He was probably the most prolific playwright Thurles, or, for that matter, Tipperary ever produced. Yet his talent remained unknown to everyone, including his family, until after his death.
John Joseph Fintan O’Brien, who died in 1959, wrote seven plays that were produced by the Parnell Players, the drama group he and his brother, Edward Paul, founded in the 1920s. And yet, not even the actors knew that the playwright was sitting in their midst as they rehearsed.
The reason for his anonymity lies in the simple yet effective use of the pseudonym JJ Fintan. No one, not even his closest family and friends, copped that the Fintan surname was JJ’s third Christian name.
Now, JJ will hopefully take his place among the pantheon of playwrights following the decision of his nephew, Jim, to publish the full collection of his plays in one volume.
“I decided to have the book published for the immediate family, but then got extra ones printed and if there was interest in them we could look at doing something else,” said Jim, who was home in Thurles from Louisville, Kentucky, on a brief visit to his sisters, Teresa Berry in Castle Park, and Marie O’Dwyer, who still lives in the home place on Parnell Street.
He revealed that no one in the family knew of JJ’s talent, and his uncle had not even revealed his secret on his death bed when he was dying of cancer in St Luke’s Hospital.
“He lived in our house. He had a lovely writing desk and we would have seen him writing. I guess we weren’t inquisitive children. These were the product of that writing,” he said. “We only found out about his writing talent after royalties began arriving to the house when he died.”
JJ was the manager of O’Meara’s mineral water / coal and grain merchant store, which was one of the town’s biggest employers. But, by night he was the playwright, turning out a mix of comedy and tragedy that the Parnell Players would perform in the Archconfraternity Hall on O’Donovan Rossa Street, or in other venues in the region, along with staging variety shows. JJ’s plays were also staged up and down the country by amateur drama groups.
By publishing the complete works, Jim is hoping to keep JJ’s name alive, though he doesn’t expect that too many royalty cheques will come in the letter box as the plays are now out of print. Even the publisher, James Duffy & Co, Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2, is no longer in business. In their heyday, the royalty for each play was three guineas for each performance, but if there were more than one consecutive performance, that was reduced to two guineas, which was quite a pretty penny in those days.
The O’Brien family originally lived on Liberty Square but later moved to Parnell Street, where they had what Jim described as a “little shop”.
He attended Thurles CBS, leaving in 1961 to work for one year with the county council in Nenagh. He later went to University College Dublin, where he studied medicine.
Jim subsequently moved to America, where he settled for a while in Michigan, before going to Duke University in North Carolina and is now at the University of Louisville, from where he will retire this summer. He holds the chair in geriatrics at Louisville and is also special advisor to the executive vice-president for health affairs. He was in Dublin to deliver a paper at a conference run by the International Association of Geriatrics and Gerontology.
Jim’s book, John O’Brien, a Collection of Plays, includes The Jackets Green, Sorrows of Joshua, Shaunmore, Simple Souls, The Winning Maid, Molly Bawn and The Green Linnet.