Remember the day you discovered Santa Claus didn’t exist? It’s a sad experience for any child growing up. It may be even more traumatic for people to realise that the legend of Ross O’Carroll Kelly is merely a fictional character, brought to life by the pen of Sunday Tribune journalist, Paul Howard. But who is the man behind the legend? Robert Ryan spent the day with the creator of Ross O’Carroll Kelly to find out.
When Paul Howard rolled into Trinity to read passages from his latest Ross O’Carroll Kelly book, there was many an expectant punter hoping to see their favourite Dubes wearing, rugger-bugger addressing his faithful followers. Instead someone bearing a closer resemblance to Ross’ nerdish friend Fionn took to the stage.
While he may not have the dashing good looks of Ross, Howard comes across as an affable character with a natural wit. The personification of Ross comes alive as Howard reads passages in the D4 dialogue, perfectly intonating every ‘Roysh’ and ‘Loike’. There’s a bit of him in all of the books characters and the similarity to Ross should include Howard’s black Golf GTI (complete with alloy wheels). Appreciative glances towards beautiful college girls adds further to the illusion.
Having worked as a sports journalist at the Sunday Tribune for nearly seventeen years, it was while reporting on Leinster schools rugby that the character of Ross O’Carroll Kelly was born. Howard had planned to report on the extravagant lifestyles lead by members of the elite rugby teams of South Dublin. However he was met with opposition from powerful parents who were afraid that the reputation of their sons and schools would be tarnished if reported in a negative light. Frustrated and angry at this insurmountable obstacle, Howard wrote a satirical piece attacking the stereotypical culture of D4 rich kids. He planned to call the central character Ross, as he felt it was a popular name for children christened in the 1980s. A colleague at the Tribune, Gerard Siggins suggested the O’Carroll Kelly surname, to complete the ‘ROCK’ nod towards Blackrock College.
Having developed the character into a weekly column, Ross O’Carroll Kelly grew in popularity and it wasn’t long before the chronicles of Ross’ misadventures were appearing in paperback. When Howard started writing the book he was fascinated about the jock culture and the whole idea of “how someone can be thick as a brick, look like Shane McGowan and still manage to breeze through school and social situations”. That’s what translated into the generic Ross figure; a stereotype he claims that guys who don’t play rugby will be well familiar with. “You’re in a nightclub; you’ve put an hour of spade-work into chatting up one girl, when some Shane Byrne lookalike walks in, ears like two satellite dishs, sweating profusely, no neck and proceeds to wipe your eye. There’s a lot of bitterness there and a lot of axes to grind”.
Drawing from the lives of people he knows, people he’s observed and conversations he’s overheard, Howard collects a wealth of material he then uses to illustrate the tales of Ross. Howard believes strongly in having to always have an awareness of what is going on around him. “Never miss a conversation, to always be listening and on the look-out”. Many a night spent eavesdropping in Kiely’s or a trip on the 46A has provided plenty of material for the column. However these days he finds it increasingly difficult to remain inconspicuous. He is often met with a shout of “Watch what you say!” Therefore he feels a great sense of relief from the Ross O’Carroll Kelly text line, which allows his column readers to inform him of the latest Dublin trends in return for having an acknowledgement printed alongside the column.
The only time that Howard had difficulty in writing his Ross O’Carroll Kelly column was during the Anabel’s trial. Aspects of the trial reflected dangerously close to what he was writing in his column (even down to the drinks the accused were drinking the night in question) and it felt a little too close to the bone. A later innocent reference to buckled shoes was met with controversy when a prudish reader felt that it referred back to the trial.
Howard originally thought that there would only be three books in the series, but after the success of the fourth he found himself wrestling with his conscience between whether to be an artist or commercially successful.
Apart from his Ross O’Carroll Kelly duties, Howard is also chief sportswriter for the Sunday Tribune and a former Irish Sports Journalist of the Year. He has written several non-fiction books including The Joy, Riding High, Celtic Warrior and The Gaffers.
The release of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightdress brings the number of Ross O’Carroll Kelly books to five. Howard confesses that he fears that the material will eventually run out and admits that there is only so much life in the series. Unfortunately he thinks that the sixth book (currently being written) may be the last. He doesn’t want to continue the series forever and imagines adopting a similar tactic to Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series, by returning to the character in twenty years time. Sometime in the near future Howard hopes to start writing a serious fictional Irish detective story.