Meet The Liberator

Sunday Independent, 29 April 2012

He’s a Karate Kid from the Liberties who suffered sexual abuse, poverty and a long list of personal tragedies. Despite these obstacles, Derek O’Neill has transformed countless lives worldwide and now rubs shoulders with Christina Aguilera and Simon Cowell. Here, he talks about following in the footsteps of Bono and Winston Churchill…

By Dave Kenny

You’ve never heard of Derek O’Neill. By his own admission, he is one of Ireland’s best-kept secrets. But for the past 15 years, Liberties-born Derek has been quietly transforming the lives of countless people.

After witnessing devastating poverty in India, he set up the charitable SQ (Spiritual Quotient) Foundation to build schools, hospitals and other practical institutions in the world’s poorest regions.

It now operates in 11 countries, and 97 per cent of all money raised goes directly to source. Derek absorbs most of the administration costs. To date, he has helped more than 35,000 children.

He should be a household name for his humanitarian work, yet most of us have never heard of him.

Derek’s also an author, transformational therapist, motivational speaker and adviser to some of the world’s top business leaders. He rubs shoulders with Samuel L Jackson, Morgan Freeman and Christina Aguilera. Oh, and he knows Simon Cowell. If you don’t think that’s an impressive CV, then keep it to yourself. You don’t want to annoy Derek: he’s also a master of the martial arts.

Next Sunday, Derek will be honoured with Variety International’s prestigious humanitarian award at its world conference gala dinner in Dublin. Past recipients have included Winston Churchill, Bono, Henry Kissinger and Frank Sinatra. The accolade may finally bring him out of the shadows where he’s been labouring so long.

Forty-eight-year-old Derek is not what you would expect in a man who was raised by an alcoholic widow and has braved poverty, sexual abuse and the perils of kung fu fighting. He is gentle, eloquent and has surprisingly small hands for a warrior. They look more suited to arts and crafts than the craft of martial arts. His neatly cropped hair is a reminder of his time in the army.

“I was born with a full mop of black hair – they called me the fifth Beatle when I popped out of my mother on the dance floor,” he jokes, referring to the fact that he was born at Dublin’s Rainbow Club disco.

One of seven siblings, Derek comes from a classically poor Liberties background. “My dad worked in Jacob’s earning just the basic wage. There were nine of us in a one-bedroomed ‘artisan dwelling’. We took turns sharing the bed,” he laughs.

He was a loner as a child and would sit by himself in Patrick’s Park or down by the Dodder all day, meditating. His love of solitude and the outdoors earned him the familial nickname of “Nature Boy”. It also earned him some unwanted – and scarring – attention.

“We lived close to the Iveagh Lodgings and there would often be ‘dirty old men’, destitutes, hanging around. When I was six, I went to the toilet in Patrick’s Park and was sexually assaulted by one of them.”

Teenage sweethearts: Derek and Linda pictured in Arizona

His experience of sexual abuse didn’t confine itself to St Patrick’s Park. Derek’s brother Brian was raped and beaten in the notorious Letterfrack Industrial School.

He had been sent there for three years after “borrowing” the local butcher’s bike. He was eight years old.

“Brian was a fun-loving boy and just wanted a go on the bike. The butcher thought he was trying to steal it. He had a horrible time in Letterfrack and used to be beaten with a hurley and sexually abused.

“Brian developed alcohol and drug problems in later life. He was one of the first people to sue the religious orders and won his case in 2004. He left the courtroom and had a heart attack. A few days later, he died. It was as if he had been holding on for years to have his day in court.”

In 1970, the O’Neill family moved to Tallaght. His father was told, in neo-Cromwellian fashion, to go to the fields of Belgard or lose his job.

“It was like an ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Liberties. My mother absolutely hated it. She was a real Liberties woman. I, on the other hand, loved it as I hadn’t been ‘Libertised’. There were open fields and rivers, and I made new friends.”

The O’Neill’s new house had all the ‘mod cons’. “We had a cooker with an electric ring. Back in John Dillon Street we had had a gas cooker. I remember my sister once put me up on the gas rings to tie my laces. They hadn’t cooled down fully and I burned my backside. I’ll always remember that gas cooker.”

Derek’s new life in Tallaght wasn’t all idyllic. At the age of 10 he was sexually abused a second time.

