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Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: John McGahern

The Barracks, by John McGahern, 1963

After his mother’s death from breast cancer, when he was 10, John McGahern and his siblings moved into the Garda barracks in Cootehall, Co Roscommon, to live with their father, Frank, who served as sergeant there. A version of that barracks gives its title to McGahern’s astonishingly accomplished first novel, which he wrote when he was still a primary teacher in Dublin.

Read more about this book in the Irish Times Article

You can read about McGahern’s life and works in the Dicationary of Irish Biography:

McGahern, John

by Patrick Maume

McGahern, John (1934–2006), writer, was born in Dublin on 12 November 1934, eldest of seven children (two sons and five daughters) of Francis McGahern, garda sergeant and veteran of the Irish war of independence, from Gowna, Co. Leitrim, and his wife Susan (née McManus), schoolteacher, a scholarship girl from the hill country of Co. Leitrim.

Childhood and formative experiences McGahern and his siblings lived with their mother as she moved from one temporary teaching post to another, eventually achieving a permanent position at Aughawillan National School, Co. Leitrim; Francis McGahern lived at Cootehall garda barracks, Co. Roscommon, visiting at regular intervals. Susan McGahern’s pregnancies exacerbated her breast cancer; by the time she settled in Aughawillan she had undergone one operation for the disease and her husband was advised that the risk of recurrence was extremely high. She subsequently had another child; McGahern, publishing his parents’ correspondence in his memoir, was shocked to find sexual relations continued even after the birth and the cancer’s recurrence.

McGahern, as the eldest child, was extremely close to his loving and devout mother; she encouraged him to dream of becoming a priest and made him promise to say his first mass for her. Her death in July 1944 was the central trauma of his existence (though several of his stories can be read as gloomy imaginings of what might have happened had his mother lived to steer him to the priesthood). Some days before her death the children were removed to Cootehall barracks.

Sergeant McGahern was a ‘fundamentally childish’ man, proud of his height and good looks, his position of authority and the social distance between him and the small-farm culture which produced him, never speaking of his past, obsessively afraid of poverty, bitterly deferential towards priests and professionals. He was a classic domestic abuser, wishing to be the centre of attention at all times through unpredictable violence, threats, and manipulative blandishments. After his wife’s death his violence towards his children grew in intensity; they were brought up in ‘near starvation and violence and slavery’, restrained only when neighbours threatened to call in superior authorities. These threats were never fulfilled; McGahern attributed this to the deferential nature of Irish society, governed by a sense that authority descended from God the Father and every family was a little republic. (This is implicit in his 1990 novel Amongst women, where ‘the family is a kind of backcloth which shows up the absence of society’ (interview with McGahern, Whyte, 228–9)). McGahern thought that Irish society confused inherited memory of the Famine with fear of damnation, and that its failings reflected an underlying unwillingness by Irish people to recognise that the country was now their own. McGahern’s sisters confirmed his account of their father’s violence.

McGahern’s fiction was largely shaped by these experiences, and often re-enacts or reinvents them. His fiction should not be mistaken for a transcript of his experiences or a straightforward therapeutic attempt to come to terms with the course his life had taken, or might have taken. McGahern declared that ‘self-expression is always bad writing’ and insisted his work existed independently of the raw experiences on which it drew. ‘A work of art has to conform to certain laws…I’ve made my worst artistic mistakes by keeping too close to what happened’ (Maher, 147).

By the age of 13 McGahern had attended seven national schools, including a year at Knockvicar, where the headteacher, who held republican views, systematically persecuted children whose parents worked on the King-Harmans’ Rockingham estate. This inspired McGahern’s 1986 BBC TV drama, The Rockingham shoot, which explored how ‘fascism is rooted in the way intelligent people like the teacher can get drawn into inhuman ideas’ (Sunday Tribune, 2 April 2006). After winning a scholarship he received secondary education at Presentation Brothers’ College, Carrick-on-Shannon (where the teachers helped him to resist his father’s pressure to leave school for paid employment). He was particularly good at English and football. A family of slightly decayed protestant gentlemen farmers, the Moroneys, who allowed him to read their books indiscriminately, gave him a fascination with the written word.

