The wolf of John Street: Omagh man Chris McGale on cathartic new memoir The Humpty Dumpty Man: A Life Rebuilt
In 1988, Omagh man Chris McGale was on the brink of death following a horrific car crash. A decade later, he was earning a million dollars a year with investment banking giants Merrill Lynch in London. He tells David Roy about penning his remarkable story in new memoir The Humpty Dumpty Man: A Life Rebuilt
THE Humpty Dumpty Man: A Life Rebuilt is the remarkable story of one Omagh man's journey from tragic orphan to superstar stockbroker and his life-changing brush with death along the way.
Chris McGale (57) lost both parents to cancer: his mother Kate, a midwife, died when he was 12, nine years after his publican father, John. Shortly after the seven McGale children became orphans, Chris and his older brother Paul were forced out of their local Christian Brothers Grammar School. Branded a troublemaker, Paul's scholarship was revoked shortly after he was badly beaten by a lay teacher.
By 16, Paul was a fully fledged alcoholic. From there, the brothers' occasionally violent relationship became increasingly strained to the point that they eventually became estranged for many years.
As Chris writes in his new memoir, "I wanted Paul to be my hero, but ended up hating him".
A junior Tyrone County Champion boxer who competed in four finals, as a teen Chris was less interested in his studies than working at the family pub, Kate's Bar on John Street, and developing the betting skills he'd honed from an early age while acting as pub 'bookie'. His photographic memory came in handy when studying horse racing form and, just a few years later, the stock market. The 'controlled aggression' the Omagh man learned in the boxing ring would also play its part in his success with investment banking giants Merrill Lynch in London, enabling him to become one of their top earners during the 1990s.
Chris would eventually return to education via Omagh Tech, going on to graduate from Queen's University Belfast in Economics with Accountancy before being recruited by Ulster Investment Bank in Dublin. Then, in 1988, came a near-fatal head-on car crash with a lorry. It left the then 25-year-old Co Tyrone man with horrific physical injuries: one of his surgeons at the Ulster Hospital dubbed the heavily scarred Chris "my Humpty Dumpty man". There was also lingering emotional trauma from the accident, which he finally came to terms with in the writing of his compelling and evocative new memoir, available via Amazon now.
However, you almost didn't get the chance to read it.
"Initially, I wrote this book three times after leaving the City," explains Chris, who recovered from his accident to return to work and then join the UK HQ of US firm Merrill Lynch. He eventually became country manager for Ireland and then an MD on a million-dollar salary, before burning out and 'retiring' in 2002 aged 39.
"Along the way, I had an evening meeting at a restaurant with literary agent Mark Lucas, who discovered Andy McNabb [Bravo Two Zero]. When I turned up, Mark was with JK Rowling's literary agent, Christopher Little, who was obviously completely p****d.
"I started my pitch – but 30 seconds in, Christopher Little lifts his head and says: 'oh no, not another f***ing Irish sob story'. I never wrote another word for eight years after that."
Oddly, McGale's horrific near-death smash on the A1 between Newry and Dundalk in 1988 also turned out to be the catalyst for finally getting his life story on to the page: in late 2013, he revisited the crash site and the nearby home of the Cosgrove family, whose daughter Karen, a nurse, had pulled him from the smouldering wreckage to administer life-saving first aid.
It proved to be a pivotal pilgrimage, triggering crucial memories of the accident he had been too traumatised to recall 25 years earlier – memories which finally confirmed he had not been at fault for the collision.
"It was absolutely shocking, I was crying for heaven's sake," recalls Chris of this psychological breakthrough, which also resuscitated his memoir.
"When I started writing about my flashback, I realised it was of a much higher standard than what I'd written before – so I went back and did a massive 12,000 word hatchet job."
At the heart of The Humpty Dumpty Man is the author's seemingly innate determination to succeed on his own terms – or, as he describes it, to be the guy "making all the decisions".
"In every walk of life, I wanted to be the guy out in front – always," says London-based Chris, a father of four who lives in Chiswick with his partner Niamh – described lovingly in the book as a "million dollar wife" – and currently runs the property orientated Tyrone Capital Partners Ltd.
"I've always had a single-mindedness, a desire to succeed."
Of course, he had help along the way: in the absence of his father, a number of 'significant males' played key roles in Chris's life, including his former headmaster at St Pat's Omagh (and Tyrone senior football legend), Donal Donnelly, QUB economics lecturer Victor Hewitt and Paul Roy of Merrill Lynch, who gave the Irishman his start in London back in the late 1980s.
"The first was really Noel O'Reilly," he tells me. "He was the Christian Brother who basically put me through my paces to pass the 11-plus, which no-one at home was going to do. I also got a sense of 'self' from him in relation to being given authority and responsibility for running the school tuck shop, which I easily adopted – these were natural things for me.
"I'd learned from a very early age how to 'persuade' people. From selling raffle tickets in the pub, I knew I already had the ability to sell, which I later applied to multi-million-pound share trades. In the City, you had to have utter conviction in your decisions in order to get someone to open up a £50m position on a phone call – you really needed to believe in yourself."
Another huge moment for Chris was Paul's death in 2007, at the age of 46. As he admits in the book, his relationship with his estranged elder sibling had been so fractious that he did not even feature in the initial drafts. In fact, it was only when he actually came to write about the day of Paul's funeral that he felt any sense of closure.
"Writing about Paul was the hardest thing of all," admits Chris. "I had to deal with many demons – I had a fair degree of guilt about how I treated him, but also a lot of anger. He'd never been the brother I wanted him to be, but that wasn't his responsibility.
"It wasn't until I actually wrote the words that I got the final catharsis from it. Once I'd finally written that, that's when it felt like 'OK, there's no more evolution – it's done'."
Having set out to pen The Humpty Dumpty Man nearly 20 years ago, Chris tells me that completing the book has been a major milestone in an already hugely eventful life.
"It was actually quite a euphoric moment, the end of 18 years of writing," he marvels. "That's quite a lot of self-analysis. I've probably saved a fortune in therapy!"
With an Audible audiobook version read by actor and fellow Omagh man Colm Gormley now available, Chris's next step is for his story to get the docudrama treatment: discussions with Belfast based Fine Point Films (No Stone Unturned, Bobby Sands: 66 Days) and others are ongoing.
But who will star?
"Back in the day, I used to say Ewan McGregor," chuckles Chris. "But now, maybe someone like Jamie Dornan? He's a fabulous actor and seems like the loveliest guy too."
Now that would make for an interesting new chapter in this so-called "Irish sob story".