“One day this man followed me into a toilet to rape me. I could feel him between my legs. I ran home and told my dad. He didn’t believe me.” Brian eventually persuaded him to investigate Derek’s claim. The abuser subsequently moved out of the area. Derek later heard he had died of cancer.

“Years later, when I was 18, I spotted the man on a train. He was supposed to be dead. I asked if he knew who I was. ‘Sort of’, he replied. I lost control and started beating him. The older me was finally able to stand up for the younger me.”

Shortly after this, Derek entered the army. He hated it and left after six years, in his mid-20s with a wife (Linda) and two kids (Gavin and Orla) to provide for. “I did a bit of everything I could. I cleaned windows, cut grass…” His gardening work led him, indirectly, to seek psychotherapy.

“I had a terrible phobia about wasps, so I went to a psychotherapist. During our session I remembered that there had been a wasp in the toilet when the man tried to rape me. That was when I knew I needed therapy to deal with the abuse.

“I didn’t have any money and discovered that it was cheaper to study to become a therapist than pay for more sessions. There were social welfare grants.” Three years later, Derek was running a successful practice with a nine-month waiting list.

In 1998, Derek and Linda travelled to India for a holiday. The journey would change their lives. “We flew into Madras and while we were pushing through the crowds, we noticed a group of street children. We thought they were playing in a sandpit. It turned out they were amputees. We were told that criminal gangs inject these children with bleach to deform them. It makes them more valuable as beggars.

“Linda and I decided that, from then on, we would just take what money we needed to live on and give the rest to charity.” They went on to raise millions for the impoverished children of the subcontinent.

“The worst thing I have ever seen was a toddler with leprosy. I picked him up and his flesh fell off – practically his entire arm. There were villages full of children like him.” Derek’s spiritual nature and psychological training helped him to cope when faced with such horrors.

Yet another horror – 9/11 – drew Derek to New York, where he held his first ‘More Truth Will Set You Free’ psychology-meets-spirituality workshop. He now tours the United States, sharing his experiences with thousands of people and “empowering them to help themselves, as I have done”.

He even helped Spiderman find his mojo again. Derek was called in after the disastrous opening of Bono’s Broadway musical to “harmonise” the show’s cast and producers. The show went on to become a success.

Between their charity work and Derek’s burgeoning US career, the O’Neills appeared to have it all. That all changed on August 25, 2008.

“I fell in love with Linda when I was 18. We just knew we were for each other. Less than a year later, we were married. She was my right arm. Four years ago, I got a call from Orla who said Linda had a headache and didn’t look great. She was taken to hospital, where she was diagnosed with a migraine and sent home.

“Three days later Linda was dead. She was only 47.”

How do you move on from the death of your teenage sweetheart? Derek’s answer is, unsurprisingly, philosophical: “Death is part of life. We should cry when someone is born and celebrate when they die. Heaven is your rest after the hell of this world.”

I confess to being sceptical about aphorisms like this and the New Age methods of healing his website offers. I tell Derek I have an aphorism of my own, for would-be criminals. “It’s better to find the joy locked inside yourself, than find yourself locked inside The Joy.”

He laughs and it’s easy to see how he attracts thousands to his workshops. He’s instantly likeable. When he says that receiving the Variety Club gong will be the “proudest moment of my career”, there is no doubting his sincerity.

The award came about after a chance meeting with Kevin and Betty Wall of Variety Club Ireland.

“They told me they wanted to buy a Liberty Swing. These enable paraplegic kids to experience the playground thrill of swinging. I was so moved I promised to buy one for every county in Ireland. Kevin (who has since passed away) nominated me for the award. I didn’t think I had a chance of winning it. Hopefully, it will raise awareness here of the SQ Foundation,” he says.

Hopefully, it will raise awareness of this extraordinary Dub as well. He deserves to be recognised.

We shake hands and he leaves to enjoy a day off at Punchestown races. No one takes any notice of this ultimate “secret millionaire” as he exits the bar. Nobody knows who he is.

They do now.

dave@davekenny.com

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Owner of iconic Dalkey bookshop recalls 36 years among the covers

‘I once discounted a book for Colin Farrell. He looked like he was on his uppers,’ says Bono’s bookseller

Irish Daily Mail, 17 April 2012

By Dave Kenny

He’s sold books to Bono and Maeve Binchy, and been mentioned in despatches from the Middle East. Declining book sales, however, have forced Michael Simonds to turn the final page on Dalkey’s iconic Exchange Bookshop.

