Celebrities pick the book that had the most impact on their lives

What is the book that had the most impact on your life? Ailín Quinlan asks three well-known people from the worlds of poetry, literature and broadcasting. Plus we recommend the best books to buy this Christmas. 
Celebrities pick the book that had the most impact on their lives


There are days you never forget in your life. August 31, 1997 was one of those. We were living in London at the time and woke that Sunday to the news of the tragic death of Princess Diana.

Richard was a news correspondent for the BBC and was immediately despatched to Balmoral where most of the royal family were staying, leaving me alone in a shell-shocked city.

There was a lot of criticism of the Queen at the time for failing to capture the mood of a nation in mourning and it was widely expected that she would travel from Scotland to London with Princes Harry and William the following day.

"London was a strange place to be at that time. Our house is close to Westminster and the outpouring of grief and growing mountain of floral tributes outside Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace was extraordinary and unsettling. The collective mourning of complete strangers over a woman the vast majority had never met or known other than through her media profile was profound.

"People were hugging each other, openly weeping as they queued for hours to sign books of condolence. It was impossible not to be captivated by the hysteria, even more so because Londoners are not known for expressing their emotions too readily.

“I returned home that Sunday afternoon after wandering through the sea of messages and flowers and couldn’t settle. The television was showing an endless loop of the crash scene, her life, the crowds, the tears and worse the shock and abandonment that people felt at the loss of this one individual. Days earlier I had picked up a review copy of a book that had arrived into the newspaper. It held little promise for a lapsed Catholic. Anam Cara, a first book by an unknown author, John O’Donoghue.

"Even more off-putting it promised “spiritual wisdom from the Celtic world. I had nothing else to distract me so I settled down to plough through a few pages. I think I finished my first read around 3am the following morning and it is the only book I have read several times (too often to count) since. It was a constant companion by my bedside when my father died suddenly in his sleep 18 months later and it was the one I reached for when Richard died a few years ago.

"John O’Donoghue’s book became an unlikely bestseller that year, published on the day of Diana’s death and reprinted 13 times. A former priest, poet, and philosopher, he received international acclaim for Anam Cara and the many insightful books her has written since.

"I could never do justice to the enlightenment contained within the pages of Anam Cara (which means Soul Friend) but it resonated strongly at a disconnected moment in time and the more I read it the more I get from it. He writes about love and friendship, about the bonds of two souls united, how solitude and silence soothes and reconnects us.

"His final chapter is on the serenity and peace of death and the fusion between those in the spiritual world who have left us, and our own. It is illuminating and comforting. John O’Donoghue was only 53 when he passed away suddenly in 2008 but his life and his writings have left a wonderful legacy.”


The book for me is Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, the poetry collection on which he worked all his life.

“Whitman first published it in 1855 at the start of his poetic career and kept adding to it and republishing throughout his life.

“These were revolutionary poems based on himself.

“He was a very modern poet — he was like the poetic version of Carl Jung and the wonderful thing about him, what really impressed me, was that he was stylistically innovative.

“He used ordinary language and abandoned the artificiality of rhyming patterns.

“It impacted very strongly on me as a budding poet. I came across the book when I was in my 20s on a JI Visa, working in New York.

“I picked up a copy of the book and could not put it down.

“It was saying everything I would have loved to say. I was writing poetry at the time and it transformed the way I did it.

“When I was younger, I thought that the way you write poetry was that everything rhymed.

“Then I suddenly realised that, many years before, a man had broken all the conventions. He was also obviously gay and wrote about sexuality.

“I realised this man had broken all the boundaries and was writing about nature, love and death and it opened my eyes in a good way.”

* Michael Murphy is a psychoanalyst, poet and RTÉ television producer/director and newscaster. He recently published his latest collection of poetry, A Chaplet of Roses. Published by Toga Books (€14.99), it is the second collection of poetry from the bestselling author. His highly acclaimed literary memoir, At Five in the Afternoon — My Battle with Male Cancer, was published in 2009, and was a number one bestseller. A sequel, The House of Pure Being, was published in 2013, and reached the top ten. The third and final part of that trilogy, Lemons and the Waning Moon, will be published in 2016.


My book is Plain Speaking, by Merle Miller.

“It’s an oral biography of Harry S Truman, and constitutes interviews with commentary.

“I first read it 30 years ago, and I’ve read it several times since, but there’s one section that sticks with me.

“This particular passage is about an incident in which Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, who had got above himself and had started making policy, which wasn’t his job — he took it upon himself to usurp the authority of the President of the United States.

“For a while, Truman allowed himself to be talked out of firing General MacArthur, but eventually he did it — and he said he’d been wrong not to do it earlier.

“He says in the book:

‘The only thing I learned out of the whole MacArthur deal is that when you feel there is something you have to do, and you know in your gut you have to do it, the sooner you get it over with the better off everybody is.’ “This is something I go back to; it’s something I’ve drawn on — if I know there’s something I have to face up to doing — just do it.

“Sometimes you put off what you know you have to do.

“The most recent thing for me was, that I had this lovely holiday home in Donegal.

“We bought it about 10 years ago, not knowing what would come in the way of recession and cutbacks, and it became a luxury we couldn’t afford.

“Now I have decided to sell it. Even though it’s in a gorgeous place near a beach and a golf course, my family never really bonded with it.

“I was asked if I’d sell it and to my amazement I said yes.

“My wife Caroline wanted to sell it years ago and I kept talking her out of it, but now it’s at the Sale Agreed stage.

“Part of me feels that a bit of me has been amputated but I also feel it’s the right thing for the family.

“I’ve loads of friends in Donegal and I’ll never be stuck for a bed there, so I can still go there and enjoy the golf and the landscape.

“I’ve no regrets about getting the house in the first place, but I feel it’s time to let it go.

“The MacArthur thing came to mind when I got the offer — we can spend a lot of time dodging what we have to do, but you have to face up to it in the end, and this applies to all parts of life, including family or work situations.”

* Journalist and broadcaster Seán O’Rourke currently presents the Today With Seán O’Rourke show every weekday morning on RTÉ Radio One.


ITHINK the book that has most influenced me was a book given to me when I was in my teens by my English teacher Jo Keane.

“It was The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

“I remembering finishing that book and feeling as if the way I had looked at the world had changed in some way.

“So many facets of the world in which I lived, and the culture in which I was brought up, were so intrinsically patriarchal.

“I didn’t have access to feminist theory, so that book was my first introduction to any idea of feminism.

“I feel it gave me the language in which to articulate myself and it radicalised me and made me a feminist.

“It was an incredibly important book for me and it changed my life.

“There are other books that made me want to be a writer but this made me politically aware and engaged with such issues — and more critical of the way the media presents women, and more aware of how we as a society and culture view women.

“The Handmaid’s Talewas written the same year I was born — 1985 — and 15 years later when I read it, it still felt relevant.

“It is unfortunate that 30 years after it was published it is still so relevant.”

* Louise O’ Neill is the author of Asking for It and Only Ever Yours

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