The Ireland John McGahern was born into in 1934 was an impoverished, backward near-theocracy lit by candle and heated by peat fire. The Ireland he died in 71 years later, in March 2006, could hardly have been more different: a dynamic modern nation, criss-crossed with expressways, fiber-optic cable, and high-speed rail lines and boasting the second-highest per capita income in the European Union. “Ireland is a peculiar [country],” McGahern said in an interview a few years before his death, “in the sense that it was a 19th-century society up to about 1970 and then it almost bypassed the 20th century.” Many of the changes—the social differences between men and women; the relations between ordinary people and the church; the Irish at home and abroad—are chronicled in McGahern’s small but distinguished oeuvre of six novels, a memoir, and four collections of short stories.
He was a very Irish writer, rooted and poetic. His novels contain what might be called the Irish clichés—the booze, the turf, the spuds, the horses, the poor farms (all of which are equally present in the works of, say, the Frenchman Zola, or the Swiss Ramuz)—but their overall effect is far from pastoral, and the stories are anything but quaint, or no more so than Hardy’s tales of Wessex, or Maupassant’s of Normandy. Like Hardy and Maupassant, McGahern was first and foremost a realist, depicting a certain strain of his nation’s rural life with lucid fidelity. He was a chronicler of Ireland’s transformation, but he never actually set out to chronicle anything more than the details of everyday life; in fact, he believed that any writer who intended “to give a picture of Ireland” would be committing propaganda or journalism, not literature. So, although the flyovers and two-car garages and wine bars of modern Ireland eventually appear in the distant landscape of his later work, McGahern’s primary concern was with the eternal verities of love, life, and death that are the only real province of literature and that render his work both provincial and universal, like that of Hardy and Maupassant, as well as Tolstoy, Chekhov, and others who specialize in viewing the universe from the spire of the village church. (Perhaps not surprisingly, McGahern’s own favorite novelist was Jane Austen.) In the Irish context, however, McGahern’s work belongs to the “local” tradition of keen observers of the ebb and flow of provincial life such as Somerville and Ross (Memoirs of an Irish R.M.), Ernie O’ Malley (On Another Man’s Wound), Tomás Ó Criomhthain (The Islandman), and Daniel Corkery (The Threshold of Quiet). These writers are heirs to a style of Irish writing different than that of, say, Joyce and Beckett, a style described by the critic Seamus Deane as representing those who have “awakened from the nightmare of history and given us a sense of liberation which is not dependent on flight or emigration or escape.”
But the circumstances of McGahern’s early life as a writer gave him good reason to contemplate all three of these age-old Irish pastimes. Had he been raised in Dublin, he, like Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, and Shaw (Dubliners all), would probably have fled abroad—as indeed he did for awhile following the banning of his second novel, The Dark, in 1965. He went to Helsinki with his first wife, the Finnish theater director Anikki Laaki; but they soon divorced, and McGahern made his way back to Ireland, not to Dublin but to the Irish midlands, where he was brought up and to which, in his soul, he always belonged.
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 can write badly in Ireland as well as anywhere else.
The midlands of Ireland are not a place of great dramatic beauty like Connemara or the Dingle Peninsula. Their appeal is more like the English and Dutch pastorales of Constable and Ruysdael, in which the human drama is acted out amid placid stands of oak and rolling wheat fields and small farms with cows and goats and lakes teeming with fish, all beneath the huge skies of Eternity. (In a similar vein, the critic Declan Kiberd has compared McGahern “to one of those painters of the Renaissance who tried to do one painting over and over until they got it near to perfection.”) Farming is part of life in the midlands, but the soil is thin, and working the land is a hard business. From this, and the seasonal repetitions of agriculture, McGahern acquired the clear eye of the poet-farmer:
The fields between the lakes are small, separated by thick hedges of whitethorn, ash, blackthorn, alder, sally, rowan, wild cherry, green oak, sycamore, and the lanes that link them under the Iron Mountains are narrow, often with high banks. The hedges are the glory of these small fields, especially when the hawthorn foams into streams of blossom each May and June. 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.
