Paying tribute to Booker Prize winner who drowned in West Cork 40 years ago

Paying tribute to Booker Prize winner who drowned in West Cork 40 years ago

An event at the West Cork Literary Festival recalls JG Farrell, the Booker Prize winner who drowned in the area, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.

It will be 40 years next month since the death of JG Farrell. A more unfortunate ending it is hard to imagine. Farrell was a two-time Booker Prize winner (one awarded posthumously), and possibly the most promising writer of a gilded generation of British writers. One of his greatest fans was his contemporary Salmon Rushdie.

In March 1979, aged 44 and a bachelor, he decamped to West Cork. He bought an old, ramshackle house, which was covered in ivy – except for the chimney – on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, West Cork. He was escaping for work reasons. He felt life in literary London held too many distractions.

It was an exciting chapter for him. He grew up in Shankhill, Dublin – although he went to boarding school in England – so in a sense he was returning home. He had lived, too, in peculiar corners of the world, having spent, for example, a year working in the Canadian Arctic so he wasn’t totally at odds with adapting to the rough and tumble of life in rural West Cork.

Still though this was a life apart. He had to wrestle with mini-dramas. A burst sewage pipe one day. He found a dead rat by the fireplace another morning. A beehive took up residence in the cavity of his bedroom wall. A stray herd of cattle feasted on his cabbage patch and nibbled on the few trees he’d planted. This was all in the space of a few months.

His friends back in London were shocked at his decision. It was an isolated spot. He had no telephone, and at the time Ireland was labouring under fuel shortages and a six-month postal strike. They thought he’d never last, but he found the move – despite its challenges – invigorating.

“He loved it there,” says his biographer Lavinia Greacen, “because in London he had less energy. His lungs had been affected by polio so the air quality in London wasn’t very good but the air quality in West Cork was brilliant. He was right on the coast, quite near Bantry at a place called Durrus. He adored it. It was also the first property he ever owned. He always rented in London. He wasn’t terribly practical, but he wasn’t impractical. He wouldn’t put up a shelf on a wall as it would probably be crooked, but he could do the basic stuff.”

Lavinia Greacen
Lavinia Greacen

Contracting polio in his first year at university at Oxford was the defining event in his life. The ordeal – and its aftereffects – shaped his personality. He had gone up to Oxford, remarks Greacen, mainly with a view to getting a rugby blue. Those dreams were shattered by the illness. The muscles in his body atrophied. He lost five stone in weight. He endured the horror of treatment in an iron lung, a coffin-type contraction used for helping polio patients to breathe.

“He was completely knocked off course from what he was going to be, and what he became,” says Greacen.

It made him a very good listener. It made him very perceptive about people, very watchful. He was an observer. Very kind. It made him very attractive to women because he was good-looking anyway and then he was also injured so women wanted to take care of him as well. He had a lot of women in his life always

“He also had no intention of getting married because he was determined to write. He realised he could only write if he lived in isolation. When he was in London, he [practiced] gregarious solitariness. He had to be alone but he loved people. He entertained quite a lot. He could invite people. Know they would come that night and also know that they would go again. He accumulated a lot of friends. Too many. He began to yearn to be entirely alone so that’s why he chose West Cork.”

While living in his new Irish retreat, friends visited from London. In the RTÉ radio documentary JG Farrell: 149 Days In The Life Of, one friend recounts an episode he had in bringing over a stash of Farrell’s favourite Colombian coffee beans from London, a rare luxury in West Cork at the time. The friend was stopped by a young customs officer at Cork airport and asked where he got the coffee beans. “London,” he said. “I didn’t think they grew it there,” came the baffled reply.

Occasionally, Farrell went down to a local bar, The White House, on a Friday night for a few drinks. A neighbour of Farrell’s helped him with a lot of the heavy-duty jobs that had to be done around the house. He also introduced him to sea fishing. Farrell bought fishing gear and fished off the rocks for mackerel and pollock. He was smitten. Fishing became the great “rival”, he said, to the progress he was making on his latest novel, which he expected to deliver to his publisher by the end of the year, “barring some unforeseen disaster”, he wrote in a letter to his editor.

A day later – and two days before the carnage at the 1979 Fastnet yacht race in which 15 people drowned – a pre-storm rolled in to West Cork. Farrell was fishing off the rocks. A woman Pauline Foley and her three children were out walking and they spotted Farrell just as he slipped on the rocks, and under the force of a large wave tumbled into the sea.

The woman rushed to a ledge. Sensing that she might fall into the sea in trying to save him, one of her sons pleaded with her not to “go down there”; she had saved a man from drowning in Spain before. Farrell threaded water for a few instances. The woman made eye contact with him. She believes he “stoically” gave in to drowning, as if he calculated that it would be better not to risk luring her into the water and both perishing. And then he slipped under. His body was recovered about six weeks later.

“He wrote to somebody in a letter, ‘Life is very, very short. Cliché of the week.’ He was always teasing and not being too serious, but actually his life was very short and unfair,” says Greacen. “It was unfair to him twice – first of all he got polio and then of course he drowned in the sea. It was very sad. He was very conscious of the importance of making a will. In one of his books, one of the characters is talking always: ‘You have to make a will.’ But he hadn’t made one. He didn’t expect to die.”

JG Farrell’s biographer, Lavinia Greacen, will be at the West Cork Literary Festival, 5pm, Tuesday, 16 July, Bantry Library, Bridge St., Carrignagat, Bantry, Co Cork. See:

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