“What mystifies me is why anybody would want to interview an elderly geriatric, incontinent, polio cripple when he’s 80? I don’t get it.”
Pat Ingoldsby and Tom Mathews are two people intrinsically woven into the warp and weft of Dublin. Whether known for his much cherished children’s TV presenter antics in the ‘80s through to his decades spent on the streets of the city, as a citizen artist, proudly selling his self-published poetry books, Ingoldsby is a jewel in our crown.
Mathews is a cartoonist (and poet also) whose work has graced most Irish publications. He is an ‘institution’ often spotted holding afternoon court in the institution that is Grogan’s. Though he’s mostly a man, modest about his talents, who goes about his business.
Pat’s just turned 80 and is the subject of Seamus Murphy’s forthcoming documentary The Peculiar Sensation of Being Pat Ingoldsby as well as a new collection of his poetry by the Museum of Literature. Tom is a mere 70 and about to have a career retrospective exhibition in Inis Oírr and publish a new book of poetry. They’ve circled each other over the years but never properly been brought together, until now.
What follows is some eavesdropping on the conversation between them when we brought Tom out to chat to Pat at his home in Clontarf.
T: “By the way, I brought you a copy of your first book – there you are!”
P: “Jaysus, I was married at the time.”
T: “That’s right because you mentioned the wife in the introduction and here you are.”
Tom hands Pat a copy of his 1977 collection You’ve Just Finished Reading This Title.
P: “I wasn’t sufficient for the then wife because the future I was planning…There was no plan. Two years later, I wasn’t married anymore. At the time, my brother-in-law was a printer so I got a good deal. I sold 4000 copies.”
T: “Tell me who did the drawing?”
P: “Phil Woods, Phil was creative director in Arks advertising and then Kenny’s and I had just been fucked out of John of God’s for the third time after shock treatment so I didn’t know where I was and Phil brought me in and said to come in and sit at a desk and do whatever I wanted to do… Ah Jaysus Christ! I just had a message from Vivienne who orchestrates the page for me (patingoldsby.org) I haven’t got the internet and there’s a message on it from my ex-wife. What would she want at this stage?” Pat chuckles.
“We didn’t get a divorce at the time, we got a legal separation and then she wanted me to go before a Catholic Church tribunal. This was very emotionally harrowing to prove to them that because of my psychiatric disorder I wasn’t capable of creating a marriage in the first place, so they annulled it. So, in the eyes of the Catholic Church I was never capable of being a married man. Maybe they were right,” he laughs.
Tom exchanges his own books of poetry, No Return Game and The Owl and the Pussy Cat (both available at dedaluspress.com) with Pat who asks if he’ll sign them.
P: “What mystifies me is why anybody would want to interview an elderly geriatric, incontinent, polio cripple when he’s 80? I don’t get it…Did you ever read Manchán Magan’s books?” he asks, pointing to a copy of Thirty-Two Words for Field strewn on the floor, among many other things. “Will you tell him from me he’s nourishing my spirits with his love of Gaeilge.”
Shortly after he lands on someone else who is impressing him.
P: “Lorcan Finnegan was out here a while ago, a beautiful guy. He came out and showed me his book (Dublin Streets, his recent street photography book) and asked me if I’d write the intro and I just did it straight away. I’m Dublin then, it’s Dublin now. It’s razor-sharp and he worked with Tom Burke (producer of the documentary) on The Liberties film.”
As you may have gathered by now, Pat easily switches gear on subject matter, sometimes even mid-stream. Suddenly he’s reminded of a radio guest he heard earlier.
P: “What astonishes me is there was a woman, the female equivalent of Leo Enright, on the radio today talking about the largest, heaviest, most powerful space rocket ever being launched – the first of three, this one is not going to land on the moon, the second will have people on it and the third will land on the moon. And she was talking about establishing a base on the moon. All I was thinking was, it’s a poem I wrote yesterday about why there’s nothing bad about love and still we kill. Homo sapiens are you fucking joking or what? Not content with doing what we’ve done to here, we going to do the same to the moon. Even the cow didn’t land on it, and we’ve already littered the place out there so it’s risky to get a rocket through. We can’t stop Tom!”
T: “A long time ago Mr Behan has his song, ‘Don’t muck about with the moon, Mr Khrushchev.’”
P: “I have a one line poem in one of my books addressed to the sea, ‘Sorry’. That’s it.”