McGahern saw the dream of becoming a priest as having given a sense of purpose with which to resist his father after his mother’s death. In later life he spoke with gratitude of the church’s rituals and devotions as his earliest book (he was an altar boy); yet he also claimed that even at the time he sensed that to enter the priesthood was to evade the reality of death by giving up his life in the pretence that this would save it, and identified the power and authority wielded by the priesthood with that of his father. As a teenager McGahern decided to become a schoolteacher and writer rather than studying for the priesthood; he later explained this as a desire to give life by recreating it in fiction as a sort of miniature deity.

He took up a scholarship at the clerically-run teacher training institution, St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra (1952–4); he disliked its then authoritarian and anti-intellectual ethos: reading extra-curricular texts or showing interest in ideas provoked ridicule or worse. During summer holidays he worked as a builder’s labourer in London to secure his financial independence, experiencing the anger and bitterness of emigrants. He came to regard catholicism as one of many stories trying to explain the world, possessing no greater truth than its rivals. For the rest of his life McGahern was a convinced atheist; his memoir comments that his career was only made possible by fantastically lucky chances, and many of his stories explore what might have happened had chance dictated otherwise. (The narrator of The leavetaking describes in clinical terms how, if his father had accepted his mother’s breaking off their engagement, the egg which became him would have been lost through menstruation.) He was influenced by Jungian analysis, both in its insistence on the integration of the shadow side into the personality (‘an artist accepts for me everything utterly, and loves it, once he first accepts the first sin in its absurdity as completely as the saint accepts life as a via’ (Killen, 33)), and possibly also by the idea of a collective unconscious populated by archetypes, from which the individual personality develops and into which it is reabsorbed.

After qualifying as a national teacher in 1954 McGahern taught briefly at schools in Athboy, Co. Meath, and Drogheda, before obtaining a position at Scoil Eoin Baiste, Clontarf, Dublin (later Belgrove School) in 1955. He took evening classes at UCD and graduated BA in 1957. He liked teaching and was regarded by himself and those who encountered him as a natural teacher.

The writer emerges McGahern sought Dublin for privacy. His later fiction suggests his Dublin years were marked by furtive and fearful sexual exploration accompanied by fear of entrapment by pregnancy and marriage; he later claimed resentfully that the prevailing Irish ethos encouraged furtive obsession with sex (because the forbidden drew even more attention) instead of seeing it as just another aspect of life. There was a deep relationship whose breakup left him temporarily devastated. He continued his death-struggle with his father (now retired from the Gardaí, working a newly acquired farm, and remarried), and used his position in Dublin to aid his siblings in escaping to build lives in Dublin or England. This imposed considerable financial sacrifice on him; to many acquaintances he appeared simply as a shy, shabby provincial.

This masked McGahern’s quiet, determined development of his literary ambitions and abilities. He told later interviewers that he wrote ‘because I needed to write…that’s the way I wanted to think and see for myself’ (Carlson, 62). He remained on the fringes of Dublin’s literary circles, aware of their temptations to dissipate talents in fantasy and self-indulgence. He drew more inspiration from private reading, developing his own circle of artistic friends, and European films to which Dublin gave access. Francis McGahern derided his son’s literary aspirations, suggesting he imitate his own literary favourite, the middlebrow John D. Sheridan (qv).

About 1957 McGahern began writing a novel, ‘The end and beginning of love’. This was never published (McGahern decided it was immature), but extracts appeared in X: A Literary Magazine in 1961. This brought him to the attention of the London publishers Faber and Faber, who offered to publish his first novel, The barracks(1963), which won the Æ memorial award of the Irish Arts Council. The barracks depicts life in and around a midland garda barracks through the eyes of the sergeant’s second wife, a childless ex-nurse dying of breast cancer. The enthusiastic reception of The barracks, and the apparent acceptance of McGahern as an ‘official’ writer which followed, reflects McGahern’s affinities with catholic-inspired lyrical realist writers such as Daniel Corkery (qv) and Michael McLaverty, with their theme of individuals in a fragmented society seeking a shared cultural medium which Corkery found in cultural nationalism and MacLaverty in sacramental catholicism. McGahern regarded the official catholic nationalism of the newly independent state as a tyrannical authoritarianism enforcing outward conformity to an impossible dream of purity and authenticity. He detested the idea of sacrificing the individual for a political or religious cause (‘stemming from religious doctrine, the spirit of self-sacrifice was everywhere in the air, only coming to earth on rocks of common sense’ (Memoir, 141)) and his lyricism is humanist rather than sacramental. He corresponded frankly and admiringly with McLaverty, though they grew more distant as the older writer reacted against McGahern’s middle-period work. McGahern also believed Corkery, as a writer, superior to Frank O’Connor (qv) and Sean O’Faolain (qv). Despite McGahern’s affinity with their critiques of official Ireland, he thought O’Connor and O’Faolain to be storytellers, projecting garrulous personalities between reader and material, in contrast to his own studied artlessness – he detested the Romantic image of writer-genius, preferring to think of himself as a clerk. The distinction between writing to shock, and writing what shocks because it needs to be said, is central to his outlook.

