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Interviews

The Governor: John Lonergan

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Julie Murphy © 30 March 2011.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Interviews · Memoir · Non-Fiction ).

Just five minutes in John Lonergan’s company makes it clear that he is a born storyteller. No question is answered in a simple matter-of-fact manner and each snippet of information is accompanied by a charming anecdote. It is no wonder therefore that he has an abundance of short stories borne from his time in the Irish Prison Service that simply could not be squeezed into his fascinating memoir – The Governor: The Life and Times of the Man who ran Mountjoy.

The starting point of a memoir often poses a dilemma – do you start with your childhood memories, or at a significant event in your life? And the decision to write can be a big one. For John Lonergan, making that decision was easy – from the day her became governor of Mountjoy in 1984, he felt sure that he would produce a memoir. This had never been done by a governor before and Lonergan believed that the fact that men with such a unique and significant experience simply walked through the gates of Mountjoy and left that experience behind them was a huge loss.

Lonergan’s first endeavour to record the experiences of a prison boss began many years before The Governor reached the shelves of our book stores. This attempt was based around the 15 governors that went before him. However after six frustrating months of garnering what was essentially useless information he gave up. Lonergan was disappointed that most of the men he spoke to appeared to be so conditioned by the establishment that they would not talk to him freely about their experiences. This conditioning would also, to a certain extent, affect Lonergan’s attempt at writing his own story. He thought that because he was in the system for so long he would write a system type document and would not be able to write a book that everybody else could read and enjoy.

An exciting celebrity life or a poignant tragic story are frequently subjects for autobiography or memoir – many people believe that they have not lived an interesting enough life to hold public interest – but as Lonergan makes it clear, it is all in the telling  – and John Lonergan has lived a life brimming with tales.

What we learn from Lonergan’s success as a writer is that although an interesting life cannot hurt a memoir, what is vital is the story-telling ability and he has this in abundance. His fear of writing an unattractive technical document was unfounded and the boost to his confidence came in the form of a one page item he wrote for UNICEF. The 800 word piece he wrote about his mother attracted phone calls from various people telling him how fantastic it was, and he came to the conclusion that he was his own worst enemy. Lonergan saw nothing in this simple article but others praised it as “lovely and simply written”. His belief in his own ability began to grow.

Lonergan started in the Irish Prison Service in 1968 and in the 42 years that brought him to retirement he amassed a vast amount of stories and experiences. His memoir is worth perusal regardless of your motivations or opinion of the Irish Prison Service. One of the main sources of inspiration behind Lonergan’s decision to write The Governor was his belief that “It would be good for people to get an insight into the prisons.” He had built up a profile in the media and he was a familiar commentator on today’s society. Three or four years before he retired, publishers began to approach him but as the most senior prison officer in the country Lonergan felt that he couldn’t tell the whole story while he was still in the system. It was about a year before he planned to leave the system that Lonergan decided that he was serious about writing. He was approached by a writer from Trinity College Dublin who proposed that they write Lonergan’s story together but as the book developed Lonergan did not recognise his own voice in it and decided it was not the direction for his memoir.

Retirement day came for John Lonergan in June 2010. He was on annual leave at the time and had told few of his colleagues about his intention to leave. It seemed that Lonergan himself was planning to slip through the gates of Mountjoy and leave it all behind him but in reality he had a very different plan. Free from the constraints of his high profile position, Lonergan was at liberty to share his life as it had been led through the prison service. It was his chance to tell his story from his perspective and share with the public some of the stories of prison life – both good and bad – that do not normally reach our ears. Lonergan had already written a chapter based around his first day in the prison service and this served as the perfect example of his writing, assuring interested publishers of his ability to produce a bestseller. He was given a deadline and the tape recorder was switched on.

Lonergan spent hours every day from morning to evening recording everything he could remember about his life from his childhood in Bansha, County Tipperary, to his 2010 retirement. It is difficult to contemplate how anyone can even attempt to remember so much but Lonergan ensures me that if he has been left with nothing else, he at least has a “good old memory” to be proud of. He recalls a little quiz he set himself to test this memory – he managed to remember the names of 26 of the 27 prison officers in Limerick prison during the period he spent there as a young prison officer. The one staff member whose name eluded him had resigned while Lonergan was working in the prison so he can possibly be forgiven for this lapse. Lonergan attributes his memory to the years he has spent talking about his life, so keeping it fresh in his mind. A multitude of people attend the various talks on parenting and social issues presented by Lonergan and he delivers these as a storyteller rather than a lecturer. Lonergan regularly speaks to parents and uses the power of simple anecdotes to illustrate things such as forgiveness and reconciliation. He has a vast array of anecdotes from which to draw upon. Following the voice recording of his memoir Lonergan transcribed his first draft of 188,000 words.

Unsurprisingly when his editor at Penguin returned his work to him Lonergan found himself reading a book 70,000 words shorter, but despite reading through it meticulously, the self-confessed perfectionist could not tell what was missing. The feel of the story hadn’t changed at all and Lonergan admits he was “thrilled with it.” Lonergan belief if that “it is his story, his material but the editor is the expert when it comes to producing a book”. As it turned out most of what was removed from the original draft were stories about other people, keeping the focus very much on Lonergan rather than those around him. As a result Lonergan has 18,000 to 20,000 spare words of little stories that are powerful in their own right. One story that did make it to the final book, was that of 12 year old Brian in Loughan House who requested some ‘little chickens’ to rear. Lonergan allowed Brian to keep some chicks in a cupboard and this little story of humanity struck a chord as the young boy turned up later as an adult prisoner – he had not forgotten the kindness shown to him by the Governor. We will certainly enjoy a collection of short stories by John Lonergan one day.

Lonergan explains how, being a perfectionist, he believed that – with the exception of condensing his story  – there was little technical editing of his first draft to do. But he was amazed and surprised by what was involved in the other aspects of producing a book from day long photo-shoots to the consequences of simple wording leading to the indirect identifying of people. Despite a good relationship with his editor he claims that he would not sacrifice anything for the success of the book. He is happy to confirm that he did not have to compromise his free word, but he does admit that there were certain points that his editor advised him against. The book attracted no official opposition from the Government and Lonergan puts this down to the fact that no one can argue with a personal perspective. The story is John Lonergan’s own experience in the Irish Prison Service.

The Governor has proved itself to be a great success even among the prisoners who have served their sentences under Mr Lonergan. He shares one last anecdote with me before he leaves – he tells the story of how a former colleague called into a city centre book shop looking for a copy of the memoir only to discover that it could not be found on the shelves. After a brief enquiry a member of staff explained how all copies of the book were being kept behind the counter as they had a tendency to disappear out the door without any money being exchanged.


©Julie Murphy for writing.ie