Book cover rsz

Image makeover for McDonogh

Jackie Uí Chionna.

By Peter McDermott

Galway businessman and politician Máirtín Mór McDonogh got the “Citizen Kane” treatment a full 12 years before the release of Orson Welles’s landmark movie.

He was known to be the model for the “fat-faced, sweaty-headed swine” Ramon Mór Costello in Liam O’Flaherty’s 1929 novel “The House of Gold,” which had the additional distinction of being the first book banned by the Irish Free State’s censorship board (for what would become the usual reasons: “obscenity” and “indecency”).

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

McDonogh’s life also inspired songs and poetry, and the Galway Advertiser has commented that 80 years after his death the very mention of his name for some “brings an instant reaction of awe, mingled with a touch of fear.”

A biography published more than 10 years ago had “opened the door and allowed some light in,” the Advertiser said, but added that McDonogh remained for Galway’s citizens a “cruel, hard-fisted, ruthless landlord and boss, the quintessential gombeen man.

“The real achievement of Jackie Uí Chionna’s new biography of McDonogh, ‘He Was Galway,’the newspaper continued, “is not just that she goes a long way to dispel this negative image, it is the convincing way she does it."

“It’s a terrific read and must be flying out the doors of Shop Street [Galway],” wrote Joe Cully in a review at the website of the Irish Great Hunger Museum.

Jackie Uí Chionna told the Echo: “Big in both body and personality, McDonogh was a rough, tough man, who nonetheless had a tremendous sense of civic duty, and who had a fierce ambition for not only his own businesses – he was the largest employer in the West of Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s – but also for the city and county he loved.

“From humble origins in a small thatched cottage in one of the remotest parts of County Galway, he rose to become one of the richest men in Ireland,” added Uí Chionna, a traditional singer, fluent Irish speaker and keen sailor who with her husband built a 42-foot Galway Hooker. “A man of whom it was said that while he wasn’t easy to like, he was easy to admire, and for most of his life he so dominated his native city that it was said ‘He was Galway’ – hence the title of the book.”

Jackie Uí Chionna

Date of birth: Aug. 30, 1962

Place of birth: Dublin

Spouse: Mícheál Ó Cionna

Children: Son Eoin and daughter Aoife

Residence: Galway

Published works: “He Was Galway: Máirtín Mór McDonogh, 1860-1934” (Four Courts Press).

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?

I am definitely a morning person. If I am working at home I like to get up early and start writing before anyone else is up. I like peace and quiet – as do most writers – but the odd coffee breaks, to meet with friends or colleagues, and toss around a few ideas, have always proved invaluable to me. I have gotten some of my biggest insights talking to friends or colleagues over a coffee, people who can unblock a logjam for me in my research by simply seeing things from a different perspective. Those friends and colleagues are invaluable.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

You have to write about what you know can sustain your interest. If you will be spending 2-3 years researching a book, then you really need to love the subject, or in the case of biography, to be really interested in the person you are writing about. You don’t have to like them necessarily, but you do have to want to know what made them tick – and have the objectivity to tell the story truthfully, and without fear of the blemishes, but also to be fair to the subject.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.

My late father gave me Dan Breen’s “My Fight for Irish Freedom” for my 13th birthday. Rather an odd choice for a teenage girl, you might think, but he knew his girl. I absolutely loved it, and it inspired a life-long love of history in me, and also a love of biography. I read James Joyce’s “Ulysses” when I was in college, and was entranced by it – his language is so rich, that every reading of it is a feast. It also made me so proud of my native city. Oddly enough, when I moved to Galway, we built a house in Bowling Green, which was where Joyce’s wife, Nora Barnacle, lived. The house, which Joyce stayed in on two occasions, is still there, and I regularly visit it. Life has a funny way of coming full circle. Finally, I have a passion for Jane Austen, and reading “Pride and Prejudice” was where that all began for me. I recently introduced it to my daughter, who loved it. Passing on a love of literature is such a very important thing I think.

What book are you currently reading?

I am more than half way through Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath Becomes Air” and am finding it a deeply moving read. What a remarkable man he was, and what a legacy this book is. Everyone should read it, and remind themselves of what a truly great gift life is – every moment is precious, and should be lived as such.

Is there a book you wish you had written?

Stella Tillyard’s “Aristocrats.” This book about the Lennox sisters is a history book that reads like a novel. Tillyard brilliantly recreates the lives of these remarkable women, the homes they lived in, the clothes they wore, and most importantly the strong sisterly relationships which sustained them all their lives. Her research is impeccable, and I would have loved to have accessed the copious letters and diaries left by these four sisters, which form the basis of the book.

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.

My teenage son encouraged me to read G.R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” which formed the basis of the “Game of Thrones” TV series, and though I was sceptical, I found myself really enjoying it. Martin is a very talented writer, and his mastery of the world he has created, and the sense of suspense he creates, really pulls the reader in.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?

James Joyce, of course. I would love to ask him about Nora, the Galway woman, and former “neighbor” of mine, who inspired so much of his work.

What book changed your life?

I read Walter Macken’s “Rain on the Wind” when I was 16, and his description of Galway was so evocative that from then on it was my dream to live there. I finally did so when I married my husband 25 years ago. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?

A tiny place called Rusheenamanagh, on the coast near Carna in Connemara. My husband and I bought a small cottage there, which we restored over the course of 10 years. We did pretty much everything ourselves – including re-roofing it, which is no mean achievement when you consider I hate heights. I love to sit there, look down to the sea and think “we built this, this is ours.” And then meet our neighbors to play a few tunes and tell a few tales. We are very privileged.

You're Irish if...

You are wise enough to do everything your mammy tells you.