When McGahern was growing up, the outside world, however hard, was a welcome escape from the perilous balance between extremes that his home life represented. His mother Susan was a schoolteacher, gentle and devout. She died of cancer when John was just shy of ten. His father Frank, a policeman in the Gardai (Irish national police), was a monster of egotism who alternated between bouts of depression and physical violence and who lived long enough to provoke a rift with his son that never healed, even (or especially) when John was a respected and successful writer. If writing is a way to self-knowledge through memory and experience, then most of what McGahern wrote was an attempt to tame his hatred of his father through obsessive remembering. His father’s revenge on him was to be the ghost in his work from beginning to end.
And yet McGahern’s first novel is a homage to his mother. The Barracks is a spare and simple tale of the decline and death of a woman whose life has been tedious and unfulfilled; as Tolstoy says in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, alongside which McGahern’s novel can take its place in the literature of illness, “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”
The Barracks takes place in a police barracks like the one the McGahern family once lived in. In the book’s first pages McGahern introduces the Tolstoyan literary device of figurative contrasts that he would use in all his books: the contrast between darkness and light; between the world outside and the hearth within; between indifferent Nature and childhood innocence; and, specifically in The Barracks, between Elizabeth’s cultivated sensitivity and the sadistic dominance of her husband, Reegan, a sergeant in the Gardai. Elizabeth and Reegan share a certain minimal understanding and an elusive affection based on sexual attraction, but their ideals are at odds; she craves spiritual peace while he wants financial independence at all costs and hardly cares who lives or dies. Life goes on in its stubborn, unsatisfactory way—“the days disappear in the attendance of small tasks,” as McGahern says elsewhere—until Elizabeth discovers a lump in her breast. Just as Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich is alerted to his illness by a strange taste in his mouth, she fears the worst.
She was frightened in spite of the tiredness and hopelessness. Everything might be already outside her control, nothing she could do would make the slightest difference. She could only wait there for it to happen, that was all. Whether she had cancer or not wasn’t her whole life a waiting, the end would arrive sooner or later, twenty extra years meant nothing to the dead, but no, no, no. She couldn’t face it. Time was only for the living. She wanted time, as much time as she could get.
Her sense of futility deepens when her fears are confirmed; she has cancer. In her despair she wonders what kind of death she will have, and how life will go on when she’s gone—how it can go on at all, in the face of certain extinction.
She’d be as blind with life, as ridiculously human as any other when it came to her turn. . . . It was so fantastic, and so miraculous, that it could go in spite of having no known purpose, blind passion carrying it forward in spite of everything.
The book is rich with insight and depth of feeling far beyond the ken of an ordinary 29-year-old, even an ordinary (if there is such a thing) 29-year-old writer, as McGahern was in 1963, when the book came out. There is a rare, unaffected poetry in his writing; again, a painterly parallel comes to mind, but the spirit in this instance belongs less to Constable than to Cézanne, who, like McGahern, found inspiration in repeated embellishment of the ordinary:
A cart was rocking past on the road when she came out, its driver sunk deep in the hay on top of the load, a straw hat pulled down over his face. The way his body rolled to every rock and sway of the cart he could have been asleep in the sunshine. The reins hung slack. A cloud of flies swarmed about the mare’s head and her black coat was stained with sweat all along the lines of the harness, but they rolled on as if they had eternity for their journey.
In a rare case of spot-on judgment on the part of an awards committee, the book won Ireland’s most prestigious literary prize, the AE Memorial Award, but it attracted comparatively little critical attention beyond that, at least in Ireland—although the English novelist Anthony Burgess remarked that no other writer “caught so well the peculiar hopelessness of contemporary Ireland.” But then came The Dark, and that peculiar hopelessness seemed even more hopeless. Ironically, McGahern’s reputation was made with his second novel—not deservedly, as a novelist of genius, but as a moral renegade and disgrace to the Irish state.
