The Definite Article

Published in Ireland’s Mail on Sunday, 25/3/2018

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We ask a celebrity a set of devilishly probing questions – and only accept THE definitive answer.  This week, it’s author Shane Dunphy’s turn.

1. The prized possession you value above all others

I learned to play guitar on an old, cheap nylon-stringed instrument my mother owned.  She sang beautifully (she was once chosen to be the soloist for a new composition by the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams), and I have vivid memories of her sitting in our living room when I was a child, playing old folk songs while accompanying herself on that guitar.  She died in 1994, and the instrument was passed to me.  My son, and then my daughter, learned to play on it too, so it continues to work its magic.

 2. The biggest regret you wish you could amend… 

When I was working as a child protection worker, I was asked to befriend a child with a view to encouraging her to come into care.  I spent a long time gaining her trust and forming a relationship, and one day, after a particularly traumatic experience with her family (who were very neglectful and emotionally abusive) she rang and told me she was ready to make the move into a group home.  In delight I contacted my superiors, to be informed that they had no beds available that day, and to tell her she’d have to wait.  I was never able to rebuild trust with that child, and things did not end well for her.  I think of her almost every day.

3. The temptation you wish you could resist…

Chocolate.  I am a hopeless addict, and really have to watch my consumption.  Every now and again I go cold turkey, but it never lasts.  There must be some kind of support group out there for people with my problem.  I’d love a contact number if anyone knows of one.


4. The book that holds an everlasting resonance… 

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – it is so vividly written the characters became almost like family members for me, and, long as it is, I have reread it several times.  

5.The priority activity if you were the Invisible Woman/ Man for a day…

Hanging out in the Dail bar – sometimes, I really do wonder what kind of conversations go on there.  Mind you, the experience may result in irreparable damage to my faith in human nature, so perhaps not…

6.The pet hate that makes your hackles rise… 

People using their mobile phones in the cinema is something that really gets my goat.  I think we have all become so addicted to devices that taking a brief sabbatical from them, even for a few hours, shouldn’t be  a big ask.  When the lights go down and the movie begins, surely it is just good manners to put your phone away?  If there is a text or email message coming through that needs your immediate attention, why are you in the cinema in the first place?


7. The film you can watch time and time again…

I have seen The Big Lebowski, by the Cohen brothers, probably eight or nine times, but I will still rewatch it if I’m flicking through the channels and come across it.  I love everything about the movie: the convoluted plot, the music, the remarkably drawn characters, the dialogue; even the final message – the Dude abides.  Such a positive way to end a film.  I can’t get enough of it.

8.The person who has influenced you most… 

My mother, Noelle Dunphy, is, beyond any doubt, the person who has had the most profound impact on me as a person.  She encouraged my love of books and language (my earliest memory is of her reading to me); she worked in social care and was instrumental in my choosing that as a career; her inherent sense of empathy and her love of people – all kinds of people – not to mention her deeply felt sense of fair play all resonate with me to this day.

9. The piece of wisdom you would pass on to a child… 

One of the greatest gifts we have is our individuality.  Being different, being unique, is a good thing, and should be nurtured and celebrated.  Be proud of who you are, and never let anyone tell you you’re not as good or as important as anyone else.  Every single person has a talent or a skill that might change the world for the better.  

10.The unlikely interest that engages your curiosity…

I am a committed birder.  I love nothing better than taking my two dogs, some decent hiking boots and a pair of binoculars and heading off into the wild for the day to spend some quality time with our feathered friends.  I’m one of those annoying people who keeps lists of what I’ve seen, and will sometimes travel to see a rare species that has been reported at a particular location.

11.The figure from history for whom you’d most like to buy a pie and a pint… 

The crime writer Robert B Parker died on my birthday in 2008.  His Spenser series of novels have had a major impact on me as a writer, and while there was certainly a decline in quality as the series went on (Dr Parker wrote 40 novels featuring the Boston PI), I still marvel at the economy of language he used and the sometimes surprising beauty of his dialogue.  I corresponded with Parker briefly before his death, but we never got to meet, which is something I regret.  And he famously loved beer and was something of a gourmet, so I think he’d be ideal for a pie and pint!

