John McGahern, the preeminent Irish writer of his generation, was best known for his rural writings. Much of his work was set in the counties of Leitrim and Roscommon, the midland landscape he left as a young man and to which he returned in his thirties. All his writing life he harvested stories from the same fields and townlands, repeating and reworking themes, tropes, and even characters with a quiet, cumulative power. His voice could be lyrical, but it was bare of sentiment and sometimes somber. From the earliest his prose possessed a Chekhovian lucidity. A realist who rarely intruded himself upon the page, by the last he had erased himself entirely. With typical humility, he did not rate himself as being important to his own memoir, which he completed after a terminal diagnosis:

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 under the Iron Mountains.

McGahern’s first two novels share the pull of deep narrative time that he found in the countryside, but they draw from the difficult events of his childhood and are far from serene. His debut, The Barracks (1963), tells the story of a woman dying of cancer, as McGahern’s own mother had died when he was nine. Also like his mother, she is the wife of a police sergeant in the Irish midlands. McGahern later wrote that he kept the setting but imagined the characters—yet he also kept the disease. It is an odd mix. Perhaps by staying close to his own life, a writer could transcend the personal. “It is not a novel,” he wrote, “but an attempt to break that form down into a religious poem.”

There were other, more vengeful reasons for repurposing the stuff of his own experience. McGahern’s second novel, The Dark (1965), was banned, in part for its discussion of masturbation. In his letters, he is scornful of this public outrage (“The Auld Sock has just got an award for its translator in France”), but the book also contains a scene in which a priest climbs into a boy’s bed, and another in which the boy is sexually assaulted by his father. Shortly before he died, McGahern’s memoir confirmed that his father, Frank, had been sexually abusive as well as ordinarily brutal. When this man asked the young McGahern what his aim was in writing, he answered, “To write well, to write truly and well about fellows like yourself.”

Sometimes McGahern played with the reader’s impulse to read autobiographically. After The Dark was banned, he was fired from his job as a schoolteacher in Dublin, and his union refused to support him. The general secretary told McGahern he had turned himself into “a hopeless case entirely” by marrying a “foreign” woman (she was Finnish). His next novel, The Leavetaking (1975), is about a teacher who has been sacked for the same specious reason.

Because of his courage as an artist, McGahern’s reputation was for truthfulness above all. The conversation around his work styled him first as a victim of Catholic repression and later as a kind of literary saint who disdained the world and was interested only in simple country things. “The great Irish writer was buried in the little churchyard in Aughawillan, Co Leitrim, under a simple stone cross next to his beloved mother, Susan,” wrote a journalist after McGahern’s death in 2006. “He wanted no pomp and circumstance, no singing or sorrow. He wanted a simple ceremony and to be buried in the old traditional ways of the country.”

A week after the funeral I heard a rumor that his son had been in the congregation. This story was both striking—I did not know he had a son—and possibly false. No son was listed in the death notice or mentioned in the obituaries, and it was not until the publication of McGahern’s collected letters in 2021 that the existence of such a person was publicly confirmed. It was clear from the letters that McGahern had no interest in denying the facts—that was not his style—but though fatherhood made no appreciable difference to his life, they somehow remained his facts to officially disclose or withhold.

In the summer of 1963 Joan Kelly, a Dublin journalist, went in haste to England to hide her pregnancy by McGahern. She gave birth, found work, reared her son, Joseph, and did not return. Her life was one of many abruptly exiled in those decades, her baby one of thousands exported and erased from Irish society, so there was nothing unusual about the silence around these events, except for one thing. In 1979 McGahern published The Pornographer, a novel that centers on an affair, a conception, a move to England. Although the title was a taunt to those who called him a “dirty” writer, the story was not given any other autobiographical gloss. It was thought to be about sex, a novel exploring the difference between smutty fantasy and a real encounter. The realness of the fictional child was never discussed.


“It was quite widely known that McGahern had a son, but very few commentators mention it,” an academic wrote to me. (I am not aware of any who did mention it.) “And I can understand why: it has little, if anything, to do with his work.” I wanted to reply that McGahern had published a whole book on the subject, but the flatness of his assertion began to interest me almost as much as the writing it blanked out. There is a natural reluctance to compound the hurt of a rejected child, but this was not McGahern’s concern when he wrote The Pornographer. He was hiding in plain sight, in the high Irish style.

The novel was not one of McGahern’s best loved, which may have helped it avoid scrutiny. Its unnamed narrator invites little sympathy and is hard to like—indeed, he dislikes himself. The Dublin setting is very different from the rural calm of McGahern’s more iconized early and late novels, though it does end with the narrator’s decision to move back to the countryside: “There comes a time when you either run amok completely or try to make a go of it.” In Memoir (2005) McGahern describes just such a return, and the deep peace he found toward the end of his life along lanes he had walked with his mother.