After graduation from University College in 1955, McGahern had begun his career as a primary-school teacher; reluctantly, as befits a writer determined to go his own way. He stayed a teacher for 11 years, but wrote The Dark between classes. When the novel was published, it got fine reviews in England, but as soon as it appeared in Ireland it was banned. McGahern was fired from his teaching job on the express orders of the archbishop of Dublin. Ultimately, it was a fortunate turn of events for Irish letters, for it forced McGahern to abandon teaching and earn his bread by his pen, but it was also a national disgrace. This absurd act of censorship (copies of the book, printed in England, were rushed off to be pulped as soon as they arrived at Dublin docks) made McGahern a national figure, and it could be argued that the whole sorry mess fatally undermined the church’s authority as supreme arbiter of Irish morality.
But to the book. Stylistically, an intriguing aspect of The Dark is the way the narrative voice shifts from first person to second person to third person and back again. This works well: as in a theatre when the lights go down, the foreground—the narrator—is in the dark (or The Dark); and the onstage action—Life—is illuminated. And what unfolds here is a drama of pain. The Dark is a harrowing enough read today; it must have been unimaginably so in the sheltered Ireland of the early 1960s. The main character, Mahoney, a typical boy from the Irish provinces, grows up in the shadow of the brutal father who haunts so much of McGahern’s work; and the elder Mahoney is one of the most bitter of all these fathers.
They all got beatings, often for no reason, because they laughed when he was in foul humor, but they learned to make him suffer—to close their life against him and to leave him to himself.
Of course, the beatings and physical abuse, however vividly described, passed muster with the censors of the day. What upset them was the turn things take when the boy discovers self-abuse, in this instance inspired by a lingerie ad (surprisingly risqué for the time) from the Irish Independent:
One day she must come to me. I try to pump madly on the mattress, fighting to get up her nightdress . . . One day, one day, one day rising to a breaking wave, and that shivering pause on the height before the seed pulses.
The Dark was declared obscene by the Irish Censorship Board for “its depiction of masturbation” and, further on, the suggestion of a sexual advance by a priest toward a boy:
What right had he to come and lie with you in bed, his body hot against yours, his arm about your shoulders?
Almost worse than the sexual frankness is the message sent by young Mahoney’s rejection of the priesthood as a possible career choice. He grows up, excels in his studies, wins a scholarship, and then, to please his father, renounces the scholarship for an office job. But this is not what brings light into The Dark’s darkness; it is another kind of renunciation, of Mahoney’s hatred for his father, that points the way ahead, as if McGahern were yearning for the Christian forgiveness and reconciliation that never happened in real life. (Whether his father ever read his books he never knew; in any case the subject was never mentioned by either side.) “Art is a mysterious thing,” he said in an interview. “The fingerprints of the writer are all over it and you can’t fake anything from the reader.”
No fakery here: If The Barracks can justly be compared to Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Dark can claim a place of honor on the top shelf of autobiographical fiction, next to Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
The fallout to The Dark continued for years. At first McGahern maintained a dignified silence—“I didn’t think it was worth protesting about,” he said—yet saw his reputation among other writers rise. Many offered to help. He was particularly indebted to Samuel Beckett, an admirer of the book, for coming forward to speak on his behalf.
“I wrote back to thank him,” said McGahern, “but said I didn’t want any protest . . . I was secretly ashamed. Not because of the book, but because this was our country and we were making bloody fools of ourselves.”
Against his better judgment, McGahern left Ireland and worked at various jobs in Europe and North America before eventually returning to County Leitrim in the rural Midlands. During this time away he turned his attention to the short story: easier to write, quicker to publish, swifter to sting. He soon proved himself a master of the form. Indeed, his Collected Stories include some of the finest of all Irish short stories, comparable to those of the modern Irish Chekhov, William Trevor, and to the Irish Chekhov of a previous generation, Frank O’Connor.
