Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1898
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 room where she expires, and carts it and the children off to the barracks. After her death he refuses to allow the family to attend the funeral, and then, within a few months, begins a campaign to court her sister as a future bride. He forces his sons to sleep in his bed, where he fondles them each night.
McGahern concludes that his father was happiest while a soldier in the Irish Republican Army during the Anglo-Irish conflict, yet the man refuses to disclose much about his past and is pathologically secretive. The same person who has a will to dominate others and who is proud of his position as a police officer is also a pathetic example of the colonized subaltern who hates his own people and admires Protestants. “He considered them superior in every way to the general run of his fellow Catholics, less devious, morally more correct, more honest, better mannered, and much more abstemious.”
The vision of a domineering patriarch is mirrored in McGahern’s impressions of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Although he thrives under the tutelage of the Christian Brothers while in high school, McGahern’s contact with village priests is less than salutary. When his father and he have one of their few pleasant adventures, they stop in a adjoining parish for Mass, where the priest grabs Sean by the ear and insists he stay the afternoon for catechism; this ends only when his father threatens violence. On another occasion a priest interrupts the church service to chastise the boy for fidgeting. McGahern also describes the visits of a traveling order that inflicts its version of doctrine on the village: “Every few years Redemptorists came to the village like a small band of strolling players and thundered hell and damnation from the pulpit. . . . The Redemptorists were brought in to purify through terror, and were appreciated like horror movies.”
When the writer’s second novel is banned, he is dismissed from his teaching position because of the Church’s overwhelming power to hire and fire teachers. When McGahern protests the unfairness of the job action, he is informed that“If it was just the auld book, maybemaybewe might have been able to do something for you, but with marrying this foreign woman you have turned yourself into a hopeless case entirely. . . . And what anyhow entered your head to go and marry this foreign woman when there are hundred and hundreds of thousands of Irish girls going around with their tongues out for a husband?”
In essence, McGahern’s infractions amount to subverting the authority of an institution more powerful and capricious than his father.
The memoir also provides an occasionally revealing glimpse of Ireland in the middle decades of the twentieth century. On one hand, this is an intensely provincial country struggling to establish a postcolonial identity in an atmosphere that simply replicates colonial repression. When the Irish constitution was written, the Catholic Church was given privileged status as the official church of the state, and McGahern notes the collusion of the Church and state had “brought about an Irish society that was childish, repressive and sectarian.” At school, children were punished if they did not advance in their compulsory Irish language classes. Writing a banned book was less offensive than selling the same work, and expressions of true individuality were regarded as threats to the status quo. The lesson, McGahern concludes, was rigid conformity, and everywhere he turned that lesson was reinforced.
On the other hand, his Ireland, an Ireland that had vanished by the end of the twentieth century thanks to increased economic opportunities and greater secularization, was something to be cherished. Here neighbors and extended family members love and aid one another, and ancient customs die hard. For instance, when the local butcher learns that McGahern is a published author, he asks him to intercede in a private quarrel by creating an unflattering portrait of an adversary, as the original Gaelic poets once did. Material privation is seen as a means by which fundamental values remain intact, and after having been separated from his homeland for years, all the author wants is to return and take up residence in his former hometown.
Although this is McGahern’s only work of nonfiction, it bears many hallmarks of a well-wrought novel. Some critics have lamented the work’s seeming formlessness and lack of clear chapter or division breaks. Such criticisms are simply misguided. The narrative does, in fact, have a definite sense of form, moving chronologically from childhood to maturity. Indeed, far more attention is given to the writer’s childhood, the period he clearly sees as the most crucial in shaping the man and artist he would become. His teaching and writing careers are passed over in only a few pages and treated rather cursorily. For example, no mention is made of his own illness with colon cancer, first discovered in 2002, from which he died four years later.
The absence of conventional chapters actually emphasizes the seamless, fluid workings of memory, which is as much McGahern’s subject as the lives he so meticulously records. He frequently prefaces or interrupts a memory or observation with phrases of uncertainty, such as “I must have been extraordinarily happy,” suggesting that this is not the stuff of research and proof but deep, sometimes elusive feeling. Thus the memoir reads like a reverie, with thoughts and events flowing into one another.
The loose structure can also be seen as the writer’s resistance to all forces of conformity, whether intellectual, religious, or literary, and his artistic and experiential credo can be summed up as “the belief that the best of life is lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything.” The memoir is additionally organized around intricate image patterns of light and dark, with his mother associated with the sun and warm illumination and his father with darkness and inwardness.
The title of the American edition comes from an empty pontification in one of his father’s letters, which McGahern ironically turns into a testament that life itself can transcend all that would wound and diminish the individual. The book ends where it begins, with a tribute to the writer’s mother. After all the pain and abuse his father inflicted, McGahern nurses no grievances but thinks of his mother, “When I reflect on those rare moments when I stumble without warning into the extraordinary sense of security, that deep peace, I know that consciously and unconsciously she has been with me all my life.” All Will Be Well is a beautiful epitaph to a life well lived.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55
The Boston Globe, April 16, 2006, p. D7.
The Guardian, April 7, 2006, p. 23.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 24 (December 15, 2005): 1313.
New Statesman, September 19, 2005, p. 52.
The New York Review of Books 53, no. 5 (March 23, 2006): 32-34.
The New York Times 155 (February 18, 2006): B19.
The New York Times Book Review 155 (February 26, 2006): 21.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 47 (November 28, 2005): 34.
The Spectator, September 17, 2005, pp. 47-48.
The Times Literary Supplement, October 28, 2005, p. 26.
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