He did not witness her last breath. McGahern’s father emptied the house of furniture while his wife lay dying in the bed upstairs, and seven children—John was the eldest—were moved to the barracks and into his furious care. “Arrow-straight” and handsome, Frank McGahern was also vain, hypochondriacal, and prone to sudden rages. He was not a distant man, however; he often seemed needy, and had a talent for intimacy. His son abhorred his charm and sensed a “sexual undertow” to his frequent beatings. Frank had served three years in the IRA before joining the police force: he moved from the chaos of the war of independence to the nascent order of the new Irish state, and there were rumors that he was illegitimate. McGahern’s grandmother, also beautiful, also vain, never mentioned a husband: “It was as if he had never lived.”

“Hand in hand with my father’s refusal of the past was the demand that his continuing physical presence be immediately responded to without regard to anything that went before or would come after,” he wrote in his memoir. Frank McGahern existed, terrifyingly, outside time and consequence, sufficient unto himself. After his mother’s death, John was obliged to take her place in the marital bed, and at night his father would massage his son’s belly and thighs while masturbating.

If this was a disturbing thing to read in a twenty-first-century memoir, the same actions described in The Dark forty years earlier were so unsayable that they were hard to define. Charles Monteith, McGahern’s editor at Faber, wondered how they might be described—“I suppose that technically it would be called ‘indecent assault on another male’ or something like that”—and he asked for a little “deliberate imprecision” to tone the scene down. Although the book was fiction, he worried about a potential libel action from McGahern’s father, and he felt obliged to point out that “what you’re describing here is an actual criminal offence.” McGahern’s American editor at Macmillan did not engage: he refused to publish what he called “a most unpleasant book with details that make the skin creep.”

Nothing is creepier than the father’s fractured whispering in the darkness: “You don’t have to worry about anything. Your father loves you. You like that—it’s good for you.” The son is filled with loathing, followed by a “lunatic hatred” for the sleeping bulk of his father in the bed. McGahern found the novel incredibly hard to write—“I had almost to fight for my life in it”—and there was little relief when it was finished. The book had been some years in preparation, but the writing took off in the spring of 1963 and he completed it in the next twelve months, complaining throughout of “nightmare,” “terror,” and “panic.”

McGahern was then in his late twenties, single, and living in a flat in Clontarf. He did not drink much with other writers, but he enjoyed the sexual freedoms of Dublin’s bohemian scene—a loose affiliation of journalists, politicians, artists, and outsiders, made busier by the surrounding claustrophobia of Catholic Ireland. The previous summer he had suffered a romantic disaster (“I fell in love with some one: there is little end of pain in sight”), and at the end of February 1963 his first novel, The Barracks, had been published. McGahern found the experience “ghastly.” He got fussed about a bookshop window display; his father called the book “an immoral disgrace.” In early April he wrote to Rosemary Goad, who worked alongside Monteith at Faber, “I was emotionally ill most of the year, and hadn’t strength for the new novel until lately.” The sense of mental difficulty became more acute. “I haven’t been very well and hardly at all in town or around,” he wrote to the journalist Joe Kennedy twelve days later, “and I’d rather wait until I am really out of this mess before ringing.”


It becomes clear in the letters that the “mess” he refers to is an erotic entanglement. At the end of May, in a penciled note, he apologized to Kennedy again, this time after the fact: “I’m afraid that you met me at the most chaotic time of my life. This person will be on my hands till the end or almost the end of June. Then she goes.”

According to Frank Shovlin, who compiled and edited McGahern’s letters, “this person” was Joan Kelly, who was then pregnant. It would seem from the note that plans were already in place to get her out of Ireland. McGahern’s low mood prefigures the despair of The Pornographer’s narrator. “I wouldn’t get too worried about what you say,” he writes to Kennedy. “We all fail. No one real succeeds. We fail ourselves and we fail one another. So I don’t think anything matters very much.”

Many years later Kennedy complained that he had been made the basis for the character of Maloney in the novel, and The Pornographer seems to share a timeline with the events of 1963. Like McGahern, the narrator is recovering from a broken heart when he picks up with a woman he cannot love and soon does not much like. Their affair takes place in winter and early spring: he walks from their lovemaking through morning frost, the pregnancy test is taken as the trees begin to bloom, and the child, expected at Christmas, arrives around the New Year.

It is not clear when Kelly was, in fact, “off his hands” (he picked up another romantic interest over the summer), but by November a first draft of The Dark was done and, as he wrote to Monteith, McGahern was in a bad way:

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.

Then, in January 1964, just after the baby was born in England, a welcome change in his writing day: “It’s very strange, after 6 years struggling, suddenly it breaks.”

