A Version of Pastoral

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…

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