NOSEY, curious — and in need of quirky human interest stories — Brian O’Connell, in his early days as a journalist, started reading the personal ads.
Now, the Ennis-born Cork-based award-winning journalist, a reporter on Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio One, has written a book all about the personal ads ranging from a monkey for sale (with or without a cage) to a man selling a nineteenth century hearse.
There are also stories about engagement rings for sale —always a pointer to tales of heartbreak.
Every Tuesday, Brian trawls through the free personal ads in The Echo, keeping an eye on what’s for sale or what item someone wants to purchase.
He also looks at the lonely hearts column in Ireland’s Own as well as the classified section in the Farmer’s Journal.
“Quite a number of mostly regional newspapers have a commitment to publishing personal ads,” says Brian.
He also gets stories from online ads in the likes of DoneDeal, Adverts.ie and Gumtree.
“The most interesting ones for me tend to be from print (publications).
“I decided to use the ads as a doorway into contemporary Irish life. My book goes back to about seven years ago up to today. Some of the unusual stories involved people living quite isolated lives.
“They came through print. Obviously, these people wouldn’t have access to technology and wouldn’t be using the internet. It was really fascinating to spend time with these people.”
There’s a story in the book about a man advertising for a DVD of The Remains of the Day starring Anthony Hopkins.
Brian made contact with this man who turned out to have an obsession with Anthony Hopkins, having watched almost everything the actor ever appeared in.
“On one level, it is quite sad that somebody has to put an ad in a paper for a DVD. It means he doesn’t have a social circle and doesn’t have the wherewithal to go online. These are the people I really wanted to meet.”
Another isolated man, living in Cork, had placed an ad in the Echo last year, looking for a medium-sized dog.
“This pensioner, who had been in the Congo serving with the defence forces, ended up telling me about his family.
“He had been born in a county home and didn’t really know his mum and didn’t know who his father was.
“He told me about trying to connect with his family (that includes siblings) and the impact that has had on his life. You could see why dogs were like family to him.”
Having lost a dog through death, the pensioner became emotional talking about his pet. “It was obvious he wanted to replace his dog.”
Getting people to open up was Brian’s challenge and in some cases, he doesn’t give the names of the people he interviewed as the subject matter is too delicate.
Some people, he says, were delighted to be able to talk to him.
Others thought it was a scam. But over time, he built up ways of contacting people.
“I never know what I’m going to get when I ring someone. A person with an engagement ring and wedding rings for sale agreed to meet me. She hadn’t told many people her story. It was too raw. Essentially, she met somebody who lives abroad. It was a kind of whirlwind romance, with a lot of skyping each other.
“They got married in his home country in the Middle East. She paid for the application for his visa to Ireland which cost several thousand euros.
“He didn’t get a visa. Lo and behold, two weeks later, he got married to somebody else. So she was left on the line with the cost of the visa application, the solicitor’s bills and the rings which she had bought in Dubai.
“They’re fabulous looking rings. She was selling them to clear her VISA bill. She said it was like something you’d see on Jeremy Kyle. She couldn’t believe it happened to her.
“She’s an intelligent, professional woman who said she couldn’t believe she fell for this. She had travelled a bit of a journey herself in terms of her own development.
“She had come to the realisation that she prefers being open to the idea of love even though what happened to her was an absolute disaster.
“She didn’t want to be somebody who was closed. She was trying not to let it affect her and getting rid of the rings was the first step for her.”
As for the monkey for sale and the story of the avid collector of everything from Mini Coopers to a Victorian horse-drawn hearse which he put up for sale, Brian’s book fleshes out these and other gems of stories.
It makes for entertaining and poignant reading.
- The Personals by Brian O’Connell is published by Harper Collins at €12.99.