Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 809
John McGahern was a distinguished novelist, dramatist, and short-story writer, the winner of numerous awards for his fiction. Born in 1934, he was raised in the village of Cootehall, in the west of Ireland. He was educated at Presentation College, Carrick-on-Shannon, St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra, and University College, Dublin. He was trained as a schoolteacher and taught at a parochial school in Dublin from 1957 to 1964. In 1964 McGahern won a Macauley fellowship for his novel The Barracks, the early chapters of which had won him the first Æ Memorial Award in 1962. His second novel, The Dark, appeared in 1965.
The Irish Censorship Board banned The Dark in June, 1965, and that autumn its author was dismissed from his teaching post. He moved to London and lived for a time in Spain and the United States before returning to a small farm in County Leitrim in 1974 with his American wife, Madeline Green. He was a visiting professor at many universities, including Colgate (in the United States), Durham (England), Victoria (Canada), University College, Dublin, and University College, Galway. Since 1971, all his work has been translated into French. He received the Irish American Foundation Award (1985), the title Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (France, 1989), the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Fiction Prize (1990), and an honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin (1991). He was also awarded the Prix Étranger Ecureuil in 1995. McGahern published his memoir, All Will Be Well, in 2005. He died in Dublin on March 30, 2006.
McGahern’s poetic vision is existentially grim. His emotionally thwarted characters take little comfort from one another; they merely survive together. His highly disciplined fiction catches the nuances of conflict between generations, sexes, neighbors, and classes as characters move through a landscape drained of sympathy and live with a fear of their own annihilation. Within these limits, McGahern’s fiction is uniquely powerful in Irish writing. In The Barracks, Elizabeth Reegan, the wife of the local police sergeant, does quiet, heroic battle with death and despair. McGahern’s portrait of Elizabeth is a triumph: She is marvelously observed, thoughtful, sympathetic, and entirely credible. In its story of a tortured adolescent, The Dark commits to confessional form essentially the same vision. The banning of this novel—no doubt because of its frank depictions of masturbation and a pederastic priest—may have dramatized its relevancy in Ireland, but it also deflected attention from McGahern’s achievement: his grim, humorless, spartan narrative and portrait of depression.
The “leave” in the title of McGahern’s third novel, The Leavetaking, is taken from the guilt and repression of Ireland regarding the commitment of adult human love. This is not an advance over the earlier works, nor is his next novel, The Pornographer, whose portrait of a writer’s moral confusion is not successful. However, McGahern’s next novel, Amongst Women, is the finest of his first five novels. Michael Moran, a former member of the Old Irish Republican Army (IRA), has soured on what he and his comrades have delivered. It is at once an exposé of patriarchy, a postcolonial fable, an archetypal tale of generational change, and another existential meditation. McGahern exercises his many gifts of narrative organization, poetic language, and symbol with consummate skill. Moran’s final epiphany of acceptance is profoundly touching. By the Lake is a somewhat less relentlessly grim tale, recounting the lives and experiences of the residents of a small town in Ireland at a crucial turning point in the town’s history. Plotting is less emphasized in this novel in favor of a series of intertwined character studies.
The Collected Stories compiles his three volumes Nightlines, Getting Through, and High Ground, along with a brief additional story, “The Creamery Manager,” and a novella, “The Country Funeral”; the collection contains thirty-four stories in all. As in his novels, his sharp sketches of rural Ireland show him at his best. Speech rhythms are always true to life, he chooses his symbols cunningly, and the prose style alternates between unflinching objectivity and guarded lyricism. By these means, McGahern uncovers the voice beneath the joviality of Irish life: In the words of one of his characters, he “refines our ignorance.” The stories here, including “Korea,” “All Sorts of Impossible Things,” “Gold Watch,” and “The Country Funeral,” are all examples of his fine observation, economy, understatement, carefully weighed diction, and well-crafted meshing of psychology and symbol. The effect of these miniature, grim pastorals is indelible.
In all of McGahern’s work, the subject is the same: “the soul’s incurable loneliness.” Conciliations are private matters, such as Moran’s epiphany in Amongst Women or Philly’s in “A Country Funeral.” In each case, the truce is with the silent landscape of home (with Moran’s fields or Philly’s Gloria bog). John McGahern’s postreligious imagination has translated the hedgerows and waterways of the upper River Shannon and the accents of County Leitrim into chilling existential metaphors.