and on one occasion by carrier pigeon. I didn't like him very much, and found him very arrogant. I think he was quite a good listener, but I've discovered recently that for much of the time he was asleep on the other end of the line, and made up a lot of the book. He also wrote that dreadful rubbish 'Ballykissangel', or that other thing about three priests living on an island. Whatever it was, he obviously has very little talent.
HG: Was this a difficult or painful book to write?
EO'C: A lot of it was quite painful, as I fell down the stairs while writing the introduction and was in excruciating pain for the next three months.
HG: Have you received any feedback from your friends about the book - in particular your friend Gloinn McTire?
EO'C: Unfortunately I've fallen out with Gloinn, as he believes I've portrayed him as a mean, sex-obsessed, power-crazed drunk. But he is! I don't know why he's been so offended by my extremely accurate depiction.
HG: The book seems popular amongst a 'younger' generation, what do you hope they take from it?
EO'C: The price sticker off the back! Ideally they would then replace it with a more expensive amount before they take it to the cashier! Seriously though, I hope they take from it the fact that Ireland, despite all its problems, is still the best place in the world to be Irish in.
HG: You've also had a difficult relationship with England. How would you feel if English people were to buy your book?
EO'C: I'm sure there are sensible English people who would enjoy my book, although, God knows, we rarely see them on the television. Anne Widdicombe seems like a nice girl, and I'm sure she would enjoy reading it. She's also a practicing Catholic. Which is nice.
HG: Would you be happy to be interviewed about your book on the Late Late? You were never asked to appear again after a mini studio riot in the 60's during a debate on sex.
EO'C: There is an immense amount of bad feeling between myself and RTÉ over that incident. It's still the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning, despite the fact that it happened over thirty years ago. The only programme I watch on RTÉ is the Angelus. Despite the 'new look', which I'm not entirely in favour of, it's still easily the best thing on television.
HG: While your book covers many major events in Irish history, including your own birth, you neglect to examine the boom of the late 1990's when the whole country was a shambles. Why?
EO'C: Well, we did well economically, but in spiritual terms, there was a big 'balance of payments deficit'. We were better off when we had absolutely nothing and everybody was walking around in their bare feet eating scraps of food that they'd find on the ground. I know it's a cliche, but it's true.
HG: How do you handle the claim that you've been economical with the truth when you say that you helped organise the Pope's visit to Ireland in 1979?
EO'C: I react with indignation and violence. It's a well-known fact that the Pope came to this country in 1979 because of my extraordinary effort and hard work. The Popemobile was also my idea. My son in law customised his ice cream van, and the Holy Father had a great laugh driving around in it, waving at the Irish.
HG: Have you paid any attention to the book's sales and do you intend to spend the royalties?
EO'C: It's a crazy idea, but if the book sells well, I would quite like to visit Mars. I saw a programme on 'The Red Planet' the other day, and it looks like an interesting place. Very quiet.
HG: You'll be 89 this November and have just written your most acclaimed book, have you plans for a sequel?
EO'C: I'm getting a lot of offers through my agent. Rather curiously, I've been asked to write the screenplay to the follow up to the film 'Traffic'. However, I think this may have been due to a mis-directed letter by An Post.
HG: If there were plans to turn 'Well Remembered Days' into a mini series would you be comfortable with seeing yourself on screen and who would play you?
EO'C: That would be hilarious! Gabriel Byrne obviously springs to mind. If not him, possibly Gay Byrne, as his name is vaguely similar, and he would certainly have the 'screen presence'.
HG: Have you considered reactivating your publication 'majority ethos'? or even putting it online with a collection of your poetry?
EO'C: Majority Ethos part two comes out in a few months time, ten years after the first issue. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a 'technophobe', and the Internet is a bit of a puzzle to me. But I believe it's a lot faster than a conventional oven.
HG: You've been writing poetry since an early age, have you ever thought about donating your papers and poetry to the state?
HG: Could the success of 'Well Remembered Days' lead to your other books - 'Ireland In Crisis', 'Ruthai Amach (Bicycles Outside)' and 'An Rogollach Buachaillearacht (The Rollicking Apron)' being reprinted?
EO'C: They're all wonderful books, and deserve a wider audience. (And I don't mean 'fat' people!) Hopefully, they'll all re-emerge eventually. I've been told it depends on something called 'tropical re-forestation' - something to do with paper and rain forests and that type of thing. I don't understand it. They're hardly going to print my books on trees!!
HG: As a former civil servant with the Department of Education what are your feelings about the current teachers' dispute?
EO'C: The Land of Saints and Scholars has finally turned into The Land of Saints and No Scholars. And there aren't many saints around either.
Eoin O'Ceallaigh was speaking to Harry Guerin (through the medium of Arthur Mathews). 'Well Remembered Days' is out now in paperback from Macmillan.