2 weeks ago

Writer’s Block with Domhnall O’Donoghue

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Navan native Domhnall O’Donoghue is an actor, author, journalist, screenwriter and arts mentor who divides his time between Dublin, Venice and Connemara. For half the year, he plays Pádraig O’Loingsigh on TG4’s long-running television show, Ros na Rún.

As a journalist, O’Donoghue has contributed to a wide range of newspapers and magazines including The Irish Times, Irish Independent and Irish Tatler Man, where he was the assistant editor. He is currently a columnist with Woman’s Way and assistant editor of Futura. His debut novel, Sister Agatha: the World’s Oldest Serial Killer, was published in 2016.

His second offering, Colin and the Concubine, is about two brothers who are as different as night and day. Colin Saint James, a gentle baker with a heart of gold, despises his older brother Freddie, a psychopath who has plotted his demise since he was in the womb. While Freddie always had the inside track, Colin is determined to have a win for once in his life. When the last ever Woman’s Way Housewife of the Year competition is announced, Colin sees the opportunity he has long craved – he just needs a wife. Thankfully his next door neighbour Azra happens to be looking for a husband. The trouble is, she is also a Turkish concubine whose nocturnal habits are not quite what Colin had in mind.

This is not only a story about family and the ties that divide; the author has pressed on the double standards of modern society and its treatment of sex workers. O’Donoghue has a natural gift for comedy, and his prose reads with a musical quality. Perhaps aided by his experience as an actor and screenwriter, he has created dialogue that pops, bounces and crackles: you won’t see the pages turning as you get caught up in this charming battle of wits.

Colin and the Concubine (€15.00) is published by Mercier Press and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I’m currently writing this in wet and windy Connemara where I film TG4’s Ros na Rún for six months of the year. My route to work every morning is like something from a picture book: I pass bogs, thatch cottages, cows, sheep and donkeys while the wild Atlantic roars in the background.

For the other six months of the year, I call Ashtown in north Dublin home. Last year, my boyfriend Gabriele and I bought an apartment there overlooking the Royal Canal. Ashtown boasts a wonderful community spirit – in addition to a variety of outdoor activities on offer, there are numerous restaurants, bars and cafés to choose from, including Douglas & Kaldi, Appatizers, Geisha and the Canal Bar.

Gabriele is from Lido, the largest of the 118 islands scattered across Venice’s lagoon, so we also spend plenty of time there; the moment you alight the vaporetto, you’ll understand why. There’s a downside to la dolce vita, however: I’m still trying to shift the weight gained from all the gorgeous Italian food, gelato and prosecco!

On roots

I grew up in Navan, Co Meath, which provides the backdrop of my first two books, Sister Agatha and Colin and the Concubine. With Gabriele hailing from Venice, we’re continuously debating who was brought up in the more glamorous setting – needless to say, I win every time! I’m very defensive of Navan. Growing up, there were a few hairy moments – boys who took dance and drama classes in the 80s were easy targets for ridicule – but I’ve made my peace with that, and now, I’ve nothing but affection for the town. In order to accommodate the overspill from Dublin, her structure has been reimagined in recent years but her heart remains the same. Forget nearby Tara or Newgrange, the first place that springs to mind whenever Navan is mentioned is our crown jewel: the shopping centre. Here, an army of teenagers is always found doing laps. It’s our favourite pastime!

On early reading

As a child, my mother read books to me while my father and older siblings told me stories. I’d give them themes or scenarios and they would improvise. There lay the foundation of all my three careers: acting, writing and journalism.

My mother, a primary school teacher, was an avid frequenter of the local library so we’d always have an extensive selection of titles to enjoy each night before entering the land of nod. I adored Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, particularly The Twits, The Enchanted Tree and The Secret Seven. Another favourite was Under the Hawthorn Tree by Marita Conlon-McKenna.

I discovered Agatha Christie when I was 10 – The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side was my first introduction – and I made my way through all her books over the course of a couple of years. To this day, I re-read them often and am continuously impressed by her craft and ingenuity.

On family

Whether it was acting, singing, dancing, debating or drawing, storytelling – in all its different guises – was at the heart of my upbringing. Outside of school, my siblings and I attended speech and drama classes every Saturday morning in the CYWS Hall in Navan. Here, as young children, we discovered the work of playwrights such as Oscar Wilde and Marina Carr, poets including Rudyard Kipling and Dylan Thomas, and authors like Jane Austen and Roddy Doyle.

