Irish writer Brian O’Sullivan’s violent Co. Kerry childhood took him the best part of four decades to get over. Along the way he often spun out of control and into the arms of booze, drugs and sexual escapism. He tells Cahir O'Doherty about his debut memoir and the fateful day that saved his life and sanity.
Craigslist hookups, crack cocaine, hookers, transvestites and total blackouts. Welcome to what many Irish construction workers here call Saturday night.
The thing is that it’s a reality we never really get to hear about in print or on film. That’s because Irish construction workers like to keep their darker sides to themselves.
They’re a bit like Irish politicians in that respect. They may tell one or two people they can depend on to keep their mouths shut the full story, but that’s it. This won’t be news to you if you work in the trade, but it’s news to everyone else.
That’s why Brian O’Sullivan’s raucously funny new memoir Butcher a Hog, is such a revelation. The 47-year-old Sneem, Co. Kerry native has the courage to let the light in on the often dysfunctional world of unpaid rent and all night booze and drugs benders.
And boy does he know how to paint a vivid scene in the process.
“It was insane,” O’Sullivan tells the Irish Voice, speaking of his first years in the U.S. “We’d smoke cannabis in out apartment in Queens where we couldn’t pay the rent half the time. We were drinking all the time, we were driving around in cars that had no insurance. We had stolen plates, fake registrations in the window.
“Cops would sometimes literally carry us home when they found us out drunk at night or when we’d rammed into traffic.”
No one was telling O’Sullivan to stop. Crucially no one was telling him how to stop either.
At the end of his teens when he arrived in the U.S. O’Sullivan got on the mad carousel of booze and drugs and didn’t know how to get off. He lost contact with his parents for so long that they eventually put an ad in the Irish Voice trying to find him.
“I got really into smoking into crack cocaine, which ended up with me living on the streets for a while,” he confesses.
“I thought I was the only Irishman who smoked crack, or went with hookers or transvestites or any of that. Until I went to Alcoholics Anonymous and they all just rolled their eyes at me. I hooked up with an Irish crew from Bainbridge in the Bronx, and I discovered most of them had done the same or similar things.”
But how do you get started in this spin out lifestyle in the first place? How do you place so little value on your own life that you put it in danger night after night without a thought?
“My father was well off in England,” O’Sullivan explains. “Then he began drinking at the age of 30. After that I think we had to borrow money to return to Ireland when I was five or six.
“We grew up in extreme poverty. My dad was an alcoholic, he beat my mother and she beat us, all that stuff. It wasn’t easy, you know?”
O’Sullivan ran away to England when he was 14. By the age of 16 he had moved away for good. By the age of 19 he had enough saved to come to America and by 20 he finally did.
Butcher a Hog charts what he found here, and the history that drove him to these shores.
“I was very ill equipped to deal with anything basically and I quickly went down the toilet,” says O’Sullivan. “Luckily for me I discovered Alcoholics Anonymous in 1991.”
That discovery made him aware that he wasn’t the only one floundering. It also gave him a chance to reflect on his life for the first time and on his parents in particular.
“I know exactly what was wrong with them,” says O’Sullivan. “My father was a raging alcoholic as were his ancestors going back thousand years probably. They had land, they had everything they needed but they sold it, they even sold the chickens for drink.”
O’Sullivan’s mother was originally from Clones, Co. Monaghan.
“Her mother abandoned her six kids when my mother was two. They were all placed in foster homes were they were treated horrifically,” he says.
“She went to England when she was 14 and she became a rageoholic. She would snap at anything. I would go to school with marks on me and she would say, ‘Tell them you tripped.’”
O’Sullivan doesn’t make any judgment about the rights and wrongs of all this in his book. Instead he just dryly (often hilariously) recites the facts.
“There are no heroes in my book. There’s just people trying to make it through their lives as best they can. You know, it’s real, it’s a real story in other words,” he said.
Haunted by his past, by debilitating depression and by the pain of his childhood, O’Sullivan would often find himself overwhelmed. When he was four years old his mother left his father, taking his sisters with her back to Ireland but not him. He describes all this in the most matter of fact tones.
Abandoned with someone who couldn’t possibly raise him, he was eventually sent to his father’s relatives in Kerry (his dad placed a sticker on his little coat so they could identify him at Cork Airport).
“I lived there for a year. I never knew what was going on with my mother and father and no one told me anything,” says O’Sullivan.
For O’Sullivan, life in America was a back and forth of sober and off the wagon. Bad shocks always threatened to send him reeling back toward the life of drugs and anonymous sex he was trying to escape.
When he found he couldn’t cope with his feelings he finally turned to the controversial electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), formerly known as electroshock therapy.
“My last shock therapy was in 2010,” he says. “I regressed, I got depressed and I thought I’d give it a shot. It wasn’t as big as success as it was the first time.”
Afterwards O’Sullivan found himself having a particularly hard night.
“I was at home in bed and I couldn’t breathe,” he says.
In his mind he kept returning to a scene form his childhood.
“When I was about eight I had this collie dog. The neighbors accused the dog of killing sheep. That wasn’t true, I’d tie him up and night. We lived near the sea and there was no sheep within five miles of us.”
A man arrived in a dumper truck. He came into the yard, threw his dog in a bag and drove off up the road. It was a moment of savagery.
“This was the biggest trauma of my life,” says O’Sullivan. “I don’t know if I was hallucinating from the ECT, but in my mind I felt like the dog in the bag. I crawled into the living room. I couldn’t walk. I was crying uncontrollably.”
It was an image of inexplicable cruelty that seemed to be a linchpin of his own life experience. But instead of cracking up he flipped open the laptop and started writing his debut memoir.
“Something was telling me pick it up and start writing. I didn’t know how to type. I just started,” O’Sullivan recalls.
“Within 10 minutes everything shifted. The next morning I took the laptop to the coffee shop. That’s how this book began. It wasn’t writing, it was real. It was a conversation.”
A lot of Irish people suffer from depression but they medicate it with booze rather than Xanax, with often less effective results.
“I feel optimistic now. I knew from the day that I started writing that book that it would find people who would understand it and enjoy it, and it is,” he said.