NORMALLY, if you’re writing an autobiography, you’re looking at a minimum of six months for the research, interviewing, transcribing and writing. We did it in three weeks. We had no choice.
Dr John O’Connell, the hero of the Dublin slums, was going to run for the Dáil, but for various reasons his chances were small and for the same reasons, his profile was low. He needed to get on The Late Late Show for a lengthy personal interview before the election was called. This was in the ‘80s, when The Late Late Show was all powerful. However, Dr John had to be able to provide a unique reason for being there. Ideally, of course, a vividly personal book. That would do it. That would definitely do it. In fact, as we talked, it became clear that it was the only thing that would do it.
An election was threateningly imminent. Not a snowball’s chance was there of getting a book published in that time. So that’s what Dr John decided to do. He never saw an impossibility he couldn’t vanquish. The then owner of Poolbeg Books, intrigued by the madness, indicated that if a worthwhile manuscript could be presented to him by a particular date, he could, by pulling out every available stop and driving printers out of their minds, get books onto the shelves of all the major book retailers exactly two weeks later.
I brought my tape recorder to Dr John’s office each morning and, starting at 6am, would interview him for three hours, then go and transcribe what was on the cassette and kick it into draft chapters. The following morning, John, who, at the time, was owner of The Irish Medical Times and an obsessive meddler with the copy of journalists, would tackle, improve, rewrite, fight with and once or twice ditch draft chapters.
No matter where you opened the manuscript, it was fascinating. This was a man — several of whose siblings had died of TB as teenagers; whose mother was illiterate and whose father had never learned to punctuate, so if he sent a letter, it comprised of one sentence that might run for four or five pages. This was a man earning a living from the time he was 11 years old while trying to stay in school, because he knew education was the way out of the slums. A man who managed to achieve entry to the RCSI, where, up to then, only the sons of doctors who themselves were sons of doctors were the main intake every year. He withstood jeering (for his cheap squeaky plastic shoes) and hardship (working weekends as a bookie’s tout to get enough food to survive on) and became a doctor. He managed to become a millionaire by inventing publications — like MIMS — that went global, while devoting much of his time to patients who could never pay him.
The manuscript went to Poolbeg, and we had a few meetings the following week to sort missing or contradictory details caught by their copy editor.
“It’s too late now,” I said at the end of one of those meetings. “But I’ve a question I should’ve asked you but forgot to. Have you ever done anything you’re deeply ashamed of?”
The silence was absolute and went on for several minutes. Yes, he eventually said. Yes, he had done something that shamed him every day. He had done it with the best of intentions, which made it worse.
He had this political friend. He did name the political party to which the TD belonged, but didn’t name him. No matter how busy this TD was, he was the sort of person you could rely on in an emergency. To give time and presence or money to something or someone if you needed him to. The man was a happy, sociable guy.
The man was happily married and had a young adopted son. At some point when John dropped in to see them, he noticed the girl or “help” wasn’t there. Oh, the TD’s wife explained, Molly was in Birmingham looking after an aunt with cancer. They hoped she’d be back for Christmas, but saying that was horrible, because it kind of felt they were wishing the aunt dead, you know? And of course they weren’t.
When John headed for his car, a Mercedes, the TD followed him and leaned on the open car door. Molly wasn’t in Birmingham. No? No. She was in Armagh in a mother and baby home. Oh. And here’s the thing. The TD’s wife didn’t need to know because it might make her think less of Molly, you know yourself. She’d come back on the bus and that’d be grand. She wasn’t much of a talker at the best of times, so they wouldn’t be expecting her to say much about the aunt.
The TD said he had talked to the nuns in the mother and baby home about adopting the baby, due any day now. His wife would be thrilled and it’d be God’s gift to Molly because wouldn’t she be taking care of her own, except in a situation where she couldn’t be drinking or do it any harm.
The paperwork was already taken care of. He was just wondering if Dr John would pick up the baby and bring it to the house like he had been involved in the wider process.
Dr John didn’t like it, but persuaders are always persuadable by someone even more determined than they are, so he ended up, just a few weeks later, arriving at the house with a swaddled baby, his discomfort briefly assuaged by the adoptive mother’s ecstasy at the new addition to her family.
About a year later, at a party in the same house, the parish priest emulated the Graham Greene priests he fancied he resembled, drinking way too much good whiskey before mocking Dr John. The priest had arranged the first adoption, he told the doctor.
Of course, he now knew both had been fathered by the man of the house. Dr John was horrified. They would have to do something, he said.
The drunken priest laughed at him. Destroy a happy family in order to do contrition for their stupid well-intended acts? Ruin the lives of two little brothers by returning them to the care of the nuns when they were part of a loving family with their natural mother watching over them?
Those children are grown now, filled with good memories of the solid family that adopted them. They may yet, at some point, be told by emissaries of the State that their happiness and values were based on a clever lie, colluded in by authority figures whose gain from their involvement was a lifetime of regret.