“People have more freedom,” he said in a telephone interview not long before his death on March 30.
Had Ireland stayed the same, McGahern might have become a footnote, as many great writers do in the social history of their country.
But what better place to begin the story of Ireland’s 40-year cultural revolution than with the banning of “The Dark,” his second novel?
It’s true that Ireland was already changing in that era of Sean Lemass and the Beatles — and future historians will continue to say so. But the further we get from 1965, the more dramatic becomes the seizure of a book by custom officials, the firing of its young author from his teaching job, due mainly to the offense caused to the Dublin archbishop’s notions of “purity,” and the failure of his union, the Irish National Teachers’ Organization, to support him because he’d married a foreign woman in a registry office.
To underline the transformation, the episode fast-forwards to September 2005 when this fiction writer’s memoir is hailed by reviewers as a brilliant and heart-wrenching piece of storytelling; it’s also said to be as accurate a sociological portrait of a disappeared Ireland that we’re likely to get.
And then onto March 2006: when news broadcasts lead with the death from cancer of the gentle, self-effacing farmer and he’s eulogized through the day by the president, taoiseach and other political leaders. A few days later, his body is lowered into the ground by admiring neighbors, many of them religiously observant, though he was a declared agnostic – divorced, too, and married to his beloved Madeline Green, another foreigner.
“People said I was brave coming back,” he said of his 1970s relocation to his native place. “But it was Madeline who wanted to come.”
Back in 1965, civil libertarians offered to fund a court case, and Samuel Beckett, Ireland’s most famous literary exile, was eager to help. McGahern, though, never wanted to be a cause in the legal sense.
On the other hand, he would not, as the phrase goes, “do the decent” and let the issue quietly go away. “I didn’t want it swept under the carpet,” he said.
After the BBC made a documentary about his case, several Irish teachers working in England wrote to him with their own stories of being fired. “They’d run foul of some bishop or priest down the country,” McGahern said.
The novelist was never an anti-cleric: he admired individual priests (his cousin and friend Fr. Liam Kelly officiated at his simple funeral) and he respected belief and believers. And the intense religious devotion of the mother he adored was a central part of her personality and plays an important part in his memoir. But the church fathers’ iron-like grip on society and the imposition of doctrine troubled him. “They had power too long,” he told the Echo less than three weeks before his death. “The social teaching of the church here was, I think, ridiculous.”
When his period of self-exile in Britain, France and the U.S. ended, his notoriety was not a problem back in the South Leitrim/Northeast Roscommon region where he grew up. For one thing, McGahern said, many of his neighbors were unaware of how well known he was.
“‘Amongst Women’ blew my cover to an extent,” he said about his hugely popular 1990 novel.
In spite of their piety, people in that corner of the world had a certain respect for those who might be out of favor with authority. “A man or woman is judged by their worth, not what’s said about them,” he said.
McGahern recalled a neighbor saying in reference to the hierarchy: “We had the ould Druids on our backs once; now we have this crowd.”
A long chuckle traveled the 3,000 miles across the ocean
At the outset, he expressed his disappointment at not being able to read at venues in his wife’s native Manhattan, but he was making the best of it, warming now to the storytelling
For a long time, McGahern let the books speak for themselves. As a consequence, many readers thought that he was perhaps, like certain other literary masters, a dour semi-recluse. In fact, those who knew him said he was a convivial host, that he loved to talk, that he laughed easily and often, and had generally a wonderful sense of humor.
“He welcomed visitors who navigated the torturous roads to the simple lakeside house,” said the New York Times obituary.
McGahern told the Echo: “About 10 miles away, the Northern mentality comes in. We’d be the beginning of the much softer, gentler mentality [of the West].”
The novelist pointed to Ernie O’Malley’s classic account of his years as an IRA organizer during the War of Independence, “On Another Man’s Wound,” in which he noted how great differences in attitude and spirit could be apparent in the space of a few miles.
In “All Will Be Well,” the author says there was no such place as Ireland when he was growing up; there was, instead, a series of intense communities.
“The book is essentially about my parents and those who raised me in their time and landscape,” he said.
It was prompted initially by an enormous store of letters found in the attic of his father’s house after his stepmother died.
He was reluctant to delve into the past, however.
“But my sisters – I have four surviving sisters — brought them to me and asked me to write the story.
