John McGahern

Estate of Patrick Swift

John McGahern; drawing by Patrick Swift, circa 1960

Seamus Heaney once characterized the Irish novelist John McGahern as a ruminant, given to chewing the cud. He meant it as a compliment. He was defending McGahern’s third novel, The Leavetaking (1974), against the charge of recycling material from his first, The Barracks (1963). The accusation wasn’t unfair. The death from cancer of McGahern’s mother, Susan, when he was ten, is at the core of both novels, and it’s described in very similar terms. Later he returned to it again, in terrifying detail, in his memoir All Will Be Well (2005). But, Heaney suggested, the echoes and repetitions were irrelevant. This is how memory becomes imagination, by repeating itself.

John McGahern was born in County Leitrim in the northwest of Ireland in 1934, the eldest son of a police sergeant and the village schoolteacher. He was of the same generation, broadly speaking, as Heaney, the playwright Brian Friel, and the poet and critic Seamus Deane, who were growing up on the other side of the newly constituted Irish border, and like them he was lucky in his schooling. While Heaney and Deane got to take advantage of the British government’s extension of free secondary education for all, landing themselves places at St. Columb’s College in Derry, McGahern’s good fortune was the newly opened secondary school run by the Presentation Brothers in Carrick-on-Shannon, the largest town in Leitrim, an eight-mile bicycle ride from home.

His place at the school (“years of luck and privilege—and of grace, actual grace”) saved him from a job in a hardware store, and eventually led to a teaching qualification, a degree in literature from University College Dublin (he attended night classes while working as a teacher), and a dedication to writing. When he died, aged seventy-one, he had published six acclaimed novels, more than thirty short stories, an autobiography, some reviews and essays on the art of fiction, and one really terrible play (a hypermelodramatic version of Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness crossed with the Kerry Babies double-infanticide scandal of the mid-1980s).

All but the last of these works turn on the events of McGahern’s early life in Roscommon and Leitrim, or are set in that landscape. His experiences as a young man in London and Dublin, described in his 1970s novels, The Leavetaking and The Pornographer (1979), are filtered through memories of his youth at home. All Will Be Well mainly focuses on his life up to the age of about fifteen, as it was lived in various houses in the two northwestern counties. In a few score pages toward the end he races through his teaching career, a first marriage in London, and being sacked from his job after his second novel, The Dark, was banned for obscenity by the Irish Censorship Board in 1965.

“My own separate life, in so far as any life is separate, I detailed only to show how the journey out of that landscape became the return to those lanes and small fields and hedges and lakes,” he writes. He gets back as quickly as possible to where he began, the Leitrim landscape of his childhood, which is also the setting of his masterpiece, the 2002 novel By the Lake, about a returned emigrant, Joe Ruttledge, or rather, about the community to which Joe returns, with his English-born wife, after years in London.

There is no real plot to By the Lake. Instead, in highly patterned and almost incantatory prose, McGahern evokes a year in the life of a rural village, attending to the effects of the seasons and the rhythms of ordinary life and speech. “Nothing has changed or seems likely to change,” says Ruttledge:

The lambs were now out with their mothers on the grass, hopping as if they had mechanical springs in their tiny hooves, sometimes leapfrogging one another. Jamesie helped Ruttledge harness the old horse plough to the tractor and guided the handles as they turned sods and tore up ground at both houses for spring planting. Jamesie had been in the bars of Shruhaun on Patrick’s Day and complained that people with big bunches of shamrocks in their coats who had been off drink for Lent were footless. The fruit trees were fertilized and pruned. Flowers were planted out. The bees were making cleansing flights from the hives and gathering pollen. Out on a bare rock, in the middle of the drinking pool by the house, the black cat sat as studious as a scholar amid all the spawn and stirring of the pool as she waited to scoop up with one white paw any amorous frog that rose too close to the rock.

What’s extraordinary is the way these simple, declarative sentences (such humble verbs: “showed,” “turned,” “helped,” “sat,” and, most simply, “were”) unfold into an account of a border community’s fifty-year habits of evasion, indirection, and obfuscation. The plain prose hides a pileup of cruelties and injustices. One storyline features a man on the run from British soldiers, his cry for help caught “between the need to be heard and the fear of being heard.” It’s a perfect description of McGahern’s narrative voice, like an anthropological participant-observer, both inside the life of a place and uneasily independent of it.


As he puts it in The Barracks, “The road away became the road back.” It’s a phrase he repeats in The Pornographer. Again and again the novels and the stories say: back home, back in those early days of childhood, back in the room where his mother died, or the room where he slept with his father, the river where they fished, is where you will find the real.