T: “And rightly so, the last time I saw anything nice about the sea was when I was out on Inis Oírr as an artist-in-residence. I went down to the beach, no pollution, not a sign of a plastic container because it is so far out. I’d forgotten that you could see a beach like that, it was beautiful.”
Pat picks up on Tom’s inscription on his poetry book.
P: “Is that, ‘Love you, you old wretch’?” cackles Pat.
T: “It is.”
P: “You got it right.”
T: It’s like going back in time there. There is no crime, there’s only 286 people on the island, half of them speaking Irish.
P: “Half of them not understanding them,” laughs Pat.
T: “Leave the doors open.”
P: “It’s the same here, I’ve fallen asleep several times here and people have come in and woken me up.”
T: “My house is the same. if you steal something out of my house you have to put something in first.”
T: “I was watching your documentary.”
P: “The only reason I am doing this (the interview) is because of Tom, one of the most beautiful people I know, and Seamus.”
T: “I’m doing one at the moment. I have a guy coming over tomorrow. He did two-and-a-half hours last week and I was absolutely knackered. No idea what I said or how I came across.”
P: “Well they were at me for years, different filmmakers, I wasn’t even seeking them out and then one day Seamus appeared out of nowhere on the street and we talked and connected and I liked his values and honesty and his feet on the ground. In the middle of our conversation he saw something go past which interested his camera and he was gone like a shot and came back an hour later. I said, ‘this is great, this guy is real’. So that’s the reason I did it in the first place.”
T: “I’m glad you did it because it is very entertaining. It’s a nice thing to do this for them (this interview) because they did something for you. Tell me this I was interested to hear one of your first enthusiasms was Mr James Thurber.”
P: “Thanks to Father Mullen in St Paul’s College, Raheny, fifth year. He was an enlightened English teacher who didn’t need somebody to be on the course and thanks to him I read, Robert Benchley, Thurber (both American humourists)…The Night the Bed Fell (a short story by Thurber). He became blind, didn’t he?”
T: “He did and said the imagination doesn’t go blind which is very nice.”
P: “I suddenly remembered the most extraordinary poem I believe has ever been written by anybody in any language and I was at a loss as to understand how I had forgotten it for a while. Some of the lines in it are so wickedly, viciously, accurately true, it’s like a whip across your naked shins. It’s Paddy Galvin’s poem The Mad Woman of Cork.
T: “Oh I love The Mad Woman of Cork. Do you know who was a great man for reciting it was Paddy Finnegan (the poet who was known by many as the man who sold the Big Issue outside Trinity College), that was his party piece, he recited it to me on a bench on the canal one afternoon.”
Pat muses on his bucket list now that he’s turned 80.
P: “I’ve never been under O’Connell Bridge and someone contacted Vivienne to say they are looking into organising something, the reason is claustrophobia. I’m adding another – drive a car.”
T: “I don’t think poets drive cars, I’ve never met a poet who drove one.”
P: “Another one is get a tattoo, milk a cow, see my bottom – the number of men I know who have never seen our arse and have no interest in it… I’ve never read Ulysses. The only way I was able to approach it was when I would open it at random and there was one time when I found the most explicitly, intimately, sexually, glorious porn I’ve ever read. Another time I found absurd insanity which beautifully predated Monty Python. I’d just hop in and out.”
T: They wouldn’t let Spike Milligan take a parachute jump. (Pat received a(nother) biography on Spike for his birthday) I thought he might have had an influence on you?”
P: “Well The Goon Show did…the thing about RTE was originality was the enemy. I happened in there by accident. Until the day I had no further involvement there, I was the enemy because I wasn’t officially attached to any programming department. I happened to arrive out of the blue, I had a hit play in the Abbey and there was a man called Denis O’Grady who was working back stage with Eamonn Andrews in the BBC and then came back to work as head of presentation in RTE. He thought I’ll have an announcer sitting in the studio during the afternoon and from time to time they can have a little chat with someone – that was the very thin edge of a tiny wedge. I was invited in to talk about my play and I knew going on television for the first time, I wanted to be remembered so I appeared on RTE wearing my hat with a head of cabbage hanging off the side and the response was amazing.
