John McGahern
John McGahern; drawing by David Levine

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.

With such specification, “elsewhere” seems a moment’s inattention.

In these novels, emotional relations between characters always spell trouble, as with Moran and his wife Rose in Amongst Women, but then there is the release of landscape, where McGahern’s characters find peace and his prose achieves remarkable beauty, quiet and accepting:

They walked the fields. They looked at the stacked bales in the shaved meadows, already a rich yellow in the sun, and at the cattle and the sheep. They stood on the high hill over the inner lake and watched a heron cross from the wooded island to Gloria Bog. The day was so still that not even a breath of wind ruffled the sedge that was pale as wheat in the sun. The birch trees stood like green flowers until the pale sea merged with the far blue of the mountain.

Or there is the gratification of work to be done—making hay, welding a broken sprocket, attending to bees, conducting an auction—or new images to be looked at, the sea at Strandhill. To gain release from some domestic exasperation or raised voices, McGahern’s characters have only to look out a kitchen window, walk the fields, or let distant sounds become the music of what happens. As in The Barracks:

“Put coats on yourselves,” Reegan at last took it into his head to play the part of father, “and no splashin’ about of water. It’s no time of the year yet for a wettin’.”

A lovely blue dusk was on the water, a vapour of moon that’d climb to yellow light as the night came was already high. The sun had gone down to the rim of the hills they could not see beyond the woods, the spaces between the tree-tops burning with red light.

The sawmill came to a stop, then the stonecrusher in the quarries. Men called to each other and their voices came with haunting clarity across the frozen countryside. A bucket rattled where a woman was feeding calves in some yard.

In Amongst Women the daughters appease their distress over Moran’s treatment of them and his wife by taking it to the fields:

They passed the delicate white blossoms of wild cherry, Sheila striding along in angry resentment, Mona following in her shadow. The light of water showed through the tree trunks as they drew close to the narrow wood along the lake but only on the fringe of the trees they lost all resentment at the sight of the thick floor of bluebells beneath the trees. To advance further into the wood was to trample on the colour blue.

“There must be thousands.”

“There’s millions!”

In the end, they survive by acting together:

They were already conspirators, they were mastered, and yet they were controlling together what they were mastered by.

Some readers in Ireland have complained that McGahern has stuck to his Leitrim with obstinacy, and has confined his attention to a few uneventful years there after the Second World War. They note that although the agricultural West of Ireland has been transformed by the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy, McGahern has shown little or no interest in farmers’ access to wealth. Worse, in the eyes of some readers, he has been indifferent to the “Troubles” in the North of Ireland since the civil rights marches of 1968, the rise of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the various Loyalist paramilitary groups, internment without trial, Bloody Sunday, and the events leading to the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998. These Troubles have provoked many Irish writers to respond to them in poems, novels, plays, and films—Seamus Heaney, Thomas Kinsella, John Montague, and Neil Jordan among them. But McGahern hasn’t been stirred. The Northern situation “seems strange and foreign to me. It doesn’t engage me personally.”2

He has settled, apparently, for the bizarre conclusion that the Northern situation is simply a quarrel between two sectarian states, the South in the service of Catholics, the North in the service of Protestants. There is no merit in protesting that the story of the North is more complex than McGahern’s sense of it; he is free to ignore whatever he chooses to ignore. He is not obliged to concern himself with the current Ireland of wealth and greed, the Dublin of computers and the Irish Financial Center, the capitalism that has made Dublin one of the most expensive cities in the world. Why should he give his bounty to such images?

When All Will Be Well was first published last year in England, it was called simply Memoir. The change must have some point. The new title has as its immediate source the passage in “Little Gidding” in which T.S. Eliot writes:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

The ultimate source is the fourteenth-century mystic Dame Julian of Norwich in whose thirteenth “shewing”—or mystical vision—we read of her being told by the Lord that “all shall be well” through prayer and the grace of the Holy Spirit.3 In McGahern’s later fiction, prayer and grace have been translated into natural or secular terms. Community has displaced Church; the rhythm of the seasons has ousted theology.

This “conversion” took place after Amongst Women, but it was anticipated in a dramatic moment in that novel when Michael Moran was on his deathbed, attended by his daughters:

“Why aren’t you praying?” he demanded as if he knew he was slipping away.