The letters in this volume, edited by Frank Shovlin, an Irish scholar and professor at the University of Liverpool, were written after that life back home had ended, and the “journey out” had begun. (Apart from one, a letter written by the young John—known as Sean at this point—in 1943, to thank his father for a present of a comic book.) They tell the story of a public, professional man, through his interactions with agents, publishers, editors, and translators, and his colleagues in the English Department at Colgate University in upstate New York, where he taught for many years. The letters are time off from the writing life, and so, in effect, time off from that chewing of memory into imagination.

McGahern was a cautious letter writer. In the mid-1960s he apologized to Patrick Gregory, his American editor at Knopf, for fussing about other people seeing his correspondence: “I only meant when I was there in NY in your flat that there were letters about which made me uneasy since they were mine. Forgive the fear.” Letters left lying about are hostages to fortune. Not only are they open to being read by a third party, but they can be misread and misinterpreted. Or perhaps even worse, their secrets can be correctly interpreted, but by the wrong person. “I think the difficulty of dealing with letters is that they are never quite honest,” he wrote apropos a collection of letters by the Irish novelist Michael McLaverty, with whom he corresponded. “Often out of sympathy or diffidence or kindness or affection or self interest we quite rightly hide our true feelings.”

I have a hunch that McGahern’s fear of letters getting into the wrong hands was laid down early. The striking thing about the family he grew up in was that relationships were, for long stretches of time, conducted primarily by correspondence. For seven years after they became engaged his parents lived a considerable distance apart, when his father was posted to a Garda (police) station in Galway. They wrote back and forth; she waited; he played the field. They eventually married only after she called a halt to the delay and mailed back the engagement ring. But most of their married life was also spent living separately—she with the children near the various primary schools where she worked, he in the barracks, visiting on days off. That’s why McGahern was writing to his father to thank him for the comic book, because his father wasn’t there. When his mother was in the hospital, the children stayed with their father and wrote to her.

This habit of letter writing marks the family out as part of the emerging rural Irish middle class, despite their relative poverty. McGahern’s memoir looks like an account of remembered days in rural Leitrim in the 1930s and 1940s, and that’s partly what it is, a celebration of the ordinary and the rhythms of the day-to-day. But it’s also an analysis of his parents’ correspondence, in which he’s a third party, decoding his mother’s diffidence and kindness and skewering his father’s self-interest. McGahern was growing up inside an epistolary novel with a tragic plot—an experience that would surely teach you the power of writing, and the need to keep control of it.

He appears not to have kept copies of his own letters—most of them were handwritten, occasionally they were typed by his wife Madeline, and toward the end of his life they were dictated to her and sent via e-mail. Shovlin has gathered this collection together by searching through institutional archives (the records of publishing houses and the BBC written archives, for example), and by contacting individual correspondents. But some people couldn’t find their old letters from McGahern, and others preferred to keep them private. Although Shovlin doesn’t say this, some were destroyed. McGahern’s first wife, Annikki Laaski (“Anu”), a silent presence in this volume, explained in a 2006 interview in the Irish Independent that she had torn up their correspondence. She found herself wishing she’d kept some, if only to disprove the exculpatory account in his memoir of the breakup of their marriage.


In the pre-phone era of the late 1950s and 1960s McGahern wrote long, chatty letters to various male friends, such as Tony and Jimmy Swift, whom he met in a Dublin dancehall; Tony Whelan, met at St. Ann’s hostel in Bethnal Green while working on London building sites during the summers off from his degree; and Joe Kennedy, met in a lodging house while teaching for a short spell in Drogheda. The talk is mostly serious; he’s given to lush descriptions of the natural world and reflections on loneliness. He indulges in a kind of weary postadolescent searching for truth and “vision” in writing: “Life for me is a physical thing like a woman. I love the bitch and try and tell all sorts of things because I must”; “No one seems to even know about literature anymore; to realise death.” To Whelan he sends a clutch of poems that read like a hybrid of Auden, Yeats, and parts of the Mass. Here are a few lines of “The Cross”:

The shudder through our flesh forgets
To ripple to its sob
And we are sure the shadow met
In the night is ours at last
And that a cross on the road is turned
To the rectangular beast.

McGahern writes long letters to his youngest sister, Dympna, encouraging her, in a distinctly paternalistic way, to expand her mind:

Do you read much now? You must be careful, what you read and do now will shape the whole richness of your lifetime. Do try and be alive to things all day, not bored or superior to others or critical or clever or full of notions and opinions. Remember that life is eternally passing—for others as for yourself and they too have to endure in the lonely cell of themselves.

With the Belfast novelist Michael McLaverty he discusses Tolstoy, in comparison with Joyce and Proust; his dislike of Sean O’Faolain’s novels; his favorite work by Thomas Mann, Felix Krull. He finds a Maeve Brennan story in The New Yorker “vulgar”; he dismisses The Bell Jar as “poor-poor, all the adjectives.” He objects to “the common notion that you can make an art out of your life”—what he calls “the autobiography stunt!” For this reason he is also (at this early stage in his experiments with writing) against plot. Instead, “there must be some morality”:

I often think the realest reason I write is, having lost my formal faith, I am self compelled to pray or praise. If I did not need to do it I would stop tomorrow, but there seems little else.