“O’Grady said we have a problem here at the moment, we are showing a BBC programme called Take Hart by Tony Hart and he is asking children to send drawings to him, they are coming here and we can’t do anything with them…do you think if that Pat fellow with the hat could come in once a week and show a few of these pictures to the viewers? The first time this happened was with Vincent Hanley, the craic we had and then, bit by bit, this man kept appearing with different things appearing on his hat. And then Vinnie said wouldn’t it be great if he just fucked off for a coffee and I just did it by myself. Suddenly I had five minutes a week and a slide with Pat’s Hat written on it and a bit of music on a tape. And there was tiny little embryonic unofficial programme I managed to expand, bit by bit. I was having fun and the fun got wilder and wilder and I became a huge fucking star. I look back on it fondly because of certain people who it was a joy to be around, Larry Gogan was one. There was only a handful of them – genuine, lovely, people. The rest of them were all con artists. I saw behaviour from all of these people who were iconised, I saw the reality behind the scenes.”
GET ME OUT OF HERE
Some poets write poems
which I can’t make
head or tail of
and other people
come along and write
reviews of the poems
which are equally
Nobody had got a clue
what the poems mean
and nobody has got a clue
what the reviews mean
so everybody says that
they are brilliant
and deep and meaningful
even though nobody had the faintest idea
what the meaning is
and that is The Arts.
As far as I am concerned
you can keep it.
This poem is not The Arts
and not doesn’t want to be.
The next section is though.
“The ineffable seeking of
search for itself.”
I don’t know what that means
even though I have
just written it which proves
that I can write stuff
which is The Arts
if I put my mind to it.
What a truly terrifying
– Poems so Fresh and so New…Yahoo! (1995)
T: Did you have any medication after you came off old sparky? (electroconvulsive therapy)
P: Oh, I was on all sorts. I was on Lithium, I was on Valium, I was on Parstelin. I’d be brought into a room with my counsellor in St Pats’s and he’d be writing in his folder and then he’d introduce a series of mock pictures – the old Rorschach test – half an hour later I’d be only getting warmed up on the first one. Another time there was a priest in with me, a beautiful aristocratic, gentle man, – his bishop had sent him in to be cured of homosexuality. How could the church afford to lose someone like him? The Church was damaging and toxic because it taught unhealthy messages as opposed to loving ones. The power that they wanted to exert was based upon guilt and instilling guilt. I wrote a poem about almighty god and how all he had intended doing was to create one field with a donkey in it but he lost the run of himself and before he knew there was fucking mountains and oceans and his mother gave out hell to him, so he built a church and hid behind it. I was thinking recently the only thing I regret about Catholicism, and it not being what it said it was, is that I loved angels with big wings. And also I asked myself, mermaids used to exist because we believe in them but maybe it’s then other way round? Maybe that’s why we’re here and the same with centaurs and unicorns. And then I thought about mermaids doing bold things like writing messages on the bottom of ships, ‘up yours, skipper’.”
T: “When did you stop the street stuff?”
P: “I stopped it when the polio was closing me down. The legs are gone now, that’s a shame. I’m only getting used to the wheelchair. Tom (Burke) brought me out to Malahide in his car and it was biblical the way a young man like him helped a cripple like me, holding my foot. He orchestrated my legs for me. I just thought it was so biblically beautiful.”
T: “My father died at 96, he was bed ridden and I would help him out of it. He was compos mentis but the body was gone.”
P: “I adored my dad and I tried to think of anything good to say of my mother…”
T: “My mother was grand until she got old and started losing the plot.”
P: “Mine did the same thing with alcohol…oh fuck, chronic. For that reason, I didn’t drink alcohol because with the medication I was warned about all the consequences. Don Baker and me became like brothers for ten years or so because he had an alcohol problem and it suited him that his best buddy wasn’t drinking. That was the simple reason I never drank. I stay well away from it because I remember what my mother was like when she had it…my mother never had a problem, that was the problem.”
I ask whether he found escapism through his imagination to cope with these experiences.
P: “Before I was walking dad would carry me downstairs every morning when everyone was up in the village green in Malahide. Dad would wrap me in a blanket and put me over his shoulder like a sack of spuds and bring me down the stairs and then I’d be on the sofa for then day. At that early stage I was reading Our Exploits at West Poley by Thomas Hardy, John Millington Synge. I knew Riders to the Sea before I knew Rupert Bear. Dad had this huge typewriter in the middle of the room and he’d be there writing away. My mum’s favourite book was a great classic by Sir Walter Scott, a hardback, because she put the teapot on it.”
T: “Did they read to you?”
T: “My old man did.”
P: “You’re lucky.”
T: “He read me the two Alice books and Rudyard Kipling.”
P: “No wonder you turned out the way you did. There’s only a handful of us left.”
T: “It’s kind of a dying trade.”
P: “They are lucky to have us.”