In his stories McGahern captures to pitch-perfection the voices and manners of a rural Ireland in flux, with all its challenges and disappointments. His characters are emotionally bottled up and vaguely expectant without knowing why. Some rage with inner furies. One character in the story “Oldfashioned” remarks of another, “Like the rest of the country he has a great store of negative capability.” Like most of McGahern’s characters, one is tempted to add; certainly like all of his father characters. Indeed, in the story “Korea,” which was made into a feature film, the theme of the oppressive father is taken to a cynical extreme even for McGahern. Eamon, the boy from the provinces, dreams of emigrating to America and, despite the ongoing Korean War, volunteering for the U.S. Army, for the pay, the prestige, and the pension. His father, who has violently opposed this idea, suddenly changes his tune and heartily endorses it. Eamon discovers why when the body of a neighbor’s son, who had emigrated and was killed in the U.S. Army in Korea, is sent home—along with $10,000 in American-government insurance. It is a chilling story, bleak and all-too-human. The spirit of Maupassant, again, hovers in the wings here, as it does in so many of McGahern’s stories, side by side with Chekhov’s gentler shade, which sometimes gets there first: in “Swallows,” the dull routines of country life are brightened for a while by a visitor from Dublin who proudly plays Paganini on a Stradivarius, but his hosts clamor for encores of “Danny Boy” instead. “Peaches” is a ribald tale of marital collapse and sexual humiliation in the sunny but sinister Spain of Franco’s day; “Lavin” tells the story of a malicious rural pederast who is seen not as the threat he is but as a joke; “My Love, My Umbrella,” with its themes of urban love and loss, is a sketch for McGahern’s 1979 novel The Pornographer. Most of McGahern’s short stories, like all of his novels, are variations on the same theme: the impossibility of escape. Perhaps wary of being accused of drawing too heavily on his own life, the author 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.” Begging the late writer’s pardon, but this is disingenuous. For one thing, his prose is never dead. For another, McGahern’s body of work, for all its literary qualities, is more autobiographical than most, a kind of Wordsworthian Prelude in which motif and theme, of self contra mundum, are worked and reworked.
The next novels, The Leavetaking (1975) and The Pornographer, are lesser works from a great pen. (After all, Joyce had his Exiles, Tolstoy his Resurrection.) But they are still solid pieces that have their place in the McGahern oeuvre. In The Leavetaking Patrick Moran, a young Catholic schoolteacher, has returned to Ireland after a year’s sabbatical in London, where he married an American divorcée. Back in Ireland he (like his creator) faces certain dismissal for not being “moral” enough in his instruction. He therefore fails, like most of McGahern’s heroes, to complete his leavetaking—of youth, of Ireland, and, most of all, of his family (i.e., his father). Like many another McGahern character, Patrick comes up against the vicious circle of memory and frustration, which remains unbroken, at least until death does away with it:
Two worlds: the world of the schoolroom in this day, the world of memory becoming imagination; but this last day in the classroom will one day be nothing but a memory before its total obliteration, the completed circle.
The act of leave-taking, of course, is one of the basic narrative themes in literature, from Daedalus the Greek to Stephen Dedalus the Dubliner, but the way the average Irishman (or Irishwoman) of a generation ago could never really just pull up stakes and go away, short of the total uprooting of emigration, comes up again and again in McGahern’s work. The nameless narrator of The Pornographer, too, is caught in this paradox, but at least he ultimately finds his way to some kind of redemption, even if it’s back to the less-than-ideal world of the Irish provinces. In the pornographic fiction he writes he creates a glittering ideal world of beach parties in Majorca and Pimm’s Cup–sipping colonels and sexy tarts in fetching deshabille, but in real life he completely messes up his own involvement with an older woman who falls in love with him. In one of McGahern’s signature contrasts, the poor fool’s insensitivity to his lover is balanced by his affectionate efforts to make his aunt’s slow and painful death tolerable by stoking the old lady with brandy from morning to night. Ultimately, after farcical episodes that come closer to comedy than anything else McGahern ever wrote, the (now ex-) pornographer heads for home—as McGahern himself did, and as so many other Irishmen did, real and fictitious. (Of the latter, Gabriel Conroy in Joyce’s “The Dead” comes to mind, resolving in the end to “set out on his journey westward.”) McGahern’s pornographer realizes that life is more than avoidance of one’s emotional, psychological, and sexual problems; it sometimes involves facing them on their home ground. The nature of the epiphany experienced by the anonymous protagonist of this most urban of McGahern’s books (set almost entirely in Dublin and London) is to see that, after a lifetime of cynical exploitation—writing pornography for his rent money, after all—he has let the “light of imagination almost [go] out.” As a result he decides to return to rural Ireland, to “make a go of it,” as if on a throw of the dice.