“This is not a decision I’m taking on a whim. I’ve been here since 1975 and would have liked to have carried on. The books trade is in a state of flux. Sales are down 30pc on two years ago and more people are buying online. I don’t blame them. I think people want to support their local bookshop, but sometimes it’s just not convenient,” he says, with trademark charity.

Despite the popularity of Kindle and iPad, he still believes in the “technology” of books.

“One of my customers showed me a 14th century book he owns. That technology has stood the test of time. Even a stone house will eventually fall down. Where does that leave emails in the future? People were trading books hundreds of years ago. My misfortune was to be born at the end of 500 years of publishing.”

With the closure of the Exchange, the Dalkey Book Festival will find itself without a bookshop this year. In June, thousands of tourists will flock to the village to spot their favourite authors. Maeve Binchy, Neil Jordan, Declan Hughes, Martina Devlin, Brian Keenan, Joe O’Connor, Don Conroy and Sarah Webb, all live within walking distance of the shop. As one local sardonically points out, “you can’t throw a stick down the main street without hitting a writer. And there are plenty of writers we’d like to hit with sticks around here…”

Michael is concerned that his departure will leave a literary void. “The library is closing for three months too. The village won’t have an obvious book outlet for the festival. It will be a bit odd.”

Closed book: Michael Simonds locks up his world-renowned bookshop

His shop – which has featured in several books, including BBC journalist John Simpson’s autobiography – has served some literary giants over the years. Curmudgeonly playwright, Hugh Leonard, was a regular.

“He exchanged books here right up to his death. He was great, but could be quite brusque sometimes. Once, I didn’t get him a book he wanted and he wrote about me in his column. I thought it was like cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer.”

On another occasion, the widow of a legendary politician gave him a tongue-lashing over his accent. Michael comes from a privileged, Anglo-Irish background and professes to be “West Brit, but Irish”. Referring to the War of Independence, the lady told Michael that “we should have shot the lot of you”.

The vast majority of celebrity customers have been pleasant, however. “Bono has come in a few times, but I wouldn’t necessarily recognise him. I’m very short-sighted,” he explains.

“One day a young man came in and bought a book about a French actor. He was scruffy and very Bohemian-looking. I thought he was a poet on his uppers, so I gave him a discount. Someone later told me he was Colin Farrell.”

Once, Michael witnessed a world-famous customer being ‘collared’ by the law. The actor had parked his BMW outside the shop.

“Minutes later the door opened and a guard asked whose car was on the double yellow lines. Pierce Brosnan popped up and said ‘it’s mine’. The guard made him move it. Fair play to him, he didn’t care that he was James Bond.”

Celebrities and locals alike are saddened by the passing of the Exchange. “People around are lovely, they’ve been so kind,” says Michael, pointing to a row of wine bottles behind the counter.

“We’re losing an institution. Dublin lost Green’s and Dalkey is now losing Michael,” said Liz, a local lady stocking up on last-minute bargains. Her fellow resident, Ryan Tubridy agrees, and believes the picturesque village is losing its “nerdy hub”.

“Losing a bookshop from a village like Dalkey is like having the brain removed. It needs a nerdy hub like the Exchange. It’s one thing ordering a book on Amazon, but Michael spoke to customers about authors, titles and the village itself. I hope some local has the sense to invest in the bookshop.”

Author, Brian Keenan, says he is “stunned” at the closure of his favourite shop. “The Exchange is one of the reasons I come down to the village. I can’t believe it’s closing. My abiding memory of the place is the day, years ago, when I went in to use the photocopier. I looked up and there was the journalist, Robert Fisk, asking Michael for directions.”

They hadn’t seen each other since Beirut, where Fisk had spent years writing about Keenan’s captivity in Lebanon.

“I said ‘what are you doing here?’” said Keenan, “and he said ‘What are YOU doing here?’ We both laughed.”

Fisk uses the shop as a post office, according to Michael. “He has his mail sent here when he’s away reporting.”

Michael has a particular affection for journalists, especially those who used to bring in review copies of books over the years.

“Many years ago I applied for a wine licence. I think wine and books go well together. A lot of the journalists who came in were heavy drinkers. I thought, if they came in with a book, for an extra three pounds they could trade it for a bottle of wine.”

Dreams of Bohemian hacks sipping wine and reading Maeve Binchy in the shop were quashed by the aptly-named Judge Hubert Wine.

