I'm dead, I hope it may be said: his sins were scarlet,
but his books were read."
- J.P. Donleavy
Trinity College's Man of Letters
J.P. Donleavy, who enrolled
at Trinity College Dublin on
the G.I. Bill in the fall of 1946, left after three years to pursue his artistic
ambitions as a painter.
But mixed reviews of his first four exhibitions – more hostile than favorable – and then rejection by a London gallery who wouldn’t take his paintings because he wasn’t famous – prompted Donleavy in the spring of 1951 to chart a new course. On exiting the gallery, Donleavy recalled: “I stopped in my tracks. Shaking my fist, I announced to the street that, goddamnit, seeing as I was contemplating it anyway, I would write a book that no one could stop and would make my name known in every nook and cranny all over the world.”
The book became The Ginger Man, whose two main characters Sebastian Dangerfield and Kenneth O’Keefe, were inspired in part by two fellow Yanks at Trinity on the G.I. Bill, Gainor Crist and Arthur Kenneth Donoghue, who also left before getting their degrees. Brendan Behan, who inspired the character Barney Berry, read the book in manuscript and forecast: “Mike, I’ll make a prediction. This book of yours is going to go around the world, and beat the bejesus out of the Bible.” He got the first half right.
Since its 1955 publication, The Ginger Man has been published in two dozen languages, never been out of print in English, with total sales worldwide estimated to be between 40 and 50 million. In 1998 the American publisher the Modern Library ranked The Ginger Man no. 99 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. In January 2017 the Shanghai Translation Publishing House will release the Mandarin edition.
In all some two dozen books by Donleavy have been published, several of which remain in print, with a new novel to be released in the fall of 2017 by The Lilliput Press, Dublin. Four plays based on Donleavy novels have been staged. And at last count, there have been two dozen exhibitions of Donleavy’s paintings in England and America as well as Ireland, including several since 2000.
A Matter of Degree
Sixty-seven years after Donleavy left TCD without a degree, Trinity College overlooked his incomplete academic record and focused instead on his many accomplishments since then, awarding him at age 90 a Doctorate of Letters (Litt.D.) at the commencement June 24, 2016. Donleavy was one of six receiving honorary degrees that day.
For security reasons, one was conferred separately. Vice-President Joe Biden was the lone honoree at a special morning ceremony at which he was awarded a Doctorate in Laws. Access to the ceremony was limited and controlled by An Garda Síochána and the U.S. Secret Service.
The full commencement ceremony, at which 150 Ph.D. candidates from various disciplines were awarded their doctorates and the remaining five received their honorary degrees, was held that afternoon. The proceeding, steeped in tradition dating back to the college’s founding by royal charter of Queen Elizabeth I in 1592, was conducted entirely in Latin.
Before that ceremony, Donleavy and the other honorees gathered at the Provost’s House, entered from the courtyard off Grafton Street, not far from Trinity’s massive and impressive Front Gate. They were welcomed by Dr. Patrick Prendergast, provost and president, and Dr. Mary Robinson, TCD’s chancellor and a distinguished barrister who had been Ireland’s first woman president and then the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Donleavy, accompanied by a few friends, arrived at the Provost’s House, wearing a black tuxedo with notched black satin lapels, a white pleated shirt with cufflinks and black satin bow tie. According to tradition, men participating in Trinity’s commencement were to wear tuxedos and ladies black, white or black-and-white dresses over which they would wear academic robes in the colors of their discipline. A member of the Provost staff helped robe the honorees. Donleavy wore the scarlet gown faced with blue silk of a distinguished fellow of letters, with a matching scarlet hood with blue piping over his chest and back. In his left hand was his black mortar board.
The other honorary doctoral candidates were: Peter Higgs, Nobel Prize-winning physicist; Hina Jilani, a lawyer and human rights and women’s rights campaigner in her native Pakistan; Lia Mills, a successful novelist and cancer survivor who has joined with medical professionals to launch a public health awareness campaign; and Josef Veselsky, at age 97, Trinity’s oldest undergraduate. Born in Bratislava and a table-tennis champion in his native Czechoslovakia, Veselsky fought in the resistance against the Germans in World War II, escaped to Ireland after the post-war Communist takeover, where he became a successful businessman and a coach of Ireland’s table-tennis team. After his retirement, with his children and grandchildren running the family jewelry business, Veselsky, known to his many friends and classmates as Joe, became a perpetual student at TCD the last few decades and was being recognized for his love of learning.
As the hour approached, all the scholars, honorees and university leadership assembled in the long corridor that extends from the side of the Provost’s House to Parliament Square, just inside the college’s Front Gate. At precisely 3 o’clock, Trinity’s Chief Steward, dressed all in navy blue, including a cape and a bicorne or cocked hat, tapped the ceremonial silver mace and the commencement procession began. Leading the way was the Book Porter, dressed in a blue uniform and visored cap carrying in his white gloved hands the leather-bound Commencements Book containing the old statutes on the conferring of degrees and four centuries of signatures of senior and junior proctors. Then came the Ph.D. candidates, followed by the distinguished honorees and finally the Mace Bearer leading the Caput (Latin for head, meaning the college’s ruling body or leadership) and including the chancellor, provost and registrar. It was a short walk on the slate and cobblestones of Parliament Square to Trinity’s Public Theatre, also known as Examination Hall, where commencement was held.