His ambition, he explains to Patrick Swift, is “to give passion and pattern to the lives of people being eroded out of their existence in the banality and repetitiveness of themselves”—a sentence written in September 1960 that serves as a good description of By the Lake, published over forty years later.

Letters to Charles Monteith in 1963 describe the “frightful shindy” at home following the publication of The Barracks, when his father—incensed by McGahern’s portrayal of him—refused to allow him into the house. And they hint at something close to a nervous collapse later that year, while he was writing The Dark. The first draft of the novel, he explains in November 1963, “almost finished me”:

Images of old horror started to come at me without warning and with horrible violence, atmospheres of evil. For weeks I lived in a state of pure panic. They’d always come suddenly. And the only time I was free of them was strangely when I was working with them.

These were images, surely, of his domineering and frustrated father masturbating against him in the bed they shared after his mother had died, and the sexual undercurrent to his father’s violent beatings of his children. Those passages in The Dark are still disturbing to read, years after first encountering them.

But for a year or more before this collapse McGahern had been in crisis. Following a broken love affair with an unnamed woman, he had become “crazed with suffering” the previous summer. Then in the spring of 1963 he had got Joan Kelly, a journalist with the Irish Press, pregnant—an experience he later wrote about in The Pornographer (a novel about which the kindest thing to be said is that the sexual politics are of their time). Both the letters written around this time and the novel display a singular lack of empathy. He apologizes to Joe Kennedy for a “chaotic time” in May 1963 and explains, “This person will be on my hands till the end or almost the end of June. Then she goes.” As though that would be the end of it. Joan did go, to London, where she gave birth to a son whom she raised by herself.

In the novel the Joan character is represented as culpable because she doesn’t want to use contraception, and the John character is punished by being punched in the face—as though that were the end of it. Shortly before the novel was published, nearly sixteen years after the affair, Joan approached him for support, and McGahern had this to say to Jimmy Swift (who was acting as go-between):

Do you have any idea of the boy’s position, as such: does he feel he should have a father like others, rights to assert, see the actuality or whatever?

There was no formal request previously. This woman—a Mrs Capon—had been told the story by Joan, and approached me herself. From what she said, I understand that Joan was pushing for the boy’s recognition, at that time, 8 years or so ago. When Joan elected to keep the child, as opposed to having it adopted, I told her that this situation was likely to arise. And when it did that I would be unavailable. It was considered part of my brutality at the time.

From my point of view, for what it’s worth now, there is just the chance of a concessionary lie to the boy OR wait in the knowledge that anybody can call on any of us at any time, with the usual hazardous consequences.

The last sentence is puzzling. McGahern wasn’t facing the possibility that anybody could call on him at any time—just his son and his son’s mother. And in the end he did see them.

Later in the summer of 1963, presumably after Joan was off his hands and while he was working on the first draft of The Dark, McGahern met Mary Keelan, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, to whom he wrote a number of letters in which he gave his views on women and love: “Very few women have a deep religious sense, only social religion, establishment”; for a man “to be loved is almost to lose his identity, but I have often noticed this difference”; “I think you fog things, Mary. I think that woman and earth are the opposite not the same as work, which is murderous and destructive, a road that leads to the wall”; “I know this impersonality is hard for you or for any woman, but I need you to be patient, if you press too hard or force, and it seems to be particularly American, you kill.”

It’s true that these letters were written when he was young—but not that young. He was turning thirty. I imagine he’d have been a real pain to meet in the flesh at this age. An emotional drama king, who had somehow convinced himself of his own rectitude and self-control, and gave himself a pass to be condescending about emotion in others. Actually, I must be wrong about that. He must have been charming. Women so easily fell in love with him.

Perhaps predictably, given the tone of these letters to Mary Keelan, when they met again the following summer in Paris it was a disaster, and they soon went their separate ways. On that same Paris trip McGahern met Annikki Laaksi, a Finnish radio producer, and by October he had dedicated The Dark to her (the book was already in production) and moved to Helsinki to marry her. Eighteen months later he met Madeline Green, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, in New York, and when she moved to London in 1967 (where the McGaherns were then living) they began an affair. As the situation at home became more and more untenable, McGahern tried to keep the different parts of his life separate. By March 1968 McGahern was asking Gregory, his American editor, to “write two letters, one with no hint of disturbance to 43B Gore Road; and the other to the school. Please forgive me for this.” I found myself relieved—for everyone involved but also for myself as reader—when he settled down.

