Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Leo and the Literary Legend by Ivor Casey

HE was once confronted on the street for bringing ‘that pornographer into Mullingar’. An attack on Joycean scholar and writer Leo Daly, who passed away recently at the age of 90.  He had experienced this attack simply for linking the story of the literary giant, James Joyce, to the Westmeath town, through his book, James Joyce and The Mullingar Connection. A book, which printed in 1975, both linked the work of a highly respected literary legend to a small rural town and brought the knowledge and works of Joyce to a wider audience.

A native of Mullingar, Leo Daly is one of Co. Westmeath’s great writers and historians. Spanning over 30 years his writings have included fiction and non-fiction publications, magazine features and essays, covering many aspects of Irish heritage, literature and local history, often relevant to places such as Mullingar and The Aran Islands.

Up until his passing, Leo resided in his home town of Mullingar, a resident of St. Clair’s Nursing Home and remained an active writer. It was here I met him a few months ago before going for lunch, as I set out to conduct an interview with him about his life and career. As we walked into the Bloomfield Hotel, not far from where he lived, I asked him of the influences on his writing career. He told me, ‘the major influence on my venture into writing was my interest in places such as Aran which had been successfully portrayed by Synge and others in the native language’. The Aran Islands clearly held a place in Leo’s heart as he would go on to write extensively on the history and people of this part of Ireland in both fiction and non-fiction terms, through a series of short stories and books, including Oileáin Árann and The Rock Garden.

Leo was educated at St. Marys College in Mullingar. He later studied drama writing under the British drama league and studied photography at the Agfa school of photo-journalism in Kent, England. He was one of the founding members of the Mullingar Little Theatre and has acted in and produced numerous plays, including Ghosts Strike Back which he wrote commemorating James Joyce and was performed at the Mullingar Arts Centre.

Leo has also produced pantomimes, has contributed photographs to American and Irish publications and has written drama criticisms for various newspapers, both regional and national. Having retired early from psychiatric nursing, Leo Daly followed a career as a writer, photojournalist and editor and has had his work aired on Radio Éireann and was a regular contributer to the famous Sunday Miscellany programme. As well as highlighting James Joyce’s relevance to Mullingar and surrounding areas in various publications, Leo has also told the story of the 7th Century Saint, Colmán of Lynn in the book The Life of  Colmán of Lynn.

Sitting down in the lounge of the Hotel we looked out across Lough Ennell, which fills the panoramic view from where we were seated. A lake with its own literary history, as it is noted as the influence for Jonathan Swift’s Gullivar’s Travels and the story about the people of Lilliput. I continued to ask Leo who he would consider his favourite writer. Leo explained, ‘my favourite writers are those who portray a visual concept rather than those who portray the metaphysical and historical interests of the writer’. Leo then added, ‘James Joyce is concerned with both in his writings and exploits a greater and broader canvas than others, thereby attracting a wider readership’.

Staying on the area of Joyce I asked of his attraction to Joyce’s work and what the inspiration was to produce such a unique book as James Joyce and The Mullingar Connection. ‘My main attraction to Joyce was his versatility, mainly a feature of his early works’ he stated. Leo continued to explain, ‘This feature of Joyce’s writing attracted me to Joyce, leading me to explore an area of Ireland already familiar to me and to an equal extent people and characters I was already familiar with. Thus the characters which Joyce introduced in his Epiphanies were those of the town I lived in’. In regard to the book itself, I was told, ‘Although the book was not well received at the time of its publication, especially by academics, it gained a readership and importance as source material’.

Despite Leo’s feeling that it was not well received, since it was published Leo and this particular book have gained a positive mention in the noted reference book Recent Research On Anglo Irish Writers by Richard J. Finneran. On asking him what was a highlight of his career, Leo smiled as he thought back to the time he was especially invited to give a reading of his paper, James Joyce in the Cloak of St. Patrick at the James Joyce Symposium in Zurich. It was also here, he told me, that he had the delight to meet and interview the American author Marilyn French who had written, The Book As World: James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Having connected a highly respected literary figure with a rural town, it can be found that Leo has contributed to bringing vibrancy and culture to the town of Mullingar. I asked if locals have taken note of this enough but Leo suggested that ‘Mullingar has still to give Joyce an honourable place in the town’s literary acclaim’. Once again we looked out across Lough Ennell and its enchanting illumination of the landscape. Looking beyond the lake, Leo directed me towards the hill of Uisneach, which was the setting for part of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, informing me of one of the many connections between Joyce and the midlands. I asked Leo why he thinks Joyce may have been drawn to the midlands and he suggested, ‘the midlands are the centre of Ireland and to him would have been the centre of the Universe’.

In more recent years, to add to his various talents and literary skills Leo Daly has produced a collection of poetry which was exhibited in St. Claire’s Nursing Home. With an emphasis on humour with witty and honourable descriptions of the staff at the home and descriptions of life as it then stood for the writer, his introductory collection of works were funny and insightful. They combined the natural desire to make you laugh and to make you think. Leo only began writing poetry recently and hopefully this work will eventually get a full publication, adding to his great body of literature.

As a passionate and devoted writer, Leo refused to be idle as he had recently completed writing a new play, which he had been working on for the past decade. Titled, The Jealous Wall, which was the name given to the mock ruin of a castle at Belvedere House in Mullingar, to divide rivalling brothers, this ‘Wall’ encompasses a true story which has now been dramatised by Leo. He described the inspiration for this new play, saying, ‘the story of “The Jealous Wall”, exploiting as it does the history of Lady Mary Rochfort’s conjugal imprisonment by her husband for almost thirty years, is an excellent portrayal of the “Gothic Grotesque”. The fact that the artefacts are still above ground and visible today lends a reality which is seldom encountered today’.

He told me he would be happy to have this drama performed on radio, not only because getting a stage produced play can be quite difficult, but because a lot of it may be better suited to radio. With this project being his most recent endeavour, I dared to ask him what was next after this and if he had any further aspirations and ideas on his mind. He responded, ‘Unfortunately no, time has overtaken my hope of further accomplishments. I can only hope for the best’. Nonetheless Leo has now behind him a fascinating body of work. It could be said that Leo is a writer not fully appreciated in his time but who will certainly go down as one of Ireland’s great literary legends.

- Ivor Casey

(Ammended from article by Ivor Casey  which appeared in 'The Westmeath Examiner' and 'The Sunday Independent')


  1. Thanks Ivor.

    I had a very interesting read here and was glad when you mentioned that Leo had begun writing poetry as I am writing different forms of poetry from time to time myself.

    1. Thank you Mattias for your comments. I hope your poetry writing is going well for you. Take care - Ivor Casey