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Memoir by John McGahern (b. 1935)



Dreamy days of mother blurred by memories of a raging father


Reviewed by Bob Blaisdell


Sunday, February 12, 2006


All Will Be Well

A Memoir

By John McGahern

KNOPF; 289 PAGES; $25

The Irish author John McGahern's novels are about the continuing presence of the past, and in them he carefully and patiently describes families dominated by explosive fathers or young men damaged by childhood, lost in existential romantic crises. His best and brightest work, "Amongst Women," is about a raging, aging father surrounded by but refusing to contemplate the ghosts of his past in the persons of his second wife and four daughters.

"All Will Be Well," McGahern's first memoir, is one of the finest evocations of a writer's childhood parental relationships since Edmund Gosse's great "Father and Son" a hundred years ago. He recalls, with joy and sadness, his boyhood walks with his mother, who, he didn't know then, was dying of cancer:

"My mother named these flowers for me as we walked, and sometimes we stopped and picked them for the jam jars. I must have been extraordinarily happy walking that lane to school. There are many such lanes all around where I live, and in certain rare moments over the years while walking in these lanes I have come into an extraordinary sense of security, a deep peace, in which I feel that I can live forever. I suspect it is no more than the actual lane and the lost lane becoming one for a moment in an intensity of feeling, but without the usual attendants of pain and loss."

The memoir covers much of the ground, literally and figuratively, of "Amongst Women" and "By the Lake" (his most recent novel) and is characteristically modest and unassuming in tone, and as beautifully and deliberately composed as a mosaic. McGahern allows us to know and accept him as he remembers himself, as the oldest boy of the family of seven children not knowing their mother is dying. About a stretch when his mother was back home from the hospital and apparently well, McGahern reflects: "I am sure it is from those days that I take the belief that the best of life is lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything."

She died when he was 9, and so "precious" are his memories of her that McGahern evokes them drop by drop: "We grow into an understanding of the world gradually. Much of what we come to know is far from comforting, that each day brings us closer to the inevitable hour when all will be darkness again, but even that knowledge is power and all understanding is joy, even in the face of dread, and cannot be taken from us until everything is."

The second half of the book gets us into the hairier, more difficult (if not downright impossible) relationship he has with his father, a sergeant of the guardsmen who policed independent Ireland's quiet country villages. McGahern senior is the spitting image of Moran, the King Learish hero of "Amongst Women." The frustrated father is the chaos of the universe. What McGahern knows of his father's character and actions has managed, in spite of the author's 70 years, to remain shocking to him, continuously amazing. He and his sisters have found no end to their memories of his grand brutality and histrionic self-pity, and so customary were his bouts that they would parody him: "O God, O God, O God. ... What did I do to deserve such a cross? I'll put yous into a bag like Toby. I'll sail yous out under the arches of Cootehall Bridge. I'll have peace at last." McGahern's loving mother is remembered in divine light, as perfect as a child's memory could be of a kindly mother who died and left him to the world's (and father's) care. He dreamed with her of his becoming a priest (the church was one of the few viable job options besides civil service in the Ireland of the 1950s), but he found even more refuge in the countryside, animals, books -- anything as long as it got him away from his father's mad orbit: "My father's world went inwards to darkness and violence, lies and suppression: the school, the library, the river, the Church, all went outwards, to light and understanding, freedom and joy."

We see the father becoming the touchstone of everything McGahern has striven not to be. And yet McGahern, after several years in England, returned to Ireland to settle an arm's length from his father's turf, seemingly always as self-deprecating, sensitive and insightful as his father was egotistical, harsh and blind. But if the father was a monster, he is at the same time more alive, more real, than anyone else in McGahern's life, fiction and memoir:

"I knew him better by then than I knew any living person, and yet I had never felt I understood him, so changeable was he, so violent, so self-absorbed, so many-faced. If it is impossible to know oneself, since we cannot see ourselves as we are seen, then it may be almost as difficult to understand those close to us, whether that closeness be of enmity or love or their fluctuating tides."

Bob Blaisdell edited "The Wit and Wisdom of Anthony Trollope" (Blackthorn Press) and "Irish Verse: An Anthology" (Dover).


February 26, 2006

All Will Be Well: A Memoir,' by John McGahern

Safe in Her Shadow


IMAGINE a flock of birds somewhere in the west of Ireland, suddenly rising from a hayfield and settling in a line on a telephone wire. That's something like the effect of reading John McGahern's powerful memoir, in which the fragments of the life that lies scattered across his remarkable novels and stories seem to disentangle themselves from their embodying fictions and come home to roost.

If you've read McGahern before, you'll already know his territory — the fields and rivers, the villages and bogs. And you'll know both the subtlety and the plainness of the people who live here, on the border of County Leitrim and County Roscommon. If you haven't read McGahern before, this is a good place to start, at the heart of a lyric grief and an embittering passion.

The grief is for his mother, a teacher who died of cancer when McGahern, the oldest child in his oddly sorted family, was still a boy. They lived in a small bungalow outside the village of Ballinamore in County Leitrim. McGahern's father — a police sergeant and an occasional visitor in a blue Ford — lived 20 miles away in the barracks at Cootehall. Theirs was an unequal contest for the child's affections, made all the more unequal by his father's violent and unstable character. McGahern's young life was shaped by this imbalance: knowing one parent too briefly and the other (as far as he could be known at all) far too well.

"People did not live in Ireland then," McGahern writes. "They lived in small, intense communities which often varied greatly in spirit and character over the course of even a few miles." In his fiction, McGahern is one of Ireland's supreme topographers, mapping the nuances of minute shifts in neighborhood and class. The singular accomplishment of "All Will Be Well" is to show us, with almost blinding emotional clarity, the small, intense community of a particular young boy growing up in a certain set of fields and lanes by the side of his dying mother, a boy tortured, at irregular intervals, by the attentions, desirable and undesirable, of his parsimonious yet emotionally wasteful father. McGahern has hinted at all of this before — in his stories, in novels like "The Barracks" and "The Dark." But here he takes up his own life in his own hands.

