Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Pulsing like a python

‘I have just finished my modest airline nosh when Ali plops down beside me. He has short sleeves and his enormous bicep rests near mine with the vein in it pulsing like a python.’ This snippet about the boxer Muhammad Ali is from the gossipy and entertaining diaries of Irish writer and historian Ulick O’Connor who died three months ago.

O’Connor was born in 1928 in Rathgar, County Dublin, to the dean of the Royal College of Surgeons and his wife. He attended Catholic secondary school in Galway and Dublin counties, before studying law and philosophy at University College Dublin. He was keen on sports, especially boxing, rugby and cricket, and was an active member of the Literary and Historical Society. He went on to attend Loyola University, New Orleans, and was called to the Irish bar in 1951. Although he practised in Dublin until 1970, he increasingly turned to writing - biography, poetry, history and literary criticism - for his day job. He was a regular contributor on sport to various newspapers, but also published a regular poetry column.

O’Connor is best known for his  biographies of Oliver St. John Gogarty and Brendan Behan, for his studies of the early 20th-century Irish troubles and the Irish Literary Revival, and for several plays. He became something of a personality, appearing on radio and television as an outspoken commentator on social, cultural and political issues. He never married (see the Irish Mirror on incorrect rumours that he was gay), and lived to the age of 91. Further information is available at Wikipedia, The Irish Times or Ricorso.

O’Connor was a keen and interesting diarist. He decided to keep a diary, he said, so as ‘to keep an eye on myself and so as not to let material that might be useful to me as a writer be erased from memory’. His agent eventually suggested to John Murray that some extracts be published in book form. The Ulick O’Connor Diaries 1970-1981: a cavalier Irishman (with a foreword by Richard Ingrams) came out in 2001.

According to the publisher, O’Connor evokes ‘the streets and bars of Dublin with their now legendary characters, the world of the Abbey Theatre and that of the Gate Theatre’; he ‘recreates the atmosphere and talk of the Anglo-Irish country houses [. . .], where he often stayed as a guest of the Guinnesses and the Longfords’; and he ‘reveals the secret part he played as a go-between for the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch’. Furthermore, the diaries show him to be an inveterate traveller: ‘In New York he makes friends with Viva, the star of Andy Warhol’s infamous Blue Movie, he talks to Robert Kennedy and witnesses the anti-Vietnam protests and the growth of the Civil Rights movement. In London he appears on Wogan, in Tangiers he dines with Alec Waugh and Paul Bowles, and in Stockholm he plays a practical joke on Edna O’Brien that unhappily misfires. Ulick O’Connor’s diaries are funny and entertaining, gossipy and a good read.’ Here are several extracts, including the first.

3 January 1970
‘Peter Sellers, the film actor, at dinner, at Aileen [the Hon. Mrs Brinsley] Plunket’s, Lutterellstown Castle. Seems down after his separation from Britt Ekland. Tears stream down his cheeks.

‘Knife in my heart, excuse me if I cry.’

I suggest that all men cry for the lost belief in the goodness of womanhood. Lolita. He tells me that when Britt ran out of money, he went back to her.

‘I didn’t kick her when she was down.’

When I told him he looked in good shape he said he worked out in the gym every day with weights. Was this wise since he had had heart surgery? He said not only was it safe but it actually improved his condition. He had always been interested in sport anyway. He talked of his uncle Brian Sellers, Captain of Yorkshire and England Selector, who he said used to take him to matches when he was a small boy. I was surprised at this because I always assumed Peter was a Bow Bells boy. Not so. I am touched by his affection for Uncle Brian and put a note about the relationship in my Sunday Mirror column. Later I receive an angry note from Brian Sellers denying he is related to ‘that bloody little cockney’. How extraordinary to invent a sporting pedigree on the spur of the moment.’

23 November 1972
‘To Dublin Airport to see Jack Lynch off. He’s addressing the Oxford Union on the motion ‘That this House would favour Irish Unity.’ Hugh McCann, Secretary to the Department of Foreign Affairs, is on the tarmac when the Taoiseach gets on the steps to enter the plane. Lynch shakes my hand warmly and ignores McCann who is left with his paw ‘all bright and glittering in the smokeless air’. This is authentic Jackspeak.’

7 May 1973
‘To Washington to interview Teddy Kennedy. Arranged by John Hume through a Kennedy aide, Carey Parker. Washington in early summer is beautiful. Lush green trees lining the drives. Spectacular after New York, where in Central Park still the bare branches anatomize the sky.

