Irish author and playwright Lee Dunne dies, aged 86

Irish author and playwright Lee Dunne dies, aged 86

Sarah Slater

The well-known Irish author and playwright Lee Dunne (86) has died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Christopher Lee Dunne was born on December 21st, 1934- the fourth of seven children born to Mick and Katy Dunne of Mount Pleasant Buildings, a tenement in the area known as ‘The Hill’ in Rathmines.

A memoir of his early life in Dublin, 'Goodbye to the Hill' was an instant bestseller and scandalised the country with its frank depiction of sex and drink.

Dunne became a dirty word and almost infamous in his celebrity. Houghton Mifflin in New York acquired the US rights and brought Dunne over to the States to publicise the book.

He appeared on many chat shows and was fêted as the natural heir to one of his heroes, Brendan Behan. However, he also shared Behan’s debilitating personality trait - a dependence on alcohol. A planned three-week stay in New York turned into six months, and it was during this period that his drinking spiralled out of control.

His wife and young children back in the UK did not hear from him for half a year and yet the long-suffering Jean stood by him.

A Bed in the Sticks

He continued to write and on his return to the UK began work on his second novel. Also semi-autobiographical, 'A Bed in the Sticks' documented his time as a travelling entertainer. The book did not sell as well, but his third novel was to thrust him firmly back into the spotlight.

Speaking of his father’s early childhood his son Peter said: “Born in to what was at that time a place of appalling poverty and squalor, Dunne quickly learned to live on his wits. He began working on a milk round at the age of 5, devotedly offering up his meagre earnings to his mother for the housekeeping jar.

“Later he would also get a paper round as well as a job as a delivery boy for a local butcher. He did not own a pair of shoes until he was 12 and freely admitted that if he had not learned to steal, he would have starved to death at a young age.

“Yet in spite of these tough circumstances, Dunne always remembered his upbringing fondly, as a time when people looked out for one another. His particular joy was the cinema where Roy Rogers soon became his personal hero. His father worked for the ESB at Poolbeg Station while his beloved mother, Katy, did her best to keep the family fed and clothed.”

Dublin return

By 1969 Dunne’s marriage was over, and he had left his family in London, moving back to Dublin. It was a painful parting, but it would trigger his recovery from alcoholism, leading him to his first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Dunne’s life and career also incorporated Irish literary history in the twentieth century. He knew many of the greatest Irish writers of our time and had much to say about Behan and Flann O’Brien. Dunne was also a talented singer and he worked a great deal with Luke Kelly.

As Dunne himself remarked, when Goodbye to the Hill was published, there was no divorce in Ireland, contraception was illegal and even owning it could result in a prison sentence; an unmarried woman was likely not able to keep her baby, no woman had the right to choose, and being gay and proud was to risk being totally outcast by your community.

Peter Dunne added: “If Ireland is now a country where none of those things are true, it is because [my father] and people like him had the courage to speak out, regardless of the personal cost.”

A revival of Goodbye to the Hill is planned for 2022 with a script by best-selling Irish author and playwright, Eoin Colfer.

Dunne is survived by his wife Maura and his children from his first marriage; Sarah, Peter and Jonathan.

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