Ulick O’Connor: Lawyer, journalist, boxer, TV personality – Renaissance man who KO'd Brendan Behan

Ulick O’Connor was a Renaissance man – a barrister, sportsman, writer, biographer and controversialist – who although fiercely nationalist in his political outlook enjoyed hobnobbing with some members of the Anglo-Irish gentry as much as advising friends like Jack Lynch, Charlie Haughey and John Hume on political matters, particularly Northern Ireland.

He was probably best known to the general public of an earlier era as a panellist in the formative years of the ‘Late Late Show’, hosted by Gay Byrne.

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The intense personal enmity between O’Connor and fellow panellist Dennis Franks became so fierce and fascinating to the public the item was dropped because it threatened to overshadow the show itself.

Ulick O’Connor, who died yesterday just days short of his 91st birthday, was born in Rathgar, Dublin, the son of a prominent Dublin doctor and his wife, a Celtic scholar.

Indeed, he continued to live in the family home for the rest of his life, keeping it more or less as it was during his childhood in the 1930s.

He was educated at St Mary’s College, Rathmines, where he excelled at rugby, boxing and athletics and remained an enthusiastic follower and sports commentator for the rest of his life, writing and interviewing prominent figures, including Muhammad Ali, who recited poetry to him on an airline flight.

He was Irish pole vault champion between 1947 and 1951 and the British universities welterweight boxing champion in 1950.

It was a skill he put to good use after being “invited outside” after a pub altercation with the writer and house-painter Brendan Behan, whom he quickly dispatched with a knockout punch.

He was called to the bar in 1951 and practised as a barrister in the Four Courts in Dublin for the next 15 years, before abandoning his calling to become a full-time writer, journalist and man about town.

He wrote acclaimed biographies of Oliver St John Gogarty and later Behan. This was published amid a welter of controversy in 1970 due to its references of Behan’s bisexuality, the revelation of which was resented by some family members and friends even though it was well-known in artistic circles.

O’Connor also had a strong stage presence and he adapted the Gogarty and Behan books as one-man shows, which he toured extensively in Ireland and the United States.

He later wrote ‘Celtic Dawn’ (1984), a book on the Irish literary renaissance and a moving play ‘Execution’ (1985) which dealt with events during the Irish Civil War, several volumes of poetry and ‘Sport is my Lifeline’, a collection of his sporting memories.

Although he was fascinating company, he could be contrary and waged solitary campaigns against various interests, including taxi drivers who he used extensively as he had never learned to drive.

As a director of the board of the Abbey Theatre, he campaigned unsuccessfully to preserve its in-house acting company the Abbey Players, and to prevent the board being disbanded in 1991.

In 2001, he published ‘The Ulick O’Connor Diaries 1970-1981’, the entries of which are peppered with reference to well-known people from his varied social life, literary figures and important people he encountered.

It includes entries like the following for May 7, 1973: “To Washington to interview Teddy Kennedy.

“Arranged by John Hume through a Kennedy aide, Carey Parker…

“Kennedy himself is well versed in Northern Ireland. He corrects me when I give the wrong number of internees in Long Kesh.”

A prolific journalist, he was a sports correspondent for ‘The Observer’ newspaper from 1955 to 1961 as well as a contributor to the ‘Sunday Independent’ and other publications.

Until his most recent illness, he also wrote a popular weekly poetry column for the ‘Evening Herald’.

He continued to write into his late 80s and he was proud of his Newstalk radio broadcasts, which were eventually collected in a well-received CD box set, ‘Words Alone’.

Ulick, who was a cousin of the Hollywood actor Carroll O’Connor, never married, devoting himself to a lifetime of writing, talking and performing.

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