I don't know another writer who grounds his fiction as inevitably in the natural world. Neither foreground nor background, it has no emotional fallacies to perpetrate on McGahern's behalf. It is simply the stuff of perception itself. In "All Will Be Well," McGahern reminds us of the way our appreciation of nature is grounded in repetition. The lanes near Ballinamore are overgrown with hedges, "and in the full leaf of summer," he tells us, "it is like walking through a green tunnel pierced by vivid pinpoints of light." What makes those lanes even more vivid is McGahern's memory of walking along them with his mother.

Woman and boy beat a long path through their short life together, and it is the familiarity of that path — its persistent emotional echo — that McGahern wants us to understand. "With her each morning," he writes of her walks with her young family, "we went up the cinder footpath to the little iron gate, past Brady's house and pool and the house where the old Mahon brothers lived, past the deep, dark quarry and across the railway bridge and up the hill by Mahon's shop to the school, and returned the same way in the evening."

That simple route recurs like a litany in "All Will Be Well." Walking by his mother's side — after she returns from an inexplicable absence and in the dim foreknowledge of her death — he is "safe in her shadow." The doubleness of that phrase — the fact that as a grown man he is still safe, even in the shadow of her death — haunts the book and also McGahern's understanding of life's purpose: "I am sure it is from those days that I take the belief that the best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything."

From the reassuring mystery of his mother's love, the boy was suddenly plunged at her death into the impenetrable mystery of his father's overbearing presence. "Which of us knows who we are?" the neighbors said evasively when McGahern, later in life, asked them about his father. "He had a physical attractiveness that practically glowed," McGahern explains, "but seldom was he able to sustain it: he demanded that the whole outside world should reflect it perfectly back. Once this mirror dimmed or failed, his mood would turn."

The cardinal elements of this man's being were vanity and self-pity, which is all the more striking since McGahern's dying mother seems never to have grieved for herself. That the core of such a brutal man, so ready to beat his children, should turn out to be cowardice and weakness hardly seems surprising. Until the boy comes of age and stands up to his father, the children's only defense is their wicked mockery of a grown man — and a police sergeant at that — bemoaning his fate.

The course of "All Will Be Well" takes us through the writer's life, almost down to the present. And yet what makes this memoir so moving is its insistence — shared with many of McGahern's stories and novels — on the power of the single day that passes before us. For McGahern, daily routine is the root of our being, the arena of our noticing. It has an ontological glow, as if life were best understood in the episodic rhythms of daylight and darkness.

It is also a rhythm of expectation and disappointment. That is the world McGahern describes in his short story "Sierra Leone": "The rich uses we dreamed last night when it was threatened that we would put it to if spared were now forgotten, when again it lay all about us in such tedious abundance." But the day can also be one of epiphany, as in "The Wine Breath": "This, then, was the actual day, the only day that mattered, the day from which our salvation had to be won or lost: it stood solidly and impenetrably there, denying the weak life of the person, with nothing of the eternal other than it would dully endure."

There must, of course, come a day when the dying are removed into a separateness all their own. As a boy, McGahern clung to his mother, to the paths they walked. But as a man he comes to understand the true nature of her vanishing. "Those who are dying," he writes, "are marked not only by themselves but by the world they are losing. They have become the other people who die and threaten the illusion of endless continuity. Life goes on, but not for the dying, and this must be hidden or obscured or denied. . . . All the pious platitudes are like a covering of dust or chaff."

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes editorials for The New York Times. His new book, "Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile," has just been published.

February 26, 2006

The story of his life

All Will Be Well A Memoir John McGahern Alfred A. Knopf: 294 pp., $25

By Thomas McGonigle, Thomas McGonigle is the author of "Going to Patchogue" and "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."

THE standing army of Irish poets, in Patrick Kavanagh's felicitous phrase, is ever expanding, but the number of field marshals of modern Irish prose is decidedly fewer and simpler to name: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O'Brien, Francis Stuart, Aidan Higgins and the youngest among them, John McGahern.

McGahern was treated as an heir to this powerful lineage with the publication of his first novel, "The Barracks" (1963), which takes place in a rural police station and focuses on an abusive father and his children. With his second novel, "The Dark" (1965), McGahern established himself as a controversial writer because of the book's overtones and hints of inappropriate intimate relations between a young man, his father and a priest.

The subsequent banning of the book by the censorship board in Ireland and McGahern's marriage to a divorced woman (resulting in his dismissal as a primary school teacher in Dublin) gave him an unnervingly lurid reputation. Today all of that seems a long time ago and a little embarrassing in the aggressively secular and modishly trendy Ireland of 2006. Happily, McGahern's writing has endured. And so has he, living and writing on a farm in County Leitrim.

More than 30 years ago, I reviewed "Nightlines," McGahern's first collection of stories, and found his work to possess an acid-like incisiveness. No sentimentality, no coyness and no avoidance of the carnal wounds that people carry. His candor made other writers look dishonest. This was also true of the fiction that came after: "The Leavetaking," "The Pornographer," "The Collected Stories" and an award-winning novel of an Irish Republican Army veteran, "Amongst Women." My opinion even weathered the appearance of his most recent and rather bloated novel, "By the Lake," in 2002.

But with the publication of the memoir "All Will Be Well," the reader moves into a treacherous place. Only time will tell whether McGahern has ruined his reputation and the desire of readers ever to seek out the novels that gave him his place in the world. Those books are so boldly imagined that it comes as a shock to realize, with "All Will Be Well," that what we credited solely to McGahern's art draws much from his own life.

This is not to say that "All Will Be Well" is a poorly written book, a bad book, an unmoving book, an unfelt book. In fact, it would be easy to write a review praising McGahern's memoir — its words fill me with awful feelings of a powerless identification with McGahern, his brothers and sisters (he is the oldest of seven) and their bleak childhood.

From the moment of their births, the children endured a constant and unrelenting campaign of physical and psychological abuse by their policeman father. The memoir also relates McGahern's development as a writer and follows his movement from Ireland and back again. One of the milder moments of paternal abuse occurs when word comes that his mother has succumbed to breast cancer after many years of illness. Her death is at the core of this book, severing it into two. Their father, the teen McGahern and his sisters and brothers (some barely out of diapers) begin to say the rosary:

"The girls were confused by all the emotion and strangeness and had reverted to laughing again, looking at one another mischievously through latticed fingers, until my father paused and said, 'Can no respect be shown to the dead or do I have to enforce respect?' They were frightened and began crying again. 'Crying isn't respect. The respect your poor mother needs now is prayer.' "

"All Will Be Well" is an icy, meticulous delineation of the torment that a father inflicted upon his children. At the same time, McGahern creates a touching portrait of enduring Irish womanhood in the figure of his schoolteacher mother. When she's hospitalized for the first time, she writes to her husband: "Yes I know where I stand now and so God knows best. I am sure with His help I will be quite alright. I am not a bit worried about it at all … it is awfully good of you to fast and I think it is too much for you. But you know best. Still it is a lot to do. I place my trust in God knowing all will be well."

