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'I was called to say, 'We've had a solicitor's letter over your schools rugby match report'

Paul Howard is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines, and reveals a schools’ rugby story that helped to form Ross O’Carroll Kelly.

File photo of Paul Howard.
File photo of Paul Howard.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Updated Nov 17th 2020, 9:01 AM

HAVING SOLD MORE than 1.5 million Ross O’Carroll Kelly books, written four Ross stage plays, two musicals about Ireland’s most notable dens of iniquity – Coppers and Anglo Irish Bank – and won four Irish book awards, presumably Paul Howard laments this decision to leave sportswriting every day? 

“I never really wanted to leave, and it still breaks my heart I did”, says Paul on this week’s episode of Behind the Lines

For the benefit of the unlearned among us: Behind the Lines is a weekly podcast exclusive to members of The42, in which we speak with writers about their careers and their favourite writing. Access to the 52-episode back catalogue is just one of the benefits of becoming a member of The42and to sign up, go to members.the42.ie.

Paul was once sports editor and chief sportswriter with the Sunday Tribune, the paper in which Ross O’Carroll Kelly made the national debut so cruelly denied him by Warren Gatland/Eddie O’Sullivan/Declan Kidney. 

Ross soon took off, and the pressure of writing books along with working as a journalist became too much. It came to a head at the 2004 Olympics, at which Paul would work for 15 hours and then spend another four in the Olympic Village, writing Ross. He took what was intended to be a two-year sabbatical, and never went back. 

31 NO FEE Ross O Carroll Gaiety Rory Nolan as Ross O'Carroll Kelly, ahead of the 2017 stage show Postcards from the Ledge.

“It came at a time when I felt I needed a break. I never in my life wanted to be a novelist or write books, never mind musicals. But it just kind of happened. Pretty much everything that’s happened to me professionally since I left journalism has been a complete accident.” 

That’s not to say his lessons from sportswriting went totally forgotten. 

“I was quite young at the time, I was around 18, and had been asked to cover a schools rugby game for the Indo. I didn’t know much about it, it was new to me. I certainly didn’t know why it was taken so seriously. 

“I remember my first match was Skerries against Blackrock, I think, and seeing 1500 people at this schools’ game. I was asked for 10 paragraphs, which was across six columns of a broadsheet daily newspaper. At that stage in my career it was definitely the biggest story I was ever asked to write, in terms of the word count. I couldn’t understand why it was taken so seriously. But I remember being confused by the mass of double-barrelled names on both sides. There were names everywhere! There may have been a few Roman numerals in there too. 

“At one point I must have lost my concentration, but I gave a try to the wrong kid. I was then called in by the Indo, and was told, ‘We’ve had a solicitor’s letter about your match report.’ 

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“I was thinking, ‘How could I libel someone in a match report? 

“He [the sports editor] said, ‘You gave the try to the wrong kid.’ 

“‘Right…is that serious?’ 

“‘He said to me, ‘You have to remember with these kids. This kid was born, and his Dad brings a rugby ball to the maternity hospital and puts it in the basket with him. The kid is brought home and by the time the kid can stand up, the Dad is throwing a rugby ball at him. The kid then plays junior rugby with his pals in the park, and then he goes to secondary school and the plan is to make the Junior Cup team. He makes the Junior Cup team. 

“‘Then he’s told the most important thing in his entire life is to make the Senior Cup team. And he makes the Senior Cup team. And in his very first match, he scores a try. And you get his fucking name wrong.’ 

“I could see it as quite a reasonable thing to be upset when he explained it to me like that! 

“The solicitor’s letter demanded a retraction, a correction and an apology. I was just told to be grateful they weren’t looking for damages. 

“But that whole thing about the Dad who is ready to defend his sporting son’s honour with a solicitor’s letter is essentially the dynamic Ross has with Charles O’Carroll Kelly, so I stole that. It wasn’t a wasted lesson on me.” 

You can listen to the full conversation with Paul by subscribing at members.the42.ie. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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