They immediately dropped to their knees around the bed.

“Thou, O Lord, wilt open my lips,” Rose began.

Tears slipped down their faces as they repeated the “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys.” Maggie had begun her Mystery when it grew clear that Moran was trying to speak. She stopped and the room was still. The low whisper was unmistakeable: “Shut up!

In That They May Face the Rising Sun the conversion becomes a way of life, “turning each day into the same day, making every Sunday into all the other Sundays.”

That They May Face the Rising Sun is hardly a novel at all. There is no story, no plot, but a series of vignettes. There is a lake. There are a few characters with small farms on its shores. Joe and Kate Ruttledge, originally from the neighborhood, have come back from London to settle beside the lake. A few old friends drop in to see them, sometimes two or three times a day. The hospitality consists of tea for the women, whiskey for the men, ham sandwiches for everyone. Nothing happens except talk, bits of news, gossip, reminiscence. A cat catches a hare. Lambs are brought to the local factory. The seasons change, life goes on. Sometimes the narrative tone of voice is darkened, as it was often darkened in the early novels and stories: “In the end what does it matter?” But the continuity of works and days is accepted as mattering, at least sufficiently to keep the talk going. This little community seems to utter itself in a voice of its own. In some passages it is not clear who is speaking or thinking; it is as if the weather spoke for everyone. Most of these characters still go to Mass on Sunday, but the altar they face is the rising sun.

It is in this sense that, as McGahern appears to say, all will be well. Individual acts of will are dissolved in custom. People are still seen as idiosyncratic, but there is no need to judge them; it is enough that they add color to the lives of the rest of us. Inner experiences, if McGahern’s characters have such stirrings, are rarely shown. In “The Wine Breath”—one of his best stories—a priest is delivered into the compulsion of memory and association by a hint of snow, the smell of crushed mint in his garden, the light he sees on bits of white beech. His life “had been like any other, except to himself, and then only in odd visions of it, as a lost life.” When it had been “agreeable and equitable he had no vision of it at all.”4 He recalls his mother, who had been a seamstress, tearing up every dress, every piece of clothing she had ever made, before sinking into senility and death, but he does not try to divine the inner life that took such a violent form. Generally in McGahern’s stories, characters are alive in what they have to do or in the local collisions of temper when they meet. Introspection counts for little of their vitality.

These considerations may help to explain McGahern’s strange sense of his major precursors in Irish literature. He does not claim any strong relation to Swift, Yeats, Joyce, or Beckett. Some readers think of him in some relation to Beckett, but that seems extreme. Not being a poet, he is free of Yeats. He can circumvent Joyce by staying out of Dublin. The books he evidently admires are those in which the theme is life-as-such and the fact that particular lives are imagined, observed, and described matters in the beginning but not in the end. McGahern has not written in Irish, but he has remarked “the presence of the older language in the English we speak and use in Ireland, in many speech constructions, in its rhythms and its silences, and in those words withheld deliberately or left unspoken.”5

In That They May Face the Rising Sun pieces of dialogue remember the Irish language they come from. “Patrick never had value on Edmund” comes into English from the Irish of Ní raibh meas ag Phádraig ar Eamon, meaning that Patrick didn’t respect Edmund. McGahern has written warmly of one of the great enabling books of modern Irish writing, Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s An tOileánach (translated by Robin Flower as The Islandman) and noted that Ó Criomhthain’s “view of reality is at no time a personal view and is never at variance with the values of his society as a whole.”6 The place of McGahern’s imagination is indeed Leitrim, its time the 1950s, but he does not write punctually to any occasion, or make a large point of it. The realism he practices does not subserve an event but the large rhythm of such events, a distinction also applicable to another book he admires, J.M. Synge’s The Aran Islands. A typical paragraph in All Will Be Well reads:

In another week Mother came home. She was well and happy and went straight back to school. With her each morning we went up the cinder footpath to the little iron gate, past Brady’s house and pool and the house where the old Mahon brothers lived, past the deep, dark quarry and across the railway bridge and up the hill by Mahon’s shop to the school, and returned the same way in the evening. I am sure it is from those days that I take the belief that the best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything.

The risk of ennui in the quiet life is clear, but it is a risk McGahern has very impressively negotiated.

This Issue

March 23, 2006