After the death of their mother, the children are taken care of by a series of housekeepers while McGahern notes the almost obscene eagerness of his father to find a new wife. By accident, McGahern does well in school and receives a scholarship to a top boarding school, then to a teachers college in Dublin, and discovers the artist's voice that both saves and banishes him.

But here is the mortal risk McGahern is taking with this book: Will his readers ever return to the novels, in particular "The Barracks" or "The Dark," if they now realize that those fictional records of abuse and pain were essentially autobiographical, a fact that McGahern denied at those rare times when he talked about it?

By saying little about his work, and by living abroad in England, Finland and the United States, McGahern allowed his work to represent itself, and he avoided being a public personality. The novels were read with little reference to him and became known as reliable touchstones of artistic daring because they insinuated readers into the intricate knot created between the abuser and the abused, the beater and the beaten. To follow the fiction with a memoir seems to fly in the face of the wisdom of Tolstoy, who started in autobiography and moved into the higher truth of fiction.

It is painful to quibble with McGahern's memoir. He gets so well the isolation, the sheer loneliness of Irish country life, the petty nastiness, the meanness, the stultifying hypocrisy of church and state. At the same time, he deftly describes the great consolation of religious faith, a faith separate from its priestly embodiment. The memoir seems, in spite of itself, to be a testament to the enduring comfort one may find in the practices of the Catholic Church (much like the novels of Georges Bernanos).

And yet, "All Will Be Well" stumbles because McGahern never once reflects on why he is writing this book: The reader assumes that McGahern must have decided to "tell the truth" and was no longer willing to allow his fiction to speak for him. He falls into a simple chronological narrative and the fake superficial authority that comes with this approach: It all presumes one has control of such material, that one can make sense of everything. We know life isn't that way. His novels and stories, on the other hand, require the engaged and active complicity of the thoughtful reader.

McGahern's enduring power as a storyteller remains in his stories, which invite collusion and imagination. Often I have heard in Ireland, from those with a historical bent, that time erases much of a writer's work and all anyone can hope for is to be remembered for a lyric (if that). I would send the reader to the brief "Korea" in McGahern's "The Collected Stories" for all that is great and good in his work: A father tries to cajole his son into immigrating to America because he has heard that, once the son is there he might get drafted and be killed in the line of duty — the father would be entitled to a large death benefit.

No one should be discouraged from reading "All Will Be Well," but any reader should plan to stop at the moment of the mother's death — what comes after that is the usual story of a clever boy from the provinces getting on in school, becoming a teacher, learning to write, the scandals, the divorce, the return to Ireland after years away. Of course, along this predictable route, the language is always stunning, and the final words of this review should be his: "We grow into an understanding of the world gradually. Much of what we come to know is far from comforting, that each day brings us closer to the inevitable hour when all will be darkness…. We grow into a love of the world, a love that is all the more precious and poignant because the great glory of which we are but a particle is lost almost as soon as it is gathered."


Jonathan Yardley
An Irish writer recalls learning how to live multiple lives.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 12, 2006; BW02

Now in his early seventies, John McGahern was born and reared in rural Ireland. His family's circumstances were modest but not impoverished. His father, Frank, was a sergeant in the police, known as the Garda Force, and his mother, Sue, was a schoolteacher. The place in which their large family lived was primitive: "There was no running water then, other than in streams or rivers, no electricity, no TV, very few radios, and when newspapers were bought they were shared between houses. Each locality lived within its own small world." Escape was difficult, yet McGahern made it in the larger world. He became a teacher himself, then a writer of novels and stories to whom recognition came early. He lived in many places, but three decades ago, he returned with his new wife to settle down in a house surrounded by fields that "have hardly changed at all since I ran and played and worked in them as a boy."

The obstacles he had to overcome in order to live as he wanted were far more formidable than place and circumstance. When he was 9 years old, his mother died after a long siege against breast cancer. Not merely was little Sean (as he was called) bereft at the loss of this kind, loving woman to whom he was utterly devoted, but suddenly he and his siblings had no cushion between themselves and their tyrannical, overbearing father. Frank McGahern "could be charming, even gallant, when he wanted," but he was utterly humorless and had a "calculating coldness." He could be brutal as well, and his little children were his victims:

"Young as we were, we were soon forming our own defences and adapting to the harsher laws of the world. We were very close together in years, and drew closer. Natural rivalries were suppressed. They couldn't be afforded. All our energies were concentrated on surviving under our father. . . . When there was a bad beating and the storm had died, we'd gather round whoever was beaten to comfort and affirm its unfairness, and it lessened our misery and gave strength to our anger. This gathering into a single band formed gradually over a number of years."

The children were sustained by each other and by the memory of their mother, who had given them "her practicality and quiet cheerfulness, and the unusual gift of making people feel better about themselves." She may not have been a saint, though she was deeply religious, but she had saint-like qualities that gave her children strength when they were most in need of it. She "often came to me as if in a dream," McGahern writes, a nearly palpable presence that enabled him to survive his father's many cruelties and in time to fight back against them.

From the above the reader will be tempted to conclude that All Will Be Well , though obviously well-written, is yet another memoir of childhood abuse and triumph over it. Nothing could be further from the case. Though that is indeed what happens here, as told by McGahern it bears no resemblance to the self-administered therapy undertaken by so many younger writers who seem to know nothing about life except their own childhoods and their real or imagined (or fabricated) agonies. McGahern understands that life is complicated and that no human being should be reduced to a caricature that serves the memoirist's purposes. His effort here is not to pillory his father but to understand him, to find the human being behind the petty despot.