An unwary reader of The barracks, with expectations shaped by the school of Corkery and MacLaverty, might well assume that the omniscient narrative perspective is that of a merciful Creator who receives the soul of Elizabeth Regan. John D. Sheridan (some of whose novels feature dying protagonists reviewing and coming to terms with their lives) hailed it in his Irish Independent column as ‘Greek tragedy in the barracks’ (disgusting Francis McGahern). A stage adaptation by Hugh Leonard (1926–2009) was produced in 1969.

The McGahern affair; the banning of The dark In 1964 McGahern won a one-year Macauley Fellowship worth £1,000. He took a one-year unpaid sabbatical from teaching and travelled in Europe (Paris, Finland and Spain). In Paris he met Annikki Laaksi, a divorced Finnish theatre designer, whom he married in a London registry office.

His second novel, The dark (1965), appeared in May 1965. It is a bleak, quasi-Beckettian account of a young man beaten and sexually molested by his violent, pietistic, physically and mentally squalid father. He considers the priesthood but is deterred by guilt over minutely described adolescent sexual fantasies and contact with a clerical relative who displays worldliness and sexually ambiguous behaviour. McGahern told McLaverty (who knew of his atheism) that ‘the book’s a religious work if it’s anything at all’ (Killen, 42), apparently meaning an attempt to explore reality as he saw it without exhibitionism or external constraints. The novel was banned by the Irish Censorship of Publications Board and confiscated by Irish customs officials. McGahern claimed this took him by surprise, though this may reflect later rationalisation. In hindsight he thought the book had been written too hastily and in excessive anger, and that if handled with greater care it might have slipped through unnoticed. This view is not universally shared (The dark is often hailed as marking the moment at which the Republic’s post-Revival literature came of age) but it marks the beginning of a middle period in McGahern’s career of stylistic experimentation combined with deep, unevenly controlled anger.

On the expiry of his fellowship McGahern defiantly returned to Dublin to take up his teaching position. He insisted he had not breached any laws or educational regulations and his personal unbelief did not affect his willingness to teach religion as a series of abstract propositions. He was formally dismissed by the school manager (the parish priest of Clontarf) at the behest of the archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid (qv), who also pressurised the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO) into refusing to take up his case. Managerial powers of dismissal were often deployed on flimsier grounds but their use in Dublin against such a high-profile figure, in connection with the widely criticised literary censorship, when the state was emphasising its modernity, provoked national and international comment. The case was later seen as the last major cause célèbre of the censorship regime, and cited as exemplifying how censorship promoted a falsely idealised vision of Irish life and suppressed discussion of social problems. McGahern was frequently mentioned in discussions of the revelations of widespread and longstanding sexual and physical abuse by catholic priests and religious, accompanied by official cover-ups and silencing of the victims, which came to public attention in the 1990s and 2000s. In the 1990s McGahern received a formal apology from the INTO; at the age of 60 he applied for his earned pension but only received it (with arrears) some months before his death.

Exploring darkness: the middle period For some years he was unable to produce coherent work. For three years he worked in London as a builder’s labourer and supply teacher. During this period the marriage to Laaksi broke down after they found that she could not live in Ireland, which she regarded as backward and repressive, while he could not adjust to life in Finland; they divorced in 1968.

He resumed writing after appointment as research fellow at the University of Reading. In 1969 he received the first of several temporary appointments as visiting professor at Colgate University, Hamilton, New York (1972, 1976, 1978–9, 1991). In 1970 he published a short story collection, Nightlines. In 1969 he formed a relationship with Madeline Green, an American photographer, whom he married in 1973; there were no children of either marriage.