Jacobus Patricius Donleavy
Donleavy friends attending were: Shaun Beary, Bill Dunn, Antony Farrell, Deborah Goss, Marina Guinness and Marie-Louise Mills. Also attending and invited by Antony Farrell was Dr. Sandra Collins, director of the National Library of Ireland. Photographer Noel Shine, a fan and leading Irish photographer who has profiled Donleavy, was also there.
Degrees were first conferred on the Ph.D. candidates. Then came the conferral of honorary degrees. Donleavy was the fourth of the five honorees, who were seated to either side of the stage. Center stage was a long table behind which were the provost, the chancellor and the senior master non-regent.
When the orator announced an honoree’s name, the college registrar dressed in scarlet and gold robes approached that person and invited him or her to sit at the side of the center table. The orator then read in Latin a summary of the candidate’s accomplishments.
When Donleavy took his seat at the center table, the orator proceeded:
JACOBUS PATRICIUS DONLEAVY
“Quid ego agam quid non, paucis dicam. Nemini nulla re commodabo nisi placcat, non domi, non patria, non rcligione; sed actatem agam ct artcm quam maxime potuero libcrc lubentissime .. .”
‘Hoc die mensis Junii ante meridiem, Minax portam Trinitatis ingrcssus pulvcrulentis scalis succussis ascendit aediculam tertiam ... ” iam scitis, sodalcs: ruina sequitur. Nempe? Ruinamne fuissc putatis, cum res gcstas ab audacissima mente fictas oculis haurirent lectores innumeri? Hoc loco corpusculum illud malacum…
While classics scholar A.K. Donoghue could have read and understood the Latin proclamation, which appeared in the program on a left-hand page, an English translation for non-Latinists appeared on the opposing page, reading:
JAMES PATRICK DONLEAVY
“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do.
I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can ... ”
(James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man)
‘On this June morning,
Dangerfield came in the front gate of Trinity and went up the dusty rickety
stairs of number three ... ,’ and he was up to no good. Seriously? Generations
of readers have been allured into the phantasmagorical worlds inhabited by
that first reckless figment of a fearless imagination. Trinity is where The
Ginger Man was conceived, on Thanksgiving Day of 1949, brilliant, burning,
and – barely born,
1955 – banned. Instantly immortal. His maker is a living legend. Here he is: JAMES PATRICK DONLEAVY, author and artist, gentleman and bohemian, fisherman and farmer. American Irish in blood, ink and tongue.
He came to Trinity from his native New York to study Science; he found Art. His friends at Trinity renamed him 'Mike' (too many Jims and Pats in College back then, and this one was manifestly unique). In House 38 he created the very first of his paintings, exhibited still wet at 7 St, Stephen’s Green under the eyes of Jack Yeats. (‘Well, l’ll Be Damned I Can't Believe It's You’). He paints as he writes: bold sharpness of lines and diffuse softness of colour, united under sensationally suggestive titles. Alliteration epitomises and binds together the humour and the depth, the carnal and cerebral glory of his prose: who can forget The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman are simply unforgettable. Admit it, how many times have you read Meet My Maker the Mad Molecule? The distinctive trait of his narrative – that sudden switch between first-person and third-person voice – he ascribes to an original feature of his brain: ‘Being a writer is just catching your unconscious’, he once said. He certainly captures the consciousness of all his characters, with striking immediacy. Like Joyce. With Joyce he shares a place in the Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th century and in his lakeside home in Levington Park (Joyce’s Stephen Hero was there, believe me). After nearly seventy years of uninterrupted activity, November last he received the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contribution to modern literature. High time, I say – and conclude. In one of his books he insisted that Wrong lnformation Is Being Given Out at Princeton. You can be sure that correct information is being given out at Trinity: “On this June afternoon, Donleavy came in the front gate of Trinity and went up the shiny marble stairs of the Public Theatre…,” and it’s a triumph.
Dr. Robinson Congratulates Dr. Donleavy
At the conclusion of the orator’s recitation, Donleavy was invited to stand at the front of the table, facing Chancellor Robinson, standing on the other side. She greeted him, read the conferral proclamation in Latin, handed him his parchment in a marbled blue cylinder with matching cap, both edged in decorative gilt. They shook hands and a smiling Dr. Robinson reverted to English, to say: “Congratulations!”
The ceremony completed, the battalion of doctors, having passed their exams, processed triumphantly out of Examination Hall to awaiting family, friends and news photographers, across the cobble-stoned Parliament Square, and onto Commons, where the undergraduate Donleavy took his meals seven decades ago, and now all gathered for a celebratory reception.
En route, the wife of a newly-minted Ph.D. approached Dr. Donleavy to say how much she and her husband enjoyed his work. The husband soon arrived to congratulate him and offer his gratitude for the author’s work. They then asked if he would sign a copy of The Ginger Man they brought to the ceremonies, which he gladly did. He then joined the other honorary doctorates and the chancel for a few minutes on the Commons limestone steps for photographers and well-wishers.
All repaired to the main
room of Commons where wine and hors d'oeuvres were served. Several Ph.D.’s,
family members and a few faculty offered congratulations to
Dr. Donleavy. And a few requested to have their photos taken with him, to which he agreed. In the days that followed, more congratulations poured into Levington Park, a few delivered in person, as were the best wishes of friend and past secretary Virginia McGillycuddy.
Dr. Donleavy enjoyed the return to Trinity and appreciated the honor bestowed on him by his alma mater.