P: “That was one thing I remember learning in Gestalt therapy, our unwillingness to give ourselves credit for anything, for achievements worthwhile. If we made a balls of it we had no difficulty saying, ‘I made a Pig’s mickey out of it’ but if we succeeded, ‘it went well’.”
T: “I still think let the work do it, keep yourself out of it.”
On a happy day
when he walked
so great was his joy
that thrills from his feet
pulsed through the ground
rippled up trees
entered the bodies of birds
and sparkled out
in rhapsodies of song.
So they locked him up
and gave him medication
– Half a Hug (1998)
P: “I learned with Gestalt therapy that the three things you can burn energy with which are futile are explaining, complaining and blaming. I don’t do any of the three. The best moment for me was Gestalt which came at the end of six psychiatric hospital lockdowns was when I realised this is cyclical, there is no end to this unless I do something. So I said, ‘I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to sign myself out’ and I tried and the doctors said if you do this Mr Ingoldsby, the skies will open and swallow you, the ground will open and bury you and then Doctor O’Neill said, ‘I think you are right.’ I will sign you out if you go the corridor to the door marked Mike Jenkins, the Gestalt therapist. If he takes you, you are out of here. And for the next two years I went twice a week and it was the scariest, roughest, toughest, truth telling moment of my life, there was nobody in there with any shit in them because we all wanted to get rid of it. From then on, I knew how to be healthy, balanced and when the darkness tried to get me, I was able get the darkness. Up to the present time Gestalt has kept me where I am, more than anything else it is about how when you are in the immediacy of this split second right now, you’re grand.”
T: “Which is very zen like.”
P: “Yes, and the other thing is coming to your senses. If you tune into your left elbow, you can feel it, that message is always available, all non-stop messages. I would still be self-mutilating and all that crazy but for the fact that I had the gift of this therapy helping me. It was such a gift.”
T: “This is interesting because you said you didn’t do any drugs because acid…
P: “Did you do it?”
T: “I did.”
P: “Did ya?”
T: “Because with acid you are suddenly exposed to all the stimuli at once, all this stuff is coming at you, the way you filter it out.”
P: “Wow, and what did you do?”
T: “You let it wash over you man.”
P: “Did you jump out a window?”
T: “No, I let it all come at me.”
P: “Did ya?”
T: “I was lucky because some people never come back.”
P: “And like how often did you do it?”
P: “Did you?”
T: “Once was enough.”
P: “And where did you get it?”
T: “At a festival or something like that many years ago.”
P: “And how do you take it?”
T: “You swallow it, under your tongue.”
P: “Pussy cats even do drugs. My cat Marvin gets catnip and he’s like ‘yeah, let’s go pal’ they love it. I ought to try it myself.”
LOVE A DUB
Befuddled and swaying,
there was something about the sign over my books
which was giving him serious trouble,
the sign which read: VIRGINS ONLY 12.30-3.00.
Rising up, sinking down,
slowly, forward and back,
he focussed on the words for a long while
and then he spoke. “D’ye see that bro…
twelve thirty to three Euros…people’ll think
that’s a time.”
“It is” I said, flinging him back
into his original confusion.
After much more swaying, focussing,
assessing and re-assessing
he came up with his final judgment.
“Well…ye want to put a p.m. after it” he said
and moved away with a whole new confidence
to his wobble.
– Pawmarks on my Poems (2013)
T: “Are you still writing Pat?”
P: “I’m writing every day because it just keeps flowing.”
T: “Are you writing a keyboard?”
P: “Not anymore, only with a pen. I was writing a couple of days ago about a man falling faster than he’s ever fallen before simply because he flushed the toilet on a plane. His first thought is fuck that’s not supposed to happen. I don’t wanna fall like that and then you’d be hoping you don’t fall down a factory chimney and you’d be hoping for a suitably gigantic haycock without thistles, then you’d be hoping for the one unlikely million-to-one chance that you would miss the ground completely. And then I wrote one about a man who can never remember tomorrow, they’re still coming…are you like me Tom, same as you do a wee-wee?”
T: “No, my process is to sit down and wait until beads of blood form on my forehead.”
P: “Really, really?”
T: “I wrote eight last year, that’s the speed I write at. After nine years, I have a new book, you just whizz them out. I remember sitting with you one time, you were writing at the time and I was thinking how does he do it?”
P: “It’s just like doing a wee-wee, there’s no credit involved, it’s a bodily function.”
