Gogarty, Oliver St John (1878–1957), surgeon and man of letters, was born 17 August 1878 at 5 Rutland Square, Dublin, eldest of four sons of Henry Gogarty, surgeon (d. 1891), and his wife, Margaret Gogarty (née Oliver; d. 1906), daughter of a Galway miller.
Education and early influences
Gogarty was educated at the Christian Brothers’ O’Connell School, Dublin (1890–92), and at the Jesuit boarding schools Mungret College near Limerick and Stonyhurst College in Lancashire (1892–6), which he detested. He again boarded at Clongowes Wood College in Co. Kildare (1896–7) while studying for the first-year arts examinations of the RUI. His devout mother intended him for the Catholic University School of Medicine in Cecilia Street, Dublin, but she was alienated by the registrar's abrupt manner and instead enrolled him at TCD, where he studied medicine 1897–1904. His activities in these years – amateur athletics (notably cycling), visits to pubs, pawnbrokers, and the ‘Monto’ red-light district, clinical work in the Richmond group of hospitals, and discovering the Dublin slums, which he never ceased to denounce as an affront to humanity – are commemorated in the novel–memoir Tumbling in the hay (1939), narrated by Gogarty's fictional alter ego, Gideon Ouseley. During his student years Gogarty, a strong swimmer, also won a bronze medal and two testimonials from the Royal Humane Society for lifesaving.
Gogarty won the vice-chancellor's prize for English poetry at TCD in 1902, 1903, and 1905. Less publicly, he found relief from the stresses of medicine in composing Rabelaisian and parodic verses, many of which circulated orally for decades. In 1904 he spent two terms at Worcester College, Oxford, principally motivated by the hope of winning the Newdigate prize for poetry. He came second to G. K. A. Bell, later the anglican bishop of Chichester, who became a close friend. In 1907–8 he undertook further study at the Allgemeines Krankenhaus, Vienna, to qualify as an ear, nose, and throat surgeon. He had been introduced to this field by Sir Robert Woods (qv), the first Dublin ENT specialist.
During his Trinity years Gogarty was influenced by the urbane dons J. P. Mahaffy (qv), H. S. Macran, and (especially) Robert Yelverton Tyrrell (qv), and by the nascent Sinn Féin movement of Arthur Griffith (qv). His academic mentors drew from the classical tradition the ideal of the Renaissance man – an athlete–scholar who wore religion lightly if at all, and displayed his genius casually and without pedantry. They saw themselves as a civilised elite embattled by bourgeois (especially papist) barbarism. Gogarty's mature world view rested on a self-consciously Nietzschean delight in creativity and generosity and a pagan love of sunshine and water. He also had a broad and bawdy sense of humour. Although he had clerical friends (notably Monsignor Pádraig de Brún (qv) and Bishop Michael Fogarty (qv) of Killaloe) and attended mass, he despised Christianity for constricting the human spirit through fear of sin and damnation. He saw death, like sex, as a fact of life which should be accepted rather than feared, and regarded his blasphemies as a statement of existential freedom. A typical example is ‘The ballad of joking Jesus’ (excerpted in Ulysses), which presents Jesus recruiting disciples by offering them the commercial advantages of late nineteenth-century clerical life, and walking on the water because of a characteristically Jewish dislike for bathing.
A particularly unpleasant and widespread by-product of nineteenth-century Romantic classicism was a vicious anti-Semitism, which depicted Jews as greasy, logic-chopping aliens, incapable of the magnanimity of the Hellenic spirit. Although Gogarty had Jewish friends, his correspondence is noticeably anti-Semitic. His view of Jews as the founders of ‘Hebraic’ puritanism (he decried ascetic catholicism as ‘Hebrew mathematics’) lay behind his often reiterated claim that Éamon de Valera (qv) was Jewish. Freud (whom he accused of reducing humanity to neuroses) and Einstein (denounced for reducing the universe to mathematics) were seen as similarly reductionist and became favourite whipping boys.
Gogarty's Sinn Féin associates, despite their differences with the Trinity dons, shared with them a sense of being superior to the crawthumping bourgeoisie, in their case extending to a view of the British as exemplifying Judaic commercialist decadence. Gogarty spoke at the founding meeting of Sinn Féin in 1905 and wrote regularly for Griffith's papers in the organisation's early years; in 1906 he contributed a series on British decadence, declaring that John Bull had degenerated to ‘Sludge’. After 1906 Gogarty disagreed with Griffith's tendency to edit out his fiercer indiscretions and displayed some interest in the republican wing of Sinn Féin, but the two men remained firm friends; Gogarty admired Griffith's unreckoning commitment to his cause. They shared a fondness for pub socialising so long as it did not interfere with their work, and both believed that conspicuous medical charities merely advertised their authors while ignoring the need for deeper social reform (especially slum clearance). They swam regularly at the Forty Foot, a bathing place at Sandycove near Dublin.
