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Gearoid O’Dowd on Writing Biographies

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Gearoid O'Dowd

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When I finally decided to make a serious attempt at writing a book three years ago, the notion of a Biography was not at all in my mind. I have loved books all my life and having gained an Honours degree in Journalism as a (very) mature student some years earlier, I felt it was finally time to test myself further. I have had the good fortune to have met some fascinating characters down through the years and I was now determined to weave them into one big story, and write my first novel. I had been plodding along in this vein for about two months and was reasonably happy with the results. One day I was finding inspiration a little thin on the ground when I decided to ‘Google’ some names of long-lost friends and relations. It is something I tend to do when the words won’t come and I need a quick distraction, and it can yield some surprising results. This day however, I finally remembered to include the uncle I had never met in my search, Chris O’Dowd. He had always been a mystery to me and the only thing I knew about him was that he had run away from home to join the British Army and had gotten killed. Within minutes I was reading an account of the battle in which he died, but you could have knocked me down with the proverbial feather when I read that he had become a decorated Sergeant in no less a unit then the S.A.S. at the age of 22. The Unit had been formed in 1941 in the North African desert and Chris had been with them from the get go. I now had a predicament: Should I continue with the novel and keep my uncle’s story for later or visa versa. I decided to forge ahead with the novel, but it was pointless. My thoughts were miles away on the Italian coast where Chris had paid the ultimate price, and it seemed as if he was beckoning to me to follow him. I soon realised that the only logical step was to put the novel ‘on the back shelf’, as it were, and pursue the story of my uncle. I had no idea whether his adventures would merit a Biography at this point, but there was only one way to find out. I already knew how and where his life had ended. I also knew where it began, it was the twenty three years in between that worried me. But what did I know about writing Biography, less still War Biography?  True, I had read my fair share of the genre down through the years but that would only get me so far.  I also felt a great burden of responsibility at this point: If I was to do my uncle justice, my research would need to be meticulous and my sources reliable. I was fortunate enough to interview two people who grew up with Chris; one was his first cousin and next-door neighbour and the other, an old school pal. I came away from those meetings with a true sense of what Chris was like during his formative years, but the difficult stuff was still ahead. I then contacted my cousins in the U.K. who, as it turned out, knew quite a lot about our uncle. They provided me with documents, photographs and a list of books that contained more information about him. My next step was to visit the Irish Guard’s Archive Department at Buckingham Palace (I had learned by now that Chris had initially joined up with the Guards) and to meet up with some members of the SAS Regimental Association. odowd_cover_graphic 1 I was conscious of an understandable suspicion on encountering the latter, but managed eventually to reassure them of my motives for conducting the research.  My only disappointment was to learn that all of my uncle’s fellow SAS men had unfortunately died by now. This meant that I would have to rely heavily on interviews they had given to other authors in the past.  Without exception, these authors were more than generous with their help and I owe them a huge debt of gratitude. While the emails were flying back and forth I was also getting on with writing the story. Slowly but surely, the paragraphs began to stack up. There were moments of panic when I would seem to come to a dead end momentarily, or get my dates mixed up.  But there was always a solution and I soon found myself with a finished manuscript. I then had to source photographs and maps and get permission to use them. Finally came the dreaded Index (not an enjoyable experience!) While my three years spent studying Journalism were a help with writing the book, especially from a Media Law perspective, they were by no means essential. If the writer is passionate about their subject they have a fighting chance of writing a decent Biography.  This wonderful invention that is the Internet gives us the opportunity to liaise with contacts and verify facts from the comfort of our homes. In fact research has never been easier.

About the author

(c) Gearoid O’Dowd, September 2011 Gearoid O’Dowd, has spent most of his life working as a musician in Ireland and the UK.  He has also lived for a time in Sweden and Denmark. In 2001 he obtained a B.A Honours degree in Journalism from Southampton Solent University and shortly after began working on the radical magazine,Synergy.  He returned to his native Galway in 2006 and began researching his uncle’s life soon after. He has a daughter, Saoirse, 26, and a son, Rossa 25.  This is his first book.

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