Monkeys for sale, wedding dresses, Ireland’s most famous pigs, War of Independence medals, a Nazi flag, Limerick GAA programmes, Massey Ferguson tractors and wedding rings are just some of the items Brian O’Connell has come across in the classified ads, the stories behind them he has now told in The Personals.
For quite some time, the Ennis native has held a fascination with the classified ads that appear in newspapers. Indeed his first time using them to put together a story involved a Clare connection. “It was an immigrant who had been to Australia a few years before and was looking to reconnect with family in West Clare, they put an ad in the classified section, I happened upon it and got a story out of it, that’s what began it”.
In a twenty year career, Brian has won multiple awards for his work, including the John Healy Award, two radio PPI Awards, four New York Radio Festival Awards and a Justice Media Award. Since 2013, he has been a reporter on RTÉ Radio One, first on Today with Pat Kenny and now Today with Sean O’Rourke. On this show, interviewing people behind the ads is a regular contribution of his.
Several of the stories in The Personals are new with some more detailed compared to their appearances on radio. The process of writing the book lasted a year. “In the first 20,000 words I sent to the publisher I was still reporting I wasn’t writing, I had gone out of the habit of writing. I had to go back, visualise myself going back into the house, say what I saw and tell the story a bit more, it was an interesting process. On radio it’s quite quick, you’re straight into it. With the book you can sit with a subject for a while, you can sit in their house, look around and take the reader with you. The idea of writing the book as I built up the stories it became an interesting insight into Irish society, a snapshot of Irish society and it made sense to put them together for a book”.
His favourite ad is one submitted by an Anthony Hopkins fanatic. “Somebody was looking for a DVD version of the film ‘The Remains of the Day’, that became a study of isolation, loneliness and detachment. He was a man who hadn’t much human contact, I spent a bit of time, it became a favourite because I don’t think I would have been there only for the fact I answered the ad, he was using the ads probably to try reach out. Wedding ring and wedding dress stories I’ve an interest in those because I find them fascinating, the whole range of human experience between love and loss, it’s all there”.
Now living in Cork for the past twenty five years, the Rice College past pupil explained why it is that the classified ads are so special. “As a reporter when you’re in somebody’s life it’s part of a PR campaign or there is an agenda or they have reached out to you, it’s part of the wider narrative. With these stories, the only reason I’m part of their life is because they let me in, there is no wider narrative or PR agenda, I found that access to the heart of people’s lives the most fascinating part for me, some of these stories you would not believe, some of them they haven’t told their families why their relationship broke up, to me that is gold getting access to those experiences and incredible stories that would have probably been untold, they are not people who would have turned up on TV or radio”.
Thus far, his second book has been receiving a very positive reaction, “There isn’t anything like it on the shelves”. On Saturday, he will hold a book signing at Ennis Bookshop, which for Brian is “amazing”.
“There was two bookshops in Ennis when I was growing up, one was Sean Spellissy’s off Parnell St, I’d pop in there every Saturday if I had pocket money, it was a second hand bookshop, Sean was great, he imparted a great love of reading and of collecting books, I bought a Stephen King collection and other books from him when I was younger. I was quite fortunate ten years ago when my first book was published, Ennis Bookshop hosted a signing and they are hosting one again on Saturday. There is no greater feeling than to walk into your local bookshop where you went in as a kid and I bought everything from school novels to Christmas presents, to be able to walk in and see your book on the shelf or have a signing, there is no greater feeling than that even though I’ve been away for a long time. There is always a part of you that feels home when you’re in Ennis, they are so supportive of local writers”.
The Personals by Brian O’Connell is published by Harper Collins at €12.99. Brian’s book signing takes place this Saturday (November 9th) at Ennis Bookshop from 2 to 4pm.