The conversation veers past numerous acquaintances of Pat from John McColgan who invited Pat into learn how to DJ in the sixties before he took over the slot McColgan has just been sacked from, to Steve Averill who designed most of the covers for Pat’s collections “as an act of love for his friend” to the recently deceased Michael O’Brien of O’Brien Press (“an honourable man”) to BP Fallon, “I was interviewing young people and I remember devoting a whole page with the headline was ‘Let us be more broad-minded’ pleads BP Fallon.” Finally, it comes round to their relationship with the city now.
UP AND DOWN THE STRIP (extract)
It’s the tingle between your legs
that takes you down to Leeson Street,
down to the The Strip
down to meet
tight jeans tight thighs
denim bottoms hopes high
standing and sitting
sipping the wine
buy you a bottle
make you mine
and the Stones
can’t get no satisfaction.
Business men working late
grey haired overweight
white shirts club ties
credit cards white lies
cigar smoke bald spots
big stomachs big shots
wrinkles over rugby scars
randy thoughts company cars
and the Stones
can’t get no satisfaction.
P: “I miss it. To be such an intrinsic part, at pavement level, of real Dublin life on a daily basis, that is who I was and where I belonged. I remember sitting in the doorway of Eason’s on Westmoreland Street when the place was shut. I had my books there, the chances were the guards were going to arrive any minute to move me because I had no permission to be doing it and then a lad who was homeless used to sleep behind me because he was safe and I had a knife pulled on me once. I said, ‘you can have any book you want!’ It was just an amazing place to be. I loved being on the street like that and never worried about my books being stolen because I found it hard enough to sell books of poetry in the first place.
“Lisa O’Neill used to stop, she’s like a young Margaret Barry. She would come and sit on the pavement with me and I loved her complete lack of desire to impress in any way. We were talking once, and I mentioned how I hadn’t seen her for weeks and missed her and then she mentioned how she had been touring the world with David Gray. I can no longer live with it and love it the way I did because it’s not possible anymore.”
T: “It’s not the city that it was but I’m not the guy that I was. All the things that I liked are still there like the pubs I would go into from 2 until 5.”
P: “All I hear on the radio these days is how dangerous it is.”
T: “Perhaps it is though I don’t encounter, but I am not hanging out on O’Connell street at midnight. I haven’t seen any crazy outbreak of madness but I guess it depends where you are and how you are comporting yourself.”
P: “The Queen waved at me once…security was so tight when she was visiting. I was there to sell my books. She was stuck, there was no one to wave at. Then the following day I was heading down to Tara Street to head home and the fucking Royal jeep is coming again and this time she really waved and I waved back.”
I VISUALISE MY DEATH
I will go down to the water’s edge in Malahide
because it is time.
Da will be there in the boat.
He will smile.
“You’re coming over” he will say.
“Yes I am. It’s lovely to see you.”
“Come on” he will say. “Ta is waiting.”
A smile of joy will warm me.
He will not need to help me over the side.
Everything will be easy.
Da will pull on the oars
and away we will go
to the island,
– I Thought You Died Years Ago (2009)
T: What is your day like?
P: “I get up at half twelve, I don’t have to get dressed cause I’m already dressed, it’s too much work, so I get out of bed and when I’m ready. I come down the stairs which takes about 20 minutes, then I come in here and I freshen Marvin’s food and go out the front and replace the water in his dish and then I collapse into that chair and I am in that chair until 1 when my carer arrives. Then I spend the rest of the day in this chair until it is time to get up the stairs. That’s it, that’s it.”
T: “Did you ever think of moving the bed down?”
P: I was explaining to my physio that it was exercise and she was like, ‘it’s not, it’s not’ and is trying to persuade me to get a stair lift. I’ve had over 40 falls with the polio and never been damaged but all it takes is one.”
T: “When did you have the heart?”
P: “Six or seven years.”
T: “And it’s alright?”
P: “Presume so.”
P: “Don’t know.”
T: “Did they have to open up the chest?”
P: “They did, yeah. Brilliant scar, ah man, mister cool. There’s only me and you now, is there? People get streets names after them Tom, do you think we might? We’re going to be famous Tom – the two remaining Dublin auld fellas.”
Words: Michael McDermott
Photos: Malcolm McGettigan
The Peculiar Sensation of Being Pat Ingoldsby goes on general release on November 4.
In Dublin They Really Tell You Things, Pat Ingoldsby – Selected Poems, 1986-2021 is available now from MOLI, €25
Still Crazy After All These Years, a retrospective of Tom’s work, will be shown in Dublin in early 2023. Tersky’s Restaurant, Tom’s new book of poetry, will be published by Little Gull this autumn.