Barney Rosset's
TRIP OF A LIFETIME
by Frank Shouldice


Samuel Beckett and Barney Rosset
© Bob Adelman

For Barney Rosset it was a special sort of homecoming. The inveterate publisher behind Grove Press had been invited as a guest speaker at Trinity College Dublin to mark the 50th anniversary of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. As Beckett's American publisher and close friend, it was fitting that Barney Rosset should be invited. Indeed this first trip to Ireland would become a journey of immense personal significance to Rosset, revisiting the land of his grandparents.

"I've put off this trip for 81 years," remarked the 81-year old publisher, whose connection with Ireland began long before he even heard of Samuel Beckett. Both his maternal grandparents - Roger Tansey (Galway) and Margaret Flannery (Mayo) - met in the U.S. where they married and settled in Marquette, Michigan.

His grandfather, a laborer-turned-contractor, made quite an impression on the young boy. "The story was he had left Ireland under threat of death by the British," says Rosset, not bothered whether or not the story was true. "He was loved in the neighborhood even though it wasn't an Irish neighborhood. He was just a marvelous person."

Barney's mother Mary Tansey worked in a Chicago bank where she met Barney Rosset, a man of Russian-Jewish extraction. Their only child relates with glee how his mother once "won a piano in a beauty contest." He also recalls spending time in Marquette and listening to his grandparents converse at home in Irish.

Rosset began re-excavating those genealogical roots just over a decade ago. He located the relevant documents and received his Irish passport from consular offices in New York. Ironically, by the time he got around to using it, the passport had expired. He applied for a new one and on arrival asked immigration officials to stamp it as a keepsake.

I first met Barney Rosset in 1988 in Manhattan. We became friends over the years and of all associations that come to mind the enduring image would be rum and Coke. The last time we met was in New York when he wished me a safe trip home, bestowing his blessing with a cocktail glass in his hand. And here we are five years later, on my patch this time, in Dublin. Rosset arrives into the hotel lobby holding a pint glass of rum and Coke. I suggest to him there's a certain continuity about all of this and he laughs that familiar laugh, a swift combination of head-back dry chuckle followed by a shrug-forward intake of breath.

Technically speaking, this was his second time in Ireland. He recalls stepping briefly onto the tarmac at Shannon Airport in 1948 en route to Italy. He sees that Dublin today is growing fast, it's both modern and ancient but just another European city. The Chicagoan may be a naturalized New Yorker but drop him in Ireland this time round and the West is already calling.

Even so, when he addresses the student gathering at Trinity, Barney Rosset feels the emotion sweep up in waves. Beckett, his old friend, was once a student within these walls. The publisher produces his newly-minted Irish passport from an inside pocket, indicating he's here, at last. The moment passes. As soon as he finishes his speech he's done with Dublin and is itching to retrace his ancestral path due west.

NEXT