When The Pornographer came out in 1980 it caused a ripple, but nothing compared to the tsunami of The Dark, back in 1963; and the most significant aspect of the book may be the public’s reaction to it in Ireland. Its relatively quiet appearance (and subsequent disappearance, sales-wise), 16 years after the debacle of The Dark, is a powerful signal that Ireland’s sea change was well underway. With the late charmer and ace swindler Charles Haughey in power at the time, there was more sex and scandal in the government than in McGahern’s novels, or the girlie mags that were beginning to find their way in.
During those years, what little McGahern wrote he wrote slowly but exceedingly well, as was always his wont; and at the end of his life he produced two novels as rich and fine as his earliest work, the sunset reflecting the dawn: Amongst Women and By the Lake. Amongst Women was nominated for the 1990 Booker Prize, and unfairly failed to win. It is a masterly restatement of all McGahern’s themes: the main character, Moran the aging IRA veteran, is The Barracks’s Reegan redux, as well as the spirit of McGahern’s father. This is clear right from the start, as his lifelong total control over his family begins to slip away with age:
As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children and houses of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.
Like McGahern’s other powerful men, Moran refuses to acknowledge the failing of his mind and body and the subsequent bankruptcy of his authority. Worse, he even begins to doubt his religious convictions, after a lifetime of kneeling to recite the Rosary every evening and, dominant in this as in all else, forcing his family to join in:
This night Moran enunciated each repetitious word with a slow clarity and force as if the very dwelling on suffering, death and human supplication would scatter all flimsy vanities of a greater world; and the muted responses giving back their acceptance of human servitude did not improve his humor.
Clearly, this is a situation that would have long been intolerable for a free-thinker like Moran’s sons Luke and Michael (or McGahern himself, in real life). Luke flees to England and finds jobs on the construction sites that were the homes away from home for generations of desperate chancers from the boglands of Erin. He rises in the trade and turns his back on all he left behind. On his sole return visit, for a wedding, one of his sisters pleads with him not to “do anything to upset Daddy.” “Of course not. I won’t exist today,” is his curt reply. His brother Michael is a more circumspect sort: a dab hand at the craic (pub fun) and a fierce flirt with the girls, he is no good at his studies, but one thing he knows for sure is that the old man is mad and that both of them would be better off with him in England. “I’m afraid we might all die in Ireland if we don’t get out fast,” he says; so he, too, emigrates, but half-heartedly, and keeps coming back, as if still seeking approval from his dying, then dead, father. In the end, after Moran’s daughters have also moved out, the old man looks around him and suddenly notices how the landscape has changed, as if overnight, without his permission, or control.
The light was beginning to fail but he did not want to go into the house. In a methodical way he set out to walk his land, field by blind field. He had not grown up on these fields but they felt to him as if he had. . . . He’d be his own man here, he had thought, and for the first time in his life he’d be away from people. Now he went from field to field, no longer kept as well as they once were, the hedges ragged, stones fallen from the walls, but he hardly needed the fields any more.
As Moran dies, in a last attempt to sidestep his doubts and a last opportunity to wield his power, he asks his family plaintively, “Why aren’t you praying?” But when they obligingly fall to their knees, Moran gasps out his last words, the words of a failing tyrant: “Shut up!” Moran’s death, and the sense of reconciliation it brings to the family he has so long dominated, is one of the most poignant notes in all of McGahern’s work.
