Hodnett, George Desmond ('Hoddy') (1918–90), musician, journalist and bohemian, was born 25 February 1918 in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, son of George Pope Hodnett (1890–1982), soldier, and Lauré Hodnett (née Faschnacht), a native of Switzerland; he had at least one sibling, a brother. His father, from a prominent legal family in Youghal, Co. Cork, was educated at Clongowes Wood College and UCD, qualified as a solicitor in 1920, and was called to the Irish bar at the King's Inns in 1923. A British army officer during the first world war, he served in the Royal Army Service Corps in Italy and France, attaining the rank of captain, and married in England in 1917. At the outbreak of the Irish civil war, he organised a local volunteer force comprised largely of ex-British servicemen to hold Youghal for the pro-treaty provisional government. Appointed by Michael Collins (qv) on 15 August 1922 as deputy chief legal officer in the office of the army adjutant general, Gearóid O'Sullivan (qv), and commissioned a colonel in the national army, Hodnett worked with the chief legal officer, Cahir Davitt (qv), on drafting a code of military discipline and rules of procedure for courts martial. His appointment was retitled deputy judge advocate general, a position he held till retirement (1923–55). Reduced in rank to major in the post-civil-war army reorganisation (1924), he was promoted colonel in 1940. He served on the Irish delegation to the Geneva conference that produced the 1949 conventions, and was closely involved in drafting the Irish Defence Act, 1954.
George Desmond Hodnett was educated at the Catholic University School, Dublin, and attended the Irish College, Ring, Co. Waterford. Entering TCD to read law, he never took a degree, seduced from his studies by the lure of Dublin's musical and theatrical life. A versatile musician, he played piano, trumpet, trombone and zither (thought to be the only practitioner in Ireland of the latter, which enjoyed an international vogue owing to the atmospheric soundtrack of the Carol Reed film The third man (1949)), and from the 1940s played jazz piano and piano accompaniment in various Dublin venues. He was best known for his association with the innovative Pike Theatre, launched in 1953 by Alan Simpson (qv) and Carolyn Swift (qv) in tiny premises on Herbert Lane. Hodnett scored the music and provided the accompaniment for a popular series of eight late-night revues, styled 'follies'. Each of which enjoyed a lengthy run of up to six months, combining song, dance, comic sketches and mime, often with a satiric take on topical events and social mores; featured performers included Milo O'Shea (qv) and T. P. McKenna (qv). Hodnett demonstrated considerable range across varied popular musical idioms in setting his own lyrics and those written by others (especially Swift, the principal writer of dialogue and libretto for the shows), composing upbeat choral dance numbers, torch songs, jazz, Irish dances and airs, blues, rags, and lampoons of rock-and-roll, country-and-western, and show tunes from well-known stage and film musicals. Gently risqué innuendo abounded; his lyrics included such titles as 'She has everything she wanted – bar your man' and 'But I'm really quite a nice girl underneath it all'. While situated at an off-stage piano for most of the production, in each of the revues Hodnett was accorded an intimate, on-stage solo interlude on jazz piano and zither.
A selection of Hodnett's music from the first Pike revue was arranged for a broadcast performance by the Radio Éireann Light Orchestra (February 1954). The autumn 1957 revue, 'Export follies', including both new material and a compendium of hit numbers from the previous revues, transferred from the Pike to two English venues, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. Hodnett composed incidental music for stage plays at the Pike and other Dublin theatres, and for several years in the 1950s composed music and lyrics for late-night, post-opera revues during the Wexford Festival. He was involved in management of a Dublin music shop specialising in such 'out of the way' recordings as vintage jazz, flamenco, non-commercial folk songs, period music for plays and theatrical sound effects (1956). He was among the guests on the debut broadcast of Telefís Éireann's Late late show (July 1962).
