The write stuff

Story by Jimmy Geoghegan

Wednesday, 12th August, 2009 9:26am

One of the most fascinating aspects about writer Patrick Dunne is the contrast between him - the man - and what he writes about.

On the one hand, there is this softly spoken, good-humoured personality; a "gentleman", according to one of his friends who knows him for many years.

On the other hand, there is the writer who, in his multi-layered novels, explores the darker recesses of the human psyche where his plots are powered by the mysterious and the macabre and include strange happenings in such places as 'plague pits' and cemeteries.

The titles of the books he has published so far provide a further indication of the subject matter - 'A Carol for the Dead', 'The Lazarus Bell', 'Days of Wrath' and, more chillingly, 'The Skull Rack'.

Dunne, who turned 60 last May, has so far written six books that could be categorised as 'crime novels'. Four of them have already ready been published, another is about to be published later this year with a sixth almost completed.

The dichotomy between his personality and his work is something that Dunne himself finds intriguing. "I would think the description of me as a gentle type of soul is probably right but I have always being fascinated by the macabre. I recall at one time, as a teenager, I was very much taken by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe. I was fascinated by his short stories which were rather ghoulish but which were made into films like 'The Fall Of The House Of Usher'.

Originally from Trim, but now living in Celbridge, Dunne has got excellent reviews for his books in his native land but these are not reflected on the bestseller lists. His work is better known in countries like Germany. One of the novels, 'A Carol for the Dead', has been translated into 10 languages, including German, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, Chinese, Polish and Russian.

He draws on the familiar landscape of Meath as a backdrop for the many of his stories, peppering the plots with hefty doses of intrigue to catch the reader's attention. "Each of stories begins with something odd discovered. The question is asked: what is happening here? At the beginning of a 'Carol for the Dead', there's an ancient body found across the river from Newgrange that has very odd mutilations and an actual person who is living today is found with exactly the same mutilations. Now what is the story here? What has happened?" he adds by way of explaining his modus operandi as a writer.

Mystified

Dunne himself remains mystified as to why his work should have hit a chord with readers in other countries while in Ireland he remains relatively unknown. Perhaps, he thinks, it has something to do with the marketing of the books. Perhaps not. Maybe there's something about his dark thrillers that is attractive to the Germanic psyche?

Whatever the reason, he is happy to continue to work as a full-time writer and turn out his novels on a regular basis. He always wanted to be a writer and is now living the dream.

It is ironic that Dunne should end up living in Celbridge. His father, Matthew, came from the Kildare town before settling in Trim. Matthew Dunne died when he was 48, of TB, leaving behind him a family of eight children, including the youngest, Pat, who was then just seven. The children's mother, Mary Dunne, was left to bring up her big brood. One of his brothers, PV Dunne, is a well-known local actor while another two brothers, Noel and Martin, still reside in Trim while a sister, Nuala, lives in Kildare.

"My mother was an extraordinary woman. She managed on very little and managed to do what she did very successfully and bring up a large family. She died at the age of 83 in 1989. Her name was Mary but she was known to everybody as 'Babs'; she was a Trim woman, her own name was Hunt."

Pat Dunne feels that part of his fascination with history may have something to do with the fact that he was raised in Castle Street in Trim. If he fired an arrow from his own front door, there was every chance he would hit the magnificent medieval stone walls of King John's Castle.

After leaving the Christian Brothers in Trim, Dunne worked for a while with Bord na Mona in Dublin. He sought to broaden his horizons and studied English and Philosophy at night in UCD. He spent a time in the PR Department at Bord na gCapall before spotting an advertisement for radio producers in RTE in 1979. Dunne was one of the few picked to be part of the new 2FM team. He was soon involved in working with a young, up and coming DJ. The Gerry Ryan Show quickly became one of the flagships of the new station.

Dunne had been a member of a folk band in the late 1960s and early 1970s - the Rite of Spring - along with actor, John Olohan from Kells, and four Sherrry sisters from outside Trim. He feels this experience was a big factor in him getting the job with RTE.

Not only was Dunne a producer, he also had an opportunity to engage in some acting on the Gerry Ryan Show. He says that while there was plenty of hard work to be done, there was no shortage of laughs. "In the early days, the Gerry Ryan Show was a mix of serious and funny items. We were given great liberty to experiment with stuff. We had a little ensemble of characters who used to appear on the programme and I was often one of them. We had this sketch slot and I had this character called Dr Caligari, he was like an unfrocked medical man (laughs).

"He used to come on and talk about these bizarre medical experiments. This character could have been an Afghan, he could have been a Hungarian, it was impossible to know exactly where he came from. He would report in every so often on medical matters."

He says Ryan is a presenter full of energy and enthusiasm and lets people involved in the production team get on with their work. The manner in which the show mixes serious and sensitive issues was one the chief pillars of its success, he adds.

Dunne's career was moving along nicely until he was offered a job with Century Radio. He decided to accept. It turned out to be a disastrous move. A little over two years after starting out, Century had folded with enormous debts of £7 million and Dunne found himself out of a job. Married with a young family, he says now that he found the whole experience terribly "unsettling." He had to start again, scratching around for little pieces of work here and there.

Tough

"Things were pretty bad, it became very tough at times, casting around trying to do all sorts of things. I found myself doing work with local radio, trying to syndicate programmes to local stations along with Brendan Balfe but radio stations weren't in a position to buy programmes. It just didn't seem to suit the Irish radio scene," he recalls.

He did obtain odds and ends of work and slowly it grew from there. He lectured in broadcasting at Maynooth University and he has kept that up. He started working for RTE again as a freelance producer with Gay Byrne for a while before he ended back with The Gerry Ryan Show. In 2004, he retired from his radio work and become a full-time writer. He had published his first book four years previously.

He says he likes to write late at night in what Thomas Hardy described as the "non-human hour," although when a deadline is looming, a whirlwind of words may have be produced at any time of the day.

Today, he lives in Celbridge with is wife, Theckla, a painter. They have three children: sons Naoise, Gabhann and Caoilte and two grandchildren. Dunne is also one of the driving forces behind the now annual festivel which celebrates the life and work of another Trim writer, Jonathan Swift, in his home town.

The act of writing a novel, he adds, can be an arduous, unforgiving, painstaking task, when draft after draft has to be produced before the final, steamlined version can be sent to the publisher. A few years ago, he went back to college to study archeology to help him gain a better understanding of the subject. He has used various aspects of archeology in his writings.

He says that at one time he was "obsessed" about getting a novel published. Now he's on the cusp of having six on the shelf.

It has been a interesting journey for Pat Dunne. There are other novels to plan and other projects to pursue for this softly spoken Trim man with a interest in the macabre.

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