A singular man: J P Donleavy on his fascinating life since The Ginger Man

J P Donleavy wrote one of the cult classics of the last century. John McEntee tracks him down to his Irish home

Whether it's prolonged exposure to the almost eerie silence of the remote Irish countryside or just old age, J P Donleavy has undergone a dramatic transformation. The 84-year-old author of The Ginger Man has abandoned his trademark elegantly tailored three-piece tweed suits and hand-made brogues for worn loafers, tracksuit bottoms and a battered jerkin held in place with bull clips.

A straw hat askew on his head and a small writing table at his elbow, he sits pensively between the soaring twin pillars in front of his crumbling Georgian pile Levington Park. All around him in every direction are his 180 acres of beef-nourishing grass in County Westmeath.

His trademark beard now completely white and his eyes shielded behind brown-tinted spectacles, he is far removed from the randy and dashing Sebastian Dangerfield, hero and villain of his famous novel.

Donleavy has to be rich on the continuing cash flow from the iconic novel published 55 years ago about the racy adventures of Dangerfield, a young American living in Dublin with his English wife and infant daughter and studying at Trinity College. It is a fictionalised account of Donleavy's own experiences studying at TCD after the Second World War. Named as one of the world's 100 most influential novels it has sold 45 million copies worldwide and has never been out of print.

But despite this financial comfort blanket, proceeds from dozens of other books and cosseting from the Irish government's permanent income tax holiday for writers, Mr Donleavy lives like a reclusive pauper.

He rarely ventures beyond the overgrown driveway and chained gates of his demesne. Declining an invitation to lunch, he offered instead to host a picnic provided his guests supplied the food and drink. Two sides of smoked salmon, fresh brown bread, Irish cheddar and a slab of his favourite Bournville chocolate were purchased from the SuperValu outlet in Mullingar along with a brace of Taittinger champagne and two bottles of pinot noir.

"What a feast," declared the monosyllabic writer as the food and drink was laid on a discarded wood panel balanced precariously on two plastic buckets in front of the peeling front door of his tumbledown mansion.

New York-born Donleavy, who hasn't had anything published for 15 years, now declines to give interviews. Whether it is writer's block or a result of age, he has been struggling for years to finish the manuscript of a story called "The Dog That Fell from the 17th Floor". The heavily scribbled-upon typed manuscript lay at his feet as he sipped champagne and nibbled on his salmon.

"It's about a man who is minding a dog, which jumps out of a 17th-floor window," he explained with a faraway glance in the direction of his nearest neighbour, the historian Thomas Pakenham, at Tullynally Castle. "I told Mr Depp the story. He was jumping out of his chair laughing at it. It is a fairly gruesome little story."

Mr Depp is the movie star Johnny Depp, a great admirer of Donleavy's who claims that without The Ginger Man there would have been no Hunter S Thompson. Depp committed himself to turning The Ginger Man into a movie. His enthusiasm seems to have waned.

"Everyone who has ever been in Hollywood has had a go at making a picture from the book," explained the author. "No one, not even Sam Spiegel, succeeded."

He would dearly love to see his masterpiece in celluloid before he dies. But the history of The Ginger Man – also chronicled by Donleavy – would also lend itself to Hollywood treatment.

It was originally published in the Fifties by the Paris-based Olympia Press in its Traveller's Companion series, which included pornography. It was immediately banned and burned in Ireland after being decreed to be pornographic.

Chuckled Donleavy: "I remember when there was some suggestion that the Donleavys were once Kings of Ulster, the Rev Ian Paisley said he would never allow a pornographer like me on the throne of Ulster."

After the book became a bestseller, Donleavy entered into expensive and tortuous litigation with Olympia over copyright. At some stage in the proceedings, he had inadvertently bought control of Olympia and found himself suing, er, himself.

"In the midst of this pitched battle, I went to a meeting in Paris and there were 13 people, lawyers, and others, on both sides sitting in a room. 'Mr Donleavy,' someone said, 'all of these people are now in your employ.' It couldn't continue."

But so expert had Donleavy become in the labyrinthine world of author copyright, his advice was sought by Ian Fleming when the 007 writer ran into legal difficulties with Irish film producer Kevin McClory. McClory had somehow acquired the rights to the already filmed Thunderball and was planning to remake it as an unofficial 007 film, starring the retired Sean Connery.

"I entered into correspondence with Mr Fleming," recalled Donleavy. "But McClory did make his film called Never Say Never Again."

At the time of his initial success, Donleavy was living in some style in London in what he called "Tax Dodgers Tower". On one of his daily visits to the restaurant at Fortnum & Mason, the maître d' alerted him to Ireland's newly introduced abolition of income tax for writers. As a US citizen, Mike (as Donleavy is nicknamed), was then paying his taxes to Washington...

"As my Irish-born mother still kept a house in Ireland, in Greystones, County Wicklow – I believe I have since inherited it – I decided to come over and live in Ireland. I came over and applied for Irish citizenship." A string of successful novels followed including The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman and A Fairytale of New York, the inspiration for Shane MacGowan's Christmas song.

For Donleavy, it was like the return of the prodigal son. He had earlier befriended the literary giants of Fifties Dublin – Patrick Kavanagh, Myles na Gopaleen and Brendan Behan.

His tongue liberated with Taittinger, Donleavy remembered Behan, who died from drink, tragically young in 1964: "Brendan lived for a time with me in my cottage in Greystones," recalled Mike. "I was always very proud of my collection of shoes. I had 20 or 30 pairs of shoes. One day I returned to the cottage and they were gone. 'Mike,' said Brendan, 'I'll tell you what happened. I badly needed to go to the pub and I hate anything in the countryside with bogs and shucks so I took all your shoes and as one pair got soaked I threw them away and put on another pair.' My shoes were scattered through the fields on the two-mile journey to and from the pub. That was Brendan."

"But he was the first to read the manuscript of The Ginger Man, which he found in the cottage. 'Mike,' he said, 'that book will go around the world.'"

An accomplished boxer, Donleavy continues to shadow-box and boasts about his speed of delivery. He stood up in the midst of our picnic and startled the birdlife and the flies with a demonstration of his still fast reaction.

"There was a time," he said, catching his breath, "when I was down to fight against Norman Mailer who was also handy with his fists. The match was going to be televised. Mailer was in training and I think he got to hear about me being photographed throwing seven punches in a second. The match never took place. I did meet him at a party in New York. He came up to me and joked that I was too tough for him."

The twice-married Donleavy lived alone until recently when his son Philip, 59, by his first spouse, Valerie, returned from New York to look after him and his business affairs. His second wife, Mary, remarried into the Guinness family. They were divorced in 1989. Increasingly, he has returned to his first love, painting, and made his last public appearance at a Dublin gallery exhibition of his work two years ago. Largely forgotten, not a single copy of his seminal work was on sale in any of the three thriving bookshops in nearby Mullingar.

"People tend to steal the book rather than buy it," he remarked as he shuffled down the peeling hall heading kitchenwards with the remains of the picnic salmon. His silent son Philip who had provided chairs and cutlery for the picnic as well as the makeshift table reappeared.

Before departing and offering to carry the butter to the fridge, I trod the wooden floors along seemingly endless damp and decaying corridors, right and then left and then right again before arriving at a high-ceilinged kitchen with an ash-filled open fire and windows out onto the south and north wings and a grass filled courtyard. The large fridge was located in a crumbling pantry behind the cavernous kitchen. Inside the fridge were the remains of our lunchtime salmon, some milk, a jar of mayonnaise and a large red onion.

For further reading:

'The Ginger Man' (Abacus, £7.99). Order for £7.59 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030