In 1970 the couple moved to Ireland; after living for some time in Connemara they purchased a small farm in his mother’s native area of Leitrim, keeping a few cows while he tried to support himself by his writing. This proved possible with the assistance of various awards (Society of Authors travelling scholarship, 1974; writer-in-residence, UCD, 1977 and again 1996; American Irish Foundation award, 1985; visiting professor of creative writing, University of Victoria, British Columbia, 1987; writer-in-residence, TCD, 1988). In Leitrim he combined what has been described as a quasi-monastic lifestyle (working in his sparely built study for a set time of intense concentration every day) with the life of a small farmer, selling his cattle, mingling with the neighbours and recovering what he saw as the elemental earthiness which characterised the plain people of Ireland who exercised only nominal conformity with the nostrums of the national bourgeoisie and the ‘druids’ – an earthiness leached out of his mother by her education but retained by her relatives.

The leavetaking (1974) is loosely inspired by his parents’ relationship and his own life up to his dismissal, differentiating the language of fiction through which we re-create our own lives from the external ‘journalistic’ manner through which we see those experiences of others, even the beloved, which we have not shared. In 1984 McGahern produced a revised version in which ‘journalistic’ elements are pruned, as are some angry asides (e.g. Matt Talbot (qv) as an ‘old mad Dublin labourer’). The lost hour, a televised adaptation of The leavetaking by Carlo Gebler (dir. Tony Barry), was broadcast on RTÉ in 1983.

The detail with which McGahern imagines and evokes the sexual coupling of characters based on his parents or himself (smells, textures, oozing) retains some power to startle. The pornographer (1979) contrasts examples of the Dublin-based narrator’s commercially produced works (a product of Ireland’s partial and semi-hypocritical modernisation; in an unpublished screenplay by McGahern the pornographers operate a government-subsidised factory pretending to produce touristic Irish kitsch) with the narrator’s account of his own experiences, as if to indicate the differences between true pornography and literature, however disturbing. The book, like its predecessors, was more popular on the Continent than in Ireland or Britain; the appearance of the French translation Le pornographe in 1981 saw McGaherrn’s work take off in terms of sales and critical acclaim in that country. McGahern had mixed feelings about The pornographer in retrospect, but saw it as an important stylistic achievement in describing something by absence and contrast which made his later work possible. He spent the next decade working on his novel Amongst women (1990). He also published two further collections of highly praised short stories, Getting through (1978) and High ground (1985).

Triumph and elegy The appearance of Amongst women, depicting the decline of an ex-IRA man and the mixed feelings of the family whom he alienates yet endows with a sense of apartness and a collective identity, marked the virtual disappearance of residual hostility towards McGahern, and his recognition as literary elder statesman and national treasure. Its limpid depiction of mid-century provincial family life, subtly incorporating its darker side and conveying the central character’s torments, struck a chord with readers. The book won several literary awards, was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and became a best-seller, finally relieving McGahern of financial strain; in 1998 it was adapted as a co-produced BBC/RTÉ television drama. In 1991 McGahern’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s The power of darkness (based on McGahern’s 1972 radio adaptation) was staged at the Abbey.

In 1989 he was made Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the president of the French Republic; he received honorary doctorates from TCD (1991), UCG (1992), Poitiers (1997), and Dublin City University (2002). He commented more frequently on public affairs (he was critical of the Provisional IRA and admired the political journalist Dick Walsh (qv); he opposed the 1983 pro-life constitutional amendment) and on literary matters, giving many interviews to researchers and writing introductions for numerous books; several documentaries were made about him. He welcomed the economic boom of the 1990s as allowing more opportunities for freedom and personal development, though he thought the new Ireland was losing a certain enforced but valuable sense of manners and tradition. He spoke pungently in conversation of the hypocrisies and corruptions of local and national politicians. The later McGahern may be seen as an Epicurean in the classic sense, believing that whatever gods may exist are irrelevant to mankind, and happiness derives from a well-constructed life of moderate pleasure. The apparent repose of his final years is deceptively simple; the rages of his earlier career, the contained violence blended with his lyricism, and the disintegration of such writers as his friend and admirer John Broderick (qv) under similar pressures, indicate the difficulty of the achievement.