By the Lake, his last novel, was nominated under its original title, That They May Face the Rising Sun, for the 2003 Impac Literary Prize (which was won in the event by Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red). By the Lake is set in the late 1980s in McGahern’s beloved midlands, a familiar landscape evoked in the now-familiar brush strokes of a master.
The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish. There were many swans on the lake. A gray rowboat was fishing along the far shore. A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog. A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand.
But this rural haven is no longer timeless. Here, truly, is a chronicle of change. The once-isolated lakeside village is a microcosm of a rural Irish society caught between the old ways and the modern world, which, in the form of more cars and bigger roads, power lines, cable TV, and an assisted-living center for the elderly, is taking over. Globalization is afoot. Businesses are now nationwide, if not worldwide. But most of the narrative focuses on the simple daily lives of Joe and Kate Ruttledge, a couple who abandoned London for a quiet life but, ironically, have found themselves at the heart of a changing rural world. With a deft and more affectionate touch than usual, McGahern sketches some colorful local characters: John Quinn, a devoted womanizer; a burly millionaire known as “the Shah,” the richest man in the village; the gentle Ruttledges; Patrick Ryan, a cynical scapegrace; and, in the background, like the modern-day descendant of the IRA old guard represented by McGahern’s father, lurks shady Jimmy Joe McKiernan, the modern “freedom fighter,” as adept at spreadsheets as at bomb-throwing, who exemplifies a different menace to the steady rhythms of daily life.
McGahern is never cloying, and the greatest pleasure of reading this novel and all his best work comes from the clarity of his vision. He writes offhandedly yet lucidly about life’s jagged edges: the meanness of a farmer, the greed of a local robber baron, how to slaughter a lamb. His underlying belief, which he shares with those already-invoked literary forbears Hardy and Maupassant, is that happiness may never come in the average life—indeed, probably will not, but if it does, “it should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed.” Patrick Ryan, who does things his own way, sums it up:
You just do what you have to, lad. Meet me . . . if you want. It’s completely matterless whether you turn up or not. If you don’t turn up I have plenty of places to go to.
Similarly, the author expects nothing; he merely nods and passes by, like a breeze in the field.
By the Lake is a departure from McGahern custom in that no ominous father figure casts his shadow over the characters—well, the Shah has elements of such a personage, but all in all the dramatis personae is remarkably free of father-dictators. At the end an elegiac serenity hangs over the lake. But in the distance the machines of modernity are humming; it is rural Ireland’s last stand, and by the same token, McGahern’s farewell to a lost world he loved and hated in equal measure.
McGahern published one more book after By the Lake, a melancholy memoir simply titled Memoir in the United Kingdom and Ireland but more evocatively (and somewhat deceptively) titled All Will Be Well in the United States. In it he revisits his childhood, the setting for his earliest novels; he reclaims his love for his mother, and revives his obsession with the father with whom he was never reconciled. And yet there is a curious, almost religious detachment here. More even than in his fiction, here McGahern adheres closely to Flaubert’s dictum that the writer should “be present everywhere, but not visible, like God in nature.” For those who have read and admired McGahern, his memoir is a last visit to a once-familiar time and place made accessible once again through the calm beauty of his prose. He revisits his own past with an immediacy that is almost palpable:
When I was three years old I used to walk a lane like these lanes to Lisacarn School with my mother. . . . There was a drinking pool for horses along the way, gates to houses, and the banks were covered with all kinds of wild flowers and vetches and wild strawberries. My mother named these flowers for me as we walked, and sometimes we stopped and picked them for the jamjars. 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. These moments disappear as suddenly and as inexplicably as they come, and long before they can be recognized and placed.
These moments come alive again in the hands of a writer who was, above all, a passionate romantic and a great artist. In his lifetime his country, once drab, became a place of wealth and energy and even glamour. But he never forgot the sad echo and traces of beauty of the past; so if it’s glamorous writing you seek, look elsewhere. Here there is only truth.