"Your father is an actor," people often said to McGahern, and finally he realized the truth of that: "He was a man who acted out his life in parts and who lived out his life, as far as it was possible, in roles, nearly all of which he had abused while remaining protected within the role. He had set out as a gifted, difficult only child, both over-protected and spoiled, while remaining exposed to his mother's violent corrections." In his case, violence begot violence. His son believes that Frank McGahern was happiest when, well before his marriage, he fought for the Irish Republican Army, "where his propensity for violence was tempered by cold calculation and a keen sense of self-preservation." By contrast, his work with the Garda gave him little outlet -- "What work did they do? Occasionally they summonsed people for not having lights on their bicycles at night, for after-hours drinking, for assault, or trespass, owning unlicensed dogs, possessing fields of thistle, ragwort or dock" -- so he turned his fury on his children.

Like many other Irishmen of his day, Frank McGahern probably "married for sex." Because of "the power of the Church and the Church's teaching," sex outside marriage was forbidden: "There was no other way to have it. The result was usually the arrival of a large number of children in rapid succession. There were families in which the children were cherished, but many more where they were resented as unwanted mouths that had to be fed." Frank McGahern's family was one of these. Though Sue cherished her children, her husband vilified them: "We were made to feel a burden and to feel ashamed." In sudden rages, he treated the children as punching bags and scarcely lowered the level of violence when he was beating a girl rather than a boy.

By the time he was a young man himself, John McGahern "knew him better . . . than I knew any living person, and yet I felt I had never understood him, so changeable was he, so violent, so self-absorbed, so many-faced. If it is impossible to know oneself, since we cannot see ourselves as we are seen, then it may be almost as difficult to understand those close to us, whether that closeness be of enmity or love or their fluctuating tides." His relationship with his father did indeed fluctuate; there was love as well as hatred, times when the two were happy together and enjoyed each other's company, times when for whatever reason the father courted the son's affections and won them.

When Frank McGahern died, "the intensity of the conflicting emotions -- grief, loss, relief -- took me unawares," though even then "I cannot say I have fully understood him, and leave him now with God, or whatever truth or illusion or longing for meaning or comfort that word may represent." By contrast, no such conflict colors his memory of his mother. When she came back home after treatment for cancer, "it was as if my lost world was restored and made whole and given back," and the joy that he felt then remained with him ever after, a healing and restorative presence.

His mother hoped that he would become a priest and say Mass for her, but his life took a different direction. In his early teens, he discovered reading, "a strange and complete happiness when all sense of time is lost," much of which he did floating on the nearby river in a small boat. Gradually "a fantastical idea" formed in his mind: "Why take on any single life -- a priest, a soldier, teacher, doctor, airman -- if a writer could create all these people far more vividly? In that one life of the mind, the writer could live many lives and all of life. . . . Instead of being a priest of God, I would be the god of a small, vivid world. I must have had some sense of how outrageous and laughable this would appear to the world, because I told no one, but it did serve its first purpose -- it set me free."

McGahern has taken full advantage of that freedom. He has published six novels and four collections of short stories, received numerous honors and much well-deserved praise. He is regarded as one of Ireland's finest contemporary writers, not least because he writes about his native land with such clarity and honesty. His difficult childhood informs much of his work -- in particular his best-known novel, The Dark (1965) -- but in that as in this memoir, he seeks not to exploit his past but to understand it and to make it pertinent and meaningful to others. All Will Be Well is evidence enough of how well he has succeeded. ·

Jonathan Yardley is The Washington Post's book critic. His e-mail address is

Writer recalls a boy, country coming of age

By David Mehegan, Globe Staff  |  March 14, 2006

Everyone has a life and a true story to tell, but few have a story so full of pain and beauty as that of the revered Irish man of letters John McGahern.

Just published in America, McGahern's ''All Will Be Well" is partly the story of his coming of age, but more than that it's the story of his loving mother and brutish father and of Ireland as it once was, totally in the power of the Catholic Church. A milestone in the breaking of that power, vividly described in the book, involved McGahern himself.

In a 43-year career, McGahern has published six novels, including his most recent, ''By the Lake," two collections of short stories, and a play, mainly set in rural Ireland. He was to have been in Boston this week on a book tour but has been receiving treatment for cancer and had to cancel the trip. In a telephone interview yesterday from his farm in County Leitrim, where he lives with his wife, he talked about the writing of this family story.

''I never thought of writing it," said McGahern, 71, ''but in the last five or six years, people started writing about me and getting a lot of it wrong. And then my sisters found an extraordinary cache of letters in an attic. They brought them to me and asked me to write the book."

He was the oldest of seven children of Susan and Frank McGahern. Susan, a star of her family, received a university education by scholarship, and became a schoolteacher in the village of Aughawillan. Frank was a sergeant of the Gardai -- the national police -- who lived in the Cootehall barracks, 18 miles from his wife and children.

Two more contrary characters can scarcely be imagined. Susan was patient and kind, deeply religious, and according to her son, in an age when sadistic beatings were routine in schools, ''she would get into trouble because she never beat the children." But Frank was the sort of man who sees everything and everyone as instruments for his use. Though he could turn on the charm, he was often pathologically cruel and scheming, and domination of others was his constant object.

''He was a strange man," McGahern said. ''It was said the Lord God could not get on with him. His type is often very intelligent but can only take in from the outside what reflects on them. Living in a narcissistic world, though intelligent, they learn nothing."

The sensitive boy bonded with his gentle mother, but the heartbreaking catastrophe at the center of the book is her death from breast cancer in her early 40s, when John was 10. Frank would not come near the house during the last month of Susan's life, and actually sent a van to move the children and most of the furniture to the barracks, while his wife had not yet breathed her last. Years of emotional abuse, near-starvation, and constant beatings followed, until one by one the children escaped into marriage or jobs away from home. John, who loved to read, became a teacher in Dublin and then a writer.

Despite the extraordinary scenes in the book (one sister was driven into a temporary cataleptic state by the beatings, and a delegation of junior officers once threatened to report the sergeant if they didn't stop), McGahern never raised a hand to his father. His most telling resistance was once to laugh in his father's face during a beating. ''By not hitting him," he said, ''I had emotional dominance over him. I would point out how illogical his behavior was."

Yet it deeply affected him. ''I often notice that I can work perfectly in a violent atmosphere," he said. ''If there is violence, it's as if there is a gear clicking in me. I am efficient and deadly."

