Playwright Frank McGuinness on how The Beatles were his ‘first poets’

Frank McGuinness. Picture: Dominic Martella, UCD.
Frank McGuinness. Picture: Dominic Martella, UCD.

Frank McGuinness was about ten when The Beatles burst onto the music scene and captured his attention.

Their ‘great ear for rhyme and eye for imagery’ had a big impact on the Buncrana boy and showed him how there were ‘things you could do with language you never had dreamt of doing from what you were taught in school’.

It was this love of words, language and literature, combined with the work ethic his family had instilled within him, that contributed to  McGuinness becoming one of the most renowned and loved playwrights of our time.

With such greats as ‘The Factory Girls’  and ‘Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me’ originating from his talent, it is no wonder that his hometown, county and country want to honour him.

Next week, the 66-year-old, who recently retired as Professor of Creative Writing at University College, Dublin, will be one of four recipients to be awarded the illustrious Tip O’Neill award.  

The awards recognise members of the broad Irish Diaspora for their achievements and their interest in, and support of the Irish community.

Alongside Frank McGuinness, the award will also go to US-based attorney Patrick C Dunican Jr, and US-based businessman Daniel J Hilferty, as well as his fellow Inishowen man Pat ‘Big Hill’ Doherty, who not only grew up on the same estate as him in Buncrana but lived on the same row.

Despite being celebrated as one of Ireland’s greatest living writers and the credits that come with that, Mr. McGuinness is humbled and ‘absolutely delighted’ to receive the award, which celebrates the Donegal links of the late United States Congressman and House of Representatives’ speaker Tip O’Neill.
Frank McGuinness, who was also a professor at University of Ulster, Coleraine and St Patrick’s College, Maynooth described Tip O’Neill as ‘an exceptionally good man’.

‘To be associated with him, in any respect, is an honour,” he said.

The award is not the only one Frank has received from his hometown as he was given the Freedom of Buncrana a number of years ago.

He joked this means he can graze sheep wherever he wants to in the town and quipped: “Someday, I might take up the threat.”

As a young boy, Frank never imagined he would one day be returning to collect an award.

“I think you come from a  background where you get through day-by-day and you face your life day-by-day and something like that - big momentous events - were very much not on the horizon. We were very ordinary, working-class people and we didn’t expect anything other than what we worked for. There was a strong tradition of very hard work put into you and I never lost that. I was fortunate enough to have inherited that and I knew that nothing was going to come easy to me.

“When I went to college (he studied Pure English and Medieval Studies at UCD) I really had to work and that stuck to me and prepared me for the challenges presented. And, there were enormous challenges, but you had to stick them out and that was that.”

While his family, friends and hometown were a huge influence upon him, Frank said the emergence of The Beatles and The Stones flared his love of words and language.

“When you’re exposed to that as a boy, it certainly opens doors to you and makes you feel that there are things you can do with language that you never dreamt of doing from what you were taught at school. There was always that liberation of music - I’ve always felt that and I’ve always been grateful to the Beatles and the Stones and the various singers and songwriters of that time. They really were my first poets. I loved listening to them and still do.”

Frank recently retired from his post at UCD, after getting ‘to a certain time of my life where I felt the time was right’.

He has not completely retired, however, and is still ‘doing various bits and pieces’.
“They don’t get rid of me that easy,” he says.

UCD recently honoured him with the Ulysses Award, which meant an ‘enormous amount’, particularly when he thought back to the first day he entered the college as a student.

“You remember when you’re 18 and walking through the gates of this massive college - how scared and shaken you were and what it took out of you to survive. I was very glad the lessons that I learned in my home and my family helped me to get through those lonely times.”

Despite his - mostly full- retirement, Frank is not slowing down completely and recently released a new collection of poems, titled ‘The Wedding Breakfast’.

The poems reflect on life and ‘battling on’ and are ‘very much about’ personal experience of a loved one going through illness and recovery.

Frank, whose family are going ‘in a throng’ to the awards next week, has also experienced some ill health recently but is on the road to recovery.

He is working on a new collection of poems and also has ‘something else bubbling away,’ but this was delayed due to his illness. “It makes you appreciate your intellectual health as much as your physical health. I learned that lesson anyway and it’s a tough one.”

Factory GIRLS

One of Frank’s greatest works, ‘The Factory Girls’ was about toughness, in a different sense and he said these women deserve to be honoured.
“They kept the place going through thick and thin. Even before The Troubles, when work was very scarce and money very tight, it was the women working that helped us all.

“And, what we would have done without them, I do not know. They were true liberators of their families. I think the great task was to liberate themselves and to do that proved a lot tougher, I think, than anybody could have imagined, because they were so devoted to protecting and feeding their family, doing the basics to get them some kind of identity, but the toll that took was gigantic and I think people are still paying the price for that.

“And, that’s the absolute heart of the factory girls - how you need to, at some stage, assert yourself. If you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to do that at some stage and that’s a tough thing to do if you’re always in the process of giving.”

While Frank gives his talent and works to his audience, they, in turn, give him ‘recognition and liberation’.

“You’re very much dependant on your audience and them wanting to enjoy you.

“I still maintain there’s no greater sound than an audience laughing - it’s wonderful recognition and liberation when you’re in the throes of trying to write something and you get into a kind of despair: will you ever get the page or book finished?

“The thought that, somewhere along the line, there will be people hearing it and reading it, that keeps you going