James Patrick Donleavy, American Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright, is born to Irish immigrants Margaret and Patrick Donleavy in the New York City borough of Brooklyn on April 23, 1926. His best-known work is the novel The Ginger Man, which is initially banned for obscenity.
Donleavy grows up in the Bronx. His father is a firefighter, and his mother comes from a wealthy background. He has a sister, Mary Rita, and a younger brother. He declares himself to be an atheist at the age of fourteen. He receives his education at various schools in the United States, then serves in the United States Navy during World War II. After the war ends, he moves to Ireland and becomes an Irish citizen. In 1946 he begins studying bacteriology at Trinity College Dublin, but leaves in 1949 before taking a degree.
Donleavy’s first published work is a short story entitled A Party on Saturday Afternoon, which appears in the Dublin literary periodical Envoy, A Review of Literature and Art in 1950. He gains critical acclaim with his first novel, The Ginger Man (1955), which is one of the Modern Library 100 best novels. The novel, of which his friend and fellow writer Brendan Behan is the first person to read the completed manuscript, is banned in Ireland and the United States by reason of obscenity. The lead character, Sebastian Dangerfield, is in part based on Trinity College companion Gainor Crist, an American Navy veteran also studying at Trinity College on the G.I. Bill, whom Donleavy once describes in an interview as a “saint,” though of a Rabelaisian kind.
Correctly or incorrectly, Donleavy’s initial works are sometimes grouped with the kitchen sink artists as well as the “angry young men.” Another novel, A Fairy Tale of New York, provides the title of the song “Fairytale of New York.”
In March 2007, Donleavy is the castaway on BBC Radio 4‘s Desert Island Discs.
In 2015, Donleavy is the recipient of the Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. In 2016, Trinity College Dublin awards him with an honorary doctorate.
In 1946, Donleavy marries Valerie Heron. The couple has two children: Philip (born in 1951) and Karen (born in 1955). They divorce in 1969 and he remarries in 1970 to Mary Wilson Price. That union ends in divorce in 1989. In 2011, it is reported that he had not fathered his two children with Price. A DNA test in the early 1990s confirms that Rebecca is the daughter of brewing scion Kieran Guinness, and Rory is the son of Kieran’s older brother Finn, whom Price marries after her divorce from Donleavy. “My interest is only to look after the welfare of the child,” Donleavy tells The Times, “and after a certain stage, you can’t worry about their parentage.”
Donleavy lives at Levington Park, a country house on 200 acres directly on Lough Owel, near Mullingar, County Westmeath, from 1972. Throughout much of his life, he is known as Mike by close friends, though the origins of this nickname are unclear.
Donleavy dies in Mullingar at the age of 91 on September 11, 2017.