Journalist Brian O’Connell, who works on RTÉ Radio 1’s ‘Today with Seán O’Rourke’ programme tells Donal O’Keeffe about his new book The Personals and his fascination with the extraordinary stories behind classified adverts.
It’s a rainy Wednesday in Sunday’s Well in Cork, as Brian O’Connell tucks into a slice of lemon cake in Vicki’s Café.
Always busy, the Cork-based, Ennis-born journalist and broadcaster has just come from one job, and is on his way to another.
O’Connell, multiple award-winning reporter with RTÉ Radio 1’s Today with Seán O’Rourke is here to talk about his new book, The Personals, subtitled “The human stories behind the small ads”.
Since the earliest days of O’Connell’s journalism career, he has found personal advertisements to be a rich seam of Irish life, and now he has written a book on some of the people he has met through classifieds in publications like The Echo, Ireland’s Own and the Farmer’s Journal.
The Personals is a great read, full of moving, often funny, stories. O’Connell says he’s been honing this book for five years.
“Probably my favourite story in the book is called ‘Remains of a Detached Day’ and it’s one the sadder ones. It’s about someone who was looking for a DVD copy of The Remains of the Day, a 1993 British-American drama film and adapted from the Booker Prize-winning 1989 novel of the same name by Kazuo Ishiguro.
That became a study of isolation, loneliness and detachment.
“Somebody whose life would have remained hidden were it not for the fact that I followed up on the ad, and probably hadn’t had too much human contact. I really like that story. I just like that for all this person’s isolation, he did bring me into his house and I did get to spend some time with him.
“There’s another story of a power-chair that I saw for sale in The Echo. Generally, with all these stories, I’d meet the person, but she couldn’t meet me, so we just chatted on the phone for about an hour, and we chatted really deeply.
“She spoke about her husband’s recent death. We had such a profound conversation about dying, grieving, that whole process, and how you move on. I really like that story, because I brought a little bit of my own experience to that.”
My new book - The Personals is shortlisted for an @AnPostIBAS award in the Ireland Am Popular Non-Fiction category. If you’d like to vote for it, the link is here. RTs appreciated. https://t.co/VBPypecftx pic.twitter.com/LtUpNIUHFc— Brian O'Connell (@oconnellbrian) October 29, 2019
Other stories cover items advertised for sale including an armoured car, a Victorian hearse, and a monkey (with or without cage).
This is O’Connell’s second book, coming a decade after Wasted: A sober journey through drunken Ireland, written about his own struggles with alcoholism and rehabilitation.
Despite the name of The Personals, I suggest to O’Connell, his first book was much more personal.
“I sort of cringe when I see my first book now,” he says wryly. “It was 10 years ago, so I was 32, five years sober, when I wrote the book.
“It’s 15 years ago this month I went into rehab.” After rehab, O’Connell says, he restarted his life, and career, writing a book about Ireland’s dysfunctional relationship with alcohol.
He believes his experiences have helped to extend his emotional vocabulary, and have benefited his journalism, allowing him greater empathy.
O’Connell’s career in journalism wasn’t planned, but he remembers that English was always his best subject in school, and his career guidance teacher did suggest journalism.
— Brian O'Connell (@oconnellbrian) October 7, 2019
“My uncle was telling me when I used to spend my summers on the farm, I would sit on the tractor with him from the age of six or seven onwards, constantly asking questions. ‘Who lives there? Who owns that house? Why did that house burn down?’ His head was probably done in.
“People go to journalism school, but I think there’s a lot to be said for just having curiosity!” While studying for a Masters in history at UCC, he took a summer job in the Irish Examiner library, and that became his entry into journalism.
“I did a lot of arts journalism, feature writing, you name it. It’s a fantastic discipline to be able to change your writing style, from op-eds, to news, and commercial features.
“This book is the first substantial piece of writing I’ve done in years, usually it’s just radio, radio, radio. But radio is just an intimate way of telling stories. It’s all telling stories, whatever platform you choose.” His boss, Seán O’Rourke, has called O’Connell his hero, and the veteran broadcaster launched The Personals last month in Waterstone’s Cork.
Where next? O’Connell is working on a (for now) hush-hush podcast series which he thinks will be interesting.
He says The Personals has rekindled his interest in writing, and he’d like to do another book.
Has he any advice — other than ‘Look in the classifieds’ — for young journalists?
“When I started out freelancing, I would always leave the house, walk into town, and say ‘Can I get a story today?’”
After a warm handshake, Brian O’Connell heads out into the rain, away to his next story.
The Personals is shortlisted for the An Post Irish Book Awards; Ireland AM Popular Non-Fiction Book of the Year, with a public vote open until 13 November.
Brian O’Connell appears at the Dingle Literary Festival on November 23, and Ennis Book Festival on March 6.