Featured Readers

Each month we sit down for a chat with a ‘Featured Reader’, to find out about their favourite books of all time, their literary preferences, recommendations, revered authors, & the likes...

This Month

John O Donnell

John O’Donnell

Photo: John Minihan

Our house was filled with books ...

John O'Donnell

John, you are a Senior Counsel, a poet and have just published a book of short stories - how do your creative and professional life impact each other?

At a basic level the writer’s job is to select as best you can the most apposite word, which is what lawyers do. The process of editing is a kind of argument for – or against – each word you are considering. The compression of language involved in poems and short stories is likewise attractive in a legal setting; judges and juries do not welcome longwindedness, and you have to gain their trust and hold their attention from the outset, like readers.

Tell us a bit about yourself - where were you born? What memories do you have of your neighbourhood growing up?

I was born and grew up in Dublin. My neighbourhood was affluent, leafy, comfortable, though undoubtedly there were secrets; one contemporary says there were two unsolved murders on the road where I lived and as a child I remember being fascinated by the tall red chimney of the Swastika Laundry, and the clunk the wicker basket from the other local laundry (run by the Sisters of Charity) made as it landed on our doorstep.

What is your earliest memory of reading? Do you have a favourite book or author from childhood?

Despite being discouraged by my teacher from doing so, I remember devouring Enid Blyton books; the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, the Five Find-Outers and Dog etc. I borrowed some of my sister’s books as well, though my study of goings-on in Mallory Towers and St. Clare’s did not prepare me for girls in the way I might have hoped.

Did you use your local library as a child? Do you have a favourite library now or from your past?

My mother enrolled me in the local library in Ballsbridge, which I did use quite a lot. I remember the column of date-stamps punched carefully into the frontispiece. I also recall my father bringing home LPs from something called ‘The Dublin Record Library’ and nagging him to borrow one or two for me, which he did. Our house was filled with books, so my parents kindly bought books for me – an investment, they thought. So I was less dependent on libraries than I might otherwise have been.

Which of your books is battered and worn from using over and over again?

Embarrassingly, one of my most battered books is one ‘borrowed’ almost fifty years ago from my school library; Selected Poems of TS Eliot. Another book I’ve kept since childhood is one my father ‘gave’ me, a very funny book about a group of really awful rugby players, called The Art of Coarse Rugby by Michael Green. It never fails to make me laugh. The Lifelines collections, edited by Niall McMonagle, featuring letters from famous people about their favourite poems, are endlessly rewarding, a great example of ‘the drunkenness of things being various’.

What are you reading right now?

I have just finished Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell which is an incredibly moving study of parental grief as well as a wonderfully accessible account of life in Shakespearean England. Highly recommended.

Is there a book you think every child should have on their shelf?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I’m conscious that the use of certain historic offensive words are an affront to some children in our community. It is the responsibility of teachers to show children how those insults although once commonplace are utterly unacceptable. I don’t support the campaign to remove this book from the school curriculum; you cannot teach people about the past by pretending that some outrages didn’t happen.

And – for older children – I would recommend Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, an outrageous and hilarious book about a school in South Dublin. It couldn’t be true, could it?

Is there a book that opened up another culture to you?

I remember my head nearly bursting as I read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. He made me ‘see’ India for the first time: riotous, frantic, vivid.

Tell us something about yourself that might surprise us.

I was a teenage crewmember on a boat that sailed in the Fastnet Yacht Race in 1979. Unexpected hurricane-strength winds turned the race into a disaster; twenty-one people were killed and many boats were dismasted or abandoned. Forty years later I made a documentary about the race for RTÉ’s Doc On One.

Do you have any books you'd consider hidden gems?

One of my favourite - and underrated - books is The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks. It’s the story of a small mountain community in Canada, devastated by the loss of many of their children after a school bus crashes. Then the lawyers arrive in town. The backstory of the main lawyer is interwoven with the narrative, but the book is a thrilling – and chilling depiction of what people will do to each other, a theme I’ve explored in my collection of short stories Almost the Same Blue, published by Doire Press.

As a tribute, one of the stories in the collection (Six Miles Either Side) features a character I’ve named Banks, the father of a boy killed in an accident.


The Books

We have been finding out about the books that matter to you, to grow this virtual bookshelf that represents the lives, families and culture of the people that call Dublin home. Here are a selection of some of the books that you have been telling us …

Share Your Favourites?

We want to hear about the books that matter to you. Tell us about your most cherished books, what you’re reading right now, your favourite book from your childhood, and the books that make up the story of your life. Share your recommended reads and take part here

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