‘Bohemian’ is word that sits uneasily on Michael’s shoulders, although he is undoubtedly a ‘creative’ himself. Prior to being a bookseller he was a published songwriter. Music runs in the family and his sister Clodagh has played with the likes of Thin Lizzie and Mike ‘Tubular Bells’ Oldfield. There is always music playing in the background at the Exchange. A box of tin whistles is perched on the higher reaches of shelves at the back of the shop. Ballad books sit alongside whimsical histories of Dublin and Lady Gregory’s Irish folk tales.

“It seems odd, as a bookseller, not to be ordering in new stock,” he says wistfully, looking at his soon-to-disassembled shelves. “I’ll be giving a lot of those books to charity.”

After 36 years of selling books, Michael plans to spend the next chapter of his life writing and publishing them. He has already produced two glossy tourist guidebooks which sell for €3. He will miss chatting to his customers though.

“Kids I sold to back in the 1970s have grown up with the Exchange, and now come in with their children. I’ll miss them all.

“I’m sad to be closing, but I’m looking forward to retirement. There are a lot of things I’d still like to do. I’d really like to learn how to play golf,” he says, clocking up his very last sale on the till.

“Let’s say €8.00 for that,” he tells his final customer, discounting a book by 50pc. He walks them to the door as a group of locals arrive with a book-shaped cake. Even in retirement there is no getting away from books. Inevitable gags are cracked about “eating his words” as Michael says his farewells.

He turns the key. Another chapter in Dublin’s history comes to an end.

* If you have any memories of the Exchange Bookshop, I’d love to hear them. Please write them up on the comments page, below. *

Stir crazy: Dublin coffee shop charges 20c for plastic spoons

Longer version of Irish Dail Mail article, 14 April 2012

Dave Kenny

They’ve suffered the Electrical Equipment Levy, the Income Levy and the Household Levy. Now Dubliners are being asked to pay another ‘tax’ … the Spoon Levy.

Commuters at Pearse train station are being driven stir crazy by the apparent ‘tightness’ of its café. ‘SoBu’ is now charging an extra 20c for spoons to stir their lattes with. On top of recent fares hikes, it’s left many travellers ‘frothing’.

So, are these spoons made of finest Newbridge silver? Or could this just be Ireland’s meanest café? The Irish Daily Mail decided to investigate.

There was no sign of Dublin’s most expensive spoons at the cash desk as we queued for our fix. What would they look like, we wondered? Then we spotted them – well out of reach of spoon thieves – behind the counter.

“That will be €1.80,” said the pleasant assistant, handing us our regular tea. Do you charge for spoons, we asked, pointing at the stirring implements.

“Well actually, yes, sorry.” Was this charge based on a desire to save the environment, we asked? Like the plastic bag levy?

“No, everyone asks for a plastic spoon, so management said to charge 20c for each of them.”

But surely the price of €1.80 for a paper cup, sugar, hot water and a teabag (with optional splash of milk) should also cover a spoon? Is it not a bit mean, we asked.

“We have to pay for the spoons,” he patiently explained. “If you buy food – for example, soup – then we can give you a spoon for free.” We didn’t like to point out that it’s rather difficult to eat soup without a spoon.

Not wanting to embarrass him any further, we asked if we could see the manager. Unfortunately, she wasn’t available to explain the ‘levy’.

We took our plastic purchase outside to examine it. There was no gold leaf or added embellishment for our 20c. Disappointed, we decided to ask our fellow commuters what they thought of the Spoon Levy.

“Were they being stolen by junkies to ‘cook up’ their fixes?” one traveller asked. We explained that this was unlikely, given that plastic spoons tend to melt with the application of flame.

Is it to do with litter, asked another. We hunted the platform for discarded spoons. There were none. Perhaps punters were taking them home, as we did, planning an evening of egg-and-plastic-spoon races.

By now, we were eager to know the true value of our spoon (for insurance purposes). Google revealed that a pack of 100 plastic dessert spoons costs €2.17 on http://www.easyequipment.ie. That’s a miniscule 2.2c each, which means that SoBo’s spoons could be yielding up to an 890pc profit. There’s money to be made from spoons  – in spades.

So, is SoBo the meanest café in Ireland? We tried, but were unable, to get a response to this from the company behind it, Sanrex Pearse Trading.

We did note, however, that the Dublin firm is based at a seemingly appropriate address: Ebeneezer Drive.