As the book came to completion, the cancer of his beloved aunt Maggie turned critical. Visiting her in hospital, he found her “incredibly stupid and frightened, the rosary beads a prayer wheel on the eiderdown.”

Fifteen years later these two strands—a pregnancy and a death—formed the counterpoint of The Pornographer, a novel in which a man’s insensitivity in love is contrasted with the care he affords a dying aunt. The idea that he writes for “blue” magazines was an early part of the book’s formation, as was the tawdry world of dance hall culture. McGahern had great difficulty finding a title, and knew the final choice would be misleading. “Only people who have read the book will see it as a true title,” he wrote to Monteith. “The initial reaction to it, I am sure, will be ‘Ah-Ha.’” If the word served as provocation to the prudish, with a bit of luck it might also lure them in. “It may well be banned,” he added. (It was not.)

Censorship was on the wane in Ireland, in part because of the outcry over McGahern’s sacking in 1965. The controversy made him a public figure, though this success was hard to enjoy. He had endured a decade of financial exile, and his marriage to the “foreign” Annikki Laaksi broke down. It was some years before he found his way back to writing and to lasting happiness with his second wife, Madeline Green. Though he said little in public, in private McGahern derided the moral cant around the ban, quoting a professor on the appeals board who declared, “We can’t have people running round the country with their flies open.” This remark, when you think about it, made McGahern an object of ridicule for having been the object of his father’s abuse. The shaming was hard to identify or escape, and it all clearly stung. In 1979, in The Pornographer, he was still arguing the difference between obscenity and immorality, as though the argument had not already been won.

Sex is the great problem of the novel, but there is no sense of urgency or impatience in the prose, where authority is assured by the measured pacing of McGahern’s sentences. The book is interested in the explicit, those easy-to-ban words that are so literal as to contain their own truth. Anatomy is important. Sexual encounters are carefully choreographed, both in the character’s pornographic writings and in his life, where the use of repetition shows a kind of straining toward, or insistence on, the reality of things. McGahern worried elsewhere that he could be “blatant.” Ideally, he wrote, prose should have “distance, that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess.” The Pornographer, his most discursive book, makes use of the running, liturgical cadences that linger more faintly in his later work. He can, when talking about sex, be sacerdotal:

The moment is always the same and always new, the instinct so strong it cancels memory. To lie still in the moment, in the very heart of flesh, the place of beginning and end, to snatch it out of time, to move still in all stillness of flesh, to taste that trembling moment again, to hold it, to know it, and to let it go, the small bird that you held, its heart hammering in the cup of the hands, flown into the air.

“Now. O my God,” I heard her call as it flew.

Not surprisingly, McGahern found his narrator’s cheap, pornographic prose wearying to produce, and he asked his wife to buy some magazines in order to help with his research. (This seems a nice detail—an Irishman reluctant to buy porn—until you consider more fully the job of being an Irish writer’s wife.)

It would be a mistake to think that the writer condones his narrator’s behavior—the character is a cad, one who continues to have sex with a woman after he has both ruined and left her—but McGahern gives him a spiritually questing nature. “Inflamed” by his own writing, he worries for the mind “in this doomed marriage with the body whose one instinct is to survive and plunder and arrogantly reproduce itself along the way.” Whatever his moral failures, the character remains cerebral and astute, while the woman is all emotion and lustful eagerness. “She’s basically an eternal full of brightness,” McGahern wrote, drawing a quick sketch of the female character in a letter of 1975. “One of these terrible instincts without mind, all is black and white.”

According to the narrator, there is no such thing as balance in love; it is either suffered or inflicted. The plot of The Pornographer is programmed by binaries and solved by circular contradictions: “The christening party becomes the funeral, the shudder that makes us flesh becomes the shudder that makes us meat.” When death is at the end of it all, one outcome is the same as another; the narrator’s journey in love can only be toward humility. “Prayers that cannot be answered need to be the more completely said, being their own beginning as well as end.” Religion may be an empty form, but the form still matters: after his aunt dies her house fills with neighbors, and the narrator sees how “the superstitious, the poetic, the religious are all made safe within the social.” This might be the credo of McGahern’s later novels, in which the individual life, with its many frights and yearnings, is absorbed into larger processes of community, ritual, nature, and time.

When he is in the countryside, the narrator finds an easy, wordless sense of connection with his dying aunt. “She was tough,” he thinks. “There was nothing but to salute that proud hardness with a perfect silence.” The woman in Dublin, meanwhile, is not proud, not hard, and very far from silent. She is “nervous”; she says the word “crazy” a lot. Most importantly, she is hopelessly dependent: “I could believe she was lit by some inner light, except I knew…that all her power came from outside.” McGahern is scathingly accurate about the speed at which attachment sours when it is unequal. “We hardly knew one another,” the man thinks on their second meeting, “and we were already hating.”

