Shortly after its publication in 1965, John McGahern’s second novel, The Dark, was banned by the Irish state censor for obscenity. The story was set, as so much of McGahern’s later fiction would be, in isolated rural Ireland and dealt with the bleak consequences of parental and clerical child abuse. On the instructions of the Archbishop of Dublin, McGahern was sacked from his job as a primary school teacher. He later left the country. Despite these apparent setbacks, McGahern’s literary friends reassured him that all this was a wonderful opportunity in terms of publicity and sales. Remember Joyce and Beckett being forced overseas? This was Irish literary history repeating itself, and preparations were soon being made to mount a campaign against the anachronistic and widely derided censorship laws with McGahern as the figurehead.
McGahern agreed that the situation was indeed absurd, and says that even as an adolescent reader he had nothing but contempt for the censorship board. But he nevertheless decided not to protest and instead maintained a public silence. “I didn’t think it was worth protesting about,” he says. “I didn’t want to dignify it.” More than this, when he heard that representations were being made in his name he asked that they be withdrawn.
He was particularly grateful to Samuel Beckett, who had read the book and agreed to speak on his behalf, for writing to him before going public to ask if his support was wanted. “I wrote back to thank him, but said I didn’t want any protest. If it wasn’t for Mr Beckett writing to me I wouldn’t have even been asked. I was secretly ashamed. Not because of the book, but because this was our country and we were making bloody fools of ourselves.”
McGahern had published his first novel, The Barracks, in 1963, two years before The Dark. But in the wake of the banning he didn’t publish again until his 1970 collection of stories, Nightlines. The ban on The Dark lapsed in 1972 and since then he has produced four more novels, including the 1990 Booker-shortlisted Amongst Women and, this month, That They May Face The Rising Sun. He has also published four collections of stories and a handful of plays.
His work has been consistently acclaimed and he is often called the Irish Chekhov, but despite this combination of praise and notoriety for a long time he maintained a remarkably low public profile. Until the late 70s he had hardly given an interview, and the huge impact of his banning combined with his comparatively small output meant that for many years he was a generally misunderstood figure in Ireland.
He jokes that for a long time he was just “that fella who writes the dirty books”, but Declan Kiberd, professor of Anglo-Irish literature at University College Dublin, says he now occupies an almost uniquely exalted position. “Firstly, he is undoubtedly the foremost prose writer since the death of Beckett,” explains Kiberd, “and also he is very unusual in that while he has absolute respect among the intellectuals, at the same time he is popular with the common reader. Amongst Women is seen by many ordinary Irish people as the essential chronicle of a whole phase of our nation’s life. You’d find it in houses without all that many other books because of the extreme truthfulness, accuracy and demonstrable honesty of his writing.”
The writer Colm Toibin says that McGahern has been enormously influential “in that he has established the notion of a small place becoming a whole world and sticking to that throughout a writing life without in any way lessening the power of his work or its appeal. When I was growing up in a provincial town there was nowhere more dreary than Ireland and nothing more dreary than Irish writing. The world you could describe was an outside world, a place we would find on our departure from Ireland and Irish subjects. But he disposed of the notion that the house I was brought up in, and the landscape he and I knew, was anything other than something to be brushed aside.”
Publication of That They May Face The Rising Sun has aroused considerable expectations in Ireland, so much so that earlier this year the main morning radio news programme devoted a quarter of an hour to McGahern reading from what was then a work in progress. In its first week in the book shops it went to the top of the bestseller list. The writer Dermot Bolger explains that “there are certain Irish writers that are hugely important to, and inextricably bound up with, the Irish psyche. But they don’t always travel as well as they might. McGahern isn’t as well known outside Ireland as he should be. When he was shortlisted for the Booker prize, I remember watching the chairman of the judges mispronounce his name because it was so unfamiliar to him.”
