The creator of the inimitable Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, Paul Howard, talks to Grace Duffy about journalism, culchies with green ink, and being mistaken for Ireland’s favourite D4
The name Paul Howard may not ring a bell off-hand, but throw his most famous creation into the conversation and an instantaneous flurry of recognition will bubble to the surface. The author and journalist has surfed the crescent of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s wave of fame in recent years to become a well-known and respected figure in the public eye, though not everyone is as appreciative of his literary invention as others.
Discussing the iconic status in which many now hold Ross, the writer chuckles and reveals he finds it “extremely odd,” illustrating in an hilarious anecdote how many still (remarkably) confuse his fictitious character for a real person.
“I was in Brown Thomas about a year ago, and a woman came up to me and took me to task for the fact that her son had started to idolise Ross and ape his behaviour. Hilariously, she said to me, ‘You’re Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, you’re supposed to be a role model for our children!’ and I thought that was very funny. I never thought people would take it as seriously as they do. When I started writing the original columns, the intention for me was that people would hate his character, but people have kind of taken him to their heart.”
We in UCD are uniquely equipped to appreciate the more loathsome aspects of the D4 culture Ross so grotesquely exemplifies, making it all the more surprising that many hold him in such high regard. However, Howard interjects that he made the conscious decision to afford Ross enough glimpses of likeability to ensure he wouldn’t be entirely frowned upon.
“If people were going to follow it for a long time, I knew there would have to be some evidence of soul, so I think consciously after about two years I did start to put in tiny little glimpses of lightness. I think that’s what people have responded to, that’s why they like him.”
Reaching such a pinnacle of acclaim with a literary creation is something many writers aspire to and long for, yet there are those who bemoan the onset of recognition as a double-edged sword. It is not so with Howard, who recalls with typical good humour the disparaging correspondence he received at first.
“At the beginning, before I ever attached my name to the column, people didn’t know who it was, and used to speculate about who was writing it. I used to get some quite funny letters from people who thought the column was real. A man used to write to me from somewhere in Tipperary in green ink every week, and say stuff like, ‘You’re a waste of skin’, and ‘In my day we knew how to treat women!’ But since I started to go on chat shows and radio and do public signings, I think just about everybody knows it’s me who does it now.”
Discussing how he went into journalism, Howard credits a writer called Paul Foot with piquing his interest early on.
“When I was younger, I used to follow a journalist called Paul Foot who wrote for the Daily Mirror. He used to write an investigative column and I used to cut that out every week, it was brilliant stuff. He was championing the cause of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four ten years before anyone in the British legal establishment accepted they were innocent. I still have those columns to this day and I think he was probably the reason I wanted to be a journalist in the first place.”
The popularity of his own columns has allowed Paul to pursue full-time authoring, the freedom of which he happily declares has been wonderful.
“My life hasn’t really changed, but I suppose one thing it’s allowed me to do, ‘cos I’m a full time author and I don’t have a day job, is it’s given me a lot more time to work on other things I wanted to do. When I was a full-time journalist I always had about seven or eight other projects on the go and would eventually abandon them ‘cos I just couldn’t find the time in between my real work. But now I have the time, I’m working on a biography of a historical figure and I’ve been able to put three or four years into it. That’s really exciting for me, to have the time to do the work I want to do.”
Howard’s flair for writing non-fiction books stands out most prominently amongst these other projects. His flawless encapsulation of the superficial world of D4 is testament to his literary skills, but there is a passion and drive clear in his voice when he discusses works such as Hunger and The Joy.
“With The Joy, I was asking myself a lot of questions about the way we dealt with addiction in this country, especially the way the criminal justice system saw it as its remit to handle people who were addicted to a drug. I had a couple of friends who were heroin addicts in the 1980s and they told me some of their stories. I happened to meet this prisoner who had spent most of his adult life in jail. He contracted HIV and died during the course of the interviews and I just thought, ‘What a wasted life.’
“With Hostage [a book about IRA kidnappings], I was just really interested in that period of history. When I was in school, there was a period during the late 1970s and 1980s when the IRA were conducting these really high profile kidnappings. It’s a funny thing to say, but it was really exciting as a kid to hear those reports – it was like something from the Wild West and it was on the news every day! So that period, when the IRA were kidnapping people between, say, 1975 and 1983, just really interested me.”
Contrasting a time of such anxiety and distress with the relatively carefree society that evolved in the mid 1990s, it is quite striking to consider how vast a change the country had to undergo for a character such as O’Carroll-Kelly to become as iconic as he has. Howard reveals that on reflection, it is “a little bit odd” to perceive this, and says he notices it most when confronted with more serious subjects.
“About three years ago, I spent some time in the North, interviewing the men who survived the 1981 hunger strike. At that time I’d been writing nothing but Ross for about five months, and it was really intense to go up North, knock on the doors of these former IRA men and ask them if I could talk to them about the hunger strike. During the course of finding these men, I’m sitting down and writing the pieces up, and completely unconsciously I typed the word ‘roysh’ during a sentence break! It’s funny, little things like that. But I’ve never found it difficult to go from writing comedy to writing serious stuff. I’ll take a month or two off after finishing a Ross book and then decide I’d like to work on something more serious, but there’s usually a bit of time between the two.”
A garrulous and warm interviewee, it is refreshing to see the esteem in which Paul is now held. Envisaging a possible return to a more journalistic focus, he says, “I haven’t had time in the last twelve months or so, but I do want to go back to it. I think I probably will in the next year, I’d say.”
With the decline of the Celtic Tiger keeping the disintegration of Ross’ world ubiquitous in the public consciousness, it shall be interesting to see where both character and author go next. The need for satire and good humour is stronger than ever in the face of the deepening economic rut, so let us join together in the cheerful fraternal bonds of D4 piss-taking, and see what Howard – and our beloved Ross – have yet in store.
Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s new book, Rhino, What You Did Last Summer, is in bookshops now.