Saturday, April 20, 2013

Go: Donleavy's Ireland

While in high school I read a novel called The Ginger Man, set in Dublin and written by an American, J.P. Donleavy, who had caused an international sensation. The book was temporarily banned in America and would make the author rich. Donleavy bought a country estate in Ireland’s lovely, rolling County Westmeath, called Levington Park, and set himself up as a kind of latter day lord. In an 18th-century manor house on 100-plus acres fronting Lough Owel, he wrote more books and plays, painted, and contributed in one way or another to a legend that grew even as his literary star descended.

I thought his writing suggestive of James Joyce’s, but wildly entertaining and proof of the possibility of escaping the up-tight America of the late 1950s. I read some of his less adventuresome work and then more or less forgot about him. Only much later, when planning a trip to Ireland, did I think of his house, Levington Park, and decide to ask for an invitation. I wanted to see how it and Donleavy, a native of Brooklyn, had fared in the worlds of Guiness, fox hounds, “wellies,” and Anglo-Irish stiff upper lips in a famous house with eight bathrooms, an indoor swimming pool, and a history of colorful owners.

     “Mr. Donleavy would be happy to receive you here to see Levington Park, which does have some architectural and historical interest.”
The note, written by his secretary, contains directions from the outskirts of the city of Mullingar to a dirt road and a big, rusty, anonymous gate that requires strength and determination to open. On the far side, amidst un-mown grass, are beech and chestnut trees and a curving driveway leading to “an old discolored house,” in the words of James Joyce who visited here in 1900, as a child traveling with his father, and wrote about it in Stephen Hero. Joyce’s description still applies, with the additions of an ancient Toyota hairy with green mold abandoned out front, next to a functional Suburu Outback with gloves and a walking stick on the back seat.
I press the doorbell next to the flaking front door. Levington Park was built, according to The Buildings of North Leinster in the Westmeath county library, in 1748: “The present nine-bay, two-storey entrance front disguises its early origin, as it was renovated c. 1810, when the three center bays were given a shallow eaves pediment with a fanlight window” and the low Doric porch added. Before that, “the house was simply a long gabled block of limestone rubble” two stories high, with long vaulted corridors in the back framing a courtyard and lily pond. The original owner, Sir Richard Levinge, “was a celebrated eccentric. Among many whimsical projects was a scheme to train vines along the s wall of the house and introduce them through the holes of the ceiling joists in his bedroom, where he might pluck the fruit at his leisure.”
The door is opened by a pleasant woman in red sweater and jeans who ushers me into a long narrow room with indoor shutters and tall, unwashed windows letting in lovely, pale Irish light. The breakfront is jammed with books and electronics, the green flocked walls haphazardly hung with old photographs and abstract watercolor sketches by the author. Every available horizontal space – tables, a couple of chairs, the floor – is piled with newspapers and magazines. The long sofa, flanked by aged floor pillows, faces a cold hearth and mantelpiece crowded with, among other things, a photograph of Winston Churchill holding a submachine gun, and several champagne corks.
The rakish protagonist of The Ginger Man, Sebastion Dangerfield, was interested mostly in alcohol and sex, but with a cultivated mien. He may have been modeled on a friend of Donleavy’s at Trinity, but things aristocratic clearly fascinated the author, particularly the ability to live as you pleased, both gentlemanly and outrageous, unaffected by opinion or the need of employment. Dangerfield was darkly handsome, urbane, scathing, and physically overpowering when drunk, which was much of the time. So I expect a more imposing figure than the slight, deferential man entering the room, white hair combed forward, with a thin white beard, gold-rimmed glasses held in place with red cord indifferently tied, and lively eyes.
More surprising is the absence of the country toff’s tweedy ensemble seen so often in the old photographs of James Patrick Donleavy. Instead, he wears khakis and an old gray suede-like jacket “tossed to me,” he later explains, “from a box of haute couture on the 17th floor of the Waldorf Towers in New York, by one of the wealthiest women on earth. She just said, ‘This is for you.’”
Many Donleavy’s stories, as I am to learn, are about un-named women; almost all the stories are inconclusive, amusing, difficult to verify, and slyly self-referential. “I apologize for the lack of furniture,” he says, dropping onto the couch. “My second wife came by with a horse box and took half of it away. This couch was too big to fit, which is why I still have it.” That was two decades ago, but Donleavy seems to think of it as last week - time means little to gentry – and not to miss the amenities. Tea, served by the woman who answered the door, comes not in Staffordshire china but mismatched mugs.
The word abroad in the county is that Donleavy hires young women willing to work “for a pittance, claiming penury.” But then there are many stories about him, including his own, not all of them necessarily true. “You can be his friend, if you have a title,” I am later told by a manor owner in a nearby town, one of the many Anglo-Irish left over from centuries of British dominance who doesn’t have a title. “Mr. Donleavy’s the ultimate observer. He wrote in Darcy Dancer or some other book about foxhunt breakfasts and the bunners [gluttons] tucking into the salmon and oysters. Well, nobody could afford to serve those then.”
That was before Ireland became the economic wonder of western Europe, when Donleavy was more active in the hunt and other local affairs than he is now. “I fell in love with this place when I first saw it, and bought it on the spot. I later realized that the land was very important” - as a natural and historic bulwark against development. He has always run it, he says, casually, as a cattle farm. “The herd’s organic, not by design but because I’m too cheap to buy them feed,” and his beef is highly sought after by local butchers. “Everything’s done here for convenience’s sake. They graze right up to the windows, adding to the landscape.” 