Kennedy himself is well versed in Northern Ireland. He corrects me when I give the wrong number of internees in Long Kesh: ‘Around 2,000, I think.’ (I checked, he was right.)

He is on top of his brief. Would that his English counterparts were the same. I tell him I was on the Kennedy election plane on Bobby’s last jaunt, just before he died. He showed me a picture of Bobby in his Harvard football kit.

‘Great little guy wasn’t he.’

He looked wistful for a while. He has had two brothers cut down in their prime who, when he was a baby, used to affectionately toss him between them like a football, two handsome Micks with a dash and brightness that were specially theirs - all gone.’

14 April 1974
‘Flying back to New York from Chicago where I had gone to promote Irish Liberation on the Kupcinett Show, I pass a truly enormous black man in first class as I board. He is sitting with another black.

‘Hi,’ says Muhammad Ali, ‘How’s it going?’

I met Ali a number of times in the late Sixties and also covered his fight in Dublin in 1970 against Al Blue Lewis when we had become well acquainted over three weeks.

‘Come down and see you later,’ Ali said.

I have just finished my modest airline nosh when Ali plops down beside me. He has short sleeves and his enormous bicep rests near mine with the vein in it pulsing like a python.

‘I’d like to show you some poems.’

This is the guy that put Sonny Liston away in round two so I listen. To my credit, I don’t nod acquiescently but try to remain detached. Fortunately, two lines come up which I can approve:

The same road that connects two souls together
When stretched becomes a path to God.

I nod and he doesn’t stop for half an hour. His face is unlined, miraculously free from the damage that boxers can acquire. Of course, in the ring he bobs like a bamboo and it is almost impossible to land a clean punch on him. His ears are close to his head, neat and well formed. When he straightens up you can see his trousers stretched tightly over gigantic thighs, each more than two feet in circumference. I asked him was he never afraid he’d get shot when he was a Vietnam protester and had his title taken away from him because he wouldn’t join the army.

‘A true Muslim doesn’t fear, neither does he grieve. I was happier than I had ever been then in my little car, riding round the States. I never sold out. I was no Uncle Tom.’

He goes back to his chum. I don’t see him again till I am getting off the plane. He introduces me to the man he is with.

‘This is Kid Gavilan.’

I am impressed. Kid Gavilan is the inventor of the bolo punch and one of the great all-time world middleweight champions. Ali says he’ll give me a ride into town in his chauffeur-driven limousine. He sits in front while he puts me in the back of the car with the Kid who starts to sing for me, in Spanish, bits of a musical he is composing about the boxing ring. He says he was down and out recently in Alabama when Ali saw him at a petrol station where he was working and took him on board for a month’s holiday. As we roll into Manhattan, the Kid is singing away at his own songs, while Ali’s well shaped head rolls from side to side in the front seat. Out for the count.’

28 May 1974
‘Horrors on horror’s head accumulate. Hear at four o'clock that the Northern Ireland Assembly has been dissolved. Faulkner has resigned as Chief Executive. It seems the bullies have won. I go down to the Dail to see Jack Lynch. Meet Eugene Timmons TD in the hall. He seems to accept the news with equanimity. Then I see David Andrews. He does not seem as downcast as he should be (I wonder has he something up his sleeve?). Brian Lenihan passes us with a cheery smile. Then I go into the Dail chamber. Afterwards I meet Jack Lynch. Exhausted. He looks like an old man, shrunk. He puts off our meeting until Thursday. I go to discuss what’s happened with George Colley (former Minister for Finance). He says we were closer to trouble in 1969. I point out that then the British Army were regarded as peacekeepers by the Nationalists, now this is not so. Therefore the situation is significantly worse. Rory Brugha TD who is also with us remarks that the British will always suit themselves. George Colley says he thinks the real danger is unilateral declaration of independence by the Unionists. I suggest that we should consider sending in the Irish Army as a protective force with a view to getting the UN to come in at a later stage. The general feeling is that the Irish Army should have gone into Northern Ireland in 1969 after Lynch had said that the South would not ‘stand idly by’ when the Nationalist population in Northern Ireland were being attacked and burned out of their homes. If they had gone across the border at Derry then to protect civilians they could have remained in situ and refused to evacuate until the UN came in with a peacekeeping force.

My thinking. The British will now get very tough with the Unionists. They may cut Harland & Wolff’s subsidy and that of other industrial jewels in the British Crown.’

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