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A Version of Pastoral

All Will Be Well is John McGahern’s account of his life, from a grim childhood to the start of his career as a novelist with the publication of The Barracks (1963) and The Dark (1965), books that established him as one of Ireland’s most prominent writers. He was born on November 12, 1934, in Dublin, the eldest child of a family that eventually came to seven children. He spent his early years in Ballinamore, County Leitrim. His mother was a teacher, employed when her health permitted in Aughawillian and other small, remote schools in Leitrim. She was an ardent believer in the Catholic faith that surrounded her. As McGahern recalls in All Will Be Well:

Prayers were said each morning. Work and talk stopped in fields and houses and school and shop and the busy street at the first sound of the Angelus bell each day at noon. Every day was closed with the Rosary at night. The worlds to come, hell and heaven and purgatory and limbo, were closer and far more real than America or Australia and talked about almost daily as our future reality.

His mother’s most intense hope for her son was that he would become a priest and that she would live to attend his first Mass. She died of cancer in 1945. McGahern’s father, like my own, was a police sergeant. Mine was a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in a small town in Northern Ireland; McGahern’s was one of the first generation of policemen (the Garda Síochána) established by the Irish Free State in 1922. Like my father, though for different reasons, Garda Frank McGahern had a commonplace career. He resented the fact that his service as an insurgent in the cause of Irish freedom during the War of Independence was meagerly recognized in the new state. He hated his job, couldn’t wait to leave it, and took his duties as a policeman as lightly as he could get away with. He served in village stations, mostly in Cootehall, County Roscommon, without any prospect of promotion.

McGahern’s memory of life in the barracks chimes with my own. I recall the hissing noise of the old carbide lamp attached to my father’s bicycle as he got ready to go on “meet patrol,” where he conferred, late at night, with other sergeants from local stations. And the annual warning that sergeants were required to deliver to local farmers that they must extirpate the ragwort in their fields or face a charge in the district court. My father carried out these minor tasks more equably than McGahern’s did: he didn’t rage at necessities.

After McGahern’s mother died, the children moved into “married quarters” in the barracks. His mother, by all accounts, was a saint. There are no unlovely mothers in McGahern’s fiction. His father was a brute: cold, violent, vindictive, charming to daughters and other women when he chose to be, but punitive and abusive to his son:

Up to now our mother had always been with us at home and in school. Now that she was gone we were at the mercy of our father—the scoldings, his sudden rages, the beatings he administered…. While, in fits, he could charm and seduce us, when we did go towards him he found us tiresome and could not sustain what he had brought about. The protection our mother gave had not always been without danger to herself…. She had to be extraordinarily careful. Though my father was often coldly calculating, his general moods were so changeable that, apart from a passion for contrariness, he never knew his mind from one minute to the next.

The local schools that McGahern attended were harsh; corporal punishment was the standard response to idleness, to any show of surliness, and to other misdemeanors. It has taken McGahern many years and four novels, The Barracks, The Dark, The Leavetaking (1974), and Amongst Women (1990), to write his anger to some degree out of his system. In The Leavetaking he repeats stories on this topic that he’d already told in The Barracks: good riddance is slow work.

McGahern, like myself, was given access as a boy to a local house that had choice sets of books in glass cases. Like myself, too, he picked out memorable passages that opened his mind, such as this speech in Book XI of the Odyssey, where the ghost of Achilles addresses Odysseus from the underground: “Speak not soothingly to me of death, O glorious Odysseus. I would choose so that I might live on earth to be the servant of a penniless man than to be lord over all the dead.” With such informal teaching and the rudimentary lessons of schooling, McGahern went on to the Presentation Brothers’ School, a good school in Carrick- on-Shannon, won a scholarship to St. Patrick’s Training College in Drumcondra, Dublin, took a BA degree at University College, Dublin, and became a primary school teacher.