His accent moves among broad, upper class vowels and the mid-Atlantic amalgam of British and American speech, with an occasional New York inflection. But then he has lived permanently in Ireland for almost 50 years and makes no pretense of being one of the people. He readily admits that he socializes with none of his neighbors, with the exception of the son of one farmer who reads his books. With another lordly perspective, he says, “I had some problems, then the IRA men said to leave Donleavy alone.” He won’t say more about the Irish Republican Army except that “every IRA man in prison read The Ginger Man cover-to-cover. They weren’t criminals, by the way, but chess champions and literary scholars.”
We get around to talking about the house. “The original owner lived three miles away before he built it. I’ve read his diaries. He brought in a piece of rare Kilkenny fossilized black marble for the fireplace in the dining room. Now the 27th Knight of Glin comes by and just sits and stares at it.”
Donleavy himself has done nothing to the house “except replace the slates to keep it from falling down.” He looks around. “It does lack something. The furniture somehow made a difference. A couple of my lady friends did do some things.” He points to a photograph of pretty brunette in a silver framed photograph, wearing a red dress, taken in the Rafael Hotel in Paris. “She was here for three years, grew 11 varieties of lettuce, and made jam. She was marvelously attractive. Everyone who saw her wanted desperately to get her away from here, and someone finally succeeded. Now she’s living in the south of France.”
He adds, “It takes a certain kind of woman to be here. It’s a wonderful house to live in. One gets lots of exercise - I walk six miles a day just getting around – and children love the place. They can run up a staircase at one end, and down a staircase at the other.”
He leads me up the one at this end, to a long, dim corridor paved with flagstones, their great weight supported by the vaulted ceiling of the corridor below. A succession of doors leads to rooms with beds under slightly skewed canopies, windows facing not front lawn anymore but front graze marshaled by a strand of electric fence. “These are ladies’ rooms. I’ve never spent a night in any of them.”
We go into the study, another long chamber with a poster from his play, Fairy Tales of New York, on the wall. Except for the desk the room is completely taken up with boxes of manuscripts and letters, a single corridor running between sturdy cardboard. “My archive,” he says. “Trinity wants all this, and we’re trying to come to some arrangement,” the suggestion being that the college will offer compensation.
Donleavy opens a box on the desk containing faded, marked-up typescript of The Ginger Man. “Brendan Behan signed it somewhere.” He thumbs through the faded pages. The famous Irish playwright was one of his many drinking companions in the turbulent, Bohemian ‘50s, later limned in The Ginger Man. And there’s Behan’s signature, in pencil, on page 80.
There was a lot of friendly fist-fighting among friends in the old days, according to various accounts. “Brendan and I exchanged a couple of punches once, and he went down in Fleet Street, I believe it was. The problem, you see, was that Brendan didn’t know how to box. I was quite a skilled pugilist, having been trained by the best practitioners at the New York Athletic Club.”
We descend and go for a stroll through the high-walled garden, most of it densely overgrown. Donleavy is remarkably agile and seems much younger than his 81 years. He pauses, and says, “James Joyce once stood right where I’m standing.” The nearby wing of the house contains the empty swimming pool. A derelict potting shed “would be a wonderful painting studio,” he adds, but some windows are currently missing. The inner courtyard’s cluttered and more or less in a state of nature. No lilies in what’s left of this pond. “If one were to have a windfall,” Donleavy adds wistfully, “one could fix all this up. Now let me show you the grounds.”
Standing water laps at the bottom of the Outback as we plane along the lower farm road. Handsome, healthy cattle, some of them a lovely mottled gray – “35 generations of the same mixed breeds” - judiciously get out of the way. Wildflowers abound in a big meadow untouched by anything more aggressive than bovine teeth in as many years.
We follow the lakefront on an old wagon way built on stones and end up in the field overlooking everything. We get out of the car and stand next to a depression in a grassy sward that may well contain the artifacts and remains of ancient Celts. “I think this was a burial ground,” says Donleavy, “which would make sense, considering the view.” But, typically, he isn’t interested in having it excavated.
Neighboring estates dip down to blue water, all neater than this one, some with the manicured look of the newly gentrified. The grounds of Levington Park, however, have retained the beautiful, untrammeled quality of the traditional Irish countryside. Hills roll in successive waves up to the big, slightly ominous house nestled in its mass of greenery.
One way to finance fixing it up, the “windfall” Donleavy spoke of, would be to open it to the public. The Irish are intensely interested in their writers, and Donleavy is one by choice, his portrait hanging in a hallway of Dublin’s Writer’s Museum and his name widely recognized here. So many Irish, and no doubt many of the millions of annual American tourists, would pay to walk through a house with Joycean and various eccentric associations, to view a controversial expatriate’s art work, champagne corks, and a manuscript or two withheld for the moment from Trinity College. And charging admission to Levington Park would fit right in with the practices of the titled peers Donleavy emulates, among them the 27th Knight of Glin, who also found commercial answers to the burden of expensive historic houses.
It occurs to me that Donleavy’s real accomplishment here, in addition to keeping that early Georgian house upright, is the preservation of a landscape that looks more 18th than 21th century, such natural settings being more threatened than structures these days, and immeasurably valuable. “I never thought of that,” he says, pleased with the compliment. “There really is nothing quite like this in the all of Ireland.”

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