The woman can’t believe how great sex proves to be, once the religious barriers have finally been broken down: “I don’t feel guilty or anything.” Her delighting feels right for the time, as does, perhaps, the speed of her emotions. In the 1960s, when the only excuse for sex was marriage or overwhelming passion, women fell in love fast, hard, and sometimes often. Contraception was then illegal in Ireland and very hard to source, so it seems astonishing that she refuses to use an offered condom on the grounds that “it’d make it all feel just like mutton”—but who is to say what went on between people, back in the day? As a doctor in the novel says, “If you can tell where instinct ends and consciousness begins you’ll make all our fortunes.”

The narrator assumes it is her attitude and not his sperm that makes the woman pregnant, and the book labors to agree with him. It’s possible McGahern made the character thirty-eight to reinforce the idea that she wanted to “trap” a man into marriage. “If I got you pregnant I wouldn’t marry you,” he says just before he gets her pregnant, and you have the feeling that McGahern is writing an argument, not a moment of passion. There are troubling details in the somewhat forensic sex scenes. The “half-shattered hymen” is, at thirty-eight, certainly a reach; hymens, where they exist, erode with age. Besides, she says it has already “happened once before,” so this membrane’s persistence is, to the modern reader, altogether vexing. Despite the scene’s hyperfocused clarity, we are left confused as to how he makes this woman bleed. (An ability to judge virginity occurs elsewhere in McGahern’s work. In the short story “My Love, My Umbrella,” the protagonist assesses a woman’s virginity manually while both are upright, almost fully clothed, and standing outside in the rain. Both this story and The Pornographer worried me a lot when I read them in my late teens.)

If the novel holds the woman to blame for the conception, McGahern is ruthless about the narrator’s coldness to the consequences. The character argues for adoption, and when she disagrees, he does not prevaricate. “Well, the alternative is simple. You keep the child. And once you do that you’re on your own. You’ll never see me again.” The idea of biological connection between human beings seems grandiose to him, as well as sentimental: “There’s nothing special about our seed.”

After the birth he goes to London to visit her but refuses to see their baby, as though setting eyes on it would mean agreeing to marriage. There is no suggestion of a third way—perhaps none was thought to exist at the time. The character’s callousness is condemned by those around him, though they see it as a romantic fault, not a parental one. “After all you’ve put this poor girl through. It’d make stones bleed,” says a man who beats him up, making his battered face a cause for gossip at his aunt’s funeral. Maloney, the rakish friend, thinks he deserved nothing less, saying: “We can’t have people running round the country with their flies open and all male members at the ready.”

With the repetition of this galling phrase, McGahern takes small revenge on those who made fun of his plight in 1965. Its use here is awkward, however. What does writing a banned book have to do with disowning a child? Ideas of sexual transgression may be common to both, but the polarities of victim and perpetrator are here sadly confused.

In early 1979, a few months after McGahern decided to title his book The Pornographer, he wrote to his friend James Swift, who had been acting as a go-between with Joan Kelly and her son. Eight years before, McGahern had resisted an attempt by a neighbor of Joan’s to establish a connection, and the boy was now a teenager. It is not clear from the letter who initiated the correspondence, but some of the phrasing closely echoes that of the book McGahern had recently completed. He had been writing in close detail and for many years about the conception of an unwanted child, while refusing to meet his own:

I am, indeed, grateful for your advice. I know it must be unpleasant. If I can impose this one thing more, 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 us at any time, with the usual hazardous consequences…. Either way it will have to be faced.

McGahern knew the actuality was that the boy had no rights to assert. Under Irish law an illegitimate child was deemed filius nullius—the child of no father. McGahern’s ironized “brutality” was of a piece with the brutality of the law, which unfathered a child faster than a father could turn away. It is not clear what he meant by “the usual hazardous consequences,” but the phrase carries an air of fussy respectability that is at odds not just with his bohemian past but with the content of the novel he was about to bring into the world. McGahern always seemed surprised when his books caused controversy, and it is possible this was unfeigned. It may be that the writer himself was unable to see what he had put on the page.

With The Pornographer safely printed, McGahern wrote to Swift to say that he could visit the boy in the autumn, when he would be in London for the book’s publication. In November he reported back:

I spent most of a day with Joan and Joseph Kelly in Portsmouth. They were very hospitable and kind and I think the day may have went as well as it could have. I found Joan as beautiful and as impossible as before. The boy was very nervous, which wasn’t surprising, but I suspect he may be that way by temperament as well.

Shovlin writes that McGahern went on to make half a dozen visits to Portsmouth in the next few years. He included his son in his will, but according to the Irish scholar Eamon Maher, “the amount bequeathed to his only offspring did not seem overly generous.”

This essay appears, in somewhat different form, as the introduction to a new edition of John McGahern’s The Pornographer, to be published by New York Review Books in September.