The Donkeyman–Author Kevin O’Hara found himself by way of Ireland and a donkey
Why, look. Over there. It’s none other than Kevin O’Hara, the Donkeyman himself, hoisting a pint of Guinness at Patrick’s Pub.
Do you know Kevin? Come. Meet him. The unofficial bard of the Berkshires, a self-described “knuckle-headed romantic,” was given the key to the city of Pittsfield some years back, a gesture heavy on the nod and wink. After all, no one has ever tried to stop Kevin O’Hara from coming and going as he darn well pleases.
Kevin, tell us about Vietnam. Tell us about the old days of Pittsfield, as the immigrant child in a drafty duplex on Wilson Street with a clutch of siblings and a homesick Irish mother. Tell us about modeling for Norman Rockwell’s Spirit of America painting. Tell us about being a nurse in Berkshire Medical Center’s psychiatric ward for 30 years.
Kevin, Kevin, Kevin—tell us about the donkey!
O’Hara runs his fingers through his silver hair. His blue-green eyes twinkle. Yes, the donkey, that prized brown mare, has been especially on his mind lately. This past Christmas Eve, O’Hara raised a pint to the Incarnation and another pint to his donkey of beloved memory, Missie Mickdermot. It had been 40 years ago to the day that O’Hara and Missie arrived back home to his Grannie Kelly’s house in the Irish midlands after a preposterous journey by foot and by hoof, pulling upon old Ireland’s errant threads of memory and myth.
Forty years ago last Christmas Eve, he and Missie completed a 1,720-mile, eight-month walk around the perimeter of his ancestral homeland. “A crackpot quest to uncover my heritage” eventually became his lovely 432-page book, Last of the Donkey Pilgrims: A Man’s Journey Through Ireland (Forge, 2004.). You’ll laugh ’til you weep. You’ll weep ’til you laugh. Your head will resonate with the Angelus bells of indomitable Irishry.
On the Emerald Isle, where O’Hara leads two bus tours a year (next one is April 27, 2020), and in Pittsfield, where his Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day columns in The Berkshire Eagle are institutions unto themselves, O’Hara forever remains the “Donkeyman.”
Tell us, Kevin. Tell us!
Back in 1978, he was antsy, a bit of a mess, a Vietnam vet pushing 30, not yet the father of two he would become. Living in Pittsfield with his wife, Belita, he had an insatiable need “to find some missing part of myself.”
O’Hara had been partially assembled upon birth in England to Irish parents in 1949. He was four when his family settled in the States. “I always felt, growing up here, that I was a coin minted with one side blank, and the blank side was the Irish side. I had always wanted to mint the Irish side, to be a full person.”
His first attempt came in 1977, when he and Belita journeyed to Ireland as part of O’Hara’s short-lived quest to learn to thatch roofs in the old style. That didn’t pan out. Even the Irish by then weren’t too keen on fiddling with thatch.
Back in Pittsfield a year later, he told Belita, “I need to take a walk.”
He wasn’t talking about a neighborhood stroll, but rather a journey along that crooked mile of self-discovery. He had to get Ireland out of his system. They agreed she would stay in the States with her parents for a year while he was at his grandmother’s in County Roscommon. Maybe he’d write the greatest Irish children’s story ever written. To show there were no hard feelings, Belita even knitted him a wool sweater.
By March of 1979, three months into his year of self-discovery, he still hadn’t committed a word to a page. Desperate, he’d go for long bicycle rides to breathe some Irish inspiration, but the rides never seemed long enough. Then, one day, he encountered a scene straight out of olden Ireland: a farmer with a donkey pulling a cart. He describes this as a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment.
That evening, in a smoke-filled pub crowded with pensioners and bog men, he gave voice to his newfound path toward enlightenment when he mustered the courage to inquire, “Could a donkey, a good one, travel the coast of Ireland?”
The pub went quiet. Then came the ridicule (“You’re one cracked boyo, Kevin O’Hara”); followed by the advice (“You’ll need a mare with a good mouth and square feet, free of spavins, curbs, and sidebones.” Whatever that all meant); and then many healthy wagers.
He was led to a man named Jimmy McDermott, who pulled together a lineup of donkeys. O’Hara chose a five-year-old Brownie and named her Missie Mickdermot. He harnessed a small, wooden cart to her, and together the two set off side-by-side around the ring of Ireland, returning intact, as planned—as promised—on Christmas Eve.
Along the way, he forged that blank side of the coin with an ancient sign of peace: a donkey (that would later be auctioned off on national TV, but that’s a whole other story). He never wrote the children’s book—but did write the donkey book. It took him nearly 25 years to do so.
“She was the star,” O’Hara says of Missie, as he sips from his Guinness. “We stayed at 160 different farmhouses, never a penny spent for lodging. The people just opened their arms to us, me and this little biblical beast clip-clopping on black roads. School children would come pouring out of the classrooms to greet us everywhere we went. She was my meal ticket, and I—“
“I was invincible.”
He hastens to add, “Delusional, but invincible.”
Last of the Donkey Pilgrims, is in its 19th print run. Kevin O’Hara is also author of A Lucky Irish Lad, about growing up in Pittsfield (thedonkeyman.com).