John McGahern has long been regarded by scholars and critics as one of modern Ireland’s most important novelists, and with the publication of All Will Be Well, he enters the august company of other major Irish memorists such as W. B. Yeats (Autobiography, 1938) and Seán O’Faoláin (Vive Moi!, 1964). Readers have long known that events from McGahern’s lifethe death of his mother and abusiveness of his fatherhave provided raw material for his fiction, but this book reveals that the connection between life and fiction is even more profound.
McGahern recounts his growing up in the shadows of the Iron Mountains in rural County Leitrim, a region so poor and backward there are few radios and no indoor plumbing or central heating. Yet to a small boy, in the company of the mother he adores, such an otherwise unprepossessing place becomes wondrous and paradisal, and he recalls especially strolls along the country lanes, “There was a drinking pool for horses along the way, gates to houses, and the banks were covered with all kinds of wild flowers and vetches and wild strawberries. My mother named these flowers for me as we walked, and sometimes we stopped and picked them for the jamjars.”
Anything that threatens his pastoral idyllschool, an impatient priest, his obdurate fatheris a source of distraction or pain. McGahern describes in detail the dynamics of a profoundly dysfunctional family, with parents living apart, the father residing in the local police barracks and occasionally visiting his growing family, while continually complaining that his wife’s relatives disrupt their lives. Through a series of parental letters, the reader sees portraits of a remarkable, unfailingly patient and faithful wife and an insinuating, domineering autocrat. Caught in the middle are McGahern and his sisters and brother.
When his mother contracts breast cancer and moves to Dublin for treatment, the young McGahern is confused and lost, only to be elated when she returns and resumes her job as a teacher. When she relapses and eventually dies, the boy is devastated. The second half of the memoir reviews his years with his unpredictable father until he wins a scholarship at a teaching college, moves away to Dublin, and forever limits his contact with his father.
The first half of the narrative is nothing less than an affectionate paean to the mother who refuses corporal punishment for her pupils and children and who forever attempts to protect her loved ones from the casual violence of her husband. McGahern praises her practicality, cheerfulness in the face of endless adversity, and unflagging ability to support and encourage others, family, friends and neighbors. The woman also has a vein of iron, rejecting her husband’s proposal of marriage for years and insisting on the purchase of a cottage he opposes.
A deeply spiritual woman, her greatest ambition is that her son become a priest and say his first Mass in her presence. The boy positively thrives under her love and attention, and when she asks who he loves most, expecting him to answer God and the Virgin Mary, he always responds, “’You, Mother.’” What the boy knows of eternity comes not through his religious training but from her: “Our heaven was here in Aughawillan. With her our world was without end.” She faced death stoically, genuinely believing it is God’s will, telling her son she is needed in Heaven, while the young Sean reflects that “the Lord has many servants, and I had but the one beloved.”
The portrait of his father, dramatically antithetical to that of the mother, is of a man who insists the world match his mercurial moods and whose religiosity is a showy formalism. The boy is as much repulsed as he is fascinated by Frank McGahern: “I knew him better than any living person, and yet I never felt I understood him, so changeable was he, so violent, so self-absorbed, so many-faced. If it is impossible to know oneself, since we cannot see ourselves as we are seen, then it may be almost as difficult to understand those close to us, whether that closeness be of enmity or love or their fluctuating tides.”
The senior McGahern makes his children feel that are burdens, yet repeatedly enlists them in schemes to make money, forcing them to cut peat or knock on neighbors’ doors to sell potatoes. He repeatedly beats each of them, to the point that one of the girls is so profoundly traumatized that she is forced to stay in a hospital for two months. When his wife lies dying, he refuses to visit her, only to appear at her cottage and move all of her furniture, except that in the...
(The entire section is 1898 words.)