Desmond MacNamara: Pivotal figure in Bohemian Dublin


Desmond MacNamara, artist and writer: born Dublin 10 May 1918; married first Bevelie Hooberman, secondly 1953 Skylla Novy (two sons); died London 8 January 2008.

Desmond MacNamara was born in 1918 in Mount Street Crescent in Dublin, in the shadow of the beautiful St Stephen's Church, affectionately – if irreverently – known by locals as "the Pepper Canister Church". A quiet Georgian backwater between the elegant Merrion Square and the tree-lined Grand Canal, it was an appropriate birthplace for the future artist.

Thirty years later, this area would be the centre of the Bohemian quarter known as "Baggotonia", in which MacNamara would play a pivotal role. Its inhabitants would include such diverse characters as the playwright Brendan Behan, the poet Patrick Kavanagh, the novelist Flann O'Brien, the artists Jack Yeats, Patrick Pye and Owen Walsh, and the sculptor John Behan.

After the early death of Desmond MacNamara's father, his mother set up as a couturier. She encouraged her son's artistic interests and he studied sculpture at the National College of Art in Dublin, as well as becoming involved with a progressive theatre group.

Politics ran in the MacNamara family; Desmond's grandfather had participated in the Fenian uprising. Desmond MacNamara worked with the veteran socialist Peadar O'Donnell, and it was on a Spanish Civil War demonstration that he first met the 16-year old Brendan Behan – "Despite a very bad stutter and a very broad Dublin accent, he was even then a very loquacious young man."

MacNamara started to make a precarious living from producing papier mâché sculpture and props for the Abbey and Gate theatres, and for the odd movie, such as Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944), which was filmed in Ireland. His studio at 39 Grafton Street was a hospitable place where his first wife, Bevelie Hooberman, kept a constantly bubbling coffee-pot which soon attracted a procession of impecunious but talented guests.

The studio evolved into a literary salon where Mac, as he was known to his friends, introduced would-be writers and artists to publishers and potential benefactors, and calmed the most recalcitrant with his ready wit. He introduced Behan to John Ryan who published the newly released prisoner in Envoy magazine, and also to Alan and Caroline Simpson, who first staged The Quare Fellow, which catapulted Behan on to the London and world stage.

Other visitors included the writer J.P. Donleavy and Gainor Crist (the model for the central character in Donleavy's The Ginger Man), the actor Dan O'Herlihy, the novelist Ernest Gebler and the exiled mathematician Erwin Schroedinger. "Gainor Crist was much nicer than he appears in the Ginger Man book," said MacNamara. "He was also a bit of a rapscallion and quite recognisable as the Ginger Man." MacNamara himself was portrayed as the generous "MacDoon" in The Ginger Man; "Small dancing man. It is said that his eyes are like the crown jewels."

The overflow from the MacNamara salon trickled across Grafton Street to a spit-in-the-sawdust pub in Harry Street. Within a short time, McDaid's was established as Dublin's leading literary pub. Sharing the counter and disputations with MacNamara would be Behan, O'Brien, the poets Patrick Kavanagh, James Liddy and Val Iremonger, and the former revolutionary Tony McInerney.

MacNamara started to frequent London in the early 1950s. "I did a lot of toing and froing at that time," he said. "I'd go for one or two months, then six months." He gradually put down roots in London, finally settling in West Hampstead with his new wife, Skylla, a publisher's editor who also knew many of the Irish writers. Skylla recalled; "We were married in 1953 and Mac was thrilled to find that James Joyce had also married in the same Kensington Registry Office."

But Desmond MacNamara hadn't seen the last of his Irish friends. "Brendan Behan stayed with us most times he was over," he said. "I remember once having to bail him out of a West End police station. When I arrived, I found Brendan and all the police having a party around two crates of pale ale."

A frequent visitor to Paris, MacNamara met Samuel Beckett when the pair of them helped the young sculptor, Hilary Heron, who had been injured in a motorcycle accent. "Sam pointed out a jeep in the street," said MacNamara.

"The best form of transport," he insisted.

"Why?" I asked.

"Look. No seats, no roof. That's it, the most basic form of mechanical transport."

As well as continuing his sculpture, MacNamara taught art at the Marylebone Institute. He also found time to write a biography of Eamon de Valera and an acclaimed book on picture framing (Picture Framing: a practical guide from basic to Baroque, 1986). In 1994, he published the fantasy novel The Book of Intrusions, which he followed two years ago with Confessions of an Irish Werewolf.

Brendan Lynch

Desmond MacNamara was a lifelong vegetarian, always careful of everything he ate and drank, writes J.P. Donleavy. One always felt certain he would not meet his maker until he was at least a century old, and even then be fully ready to live another one.

My files of his letters attest to his being a great correspondent, as well as one's Official Gossip Keeper. He was part of Dublin's underground culture and one of its true Bohemians in the years after the Second World War, when the city, without shortages and with Guinness aflow, became a cornucopia of earthly delights. Yet, this dear man always remained dignified in the manner in which he conducted his life.

He was scrupulously well-mannered and behaved, but could, if crossed, be one of the world's greatest wielders of creative revenge, nearly rivalling his trusted friend Brendan Behan, who had no peer in getting even with people. Behan and Mac were close associates long before Behan, tongues of his shoes hanging out, was by dint of world fame welcomed into polite society (but, let it be said, Behan would have barged in anyway).

Desmond MacNamara

by Frank Gray

Desmond MacNamara was probably Brendan Behan's best friend, providing the noisome Irish playwright with timely injections of friendship when Behan most needed it. Although a calm man by comparison, MacNamara was not above mischievous ideas of his own. On the mantelpiece of his Hampstead dwelling stood a life-sized brass bust of Behan, his jaw jutting, his hair tousled and his nose thrust forward like a hatchet as if ready to strike. Having got Behan to pose for the sculpture back in the late 1950s, MacNamara wondered what to do with it.

The two men settled on using the Behan likeness to supplant one of the many tedious sculptures dedicated to long-forgotten civil servants that clutter London's municipal parks. The belief was that no one would notice the ruse and that Behan would at the same time be immortalised.

Several attempts were made to site the likeness but the project was abandoned, because lugging it surreptitiously from home to site proved too awkward. At least, MacNamara once said, the sculpture shows what Behan looked like in his heyday.

Behan, although banned from visiting Britain due to IRA activity during the war years, became a regular at the MacNamara household in London. But Behan's success with The Quare Fellow and The Hostage and the autobiographical Borstal Boy came at a high price. MacNamara remembered that their last visits were disturbing encounters, filled with recrimination, accusation, anger and tears. The two men had been out of contact for some months when MacNamara, then in Rome, heard of Behan's death, of the effects of alcoholism, in 1964.

In an interview in 2007, MacNamara said: "I tend to measure my friends by thinking of something I want to tell them. I say to myself, 'I must tell so and so that', and this was frequently the case with Brendan, and then I suddenly realise that I cannot, for they are no longer here . . . There is a very small number of such people, and Brendan was one of them."



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men