O'neill, J(erry) M. 1921-1999
O'NEILL, J(erry) M. 1921-1999
Born September 27, 1921, in Limerick, Ireland; died May 21, 1999; son of a postmaster; married; wife's name Mary; children: five.
Novelist and playwright. Worked as a bank clerk for thirty years; John Murphy (building contractor), hiring agent; Duke of Wellington Pub, Islington, England, owner for thirteen years.
Open Cut, Heinemann (London, England), 1986.
Duffy Is Dead, Heinemann (London, England), 1986.
Canon Bang Bang, Hodder & Stoughton (London, England), 1989.
Commissar Connell, Hamilton (London, England), 1992.
Bennett and Company: A Novel of Limerick in 1928, Mount Eagle (Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland), 1998.
Rellighan, Undertaker, Brandon (Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland), 1999.
Also author of play God Is Dead on the Balls Pond Road.
J. M. O'Neill began his writing career in his sixties. His first novel, Open Cut, takes place in the world of London's construction trade, a harsh environment filled with cruel and criminal characters. In a Books & Bookmen review, Sebastian Faulks speculated that since sympathy with a character is normally the key to drawing the reader into the story, the question was whether or not O'Neill's plot could sustain interest. The most despicable character is Nally, a crew chief who oversees his workers in and around London. They include his deputy, McLeod; Feehan, a psychopathic foreman; fat Bredin, boss of a repair yard; Cleary, who works for Bredin and spies for McLeod; Kirwan, who works in the tunnels; and Hennessy. Hennessy is hired by Nally to rob a bank, and Nally sends him on a trial run. Hennessy uses the opportunity to commit the actual robbery, and makes off with the cash. The two men negotiate the division of the loot, but neither wants to give up his share. The other men become involved in the cat-and-mouse game, as intermediaries and spies.
Faulks noted that O'Neill sets Open Cut in sections of London that tourists never see. "This half-world of cold and hostile streets is successfully evoked by a writer who clearly knows them well," said the critic, adding, "There is no doubt at all of O'Neill's ability to convey atmosphere." Calling Open Cut "an original and assured first novel," Faulks added that it provides "an insight into a world that few readers will have had experience of, and in its own bleak terms it is convincingly alive." James Hansford, reviewing the novel for British Book News, commented that, although O'Neill's prose is "cutting and sharp," Open Cut is not "a cold book." Noting the inclusion of the love affair between Maisie and Kirwan, and other demonstrations of human emotion, Hanford added that O'Neill "insinuates a strong undercurrent of moral probity no amount of brutality can dispel."
Times Literary Supplement reviewer Tim Dooley wrote that in Duffy Is Dead O'Neill "has created a convincing caricature of London Irish pub life—a warm button-holing world of broad winks, venomous understatement, tall stories." Duffy drops dead on the Holloway Road outside a bank, and Calnan, owner of The Trade Winds pub, enlists the aid of Mackessy and Neelan, two contractors he had hired to work on his bathroom, in moving Duffy and planning the funeral of his former customer. Mackessy and Neelan plan to make a profit from Duffy's death, however, including a scheme to tap the box of bills donated to give Duffy a sendoff. In subplots it is discovered that Duffy has an alias, "Roderick Hodder O'Callaghan Davis," and had been a medium for a group of spiritualists. He also may have had more money than any of them had suspected. New Statesman reviewer Roz Kaveney felt the novel would have been better if there were "fewer plot strands and had ditched those that partake of cliche: the friendly tart, the police raid," and called Duffy Is Dead "lively," "funny," and "dark." Brian Morton noted in a review for the Listener that, amid a host of characters that include "betrayers … skeptics … [and] opportunists, Cal—so profoundly drunk as to be almost shamanistic—becomes the one true adept."
The spirits of the seamen who sailed a merchant ship from Cork, Ireland, in 1806 are first referenced at the end of Duffy Is Dead. In Canon Bang Bang Paul Vincent Herlihy is a former priest who is elevated to and named Canon by his benefactress. He has inherited the estate of the ship's purchasing agent and is planning a village where the elderly and sick can end their lives with spiritual support and medical assistance. The bishop, wanting to cash in on the property, declares that Herlihy is still a priest, and what is his is the Church's. Criminals are hired in the attempted land grab. They beat up an alcoholic seaman posing as a priest, fail to properly validate the transfer documents, and turn an accomplice into an enemy. Herlihy walks the streets at night as the spirits of the dead come to him with their stories which provide a periodic narrative. Times Literary Supplement reviewer Gerard Gardiner wrote that by "telescoping two hundred years of history into the present, O'Neill has added substance to his wit and produced a powerful, assured novel."
Bennett and Company: A Novel of Limerick in 1928 is set in Limerick, Ireland, where a group of Protestant middle-class merchants have elected to stay in the new Free State rather than flee, as have so many of the wealthier families. The civil war has ended and those who oppose the government's ceding of the northern counties continue to harbor resentment. Amid this backdrop, Edward Burke, a liberal-leaning Catholic headmaster of Hugh Latimer School, has married social worker Lillian Bennett, daughter of rich Protestant parents. When Lillian's soup kitchen is attacked by Catholics who relate hunger with the ongoing famine, Edward comes to realize how deeply anti-Protestantism is ingrained in the politics of Church and State. After a local surgeon is charged with negligence when the son of a stevedore dies, the Bennett family's warehouse and country home become the targets of arsonists, and both the Catholic and Protestant middle class of Limerick seem doomed. In a Times Literary Supplement review, C. L. Dallat called Bennett and Company "uniquely Irish" and "a contribution to an overdue examination of Irish conscience." Noting that "O'Neill's is a strictly modern and undeluded vision of the past," Dallat praised the writing as "shockingly credible, and the straightforward, crisp, narrative style may well engage a larger constituency of those who need to revise their national ethos, now stripped of half a century of self-delusion and dream-visions."
Prior to his death in 1999, O'Neill completed one other novel, Rellighan, Undertaker. Recalling O'Neill's career, Guardian writer Kevin O'Connor wrote that, through his books, O'Neill became almost a cult figure; his novels "ennoble and mythologise both English and immigrant Irish labour on London's building sites.… In Jerry's own words, this was 'a world of kerbside sweat and manpower, open-cut tunnels, timber shafts looking across a chaos of traffic.'" Through such novels, O'Neill was able to make sense of what O'Connor characterized as a "variegated life," on the way achieving critical praise.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Books & Bookmen, March, 1986, p. 27.
British Book News, March, 1986, p. 177; March, 1987, p. 149; June, 1987, p. 368.
Guardian, June 14, 1999, Kevin O'Connor, "Jerry O'Neill."
Listener, June 4, 1987, p. 49.
New Statesman, March 20, 1987, p. 30.
Observer, January 18, 1987, p. 23.
Times Literary Supplement, January 23, 1987, p. 91; December 1, 1989, Gerard Gardiner, review of Canon Bang Bang, p. 1337; December 18, 1998, C. L. Dallat, review of Bennett and Company: A Novel of Limerick in 1928, p. 20.*