Hodnett's most enduring composition was 'Monto', one of several songs in a themed cycle written for a 1958 Pike revue; each song parodied one of the stock categories of Irish ballads and traditional airs. Set to a variation on the tune of the ballad 'Johnny McEldoo', Hodnett's ribald 'Monto' lyrics evoke 1900s Dublin, replete with period working-class Dublin jargon and topical references to events and personages of the era – Chief Secretary William Edward 'Buckshot' Forster (qv), the Invincibles, the Boer war, the 1900 royal visit – and title and chorus references to the city's notorious, inner-city brothel district centred on Montgomery Street. Attaining a wide currency as performed and recorded by the Dubliners (1966), with Luke Kelly (qv) leading the vocal, 'Monto' secured a place in the canon of Irish balladry, inducing Hodnett's wry observation that it had 'become the folk song it originally aimed at satirising' (Finegan, 43).
Deeply knowledgeable within the diverse varieties of popular music, from the 1960s Hodnett was employed as a music critic for the Irish Times. Initially specialising on his particular interest and passion for jazz, he contributed regular reviews of concerts and recordings, daily reports from the annual Cork Jazz Festival, and occasional features on the history of the genre and assessments of the current jazz scene in Ireland and internationally. In a departure from this speciality, he famously reviewed Bob Dylan's first Irish concert, at Dublin's Adelphi Cinema (May 1966), commending the poetic merit of many of Dylan's lyrics, exhibited largely in 'detached phrases and images … that stick in the mind like burrs on a coat', while disparaging Dylan's musicianship: 'the unhappy relationship between harmonica and guitar' (Ir. Times, 6 May 1966). In the 1980s, while continuing to write on jazz, Hodnett also fulfilled more general assignments of popular music criticism (with the exception of rock), submitting reviews on a broad diversity of performers, from the Chieftains, Christy Moore and Alan Stivell, to Phil Coulter, Joe Dolan (qv), Mary Black, Tom Jones, Diana Ross and Johnny Cash.
A consummate bohemian, constitutionally averse to conformity and nine-to-five routine, 'Hoddy' practised a precarious personal economy, often on the fringes of outright penury. A man of fluid abode, continually changing address, he sometimes slept rough, and frequently as the house guest of friends, or, it was rumoured, rolled up in the curtains on the stage of the Pike, or latterly on an office floor at the Irish Times. When funds were especially tight, he might forage for food from dustbins or market stalls. Anecdotes about his antics and oddities were legion; even if exaggerated or fully apocryphal, their plenitude attested to Hodnett's mythic status within the circles of Dublin theatre, music and journalism. His capacities for procrastination and unpunctuality were inveterate; some minor calamity was ever destined to deter him from an intended course.
Hodnett was a familiar figure among the bohemian intelligentsia who frequented the Catacombs, the after-hours, basement drinking den on Fitzwilliam Place (1940s–50s), rubbing shoulders the likes of Brendan Behan (qv), J. P. Donleavy (1926–2017) and Gainor Crist (qv). His closest friends included sculptor Desmond MacNamara (qv), a former schoolmate, and actor Dan O'Herlihy (qv). Eccentrically learned and erudite, he was fluent in Cornish, familiar with Sanskrit grammar, and endeavoured to crack the mysteries of Etruscan, the pre-Roman language of north-central Italy; another project was to reconstruct the lost melodies of ancient Latin love poems. His vast collection of jazz recordings, reckoned in the mid 1950s at over 4,000 discs, disappeared during a change of address, his former landlady was said to have discarded it in the rain. Leftist in politics – he composed an unfinished operetta on the youthful adventures and amours of Marx and Engels – he was an ardent conservationist, and participated in the 'battle of Hume Street', a six-month occupation by activists of a Georgian building slated for demolition by developers (1969–70); he suffered severe hand lacerations when the occupiers were forcibly removed by a private security firm.
Unmarried, Hodnett died suddenly 23 September 1990 in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Dublin, of a pulmonary embolism; his address at death was 120 Cabra Park. A tribute concert organised by the National Jazz Society at the Purty Loft, Dún Laoghaire, raised funds to establish a memorial bursary for young musicians to study jazz improvisation at Newpark Comprehensive School, Blackrock.