That They May Face the Rising Sun is set in the late 1980s in McGahern’s habitual rural location. Creeping modernity in the form of newly erected telephone poles and a sheltered housing scheme for the old people encroaches on a small, isolated community living around the edge of a lake. While the book is broadly a communal portrait, one of its most important animating themes arises from those characters who have for various reasons worked over the water in England.
“I had tried several times to write about that generation of Irish people that went to England in the 1950s,” McGahern says. “That was one of the starting points of the novel. It was a very bad time in Ireland, the place was stagnant and the boat trains were full.” He complains that in Irish political culture, going to England was like going into Egypt, while going to America was going to the Land of the Free. “I always thought that was ridiculous. The trade unions always looked to Britain for help, but the political organisations, like Sinn Fein, always turned to America. The contribution made by Irish people to the trade union and Chartist movement in Britain has been practically written out of Irish history while the contribution the Irish have made in America have been lauded in song.”
He says over half the people he was at school with went to England, including more than half of his immediate family. McGahern was born in 1934 and brought up on a small farm in the border county of Leitrim. He had six younger siblings; a brother who was financial controller of BBC Radio until his death a few years ago and five sisters, two of whom were nurses, two teachers and one a civil servant. McGahern still lives on and works a farm in Leitrim, and friends say that even though he has held high profile academic posts round the world as a visiting professor he remains essentially a countryman.
Last term he taught in an upstate New York college, but seeing him in the soulless urban grid of downtown Syracuse wearing an old tweed flat cap and long black overcoat, he could have been in an Irish agricultural town on market day as he casually engaged strangers on the street to ask for advice on finding a decent restaurant. Friends say he has extraordinary confidence in who he is and where he’s from – he behaves pretty much the same way wherever is and whoever he is with.
McGahern’s mother, Susan, had been the first person from her village to go to secondary school. She became a teacher and bought a small farm because in 1930s Leitrim it was easier to buy a house with land than without. She died of cancer just before McGahern’s 10th birthday. His father, who McGahern describes as “a much more aggressive person than me”, had fought in the civil war and was a sergeant in the Garda. He lived separately at the barracks in Cootehall a few miles away. “It was very unusual for a woman to be working,” McGahern explains. “And as my mother didn’t want to give up her job, although my father wanted her to, she didn’t live at the barracks. He had a maidservant there and we would go and stay with him during the holidays.”
Following the death of their mother, the McGahern children moved to live with their father full time at Cootehall. McGahern has said that “as a child there was a certain sense that I was going back to the fortress of the enemy, of living in an alien place.” The inclusion in The Barracks of a woman dying from cancer and an overbearing father has led readers to assume a level of autobiographical content. But while some of the detail of daily barracks routine was as he remembered it, McGahern has said that “I have found the most serious mistakes I have made were when I have drawn from life, when I have actually stuck close to the way things happen. That’s where the prose is dead.”
Despite his difficult upbringing, he was always a good student and says he was very lucky when young to have access to a library in the house of some Protestant neighbours. Even as a teenager he began to think like a writer and read books more for the style than the story. When he was 18 he enrolled at teacher training college in Dublin because he thought the short working day would allow him time to write. The eight-year-old Declan Kiberd was taught by McGahern.
“I remember him as an excellent teacher, although with 45 boys in a class it must have been hard work. We kind of knew he was a writer, so he was always a figure of some interest. Sometimes you could tell that his mind was elsewhere and he’d tell us to do mental arithmetic for 20 minutes in silence while I’m sure he was thinking about a word or a phrase.”
McGahern says that as reading for pleasure was not really approved of in Ireland the idea of a literary career was unlikely, as writers had no expectation of making any money. But he recalls that “if you were young with literary interests Dublin was a very lively city. There were many good second-hand book shops, there was the national library, there were plenty of cinemas, there was an incredible number of small theatres. I remember one very good company who would perform Pirandello and Chekhov at the back of the gas showroom.”