His Collected stories (with revisions) were published in 1991 (a selection, further revised and with two uncollected stories, was prepared as part of his final reckoning with life and published in 2006 after his death asCreatures of the earth). His last novel, published in 2002, That they may face the rising sun (its USA title being By the lake), is an evocation of the small-farm society of his native Leitrim at some unspecified time in the late twentieth century; it combines elegy for a disappearing way of life with unobtrusively clear-eyed recognition of the victims of past cruelties and conformities and the sometimes brutal foibles of local characters. It is seen as the culminating refinement of his style, possibly exhausting the tradition of Irish rural naturalism; McGahern is even sometimes spoken of as the last writer of the Irish Revival because of his evocations of small-farm life and his relatively favourable references to the defeated remnants of the protestant ascendancy as representing a certain spaciousness and culture in contrast to the scrimping tyranny of his father and the respectable world. The novel won several literary awards and sold 10,000 copies a year in Ireland in the years 2002–05. In 2002 he was appointed to the Arts Council.

Memoir (2005), primarily an account of his childhood and his relations with his parents, was published in the United States as All will be well; he described it as ‘a mass for my mother’. The lyrical evocation of his mother’s faith and love, the family ties which helped to sustain him, and the life and landscape of south Leitrim co-exist with descriptions of his father’s brutality all the more horrifying for their spareness and emotional restraint, and with quietly critical anatomy of vanished prejudices and deprivations. The book became an instant classic and provides many insights into mid-twentieth-century Ireland.

As McGahern re-created his mother’s drift towards death he was already suffering from the cancer (diagnosed in 2002, after it had spread) which (despite experimental stem-cell therapy) caused his death in the Mater Hospital, Dublin, on 30 March 2006. The Memoir, like a 2005 documentary by Philip King, reflected a final settling of accounts. In his last weeks he sold his cattle, sorted out his affairs, planned his funeral and spoke calmly and openly of his impending death. He forbade public references to the gravity of his illness; his death provoked widespread mourning, and some observers remarked on the incongruity between the widespread use of language suggesting informal canonisation with McGahern’s professed religious views. Though reaffirming his atheism, McGahern requested a catholic funeral and burial beside his mother in Aughawillan churchyard; the granting of his request reflected a wider shift within Irish catholicism from emphasis on law, rationalism and the transcendental towards a quasi-Durkheimian immanentist ‘spirituality’, in some forms indistinguishable from McGahern’s atheist view of religion as a consoling communal story.

His grave became a place of secular pilgrimage. In 2007 a summer school in his memory, with an accompanying annual publication, was founded in Co. Leitrim. Several of his short stories were adapted for radio, television and cinema by himself or others; perhaps the best-known of these is Korea (dir. Cathal Black 1995).

McGahern is a deep and uneven writer. Interpretations of his career divide between those that see him as a social observer and those that emphasise formalism (as he himself did), but this distinction can be overdrawn. His insistence on seeing clearly, on telling as he saw it, and refusing to subordinate his individual vision to dominant ideologies had explosive social implications (although some of his critics, such as the Marxist commentator Joe Cleary, hold that refusal to subordinate the individual to the collective is itself an ideological position). No account of Ireland’s development during his lifetime can fail to come to terms with the extraordinary explorations and evocations which make him at once his society’s celebrant and its accuser, embodying what the historian Roy Foster ironically describes as how Ireland’s ‘catholics became protestant’. He may be seen as fulfilling in brutally ironic manner Corkery’s dicta that to truly express Irish life a writer must address land, nationality, and religion, and that the true Irish experience was a ‘hidden Ireland’ which had not yet found expression.

John McGahern’s literary papers are in the NUIG library.

Julia Carlson, Banned in Ireland: censorship and the Irish writer [interview] (1990); Denis Sampson, Outstaring nature’s eye: the fiction of John McGahern (1993); John Cooney, John Charles McQuaid: ruler of catholic Ireland(1999); James Whyte, History, myth and ritual in the fiction of John McGahern [interview] (2002); Éamon Maher, John McGahern: from the local to the universal [an interview] (2003); John McGahern, Memoir (2005); Ir. Independent, 27 Aug. 2005; 31 Mar. 2006; Guardian, 31 Mar. 2006; Independent (London), 1 Apr. 2006; Sunday Tribune, 2 Apr. 2006; Sunday Independent, 2 Apr. 2006; John Killen (ed.), Dear Mr McLaverty: the literary correspondence of John McGahern and Michael McLaverty 1959–1980 (2006); David Malcolm, Understanding John McGahern (2007); ‘McGahern on film, online’, (accessed 4 January 2012

A new entry, added to the DIB online, December 2011