From James Joyce to Samuel Beckett, many Irish writers went into exile. But not McGahern. ''My generation reacted against that," he said. ''It was said that to become an Irish writer, you had to go abroad, but to me that was the height of nonsense. You can't imagine Proust having to leave France to be a French writer. I said, 'I can write as badly in Ireland as anywhere else.' "

He might have gone, though, had not years of facing attack at home taught him to face it down in public. His first novel, ''The Barracks," was published quietly in 1963, but in 1965 his second, ''The Dark," was banned in Ireland for its sexual content by the church-dominated censorship board. In addition, McGahern was fired from his teaching job on orders of the archbishop of Dublin. Refusing to go away quietly, he went to the school to claim his room but was coldly rebuffed by the teachers union as well as the priest headmaster.

''The clergy had total power," said McGahern. ''I was shocked to read in the letters that in order to get a school [teaching job], my mother had to pay the priest the same amount as she had paid for her breast surgery. They dominated and stultified -- though they did many good things, too. It has been extraordinary for me to see in my lifetime the collapse of that power."

The banning became a national embarrassment (printed in England, the books were actually confiscated at the Dublin docks), and some say it was the beginning of the end of the church's power over the morals of the nation.

''There was shock among a wide spectrum of the reading public at the way he was treated," said R.F. Foster, the Irish biographer of W.B. Yeats, who teaches at Oxford University. ''When the history of the late 20th century in Ireland is written, the banning of 'The Dark' will be a key moment." Today McGahern ''is hugely looked up to and revered," Foster said. ''He is not only a fine writer, but he stayed in unfashionable Ireland, pursuing his art with unimpeachable integrity."

He shows no bitterness toward his father, now dead, or the church, though he is no longer a practicing Catholic. He said, ''Someone wrote that I have a hatred of the church. The opposite is true. I gave a talk in Belfast, and was invited to attack the church. I could no more do that than attack the weather."

Though he didn't become a priest, as his mother had wished, McGahern did keep his deathbed promise to her, ''to take care of the others and keep them together" until they were grown.

The beauty of her memory still burns within him. He writes, ''She never really left us. . . . I believe we would have been broken but for the different life we had known with her."




John McGahern

Ireland's leading novelist, whose work reflected his country's new self-confidence

Richard Pine
Friday March 31, 2006
The Guardian

John McGahern, who has died from cancer, aged 71, was arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett. Although he had many rivals in the field of short story writing (most notably William Trevor), his novels The Barracks (1963), The Dark (1965), The Leavetaking (1974), The Pornographer (1979), Amongst Women (1990), shortlisted for the Booker prize, and That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) constitute a portrait of a society moving from insular repression (in the earlier writing) towards freedom and self-confidence (in the latter).

The son of a police officer and a school teacher, McGahern grew up in Leitrim, midwest Ireland, which eventually became his home and the milieu for much of his writing. He gained an English degree from University College Dublin, then qualified as a teacher, teaching at a national school in Dublin. While he was taking a sabbatical as a result of winning an Arts Council fellowship for The Barracks (which was removed from the local library in his village), The Dark was banned by the Irish board of censorship, and he was told not to resume his teaching position. He defied the instruction, resumed his job and was dismissed on the instructions of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid.

Even in the mid-1960s the social and cultural stigma attached to the author of a banned book was enormous. Moreover, McGahern had, in 1965, also committed the solecism of marrying a Finnish theatre director, Annikki Laaksi, which had contributed to the refusal of his trade union to fight his case. He later recorded that he was told: "If it was just the auld book, we might have been able to do something for you, but with marrying this foreign woman you have turned yourself into a hopeless case." Having won the fellowship and the memorial award commemorating the Irish writer George Russell, he joked that he was the nearest thing to an "official" writer, and that a ban was therefore that much more bizarre. It certainly made him a cause celebre, with many Irish writers campaigning for his reinstatement. Beckett offered assistance, but McGahern declined.

But the effect on McGahern was shattering, and he went abroad for almost a decade before returning to a small farm in Leitrim, near his birthplace. He attributed his subsequent introspection and partial withdrawal from society to the ban and dismissal, but the autobiographical nature of The Barracks and The Dark had already set the tone for his major themes: domestic interiors (in every sense of the word), the relationships of men to women and of parents to children, and the mindscape of traditionalist rural Ireland. The Leavetaking, which followed this decade of silence, was perhaps marred by his personal despair and was radically revised in 1984, prefaced by the author's appraisal that "the crudity I was attempting to portray had itself become blatant". Despite the pervasive note of despair and entrapment, there was some light in the tautly disciplined prose, which suggests at least the idea of hope and even redemption. He strove for what he called "that inner formality or calm that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess", and when his characters also achieve that calm, the architecture of the work and its human and physical contours become one.

As his work progressed, the early anxieties faded: in his masterpiece, Amongst Women, and his last book of fiction, That They May Face the Rising Sun, he depicts lives that can be lived on their own terms, rather than by those of family or environment.

His short stories, collected in one volume in 1992, are sparse, incisive portraits of pastoral psychology. One, Korea, became a feature film, directed by Cathal Black (1995). McGahern has frequently been described as an "existentialist" writer, in the sense that he permits his characters to transcend the religious, social and sexual inhibitions of post-independence Ireland, and the same could be said of his career.

That he depicts people who have largely agreed to live lives of "quiet desperation" underlines the fact that he, and a few of his characters, most notably Michael Moran in Amongst Women, could deal with desperation by absorbing and transmuting it into something approaching a celebration: "The best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything."

Last year, McGahern, who had cancer, published his autobiographical Memoir, which deals mainly with his childhood and gives a new dimension to his writing: the ambiguity and necessary pretence of the fiction writer gave way to the unequivocal obiter dicta of the child.

His intense attachment to his mother, his incomprehension at her early death from cancer and at the fact that his authoritarian father provided no occasion for grieving, are unnerving signposts to the mindset that permeates The Barracks and The Dark, which are also uncomplaining accounts of the social and economic realities of rural Irish life in the 1930s and 40s. Anticipating death he wrote: "Those who are dying are marked not only by themselves but by the world they are losing."

McGahern also wrote plays for radio, including Sinclair (1971); and for television, including Swallows (1975) and The Rockingham Shoot (1987). His stage play The Power Of Darkness (adapted from Tolstoy) was produced by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1991.