Dick Walsh, political editor of the Irish Times, was a reporter in Dublin when he first met McGahern in the late 50s. “As a teacher he was quite envious of anyone who had contact with all the writers and novelists working in the Irish press,” says Walsh. “Later he was a source of great admiration for the rest of us. He had looked Irish life in the face in a way it didn’t like being looked at.” The writer and literary journalist Nuala O’Faolain met McGahern just after he had written The Barracks. “He was working himself out at that time,” she wrote in her memoir. “He didn’t look impressive – a slight young teacher from the country, with a slow way of speaking. But his pale glance was formidable.”
In fact, the first book McGahern wrote was a novel called The End And Beginning Of Love. It was never published, but a friend sent an extract to the London literary magazine X and McGahern was quickly contacted by several publishers. However, by this time he had decided he didn’t like the novel, but agreed to write a new one for Faber and received an advance of £75. When The Barracks was published in 1963 Anthony Burgess said that nobody “has caught so well the peculiar hopelessness of contemporary Ireland”. David Lodge praised its “scrupulous yet enhancing accuracy”, before presciently noting that this new writer “was the real thing”.
McGahern says that his family and friends were not pleased when the book was published. “Everyone was examining it, to see if they were in it. A local butcher offered me money to put in my next book a portrayal of a customer he didn’t like that would make him ashamed to show his face in the town. It was like the tradition of the Gaelic poets, who were paid money to write in derision about people.”
When McGahern sent his father a copy he received a “sharp response” saying thank you but he had no intention of reading it. But when The Dark was banned his father complained that McGahern wasn’t standing up for himself enough. “There was a marvellous example of how the family was stronger than the church or state in Ireland,” McGahern says. “My aunt had a shop where the head of a local secondary school, who was a priest and later became a bishop, used to buy his cigarettes. He removed my book from the library and when she heard she told him that until he put it back he could buy his cigarettes somewhere else.”
Although McGahern says he doesn’t believe and doesn’t belong to the church, he also acknowledges it as the most important influence on his life. “In a very poor society it was my first introduction to ceremony and colour and sacrament. Before the printed word, churches were the bibles of the poor. In that sense the Catholic church was my first book and it remains my most important book.”
Just after the banning he was on a live TV programme in Belfast. He was invited to attack the church but said he could no more attack it than he could his own life. He recalls that an Orangeman in the audience stood up and said to huge applause “here is a man whose book has been banned by the Papist government in the south, has been sacked by the Archbishop of Dublin, and he comes up here to Belfast and praises the Catholic church. Moscow couldn’t do a better job of brainwashing”.
Enda McDonagh, emeritus professor of moral theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, says many church people have a great appreciation of McGahern as a writer, and a great many priests never believed in the censorship board in the first place: “It was more some leading churchmen who had a censorious and prudish attitude to literature. I think McGahern’s work has a genuine spiritual quality that reveals dimensions of humanity that are very significant, for all their depictions of the ugliness and tragedy of life. You can’t help but be moved by his sense of humanity in these characters. When I was teaching theology in the 70s and 80s I made use of novels, including those by McGahern, to help people understand some of the complexities of human life and of character and morality.”
Denis Sampson of Vanier College in Quebec, who wrote the first critical survey of McGahern’s work in 1993, sees him as a post-Catholic writer in that he is always asking how we discover what is real in life. “While he does chronicle a time and place in Irish life, he is also a very philosophical novelist concerned with moral and spiritual things. In many of his books these apparently simple people continually come up with statements that question what is real and meaningful in life.”
Although McGahern chose not to protest at the banning of his book, he did make a point of turning up at the school and insisting that he was sacked rather than resigning. (He has said since that when he used to see rows of Morris Minors in a school car park he thanked the archbishop of Dublin for liberating him.) He was publicly supported by parents of the children he taught, but having lost his job he moved to London where he worked with his brother-in-law on building sites and did some supply teaching as well as writing occasional book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and adapting 19th-century novels for radio.
By this time he had married, a fact his teacher trade union general secretary claimed counted against him in his dismissal. He says, “I was told ‘if it had just been the book maybe we could have done something for you. But by going and marrying this foreign woman in a registry office you have made yourself a hopeless case. There are hundreds and thousands of Irish women going round with their tongues out looking for a husband.’ Now I was as anxious to meet young women as any young man,” he laughs. “And I’d never noticed any tongues hanging out.”
