Ten Minutes with Owen O'Neill

Ten Minutes with Owen O'Neill

Owen O'Neill is an award-winning writer, actor, director, poet and comedian from Cookstown, Co. Tyrone.

His output includes sixteen one-man stage shows, two stage plays and an adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption.

O’Neill debuted on television in 1985 on Saturday Live, and as an actor has appeared in the films Michael Collins and The General.

His first novel Tom Joad and Me has just been published. It will be officially launched at the Irish Cultural Centre, Hammersmith, London, on June 5th at 7.30pm 

The book’s protagonist, 17-year-old   Emmet McCrudden of Carricktown, Co. Tyrone, has escaped his large working-class family and drunken violent father. He is now John Steinbeck’s fictional hero, Tom Joad. As an immigrant in 1970s London Emmet is making a new identity. With the London pub rock scene in full flow, he’s writing for a music magazine and working on building sites.

Owen O'Neill (photo by Steve Ullathorne)

Owen found time to answer our questions

What are you working on at the moment?

I'm working on three projects at the moment. Developing a TV drama, a sit-com and a stage play called You Can't Say That. A satire on the gender, diversity and cancellation issues of the day. Someone said tragedy is comedy plus time, so I hope the time has come to be able to satirise and be irreverent about these topics. I guess I'll find out.

Which writer has most influenced you?

There's been a few. Hilary Mantel being the most recent, but I guess it has to be John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath made a great impression on me.

What are your Irish roots?

Born and bred in Co. Tyrone.

Which piece of music always sends a shiver down your spine?

That's a tough one. Whole Lotta Rosie by ACDC always gets me going, but if I had to choose then I would go for The Banks of the Bann by the Voice Squad. Their harmonies are so brilliant. They can lift you and break your heart at the same time.

Heaney or Yeats?

Heaney all day long.

What is your favourite place in Ireland?

The Sperrin Mountains in Tyrone. I could see them every day walking to school, snowcapped in winter and changing colour before my eyes in the autumn.

What book has really moved you?

Another tough one. Cloud Street by Tim Winton is a classic beautiful heart-rending piece of writing, but it has to be The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I read it when I was 12 and it's amazing how Steinbeck could make a little boy from Co. Tyrone relate to the poverty of a farming family in 1930s Oklahoma.

Who will you thank when you win the Booker Prize?

My publisher. Sean Bradley and of course all the Leprechauns who kept making me eat chocolates and drink loads of coffee into the small hours.

Which living writer do you most admire?

John Banville. I've read almost all of his books. Don DeLillo said he can see into your soul and I think that's right. His attention to the smallest detail is second to none. I'm re-reading The Sea again. Here is a description of the village barber. "His long-lobed leathery ears stick out, they looked as if they had been dried and smoked; the whites of his eyes too have a smoky yellow tinge."

What would be your motto?

There's an old saying in the AA rooms: “Take the cotton wool out of your ears and put it in your mouth.” That's a pretty good motto to have.

Have you a favourite quote from any book?

“To surrender dreams - this may be madness.”  Don Quixote

What books are on your bedside table at the minute?

Actress by Anne Enright and Reading in The Dark by Seamus Deane.

In terms of inanimate objects, what is your most treasured possession?

I love my old shin pads they have little round cushions attached that protect my ankles. You can't buy them anymore.

What’s the best thing about where you live?

Best thing about where I live in southwest London is the river and the abundance of parks and walks, great restaurants. Worst thing is the parking. Rows of cars parked on the pavements.

What do you consider the greatest work of art?

I think The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio which now hangs in Dublin's National Gallery. It was discovered in the house of a Jesuit priest in Leeson Street in 1990. I'm not religious, but the look on the face of Jesus when he is arrested is both horror and resignation. It took a genius like Caravaggio to capture that.

What do you believe in?

I believe in Life, Death, Taxes and Apple crumble.

Who is the love of your life?

Sandra, the woman I've been hanging out with for the past 35 years.

Tom Joad and Me is published by Thirsty Books, Edinburgh


The launch of Tom Joad and Me will be held at the Irish Cultural Centre, Hammersmith, London, on June 5th at 7.30pm