He received many honours, including the Irish-American Foundation award, the Irish Times/Aer Lingus fiction prize and an honorary doctorate from Trinity College Dublin, and was a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In 2003, he donated his archive, including the manuscript of an unpublished novel, to University College Galway.

He is survived by his second wife, Madeline Green.

Frances Byrnes writes: I first commissioned John McGahern to write a story for BBC Radio 4, which he called Love of the World. He accused me of making it read like a thriller, as we cut his luminous prose from 79 minutes to the required 28.

He gave its last words to a mother who outlived all her daughters. How did she live with such loss, wondered the narrator. She replied: "What else could I do? I was in life." All the letters that John wrote to me ended with a description of the seasons by his lake: the rowanberries were come; the daffodils were "almost unbearably beautiful". These patterns of nature seemed to hold and ease him.

Though he was tone deaf - and considered himself unmusical - he wrote with the measure of music. I breathed in time to his writing. He was contradictory though: a private gossip, both kind and ferocious. When we recorded his Memoir as Radio 4's Book of the Week this winter, he wrote a blessing on my copy of it. He read on air, too, with the intonation of a priest, but he teased and regaled me and the sound recordist with all kinds of scurrility.

In his book That They May Face the Rising Sun, he refers to a lamb that was lost, dying on the smallholding of the central character, like a child that was not had. Last week I was in Sligo. We kept alive an abandoned newborn lamb, and I kept saying to the people I was with that I couldn't get John McGahern out of my mind.

John McGahern, writer, born November 12 1934; died March 30 2006



April 02, 2006

McGahern makes last journey to Leitrim

IT IS a journey that featured many times in his work — a man travels from Dublin home to his beloved Leitrim. Yesterday, author John McGahern made that trip in person for the final time.

The body of the award-winning writer was laid to rest alongside that of his mother in an Aughawillan graveyard after travelling from Dublin’s Mater hospital, where he died from cancer on Thursday aged 71.

Locals lined the roadside as the cortege passed through the villages of Dromard, Mohill and Fenagh, where McGahern lived, before arriving at the small white chapel of St Patrick’s, which was packed with mourners. Literary figures and representatives from the arts and political worlds joined neighbours and friends, while hundreds more stood outside.

Shortly after noon the coffin was brought into the church in silence, as instructed by the author, who had requested there be no music or orations.

The funeral mass was said by six priests, led by Liam Kelly, a friend of McGahern and his widow Madeline.

Kelly said: “Some of John’s best writing is cyclical, ending up where it began. And so it seems appropriate we should gather in St Patrick’s in Aughawillan, where John came to mass as a small child.”

The mourners were led by Madeline and McGahern’s sisters. Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel were also in the congregation. Kelly said McGahern was “completely at peace during his last days and never complained about his cancer or about dying while still in his early 70s”, quoting from Yeats: “Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span”.


Cows and cadences

Robert McCrum remembers John McGahern, a dedicated novelist

Sunday April 2, 2006
The Observer


The John McGahern I knew was more than the author of Amongst Women, Ireland's foremost contemporary novelist. To me, he was a keeper of cows, a farmer in his native Leitrim, living on the edge of a tranquil brown lake, the setting for his last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002). He liked to joke that he was an amateur farmer who wrote to defray the costs of the herd. This was a characteristic McGahern irony. In truth, he had a deep affinity for the land and its creatures, and he was instinctively a dedicated novelist who found in his isolated farm the solitude he needed to write, described with typical modesty as a process of staring out of the window. The rural landscape of his youth was the source of his inspiration and its stories his stories. He could find meaning in the exchange of glances in an empty room, and was emphatic that it was the half-expressed word that was truly eloquent. He saw the writer's job as conjuring suggestions in the reader's mind, and understood fiction as an imaginative collaboration between the novelist and his audience, especially in Ireland.

McGahern devoted himself to his art with extraordinary single-mindedness. His home had an almost monkish simplicity, illuminated and cheered by the queenly grace and candour of his wife, Madeline. I remember staying at Aughaboneil one springtime, shortly after the international success of Amongst Women, his greatest novel. Sprays of hawthorn were frothing in the lanes, and he responded to the fresh green lanes of the countryside, more poet than novelist, speaking in that wry, humorous brogue. As we walked the blind fields of his land, he repeated its stories, some of them tracing back to the potato famine. McGahern had an extraordinary memory for telling detail, and, slightly at odds with the stripped-down austerity of his prose, a wicked sense of humour.

Behind the mask of the country farmer come to market was a sharp, cosmopolitan intelligence alert to the foibles and vanities of the literary world. McGahern certainly knew the price of cows, but not many Irish writers of his generation had such a sure command of English prose and its subtleties. He often said he lived midway between Sligo and Enniskillen. It was the magic of his writing, expressed most powerfully in his valedictory Memoir (2005), to evoke the soft breath of the Irish language, which he knew intimately, while making the complex, and sometimes painful, translation to the dominant cadences of the English.


'So many good sentences ... '

Ian Jack, who edited John McGahern's work, recalls the generosity and professionalism of one of the world's great writers

Saturday April 8, 2006
The Guardian

The last book John McGahern published was his memoir, called simply Memoir, and before it came out last year he told me that there were times when he thought he wouldn't live long enough to finish it. The whole book is wonderful, but different readers are taken by different things in it. Some will remember it as a portrait of a now-vanished rural Ireland, others are stirred by the extremes of love and hatred it shows for his mother and father, others again by his simple but loving rendering of natural life: "The sally is the first tree to green and the first to wither, and the rowan berries are an astonishing orange in the light from the lakes every September." So many good sentences and paragraphs and pages - not a half-achieved thought or scene among them - but the most memorable passage for me, ever since I read it in typescript, occurs on page 116:

"The world of the dying is different. When well, they may have sometimes wondered in momentary fear or idle apprehension what this Time would bring, the shape it would take, whether by age or accident, stroke or cancer ... the list is long. Then, that blinding fear could be dismissed as idle introspection, an impairment to the constant alertness needed to answer all the demands of the day. Inevitably, the dreaded and discarded time arrives and has its own shape: suddenly the waitress pouring coffee at tables, the builder laying blocks, a girl opening a window, the men collecting refuse, belong to a world that went mostly unregarded when it was ours but now becomes a place of unobtainable happiness, in even the meanest of forms ... Life goes on, but not for the dying, and this must be hidden or obscured or denied."