Gogarty and Joyce
In 1901 Gogarty made the acquaintance of James Joyce (qv), and for a time they were close friends. They briefly shared a Martello tower at Sandycove in September 1904. Joyce resented Gogarty's ostentatious generosity and considered him a conformist. (Gogarty, especially as a young man, differentiated between the views he expressed to his friends and those he offered in public; this was partly for professional reasons and partly because of his cultural elitism.) Joyce came to believe that Gogarty was conspiring against him (a view encouraged by Stanislaus Joyce (qv)). Gogarty, on the other hand, came to see Joyce as a gifted paranoid, compelled to bite the hands that fed him; in later life he publicly mocked the pretensions of Ulysses and wrote pityingly of Joyce as ‘an unlovable and lonely man’ (Gogarty, Intimations, 67), regarding him as enmeshed in a self-devouring ecclesiastical mindset. Joyce's famously hostile portrait of Gogarty as Malachi Mulligan in Ulysses, taken at face value by many Joyceans, profoundly affected Gogarty's subsequent reputation and continues to arouse indignation among Gogarty's admirers. Ulysses, with its Hebraic hero and heterogeneous styles, can also be read as a profound criticism of Gogarty's classicising aesthetic.
Gogarty graduated MB and MD in June 1907; he was appointed to the Richmond Hospital, Dublin, and opened a medical practice in Ely Place. In August 1906 he married Martha Duane; they had three children. In 1912 he was appointed to a post at the Meath hospital, which was under pressure to acquire a catholic surgeon and hoped to forestall the appointment of a more pious and less competent rival. (Gogarty was consistently scathing about the cramping effect of sectarianism on the Irish health system, especially its role in preventing the consolidation and centralisation of medical services.) He acquired a reputation for surgical dexterity and speed; he was generous in remitting fees for poorer patients (a common practice at the time). During his career as a surgeon he became a near teetotaller for professional reasons.
From 1912 the Gogartys held one of Dublin's principal literary salons in their home at 15 Ely Place. Gogarty combined his artistic interests with an avowed snobbery; seeing himself as a natural aristocrat he revelled in the company of the genuine article. (Lord Dunsany (qv) became a particular friend.) In 1917 Gogarty bought Renvyle House in Connemara; he was a car enthusiast and realised that road transport made Connemara newly accessible from Dublin. The compulsory purchase of half its demesne by the land commission for division among small farmers (who cut down an ash wood of which Gogarty was particularly fond) contributed to his annoyance with the new state; the destruction of the ash grove recurs in his work, symbolising short-sighted destruction of beautiful and useful things by greedy, ignorant plebeians.
Gogarty's Sinn Féin sympathies remained undiminished. In 1917–19 he wrote three satirical plays for the Abbey Theatre, Dublin (two as ‘Gideon Ouseley’); Blight (written under the name ‘Alpha and Omega’) deals with the Dublin slums, in a style prefiguring Sean O'Casey (qv); The enchanted trousers ridicules English officials in Ireland, and A serious thing satirically equates the resurrection of Lazarus with the rise of the Sinn Féin movement and the Roman legions with the Black and Tans. Gogarty may also have written The worked-out ward, a parody of Lady Gregory's one-act The workhouse ward (1909), mocking the rival parliamentary nationalisms of John Dillon (qv) and Stephen Gwynn (qv) as equally moribund; he had a profound and abiding admiration for Gwynn as man of letters. Gogarty took the Sinn Féin headquarters' files into his house when the party was banned in 1919, and sheltered men on the run (including Michael Collins (qv)).
Gogarty subsequently claimed that Griffith wanted him, rather than T. M. Healy (qv), as the first governor general of the Irish Free State. Gogarty was Griffith's medical attendant during the leader's final days, and believed that his friend had been literally hounded to death; his bitterness increased when he had to conduct Collins's autopsy and embalmment soon after performing the same service for Griffith. He composed funeral odes for both men, and his hatred for de Valera and Erskine Childers (qv), whom he consistently vilified as a British spy sent to divide and conquer, blossomed.