The second half of the book—letters from the late 1970s onward—offers a respite from all the relationship shenanigans and the dubious views of women. By 1975 he was, he wrote, “tired of climbing other people’s stairs. It’s eleven years of having no place now.” After being sacked from his teaching job in Dublin (either for writing The Dark or for getting married in a registry office—it’s never entirely clear which was the greatest sin), he had lived in London (first with his twin sisters who were nurses at Whipps Cross Hospital, and then with Anu in various rented properties in Bethnal Green, Walthamstow, and Victoria Park), with Anu in Helsinki and southern Spain, and with Madeline in Paris, where she owned a flat on the Rive Gauche. There was also a spell in a house found for McGahern and Madeline by the poet Richard Murphy in Cleggan, County Galway.

Finally he and Madeline bought Foxfield, a house and farmland “beside the lake,” or one of the many lakes, in County Leitrim: “It’s a scattered place. Foxfield is the post-office and church. Fenagh is the village, 2 pubs, 2 miles away.” But it was a good deal less scattered than the life they had been living. They began experimenting with part-time, summer farming: “We bought 4 in-calf cows, and they’ve had 4 calves, all heifers. One of them got joint ill, but was treated, and seems all right, if a little shaky. We’ve started to put up a shed, and seem owned as well by the acres.”

Foxfield was the road back, but just at this point in McGahern’s career all sorts of international offers came his way. He spent two years teaching in Newcastle and Durham in England; there were spells teaching summer schools in Devon and Galway, and at Trinity College Dublin; for over thirty years he taught regularly at Colgate University, sometimes for a semester, sometimes for the whole year.

That meant plenty more climbing of other people’s stairs, and it put him squarely on the Irish American literary circuit, much of which—including teaching gigs for Heaney, McGahern, and Murphy—appears to have been initially brokered by Monteith. For some years McGahern alternated at Colgate with Murphy. Bitchy tales of Murphy, dubbed “the Poet” and sometimes “kissy Dicky,” were a form of currency exchanged in letters with editors Monteith and Gregory and Matthew Evans, such as this account of Murphy’s visit to Paris in 1969: “There’s no concealing the homosexuality anymore, it rampages in the face. As always he was more fun in his absence than presence.”

In 1981 the McGaherns bought a house in Dublin’s Stoneybatter neighborhood, and five years later another farm. They also had Madeline’s flat close to Notre Dame in Paris, and they spent long periods in New York. But the letters make very evident that Foxfield was where they felt at home. “We have no telephone but mostly because the lines have not come this far,” McGahern wrote to the English poet and translator Michael Hamburger (himself a connoisseur of orchards), describing the farm.

We live in 45 acres of poor land between two lakes close to the border. Enniskillen [across the Irish border] is the nearest big town and we go there almost every week. We have animals and trees, our orchard and garden, but it is all more happy go lucky/unlucky than efficiently run. Though we are not the worst around.

Throughout the 1980s, through hunger strikes, border violence, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, McGahern makes no mention of the political situation in Northern Ireland. I was surprised to find nothing about the Enniskillen bombing, which killed twenty-nine people in 1987, given that the town was where the McGaherns shopped and socialized. Nothing on the abortion and divorce referendums of the 1980s. Almost nothing on politics at all. Which doesn’t mean that McGahern didn’t think about politics, just that he didn’t write about it.

Instead the news he sent to his international correspondents was ultra-local. In August 1981 he described in a letter to Alain Delahaye, his French translator, how the brother of his neighbor Francie had died on a visit home from England and he and “a crazy chemist from Dublin” had laid out the body. The following year, he wrote again:

Not much news in Foxfield. The cow had a bull calf the colour of café au lait on Good Friday. The early plum tree is in white blossom. There’s fine weather, frost at night. The old woman up the lane—I was mowing her meadow when you were here—died in Sligo last Thursday, was buried in Fenagh on Sunday. She broke her hip and died of homesickness. The postman scolded me and a few locals for standing on neighbouring tulips as we started to fill the grave. The postman is known as Weedy, from weeds in the garden, he is bad tempered and busy and small. The hunger for news is a symptom of a long oppressed people. It rages here. Francie hates to see you twice the same day—“No good. Nothing new. No news. No news.”

Readers of By the Lake will recognize both these passages. “No news. Came looking for news,” cries Jamesie, the Ruttledges’ neighbor from across the lake, ritually.

But this isn’t McGahern nostalgically chewing the cud of his childhood memory. He was describing the world as he encountered it on his doorstep. Some of the most tetchy letters in this volume were written when he was driven to fury by book-cover designs or publicity that he felt over-Irished him. He didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an Irish writer, and he also objected to being described as a realist. The drama over The Dark, the banning and the sacking, and then the leave-taking, set him up in the public imagination as an antiauthoritarian figure, a champion of the “separate life,” saying no to church and state in the name of personal liberty and independence. But he was always looking for a road back.