McGahern wrote that in the context of his mother's death more than 60 years before - a sudden reflection in the middle of the narrative - but it is hard not to think of the writer, perhaps walking into the everyday streets of Dublin after the news from his oncologist: timor mortis conturbat me. That is what it will be like for so many of us. "True" isn't a helpful word in philosophy or literary criticism, but that's how his writing always felt, that it was anchored in truth. He once emailed me to say of something he'd heard on the radio one day that it sounded "true, like a true day in summer".

I met him only two or three times; I was never an intimate friend. I first saw him in the late 1960s when he was giving a talk at the Ulster Festival in Belfast, a slim man of no more than 30, with a pink face and auburn hair, speaking very earnestly about Herman Melville's story Bartleby the Scrivener (nearly 40 years later he remembered how his talk had been delivered in the sweat of a terrible hangover). After that, I read him, which is the best way to know a writer, and then in more recent years we formed a working friendship when I edited some of his pieces for Granta and read an early draft of the manuscript that would become Memoir. He was a delight to edit, perhaps because he did so much of it himself as a tightener and pruner (sometimes a slasher) of everything he wrote. He would clarify my sometimes fumbling suggestions, when he saw merit in them, and then get to work.

I looked forward to his letters and emails from his farm in County Leitrim. He was always interesting in them and generous towards my pedantry. In one of the drafts of Memoir he wrote that the nickname of the quaint little railway that passed near his childhood home was "the Slow, Late and Never Come" but I knew, ridiculously, that those were the initials of the Sligo, Leitrim and Northern Counties railway which ran further to the north, whereas the line he was describing was the narrower gauge Cavan and Leitrim. "Obviously right," wrote John. "Only at Arigna does it get close to Sligo."

To say he was "a great Irish writer", though true, may give a misleading impression of his worth. He was one of the world's great writers. Certainly he was not a propagandist for Ireland. We had an email conversation last year about period detail in novels - the unpersuasive overegging of the pudding - in which Borges' alleged statement about the Koran came up: words to the effect that we know the Koran is authentic because it contains no mention of camels. John said he believed the statement wasn't quite accurate - "I'm told a few camels do appear in the Koran" - but said he'd often used it to attack "the bright-scarves-of-our-laughter type of Irish writing".

In December, I asked John if he would care to write a short piece for the forthcoming issue of Granta magazine about the place, if any, of God in his life. "It's not a fashionable subject ... I hope you don't think this a ridiculous idea," I wrote, and John replied, "I'll be glad to offer you something along those lines. A very happy Christmas. I used to love Christmas in London." I had no idea how well or how ill he was; he'd had treatment for years.

I can't say if this is the last piece he ever wrote, but it is one infused with last thoughts.

Ian Jack is editor of Granta.



Saving grace

In an essay written just before his death last week, John McGahern considers the role of religion in his life

Saturday April 8, 2006
The Guardian

I grew up in what was a theocracy in all but name. Hell and heaven and purgatory were places real and certain we would go to after death, dependent on the Judgement. Churches in my part of Ireland were so crowded that children and old people who were fasting to receive Communion would regularly pass out in the bad air and have to be carried outside. Not to attend Sunday Mass was to court social ostracism, to be seen as mad or consorting with the devil, or, at best, to be seriously eccentric. I had a genuinely eccentric school-teaching cousin who was fond of declaring that she saw God regularly in the bushes, and this provoked an uncomfortable nodding awe instead of laughter. In those depressed, God-ridden times, laughter was seen as dangerous and highly contagious. The stolidity of the long empty grave face was the height of decorum and profundity. Work stopped each day in shop and office and street and field when the bell for the Angelus rang out, as in the Millet painting. The Rosary, celebrating the Mysteries, closed each day. The story of Christ and how He redeemed us ran through our year as a parallel world to the solid world of our daily lives: the feasts of saints, Lent and Advent, the great festivals of Christmas and Easter, all the week of Whit, when it was dangerous to go out on water; on All Souls' Night, the dead rose and walked as shadows among the living.

Gradually, belief in these sacred stories and mysteries fell away without my noticing, until one day I awoke, like a character in a Gaelic poem, and realised I was no longer dreaming. The way I view that whole world now is expressed in Freud's essay "The Future of an Illusion". I did not know that the ordinary farming people I grew up among secretly viewed the world in much the same terms. They saw this version of Roman Catholicism as just another ideological habit they were forced to wear like all the others they had worn since the time of the Druids, observing its compulsory rituals cynically, turning to it only in illness or desperation. Yet none of this is simple.

Before the printed word, churches have been described as the Bibles of the poor, and the Church was my first book. In an impoverished time, it was my introduction to ceremony, to grace and sacrament, to symbol and ritual, even to luxury. I remember vividly the plain flat brown cardboard boxes in which tulips for the altar, red and white and yellow, came on the bus in winter when there were no flowers anywhere.

In 1903, Proust wrote to his friend George de Lauris: "I can tell you at Illiers, the small community where two days ago my father presided at the awarding of the school prizes, the curé is no longer invited to the distribution of the prizes since the passage of the Ferry laws [on secular education]. The pupils are trained to consider the people who associate with him as socially undesirable, and, in their way, quite as much as the other, they are working to split France in two. And when I remember this little village so subject to the miserly earth, itself the foster-mother of miserliness; when I remember the curé who taught me Latin and the names of the flowers in his garden; when, above all, I know the mentality of my father's brother-in-law - town magistrate down there and anticlerical; when I think of all this, it doesn't seem to me right that the old curé should no longer be invited to the distribution of the prizes, as representative of something in the village more difficult to define than the social function symbolised by the pharmacist, the retired tobacco-inspector, and the optician, but something which is, nevertheless, not unworthy of respect, were it only for the perception of the meaning of the spiritualised beauty of the church spire - pointing upward into the sunset where it loses itself so lovingly in the rose-coloured clouds; and which, all the same, at first sight, to a stranger alighting in the village, looks somehow better, nobler, more dignified, with more meaning behind it, and with, what we all need, more love than the other buildings, however sanctioned they may be under the latest laws."

