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."



Arts and Entertainment
TV Review: Sabotage, a meltdown and, of course, plenty of sauce
News
newsVideo for No campaign was meant to get women voting
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100'Geography can be tough'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Louis van Gaal looks dejected after Manchester United's 4-0 defeat by MK Dons on Tuesday night
sport
News
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
Video
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
i100
News
Down time: an employee of Google uses the slide to get to the canteen
scienceBosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Primary Teacher

£90 - £135 per day + travel expenses: Randstad Education Newcastle: Key Stage ...

Humanities Teacher

£100 - £150 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Permanent Teacher of Humaniti...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher re...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?