The Dark was an even more vengeful book than The Barracks, on the same theme of father and son. When it was published, McGahern got more attention from the public than he could have wanted. The book was banned in Ireland on grounds of being “indecent or obscene.” Worse still for his career, he married a woman in a registry office rather than a church, thereby rendering himself unfit for continued employment as a teacher in the Catholic Scoil Eoin Bhaiste (St. John the Baptist School) in Clontarf. It surprises me that he had thought he could hold on to his job. “It must needs be that scandals come; but woe to him by whom the scandals come.” McGahern has never forgiven the Catholic Church for his dismissal, though he acknowledges that if he is no longer in the Church, the Church continues to be much in him.1 In a country parish in Leitrim, social life, during the years to which McGahern has paid attention, was largely arranged in keeping with Catholic ceremonies and sacraments: not only the Angelus and the Family Rosary, said every night at home by those who said it at all, but Sunday Mass, New Year’s Day, the Epiphany, St. Patrick’s Day, Lent and its observances, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday, the Corpus Christi Procession, the Feast of the Assumption, Christmas, Midnight Mass, and the recurrent Catholic births, weddings, and funerals.

McGahern has denounced the Church in Ireland for what he sees as its allegedly restrictive, sectarian practices, but this is hard to square with the books in which he presents the Church as having no influence whatever, apparently, on the personal and especially sexual lives of its flock. If you believed McGahern on the evidence of his novels and stories (and I don’t, in this particular), you would conclude that any able-bodied lad in Ireland who went to a dance hall emerged from it a couple of hours later with a girl—often a nurse—who took him to her bed for a night of unprotected sex. In The Pornographer (1979), the young man has sex with practically any woman he meets and, in London, makes one of them pregnant. He talks of an abortion, but she insists on having the baby. At this point he abandons mother and child, goes back to Dublin, and meets a girl, Nurse Brady, who is not at all dismayed by his behavior and is casual about her own. In the end, vaguely uneasy about his sexual activities in London, he plans to marry Nurse Brady and settle down with her in Leitrim. This is to count as a happy ending.

In the story “Bank Holiday” it takes a senior civil servant, Patrick McDonough, all of a weekend to meet a girl from New York, have lunch with her, bring her walking along Dollymount Strand, share a raucous conversation with the poet Patrick Kavanagh in a Dublin pub, make love to the girl in his flat, and gain her agreement to marry “in everything but name.” Maybe Yeats was right, if he was referring to Ireland in the first stanza of “Sailing to Byzantium”—

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music, all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

—though little of that sensual music caught my attention in Ireland as it apparently caught Yeats’s and McGahern’s.

McGahern’s fiction is predicated on the places he knows intuitively, especially Leitrim, where he has lived for many years. The Leavetaking and The Pornographer are both set in Dublin and London, but they seem less suited to his gifts. McGahern’s imaginative country is Leitrim and its environs. He has taken full possession of it, though one might remark that it is not a strenuously contested part of the world. His method is total submission to the conditions at large. It is a mark of his talent; as he says of a character called the Shah in That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002; published in the US as By the Lake), “Where he blossomed was in the familiar and habitual, which he never left willingly.” If someone sits down to breakfast in a novel by McGahern, we are given the full menu:

He ate in silence from a large white plate: sausage, rasher, grilled halves of tomato, mushrooms, onion, black pudding, a thin slice of liver, a grilled lamb chop. From another plate he drew and buttered slices of freshly baked soda bread….

With an audible sigh of satisfaction he reached for the slice of apple tart, the crust sprinkled with fine sugar. He poured cream from a small white jug. He drank from the mug of steaming tea.

If there is work to be done in Leitrim, McGahern makes sure he himself can do it or at least know how it is done: carpentry, cutting turf, making hay, keeping bees, fishing on the lake, dipping sheep, preparing a corpse for wake and burial. He knows things about Irish rural life that are new to me—that it’s customary to stop all clocks in the house of the dead, for instance. No writer I know of since Walt Whitman has derived such pleasure from making lists:

The traders had already set out their stalls. Chain saws were displayed on a long trestle table beneath a canvas tent that bulged and flapped. From the open back of a van a man was selling animal medicines, sprays and drenches and large cans of disinfectant, sticks of caustic for removing horns, bone-handled knives with curved blades for dressing hooves. One whole side of a covered lorry was open. They had grease guns, tins of oil, top links for tractors, chains, pulleys, blue bales of rope. Close by was a van selling wellingtons, work boots, rainwear, overalls. Elsewhere, shovels, spades, forks, hedge knives, axes, picks were displayed leaning against the side of a van. All kinds of tool handles stood in barrels.

  1. 1

    See “Catholicism and National Identity in the Works of John McGahern,” an interview between Eamon Maher and John McGahern, at www.jesuit.ie /studies/articles/2001/010304i.htm.

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