To this day, my mother devours at least three books a week while my father, a fool for all things political, is always trawling through autobiographies, periodicals or journals – it’s no surprise that Darragh, my eldest brother, is currently an archivist in London’s Tate Gallery.

On creating

In my early days, I used to get caught up with this notion of fashioning these beautiful, artistic spaces in order to be creative; the only problem was, I was rarely at home! In addition to being an actor and author, I work as a journalist, notably travel – as a result, I’m always on the move. In order to be productive, I quickly learnt that the location wasn’t important but the actual act of writing: all I needed was my laptop.

When I was studying for my Master’s in Screenwriting some years ago, one of my lecturers, Senator Eoghan Harris, said something to the effect of: “Don’t give me that nonsense about walking along Dún Laoghaire pier looking for inspiration, grab your pen and just bloody write!” While a tad inelegant, that concept has always remained with me: “just bloody write!”

I type away on buses, trains and planes; on set; at home; in a coffee shop – anywhere really. I’m quite proficient at drowning out the world – unless, of course, I’m using it as inspiration. Funnily enough, my nomadic lifestyle has really inspired the plots of my books – in addition to Navan, destinations that I’ve visited as a journalist – Jamaica, Italy, Chicago, Tunisia, Poland and Turkey – have all featured in the stories.

On bookshops

Here, in Connemara, looking out onto the Atlantic ocean is the famous department store, Standún, primarily known for its sartorial offerings, notably the Aran sweater. However, the family places a strong emphasis on literature and it’s brilliantly stocked with books for young and old, in both English and as Gaeilge.

They’re constantly championing local writers, which is something I greatly admire – in fact, in 2016, with the help of the cast and crew of Ros na Rún, I launched Sister Agatha there. Without a doubt, it was the highlight of my career so far as a scribe. Most authors will identify with the struggles in getting their work on the shelves – that’s why the support of stores like Standún is so important.

On his “To Be Read” pile

I’m a member of the Rick O’Shea Book Club on Facebook and it’s a brilliant place to get recommendations – it wreaks havoc with your finances, however, and in terms of height, my TBR pile could almost give the Spire a run for its money!

Top of the pile is Jonas Johanson’s, The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year-Old Man, a sequel to one of my favourite books, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. In fact, Johanson’s writing really inspired the style of my first two books – larger-than-life characters navigating larger-than-life situations.

Two of my dear friends released non-fiction books earlier this year: Vagina: A Re-education by Lynn Enright and A Positive Habit by Fiona Brennan. They’ll be read soon – if not, I’ll be booted off their Christmas card lists!

On escape

On the outskirts of Navan is the serene and unspoiled Ramparts walk. Once it suffered a reputation for being a haven for anti-social behaviour but, today, it has reinvented itself and is one of the Royal County’s best-kept secrets.

The pathway is sandwiched in between an old canal and the majestic River Boyne, and the route is peppered with nods to the past, including the ruins of Dunmoe Castle and Ardmulchan Church. Wildlife enthusiasts will find themselves strolling alongside kingfishers, moorhens, otters and herons. A perfect way to clear the head and stretch the legs, I’ve lost count of the number of runners I’ve worn out enjoying this walk.

On Colin and the Concubine

I wrote the very first line of Colin and the Concubine the day after Hilary Clinton lost the US election to Donald Trump. Like so many in the world, I was devastated so I tried to make sense of the shock result by creating two characters: Colin, a kind and hard-working baker, and Freddie, his older, duplicitous brother who stops at nothing in order to get the upper hand. It was a cathartic process – even though, three years later, we’re continuing to discover the double-dealings that the Trump administration undertook in order to emerge victorious.

Running parallel to this time was my six-month tenancy next door to a brothel, which inspired the character of Azra, the concubine in the title. While the story is a light-hearted romp about duelling siblings, the underlying theme highlights the many double-standards that exist. How many of the men who called upon the services of my neighbours present themselves as law-abiding, upstanding members of society? My final “thank you” in the book’s acknowledgements is given to these two sex workers with a wish that wherever they are today, they’re safe.

On what’s next

I’m currently busy filming the new season of Ros na Rún while also writing my monthly column for Woman’s Way. My third book is currently in the editing process – it’s a dark comedy called Crazy for You, which follows an unhinged woman who becomes infatuated with an actor from an Irish-language soap! I once joked that I’d love to have a stalker and a friend warned, “be careful what you wish for.” This is an imagined version of how it might play out. I’ve also just finished the first draft of book number four, Connie Maguire Wants to Help – my first step away from the genre of humour. I wrote it in a week, following the death of my aunt, Gina, and it’s a tribute to maternal love.


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