Between 1922 and 1936 Gogarty was an active member of the Free State senate. In January 1923 he was kidnapped by republicans, but escaped by leaping into the Liffey; in gratitude he ceremonially introduced two swans to the Liffey. (A popular satiric ballad by William Dawson falsely insinuated that Gogarty had fabricated the story.) Gogarty temporarily moved his practice to England, where he became a lion of London society; he returned to Dublin weekly for senate meetings and moved back to Ireland in February 1924. Renvyle House was burned by the IRA in February 1923 as part of a campaign against senators' houses; many art works and personal mementoes were destroyed in the fire.
As a senator Gogarty was a fierce supporter of the Cosgrave (qv) government, even supporting a reduction in the old age pension by claiming that the benefit was a relic of British misrule. He supported drastic security measures, remarking that Ireland needed freedom from the press more than freedom of the press. His zest for the new (he was a founder of the Irish Aero Club) found expression in his support for the government's technocratic measures. He campaigned incessantly for slum clearance and improved preventive medicine. Gogarty criticised aspects of the Censorship of Publications Bill but supported the principle in accordance with his elitist aesthetic (he regretted this when he saw how it worked in practice). His views on contraception were ambivalent: he distrusted it as a form of ‘race suicide’ (in Going native (1940)) Gideon Ouseley ridicules the English for acquiring dogs as child substitutes), but regarded the proliferation of large families in the slums as a danger to the race – a characteristic combination of humanitarian concerns with obsessive fear that civilisation was being swamped by the proliferation of illiterate subhumans.
Gogarty and Yeats
Gogarty first met W. B. Yeats (qv) in 1902, but their friendship developed over time, maturing in the 1920s and 1930s. Gogarty removed Yeats's tonsils in 1920 and the poet spent his honeymoon at Renvyle. They strengthened each other's poetry: Yeats purified Gogarty's poetic language of archaisms while Gogarty's Rabelaisian wit influenced Yeats's late bawdy. Yeats served on the Tailteann games committees that awarded Gogarty literary prizes in 1924 and 1928. (Gogarty also competed in archery – a favourite pursuit.) Gogarty's literary standing was recognised in 1932, when he became a council member of the Irish Academy of Letters. In 1936 Yeats included seventeen of his poems in his Oxford book of English verse, proclaiming ‘he sings a brave song and so makes a whining propaganda look ridiculous’ (Lyons, 175). This inadvertently provoked a critical backlash against Gogarty, whose cavalier lyrics were increasingly unfashionable in the era of literary modernism.
Yeats's respect for Gogarty reflected the fact that the surgeon was one of the few individuals prepared to stand up to him in conversation and even to subject him to good-humoured mockery (as he did all his friends). It was generally agreed that Gogarty's greatest art was conversation. Here, as elsewhere, he was kinder than he seemed; he stood his ground but was not a bullying monopolist, and took trouble to draw out shy individuals when he thought they had something interesting to say.
After the abolition of the Free State senate in 1936, Gogarty scaled down his medical practice and turned to the pen for a living. His poetry had appeared in strictly limited, non-commercial editions. He had earned freely but had always preferred to buy works of art and rare books than to invest his money conventionally; much of his patrimony had been embezzled by a solicitor who exploited his mother's piety. In 1930 he reopened Renvyle House as a hotel, but the depression and his lack of business talents made it unprofitable. Gogarty hoped that As I was going down Sackville Street (1937), a book of reminiscences in which the author wanders back in time from de Valera's despised regime to the glories of his college days, would produce a significant sum. Instead it brought a libel suit by Henry Sinclair, a Jewish antique dealer, who objected to Gogarty's publication of verses ridiculing him and his brother. The Sinclairs were social acquaintances who had submitted to his conversational wit; but to be the butt of his mockery in print was another matter. Gogarty's counsel attacked the testimony of the Sinclairs' cousin Samuel Beckett (qv), noting that Beckett had written a banned book and belonged to ‘a coterie of bawds and blasphemers’ (O'Connor, 328); Sinclair nonetheless won £900 damages, and the case cost Gogarty £2,000.
I follow Saint Patrick (1938) celebrates the saint as a heroic individual who brought Ireland into the mainstream of European civilisation. This is implicitly contrasted with the ‘fatuous nationalism’ of de Valera, who is equated with St Patrick's druidic opponents who could inflict curses on the country but were powerless to lift them. In March 1939 Gogarty successfully sued Patrick Kavanagh (qv) for libel over the poet's remark (in The green fool) that he had naively assumed Gogarty's housemaid was his mistress. Gogarty's celebration of his youthful exploits should not obscure the fact that he was genuinely fond of his wife and sensitive to the public and private implications of insinuations about adultery; Gogarty was awarded £100 and Kavanagh's career was severely damaged.