McGahern had met the Finnish theatre director, Annikki Laksi, in Paris. For six months they lived in Helsinki, where they were married. “We were fond of each other but it was hopeless,” he says. “I wouldn’t live in Finland and she wouldn’t live in England. She had a good job as a producer there for the theatre as well as radio and television. She hated Ireland and didn’t like London much, so she would go home for longer and longer periods. Eventually we separated.”
In 1969 McGahern met the American photographer Madeline Green. They married in 1973. They bought a farm in County Leitrim in 1970 and returned to Ireland. “I’d done all the odd jobs on my mother’s farm – cattle, crops, cut turf. But in hindsight the farm was a foolish idea. I thought it would be a place where I could write and we could live cheaply. In fact now it is the writing that keeps the animals in high style. They’ve become more pets than anything else.”
Although it wasn’t until 1990 and the publication of Amongst Women that McGahern’s name became better known in England, in France he has long been lionised as a great writer. All his books since his 1970 book of stories, Nightlines, have been quickly translated into French and he has both a widespread academic and general readership there.
Paul Brennan, professor of Irish Studies at the Sorbonne, says: “He has always been regarded as a major writer here. The French are particularly interested in this Catholic, rural Ireland experience. They feel at ease with it and have some identification with it, although he is not seen as a Catholic novelist. It is the rurality that is important with a Catholic background.” The Barracks was recently a compulsory text – along with The Tempest and The Scarlet Letter – on a national examination taken by 10,000 French university students a year.
In the 70s McGahern produced two collections of stories – Nightlines and Getting Through (1978) – and two novels – The Leavetaking (1975) and The Pornographer (1979). Colm Toibin says that even as a literary journalist in the late 70s he had never seen or heard McGahern on radio or television, let alone heard him read. “When I was young my parents had three books hidden on top of a wardrobe in their bedroom. They were Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, Couples by John Updike, and The Dark. There was an aura of glamour and danger about those names and by the late 70s he was an almost mythical figure. So when The Pornographer appeared me and my colleagues devoured it. This isolated existential hero pro ducing his pornography in Dublin was electrifying for us. Certainly much more so than, say, the new Martin Amis novel, which was a big turnaround.”
Denis Sampson sees a distinct progression in McGahern’s work from around this time. “In the early books there was this extraordinary force in which he brought us into the lives of his characters. The woman dying of cancer in The Barracks facing the raw fear of everything in her life disintegrating. The abused adolescent boy in The Dark whose life is torn open for us. They are such raw books of individuals facing the terrors of life. But then these individuals began to merge more into group portraits. That’s not to say he’s not still searching for a balance and equilibrium in the face of those horrors – the horrors are always there in McGahern. But the celebration of wonder and of love in the face of fear and terror, the beauty in simple things, become his central preoccupation. He starts to celebrate communal bonds in a way he didn’t do at all in the beginning.”
One reason for such long gaps between books is that McGahern vastly overwrites his novels before paring them down for publication. Amongst Women reached over 1200 pages in its original form – it was under 200 in the published version – and That They May Face The Rising Sun followed a similar pattern. When the BBC dramatised Amongst Women for television they complained that there was not enough sex and violence in the story. McGahern said he could give them plenty more from all the material he had discarded.
The result is an extraordinarily exact prose stunning in its visual accuracy. In his latest book, a series of set-pieces – such as a swarm of bees attacking a man and the laying out of a body – are captured with astonishing precision. Several critics have commented on how painterly his work can be, and Colm Toibin says McGahern once recommended he look at a Velasquez painting of an old woman frying an egg when visiting the Scottish National Gallery. “Vermeer is also important to him: that catching of a mysterious moment which is full of ordinariness. There is no grand subject but somehow, in the way it’s done, it is surrounded by mystery and grandeur. That is what he [McGahern] has been doing in his work.” McGahern cites Turgenev, Flaubert, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Evelyn Waugh as examples of writers whose prose he admires. He brushes aside the criticism of snobbery made about Waugh. “When he writes well he is marvellous.”