“I could never have written the book without the letters, because the temptation for the fiction writer is to always improve or to embellish or to reinvent,” McGahern said
“I found also what a treacherous place memory can be,” he added. In the letters, certain details were different from the way he’d recalled them.
In an author’s note, he thanks his sisters, Rosaleen, Monica, Margaret and Dymphna, “for their careful readings, corrections, their help with the letters, and bringing back into the light two important scenes that had slipped from my memory.”
The novelist, born in November 1934, was the eldest child of a County Cavan-born Garda sergeant and a schoolteacher from Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim.
Frank McGahern gave his”three years with the IRA” as his work experience when he successfully applied to join the new police force in 1922. A year later, at the end of the Civil War, he was put in charge of the barracks in the village of Cootehall, Co. Roscommon.
He courted Sue McManus, who, her son was amazed to learn, had been sent to Trinity College, her teaching nuns having simply ignored the hierarchy’s ban on Catholics attending that institution.
As a teacher, unusually for the time, she never used corporal punishment in her classroom.
She died when her eldest Sean was a 9-year-old. “I still remember her quite well,” said McGahern of the woman who was his protector from a violent and tyrannical father, living apart from his family in the barracks much of the year.
Sue McGahern gave birth to seven children. The last was conceived after she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and had been advised against another pregnancy.
After her death, the children were taken to a life of physical abuse at the hands of their father, living in quarters above the barracks in Cootehall.
McGahern remembered the gardai who worked under his father, usually three at a given time, as “very charming people” who nonetheless had to be very careful of him.
“The beatings were so great that they had to come up and warn him,” he said. “It was a very brave thing to question authority at that time.
From a law enforcement perspective, “it was a comic, strange place,” he said. “These poor guards used have to patrol wet roads on which nothing happened.”
Helping the policemen write their reports was, said McGahern,”my first fiction.”
The writer drew on his life experience for his six novels and three story collections; but when he wrote “All Will Be Well,” he was surprised that some material worked better in the non-fiction format. “I found that two stories belonged completely to the memoir, in fact were essential to it” he said. “They never worked as fiction, even though I must have written them maybe 40 or 50 times.”
One of them concerned his hypochondriac father’s self-pitying withdrawal from the world. “There wasn’t enough drama in his life,” his son said. A short time after he went away to die, he was declared the healthiest person to have ever entered the Garda hospital
“I would like to have got on with him and made a number of attempts,” McGahern said, adding that he didn’t mention these in the memoir. “I’m generally fond of people.
“Nobody could get on with him,” he recalled. “If things were going happily, he would cause some disturbance or hurt or insult so attention would come back on himself. If everybody else was happy, he was extremely unhappy.”
McGahern said that he learnt from readers’ letters that “there were an extraordinary amount of people” like his father.
“The memoir has sold over 70,000 copies, I think, between here and England, and is still selling,” he said. “I was getting up to 20 letters a week, and am still getting about 10.”
One correspondent even filled in gaps in McGahern’s family history. The novelist knew little about his father’s background, though he had contact with his paternal grandmother in early childhood, and she was, like her son, “violent and willful.”
Not once did his father ever refer to his own father, but the writer was astonished to learn that his grandfather lived into his 70s. The letter-writer reported that, years before, he had been committed to Mullingar Mental Hospital, for allegedly trying to strangle his wife, which was “not unintelligible” if you knew her, the novelist said with a laugh.
“It was a way of getting rid of people,” he said of such committals.
He learned also that in a dispute over the burial of his father, Sgt. McGahern was chased in full uniform from a property by an elderly uncle holding a rake.
“That came out of the blue because of the book,” he said.
Much of his correspondence came from the “lost generation” of people who went away.
“[Change] probably would have happened sooner, but the energy of the youth was siphoned off with emigration,” he said. “More people went to England in the 1950s than emigrated anywhere in any other decade of the 20th century.”
When change did happen, rural people ceased to live in communities and became part of urban Ireland, he said. This meant that McGahern’s home wasn’t the backwater it once was. As it become less remote, so did the writer to his public. Reporters who visited him came away with publishable stories.
McGahern referred to one young Dublin-based journalist who made the trip in 2005 and is now living in New York: “Give her my regards, if you see her.”
Then he issued an invitation to this interviewer to visit him, “if I’m still here.”
When it was accepted, he said: “That’s a deal then?”
That was followed by the now familiar laugh and final words of parting.