12. The treasured item you lost and wish you could have again… 

My father had a huge collection of vinyl – most of it classical, but there were a lot of interesting oddities, too: obscure stuff by little known British music hall artists, for example.  He moved house a few years back, and had nowhere to store his albums.  He mentioned to me in passing that he was planning on selling them and I was horrified.  I told him I would gladly take the lot off his hands (to add to my nerd credentials, I collect vinyl), but between one thing and another, I never got around to picking them up.  By the time I called, he had (at the urging of my long-suffering step-mother, who was trying to declutter) sold the majority of the discs to a collector.  It was my own fault, but it still smarts. 

13. The unending quest that drives you on…

This is going to come off as trite, but I think the only quest that matters is to be the best version of yourself you can be.  I think we all start out as roughly formed lumps of clay, and over time, we take shape as events and circumstances and people we come in contact with mould and change us.  It’s up to us to facilitate that process by being open to change.  

14. The misapprehension about yourself you wish you could erase…

Being known for working and writing in the field of social care/child protection, a lot of people tend to think I’m infinitely patient and somewhat saintly.  Most people who know me stop believing that pretty rapidly, and would probably suggest other qualities like ‘grumpy’ and ‘brusque’.

15. The song that means the most to you…

There is a song by Tom Waits entitled Never Let Go of Your Hand, which can be found on the Bawlers disc of his Orphans collection.  It is unrepentantly sentimental, while at the same time managing to speak about the real challenges of making a marriage work.  And it always makes me think of my wife.

16. The crime you would commit knowing you could get away with it…

Writing some kind of algorithm that would cause everyone’s mobile phone to spontaneously (and safely) combust.  I have a sense the world would be a much nicer place if mobile communications technology ceased to exist.

17. The event that altered the course of your life and character…

When I was about fourteen I was walking home from school one afternoon when, up ahead of me, I saw a guy called John, who lived on the same estate as me in Wexford, and had Down Syndrome.  I knew him quite well and liked him, but I was too lazy to catch up with him.  As we walked, some older boys spotted John and started calling him names and throwing stones at him.  I wanted to tell them to leave him alone, but was afraid of getting the same treatment, and hung back.  I remember thinking how dignified John was as he walked along, his head held high as the stones bounced about him.  I felt so ashamed of myself, and so angry, that I made a vow never to be silent again if I saw someone being bullied.  I hope I’ve kept that promise.

18. The poem that touches your soul…

Nirvana, by Charles Bukowski.  I have it framed on the wall of my office in work.  It always transports me – I start reading it,  and I’m on that bus travelling through the hills of North Carolina.  

19. The way you would spend your fantasy 24 hours…

A lazy lie-in, a leisurely breakfast with my lovely wife, then a walk together along one of the fabulous levadas on the island of Madeira, followed by dinner and drinks with our kids and my grandson in a little bistro somewhere.

20.The happiest moment you will cherish forever… 

A two-way tie, which is kind of linked: meeting my wife and the birth of my children.

21.The saddest time that shook your world…

The death of my mother still reverberates.  I was 21 and old enough to fend for myself, but it took the family years to really coalesce again – it’s amazing how one family member can be the fulcrum all the others rely on.

 22.The unfulfilled ambition that continues to haunt you…

I don’t have many unfulfilled ambitions – I am lucky in that I have been able to achieve most of my goals.  I suppose that, if I had to pick one that remains outstanding, it is that I have never released an album of my music.  I’m a multi-instrumentalist, and have been playing live since I was a teenager.  It would be nice to have a record out.  

23.The philosophy that underpins your life….

Be kind.  I don’t think that needs any further expansion.  


24. The order of service at your funeral… 

Readings from AA Milne, Charles Dickens and Elmore Leonard.  Music from Leonard Cohen, The Rolling Stones and Sean Tyrrell.  Cheapest coffin available.  Everyone back to the Sky and the Ground pub in Wexford for a folk music session afterwards.  

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