Although he supported Mary Robinson in her campaign to become president of Ireland, McGahern’s refusal to become directly involved with politics, or buy into what he sees as certain modern Irish myths, has irked some. In Amongst Women, Moran, the former IRA leader, now turned repressive patriarch, finally categorises the war of independence as “a cod”.
After his 1987 television play The Rockingham Shoot was aired, he was put on a blacklist of British sympathisers by An Phoblacht, the republican newspaper. The play was about the British ambassador coming to a big Irish country house in the 1940s and an ultra-nationalistic school teacher trying to stop local children beating for the pheasant shoot. “They said that Maggie Thatcher would be sending me cases of champagne,” he says. “But I am afraid of all ideologies. Joyce called them those big words which make us unhappy. I think they have very little to do with life and everything to do with the struggle for power.” Dick Walsh says McGahern “judges people when he meets them. He prods them a little to see what they say or do. It’s a very typical Irish village way of behaving and John is essentially a country man. Some strong nationalists would prefer that he took positions on various issues – their positions obviously. But he comes from a place not far from the border and his own experience is too much for that, it is too real and genuine.”
“Nationalism is a foolish thing,” McGahern says. “I always thought it was our country and we would look after it as good or as bad as we were able. I couldn’t be anything else except Irish, so what’s the point of going round proclaiming I am Irish? If a Frenchman or Englishman were proclaiming they were French or English I would think there was something wrong with them. One is given the place one is born into, but first and last one is a human being. And the humanity is much more interesting than the locality or nation.”
But it is to his very defined fictional locality that McGahern keeps returning to explore humanity, although he acknowledges “it is a world that is only there in remnants now”. Throughout his books the same names crop up, the same trees in front of houses, the same lakes and geese. His private universe remains complete and endlessly relevant, even if in real life it has all but been obliterated. “Until recently there was no uniformity of spirit or manners in the country,” he explains. “Ways of speaking and ways of thinking could be very different within just a few miles. In fact there were thousands of little countries making up Ireland where personal relationships were more important than the law, and even edicts of the church were given only lip service.
“Irish culture is a great deal older than Christianity and people were buried so that they would face the rising sun. All the pedantic priests would try and get them to face the church as the centre of authority, but they always thought the sun was more powerful than the church.”
Declan Kiberd says part of what he has done is to “write out the last phase in the death of rural Ireland. It is a process that has taken 200 years and, for him looking at this from the ground in Leitrim, the moment of independence in 1921 is not about orange or green or colonialism or nationalism, it is simply the moment when managing the crisis of rural life is transferred from one elite to another.
“In a way I think he sees himself as an elegist. What he is interested in is that moment just before a culture dies away, when it achieves a kind of grace of utterance, a sort of swansong and in some ways his writings are that swansong for a rural way of life which lasted for decades but is now almost gone.”
Life at a glance John McGahern
Born: November 12, 1934, Co Roscommon, Ireland.
Education: Carrick on Shannon Secondary School; St Patrick’s teacher training college, Dublin.
Married: Annikki Laksi 1965, divorced; Madeline Green ’73.
Career: Primary schoolteacher 1955-66; academic at University of Reading, Colgate University New York, University of Durham, University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin.
Novels: The Barracks 1963; The Dark ’65; The Leavetaking ’75; The Pornographer ’79; Amongst Women ’90; That They May Face The Rising Sun 2002.
Short stories: Nightlines 1970; Getting Through ’78; High Ground ’85; The Collected Stories ’92.
Plays: The Rockingham Shoot 1987; The Power of Darkness ’91.
Honours and awards: Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres 1989; Irish Times/Aer Lingus fiction prize for Amongst Women ’90.
· That They May Face the Rising Sun is published by Faber & Faber at £16.99
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