John McGahern is known, in Ireland and beyond, as a marvellous teller of stories about ordinary rural people’s lives. His most famous novels – The Dark, Amongst Women, That They May Face the Rising Sun – are set in his native Leitrim (and the Roscommon of his teenage years), where he returned to live, farm and write for 30 years before his death in 2006.
He grew up in Ireland in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when two near-theocracies snarled at or ignored each other across a high border wall of mutual loathing and incomprehension. He lost his teaching job in the mid-1960s for writing a ‘dirty’ book – The Dark, which was compared by reviewers to the early Joyce and Mauriac – and, according to his trade union representative, for marrying a Finnish woman. It was the all-powerful Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, who ordered his dismissal.
He was scathing of the Irish state of that period. “In that country, individual thought and speech were discouraged…By 1950, against the whole spirit of the 1916 Proclamation, the State had become a theocracy in all but name. The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand… The breaking of pelvic bones took place during difficult births in hospitals because it was thought to be be more in conformity with Catholic teaching than Caesarean section, presumably because it was considered more ‘natural’. Minorities were deprived of the right to divorce. Learning Irish was seen as a means of keeping much foreign corrupting influence out.”¹ Meanwhile the country was so impoverished that in the 1950s half a million people were forced to emigrate, most of them to England.
In an irony beyond irony, this was precisely the time the Irish government chose to mount an utterly futile international campaign to end partition. Little wonder that Northern Protestants, snug in their own bigoted, anti-Catholic statelet, scoffed at this attempt to incorporate them into such a Catholic-run dystopia.
Despite his experience at the hands of the Church, McGahern continued to value the Catholicism he had inherited as a child from his beloved mother, who died when he was nine, leaving him and his sisters and brother to be brought up by his brutal police sergeant father “in near starvation and violence and slavery”. He wrote: “I had affection still and gratitude for my upbringing in the Church: it was the sacred weather of my early life, and I could no more turn against it than I could turn on any deep part of my life. Through work and reading and reflection I had come to separate morals and religion, to see morals as simply our relationship with other people and the creatures of the earth and air, and religion as our relationship with our total environment, the all that surrounds our little lives. I had come to see the story of Jesus as a story among other sacred stories that sought to explain and make palatable the inexplicable.”²
Of all Irish novelists, John McGahern strikes the deepest chord with me: whether it is his courageous and unapologetic independence of mind; his love of the overgrown rural lanes where he grew up (I loved the County Antrim lanes of my childhood holidays in a similar way); or his insistence that good manners and neighbourliness are the only way to conduct affairs between civilised human beings.
He is not a political writer, although circumstances – driven out of a job and into exile by a pusillanimous state – sometimes forced him to be. He wrote mainly about the trials and joys of country people, and the pain and pleasure of family life. His most memorable characters ranged from the lovable to the monstrous: from Jamesie in That They May Face the Rising Sun, whose “intense vividness and sweetness of nature showed in every quick, expressive movement” to the child-beating Mahoney in The Dark, an archetype of the vain and violent father who appears in several of McGahern’s novels.
So it was no accident that when I did my annual cross-border and cross-country walk (this year from Armagh to Sligo) last month, I made sure I passed through McGahern’s country in Leitrim around Ballinamore. I visited his and his mother’s grave at Aughawillan church; passed the old school where his mother taught, and walked the mile or so they used to walk every day to Corramahon where they lived in a poor, rickety house in the middle of a field. All that is left from those times 75 years ago is a rusty gate in a prickly hedge and an empty, rushy meadow. It is extraordinary to think that out of this remote and unpromising place came a great writer and literature of world renown.
I also identify strongly with McGahern’s views on violence, the North and the ‘national question.’ In a memorable passage in That They May Face the Rising Sun, a thinly disguised version of himself, Joe Ruttledge, met a local IRA leader, a thinly disguised version of John Joe McGirl (who is described as a “plain and decent” man who would only shoot you “if you stood in the way of the Cause”).
The McGirl character, Jimmy Joe McKiernan, said: “You don’t seem to have any interest in our cause?” “No” said Ruttledge, “I don’t like violence.” “You don’t believe in freedom, then?” “Our country is free.” “A part of it is not free.” “That is a matter for that other part. I don’t think it is any of our business.” “I think differently. I believe it is all our business.” Ruttledge knew that as he was neither a follower nor a leader he must look useless or worse than useless to this man of commitment and action. As far as Jimmy Joe was concerned he might as well be listening to the birds like an eejit on the far side of the lake, and he made no further attempt at speech.’
I would not go as far as McGahern in saying that the North is none of the Republic’s business. I think it is primarily the business of the politicians and people of Northern Ireland to work out their deep-seated problems, but unfortunately history has taught us that they are incapable of doing that without strong involvement from the Irish and British governments, working together.
But I agree absolutely with him about the utter impossibility of moving towards reconciliation and mutual understanding in Ireland through people killing and hating each other. In a 2010 article the novelist Colm Toibín wrote: “It hardly needs saying that McGahern viewed this inter-tribal hatred and disgust with horror. The idea for him of attacking your own neighbours was a very shocking idea. He would say that if only people in Northern Ireland could improve their manners, then they might stop shooting each other, or when that stopped, hating each other or disliking each other in ways that caused pain or the slightest form of civil disturbance.”³
The Northern Protestant character in That They May Face the Rising Sun, the anglicised advertising executive Robert Booth, also spoke the truth when he said: “If it came to an all-out conflict our people would render a very bloody account of themselves, but they would probably lose.”
John McGahern, like all great writers, was a truth-teller. In his 2010 article Colm Toibín said he wished he had been able to introduce McGahern to Bob Bain, the pastor of the Darkley gospel hall in south Armagh, whose Sunday evening service was machine gunned by the INLA in November 1983, killing three worshippers and injuring many others. Toibín had been greatly taken with Bain’s charm, resilience and independence of spirit. Meeting him was “one of those moments when the partition of Ireland seemed to me immensely sad: my community in the South had been deprived of the presence of men like Bob Bain as a living, vibrant, fully accepted part of our religious and civic life. We could have been nourished by the sheer difference.”
Toibín finished with the following words: “In their loneliness and their fierce dignity, I wanted to invoke both John McGahern and Pastor Bain as two figures who in one way lived close to the border, a place others might have called home – but in a better way, in an exemplary way, they lived deeply and truthfully within themselves. It is as much as any of us can hope for.”
ENDNOTE. From a great writer to a great educationalist: I would like to pay tribute to my admired friend and colleague John Coolahan, former professor of education at Maynooth University, who died in June. John’s central role in the reform and modernisation of the Irish education system has been written about elsewhere. What is not so well-known was his huge commitment to increasing mutual understanding on this island through North-South educational cooperation. He was the main mover behind the setting up of the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South (SCoTENS) in 2003 to bring together all those involved in teacher training and education in Ireland through joint research, conference and exchange projects. He himself said that the formation and development of this all-island network, which is still going strong (administered by the Centre for Cross Border Studies), was his proudest achievement in a lifetime of high achievement. It is only a pity that such an outstanding example of cross-border networking was not followed by other key sectors and professions.
¹ Memoir, Faber and Faber paperback, p. 210
² Memoir, p. 222
³ ‘Along the Catalan and Irish borders: politics of memory and progress through good manners’. The Journal of Cross Border Studies, spring 2010.