When a long abuse of power is corrected, it is generally replaced by an opposite violence. In the new dispensations, all that was good in what went before is tarred indiscriminately with the bad. This is, to some extent, what is happening in Ireland.

The most dramatic change in my lifetime has been the collapse of the Church's absolute power. This has brought freedom and sanity in certain areas of human behaviour after a long suppression - as well as a new intolerance. The religious instinct is so ingrained in human nature that it is never likely to disappear, even when it is derided or suppressed. In The Greeks and the Irrational, ER Dodds proposes this lucid definition and distinction: "Religion grows out of man's relationship to his total environment, morals out of his relations to his fellow man." For many years Dodds was a sceptical member of the British Society for Psychical Research. He distinguishes between two approaches to the occult, though he admits they are often mixed in individual minds. The psychic researcher he describes as wishing to abolish the occult in the clear light of day, while the occultist seeks experience rather than explanation. If the true religious instinct as described by Dodds - our relationship to our total environment - will not go away, neither will its popular equivalent seeking signs and manifestations and help in an uncertain and terrifying world.

Not very many years ago, a particularly wet summer in Ireland became known as the Summer of the Moving Statues. Rumours circulated that statues of the Virgin Mary in grottos all around the country were seen to move and had given signs that they were about to speak. Many of the grottos were constructed during the Marian Year of 1954, when no housing estate or factory was built without a grotto of the Virgin and a blessing by a bishop; and there were also grottos from much older times, often set in a rock-face with dripping water, or by a holy well that was once a place of pilgrimage.

Crowds gathered in the rain to stare at the statues. There were pictures on TV, reports on the radio and in newspapers. The journalist Dick Walsh decided to travel around Ireland to investigate this phenomenon. He saw many small groups gathered in all weathers staring at the statues as if willing them to move and speak. When he returned, he reported that the statues looked steady enough but he was less certain about the people.

Whether it be these humble manifestations or the great soaring spires of the Gothic churches, they both grew out of a human need. This can be alleviated by material ease and scientific advancement but never abolished. Still sings the ghost, "What then?"

This extract is taken from Granta, God's Own Countries (£9.99). To order it for £9.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875.
John McGahern's Memoir is published by Faber (£16.99).



A man lit by serene acceptance

By Eric Weinberger  |  April 16, 2006

All Will Be Well: A Memoir
By John McGahern
Knopf, 289 pp.,

When everyone is writing memoirs, we should prize especially the writer's memoir (the exemplar is usually Nabokov), or work from someone who, over years, often decades and many books, has learned a craft.

While such a life has not necessarily been more interesting or as urgently attention-getting as those of the onetime drug addict, the recovering alcoholic, or healed victim of home abuse, experience counts only so far as one can render art from it, sentence after sentence, so that from these parts comes -- what seems -- the nearest we can approach to the whole.

Until his death two weeks ago, John McGahern wore, along with William Trevor, the badge of Ireland's greatest writer, except that he had lived nearly all his life in Ireland, miles or less from where he grew up. This made him exceptional among writers -- Joyce, Beckett, O'Casey, and even Trevor -- who have given the culture the image of the Irish artist as necessary exile.

Furthermore ,that place of growing up is not Dublin but the rough hinterland of counties Leitrim and Roscommon, where little happens and life, in riverine villages and market towns with no city to draw people toward, is hard even for mid-century Ireland. But in his memoir, ''All Will Be Well," McGahern suggests the absence of stimulation was a good thing for this particular writer, imbued by his saint-like mother with the notion that ''the best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day."

For McGahern, the peace or quiet was long earned: It turns out, ironically perhaps considering what is said above, that his book is largely a recounting of domestic abuse. But no one would mistake the book as a recovery narrative, or think of its creator as some kind of victim.

For all the hideous treatment endured by McGahern and his six younger siblings (five girls) from their father, the enduring example is their mother's, who died of cancer when John (called Sean throughout) was 9.

From the beginning the note struck is serene acceptance; ''All Will Be Well," as a title (the original British title is simply ''Memoir"), has its ironic connotations, but here, where the words appear, it is in a God-filled letter from his sick mother to her husband, in which all trust is placed in the deity and that is how one gets by.

The boy's love for his mother is sensual and, perhaps even to her, unsettling; he wishes to become a priest and say Mass for her, and makes her promise not to die. Once she is gone the narrative is taken over by his father, whose professional life is summed up with a single crushing phrase, as the ''outwardly honorable and undistinguished career of a garda sergeant."

Handsome, secretive, officious, violent, self-regarding, and self-pitying yet apparently charming when trying to win someone over whom he will soon be handling brutally (his son describes his occasional efforts with him as ''courting") -- there is no end to vivid descriptions of Frank McGahern in this book. The recurring motif is, after Plato, of a man unable finally to emerge into light, unlike every other member of his family. ''My father's world went inwards to darkness and violence, lies and suppression," McGahern writes, then startles us with its contrast: ''In the beginning was my mother."

One doesn't have to have read McGahern's fiction to admire and be moved by this book. One has only to be interested in Ireland, or childhood, or the power of the religious impulse (shared even by the tyrant Frank), or God, who is finally revealed to the author as ''whatever truth or illusion or longing for meaning or comfort that word may represent."

But, considering one reason that we read writers' memoirs -- which is to trace how certain themes and obsessions began -- now is the time to mention McGahern's masterwork, the 1990 novel ''Amongst Women."

A man much like Frank McGahern, a remarried widower and former IRA man with several sprightly adult daughters and two sons wide apart in years, Moran is a domineering figure grown weak with age, and we know he is going to die.

One might slot the story of ''Amongst Women" somewhere in the last 50 pages of ''All Will Be Well," when everyone is grown and in some substantial charge of himself, and ''Daddy" seems his most benign. But Moran, a less brutal figure, is perhaps the man Frank might have been; whatever he has done he has earned his brood's love. When Moran dies, homage is paid, which in the memoir goes only to the author's mother. ''She never really left us," McGahern writes at the end, and mentions again the country lanes he walked with her as a boy and, until his final illness, still walked; if they could do it again, ''we probably would not be able to speak, though I would want to tell her all the local news." Facing ''no shadow," she would receive an orchid picked by him, and all should be well.

Eric Weinberger teaches expository writing at Harvard University.