November 26 2000. London, UK. (Irish edition.)
Profile: Jamie O’Neill – Hospital porter in hiding from literary fame
(An anonymous profile. I might add that I was no more “in hiding” at this time than I was, or am, “6 ft” tall. And “gob-smacked”? I was gobemouched to read it.)
A fortnight ago he was an impoverished hospital porter; last week he became a wealthy literary icon. For Jamie O’Neill, an unassuming 39-year-old Dubliner, the transition was more than he could take.
”I went from shock to worry without happiness in between,” he said, after news emerged that Simon & Schuster had paid £250,000 for the British rights to his novel, At Swim, Two Boys.
One of a generation of Irish people who emigrated to England in their early twenties, O’Neill was the quintessential struggling artist. His 400,000-word opus, now being likened to the work of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Flann O’Brien, was a decade in the making.
Written during quiet moments at the Cassell hospital in west London, it is being greeted as a sensation by a literary world hungry for talent. That his novel – the story of a tender gay relationship that takes place during the 1916 Easter Rising – should have found such sudden success shocked nobody more than the author. “I was gobsmacked,” said O’Neill, adding that he had not expected the book would ever be published.
Born in London in 1961 to Irish parents, he grew up in the south Dublin suburb of Cabinteely. His background is solidly middle class. O’Neill was educated at the Presentation Brothers college in Glasthule where he was regarded as a good but not great student. The school’s sport was rugby; its ethos, however, was thoroughly Catholic.
A visit to London in his early twenties in search of the kind of liberty not available to homosexuals in the repressed Dublin of the 1980s changed O’Neill’s life. There he met Russell Harty, a BBC television presenter. O’Neill was 21 and coming to terms with his sexuality. The 6ft dark-haired youth of athletic build, who was in London for a two-week holiday, instantly fell in love with Harty. “They were besotted by each other,” said one friend.
Harty was 47, famous and – in the young Irishman’s eyes – handsome. He was also in love. As one friend later put it, they were distracted by each other’s presence. O’Neill moved into Harty’s home, Rose Cottage, near Giggleswick, a village in north Yorkshire. The older man had a profound effect on his lover, encouraging him to pursue his ambition to become a writer.
With Harty’s support, O’Neill secured a publishing deal with Weidenfeld, a partnership that produced two novels, Disturbance and Kilbrack, within two years. Neither received critical acclaim.
He wrote these to prove he could stand on his own two feet. A number of Harty’s associates looked upon him as a “hanger on”, a characterisation he deeply resented. Some time into their relationship, the television presenter discovered he had hepatitis B and, after a struggle, surrendered to the disease in 1988 at the age of 53.
His death was a turning point for O’Neill, who was devastated by the experience. “I was in therapy for a while afterwards,” he said.
“I still have vivid dreams about Russell. One of the problems was that I didn’t just lose a share of my heart, I lost my whole way of life.” Although O’Neill had to leave the couple’s home after the death, his grief had some positive effects.
He was “outed” on the front page of the Sunday Mirror and was subsequently hounded by the press. His parents discovered he was gay only when they saw his photograph in the tabloid newspapers.
In the throes of depression, he came to like his own company. Shunning London’s bitchy gay club scene in favour of a solitary life, he moved into a modest flat near the Hogarth roundabout in west London. From there he looked for work that would give him time to write. A position as a night porter at a residential home for the mentally ill seemed ideal. He would have to answer late-night calls and man the reception desk in return for IR£220 a week – just enough to pay the bills and keep a roof over his head.
While his co-workers spent their spare time watching late-night chat shows and football matches on television, he explored ideas and characters for his novel on a laptop computer. For 10 years he was employed in this way with little prospect of a change in fortune. Last week that changed radically.
O’Neill’s new-found celebrity is due in part to David Marcus, the Irish editor of the Phoenix anthologies of Irish literature. He came across one of O’Neill’s stories while browsing through books at the Rathmines public library two years ago.
He noticed O’Neill’s name and, after checking a biographical note, established that he was Irish. He took the book home and concluded after a first reading that O’Neill was a wonderful writer.
Always on the lookout for new talent, he tracked down the author and invited him to contribute a short story to his 1998 compilation. O’Neill agreed, sending a piece that had been stored on his laptop. Marcus loved it and the two men developed a mutual trust.
O’Neill was working on what would become his blockbuster. He had already signed a publishing deal with a London publisher. However, his tendency to miss deadlines resulted in the contract being terminated. In a marvellous stroke of luck, the publishing house returned the novel’s rights to the author. Content in the knowledge that he had no deadline, O’Neill immersed himself in literature on the 1916 rising and revolutionary Ireland. He read books on Padraig Pearse, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Michael Collins.
To say O’Neill lacked confidence is an understatement. Too afraid to approach a publisher with At Swim, Two Boys, he had asked Marcus to read the manuscript for mistakes, specifically to check his interpretation of Irish history.
“I couldn’t get anyone to read it,” O’Neill told Marian Finucane in an interview. “I think they would have preferred to sip a cocktail or something.”
Doubting his own ability, he gutted the manuscript several times. But when Marcus received the new version, he was sure he was handling hot property.
“I could not believe it,” he said. “I always read the first page with the idea of putting it in its place. But when I read the first page [of this] I just couldn’t stop.”
He dispatched a copy to Giles Gordon of the renowned Curtis Brown literary agency. A publishing heavyweight, Gordon quickly agreed that the novel was exceptional.
O’Neill was blissfully unaware of the growing excitement. He had posted his manuscript and gone on holiday, oblivious to its reception.
Sitting at his desk at the hospital one night he got the kind of telephone call that every writer dreams of. Simon & Schuster had paid £250,000 for the British rights to his novel and he could expect to earn up to £1m when the international rights were auctioned. It beggared belief.
Within hours the press was on his case. This time the newspapers wanted to fete him as a literary genius, not to hector him about his sexual preference. He celebrated briefly by opening his first bank account and holding a champagne dinner at The Ivy, the fashionable London restaurant. “The doormen and ushers frightened me because they were wearing top hats and I wasn’t even wearing a tie,” he said.
As the media glare intensified over the week, O’Neill, who for years had led a quiet, routine life, grew increasingly uneasy. By Friday he had gone to ground, forcing his publicists to stave off calls for yet more interviews.
“Jamie is not answering his phone. He’s not doing any more interviews,” said his publicist. “He’s a bit overcome by it all.”
What the future will bring is not clear. In terms of O’Neill’s writing, Marcus says his future is decidedly unclear. “He will either stop writing, because he may feel it will never be good enough. Or else he will take his time and write. I personally expect more from him,” Marcus said.
Having dreamt for years of returning home, O’Neill has already hinted that he might use his advance to buy a house in the west of Ireland.
“I keep trying to think of something that I should buy but I cannot think of much,” he said. “I guess it means that my mother will get her knee operation earlier than she expected.”
That just about sums up the modesty of Ireland’s latest literary hero, a man who describes his time as a hospital porter as “an enriching experience I will always be grateful for”.