America and final years
Gogarty was increasingly dissatisfied with de Valera's Ireland (suggesting that independence had resulted in myopia rather than utopia) and the sight of big houses demolished or bought to be turned into convents. In 1939 he went to New York for a lecture tour and settled permanently in the USA, returning to Ireland only for occasional visits. (He tried to join the British army as a medical officer in 1939 but was rejected because of his age.) He corresponded copiously with his family about their lives, friends, and such treasured possessions as his copy of Henry Ford's International Jew (1940). Mad grandeur (1941), an historical novel about an eighteenth-century squire disillusioned with both sides in the 1798 rebellion, was written with one eye on the prospect of a lucrative Hollywood film deal (which failed to materialise). The novel ends with the characters emigrating to Virginia, which is the setting for the semi-sequel, Mr Petunia (1946), a scrappy and uneven work, centring on a paranoid, puritan, perverted clockmaker; the book was banned in Ireland because of its sexual elements.
Gogarty's American career was anticlimactic; he outlived his friends, grew less responsive to new developments, and mixed with anti-modernist literary curmudgeons. His books of reminiscences, well-received at first, grew increasingly fragmentary and journalistic. He died in New York city of heart failure on 22 September 1957, having received the last rites of the catholic church, and was buried in Ballinakill cemetery, near Renvyle. Gogarty was often described as the last of the eighteenth-century bucks; he might also be seen as embodying certain aspects of Irishness less popular in the decades around independence than before or since. He retains admirers who believe his art was undervalued, but is best remembered as the model for the irrepressible Buck Mulligan in Joyce's Ulysses. His papers are held at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
Gogarty and his wife had two sons and a daughter. The elder son, Oliver Duane Odysseus Gogarty (1907–99), barrister, was born 23 July 1907 at Glasnevin, Dublin. Known familiarly as ‘Noll ’, he was brought up amid his father's artistic associates: his portrait was painted in 1913 by Sir William Orpen (qv), and on his first visit to the cinema he was accompanied by Augustus John. He developed an emotional closeness to his father after suffering a burst appendix in early childhood; he later said he never resented being his father's son or objected to being asked for information about him. Gogarty was educated at Alexandra College, Dublin, Tudor Lodge, Dalkey, Co. Dublin, a preparatory school at Winchester, and Downside school in Somerset. He studied politics, philosophy, and economics at Christ Church, Oxford (and played hockey for the college in 1926 – his appendix excluded him from contact sports). He passed his examinations but failed to take out his degree certificate; his father later complained that he should do so in order to be able to add ‘BA Oxon.’ to his name.
In later life he said he would have liked to continue the family medical tradition, but the disruption to his father's medical practice in 1922–3 because of the civil war caused financial pressures that precluded the long training period required by medicine. (His other regret in life was his failure to emulate his father's knowledge of the classics.) He therefore trained as a barrister, and was called to the Irish bar on 10 June 1931; in 1932 he commenced practising on the midland circuit. He acted as his father's junior counsel in the Sinclair libel case of 1937 and took silk in March 1946. He distinguished himself in civil cases (particularly in relation to insurance and personal injury); he also appeared in several murder cases (‘publicity if nothing else’ commented his mother; Renvyle letters, 26). He had a stately presence, a mastery of detail, and a command of language that made him a formidable advocate. (He remarked self-deprecatingly that he was strongest on the theatrical side of the law.) His failure to attain the bench derived from his lack of interest in political activism (though he was a staunch supporter of Fine Gael) and a general air of boyishness and unpredictability. (He was given to occasional drinking binges while on circuit; after one of these he is said to have been put into the Dublin train by companions, who then saw him absent-mindedly putting his boots out of the carriage door, as if he were leaving them outside a hotel room to be polished.) When he retired from the bar in August 1993 he was senior bencher of King's Inns; he became an honorary bencher in October 1993.
Gogarty had a lifelong fondness for Connemara and was involved as a trustee in his parents' financially draining attempts to run Renvyle House as a hotel. Initially an enthusiastic fox hunter, in later life he preferred shooting and salmon fishing. (‘Fishing, hunting and painting have been my interests. The law is my job.’ Ir. Times, 23 June 1994.) In 1941 he married Sheila Flynn (d. 1979), daughter of a Roscommon businessman; they had no children. Oliver Gogarty died in Rathfarnham nursing home on 25 December 1999; his ashes were scattered on his parents' grave in Connemara.