Irish novelst and short-story writer, John McGahern (1931 – 2006) may be the most important writer you’ve never heard of. As well as providing enjoyable literature, McGahern has much to teach us about living the good life in spite of the strife and sadness that afflicts human life.
McGahern’s first novel, The Barracks, tells the story of a young woman dying of breast cancer in a small town in north-west Ireland and was met with much critical and popular acclaim when it was published in 1963. Extraordinary for its sensitivity and poignancy, it is closely based on his mother’s death when McGahern was just ten years old. Before she died, McGahern promised his mother that he would become a priest and pray for her soul.
Traumatised by the death of his mother, McGahern found solace in books. At the age of ten, and now living with his tyrannical father and five sisters in the Guarda (police) barracks in Cootehall, Co. Roscommon, McGahern was given the run of a library in a large house on 170 acres of prime land owned by protestants.
The library was owned by 80 year old Willie Moroney, a widower with a love of St Ambrose, Plato and beekeeping. Willy’s son Andy who had fought with McGahern’s father was now busily engaged with his interest in astronomy.
McGahern borrowed five or six books from this library each week or so, and in later life remembered the library as a blessed place that had changed his life and made possible his career as a writer.
McGahern’s second novel, published in 1965, was banned in Ireland and it led to his dismissal from his position as a catholic school teacher in Dublin, and to a lengthy period of self-exile abroad. The Dark was one of the first novels to expose the extent of physical and emotional abuse inflicted on children in catholic institutions in Ireland.
McGahern believed that post-independence Ireland was essentially a theocracy, where the Catholic Church had stepped in to replace the English. Of particular concern was the Irish church’s treatment of sex, which McGahern argued led not only to poverty and over-population but also distorted sexuality in very negative ways. McGahern argued that sex is part of life, if life is sacred, as the Church argues, then sex is also sacred. The sacredness of life is indivisible.
McGahern’s next few novels were less remarkable, but re-settled in his native Leitrim on a farm near a lake and not far from his fondest childhood memories he wrote two masterpieces. Together they explore a journey, away from the false promises and distractions and towards an appreciation of life that is secular yet retains a strong sense of mystery and sacredness.
The first, Amongst Women, published in 1990, was short-listed for the Booker prize. It tells the story of a man, Michael Moran, who, like McGahern’s father, fought for Irish independence, and in the ensuing civil war, only to be disappointed by his fate in the new state.
Moran’s unhappiness has as much to do with himself as the larger political and economic environment: “No matter how favourably the tides turned for him he would always contrive to be in permanent opposition”. He takes his frustrations out on his family and never understands life or finds an accommodation with it: “He continued walking the fields like a man trying to see”.
Then came, That they may face the rising sun, published in 2002. It was published under the title, By the Lake, in the USA because the publisher worried that it might be mistaken for a book on Japan. The original title comes from the Irish practice of burying people with their feet in the east. It probably dates from pagan times. McGahern noted that the Church had tried to get people buried with their feet facing the church out of reverence for it. The Irish peasants refused.
McGahern loved that resistance, and the sense that ordinary people just get on with their lives in a practical way and don’t get too captivated with the ‘palaver’ that goes with religion and politics. Rising Sun is littered with amusing examples of this practical approach. One character notes that we used to have the druids on our back and now we’ve got this lot (the church).
Where Amongst Women examines what it means not to understand life and to always be in opposition with those around you, Rising Sun looks at understanding and acceptance. Amongst Women focuses on conflict, and its sources, in human relationships, Rising Sun explores the successful expression of individuality within a tightly bound community.
Rising Sun is a rare form of literary experimentation. It is beautiful, easy-to-read and profound. There is no plot and no chapters. It can be seen as a long prose poem or a series of over-lapping and intertwining short stories, each exploring a different character, or a different aspect of life in this remote rural community.
McGahern was an admirer of Proust and Joyce. As with Proust, Rising Sun feels more like living with the characters and their concerns then reading about them. On rare occasions literature can deliver something more than the sense of reading a good book.
Like many other contemporary Irish writers, McGahern especially liked Joyce’s volume of short stories, The Dubliners. McGahern loved to quote Joyce’s description of the writing of that volume as a search for the ‘scrupulous mean’. Joyce meant that he wanted to get the descriptions and the emotions exactly right: neither exaggerated nor understated. McGahern also believed that there was no need for messages in literature if the writing was precise.
Rising Sun praises individuality, community and nature, but the dark side is here too. There is poverty, political violence, institutional abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, grief, disappointment and more. McGahern worked for 12 years on this book to get the balance right, to neither exaggerate the good in life or the bad. The result is something akin to a religious experience.
McGahern betrayed his promise to become a priest, he left the Church but never became bitter. In fact, he was grateful to the Church for giving him a sense of the mystery, sacredness and grace of life.
Christianity has no monopoly on sacredness and mystery. McGahern’s reverence for nature has a Buddhist resonance, he argues that is not the quality of the landscape that matters but your quality of seeing. The same is true of life and relationships.
Ireland has an extraordinary and violent history, perhaps that’s why great writers like Joyce and McGahern prefer to focus on the ordinary, and celebrate the ordinary. Both writers are skeptical of the grand causes that people fight and die over. McGahern’s characters are suspicious and dismissive of the ‘importances’ (famous people) and their ‘big shows’.
In Ballinamore, the town near where McGahern spent his earliest years, there are two significant. Leitrim is border country. On the bridge over the canal that runs through Ballinamore is a statute celebrating the life of a local IRA hero, John Joe McGirl (1921 – 1988), with the inscription: “an unbroken and unbreakable fenian”. Up the hill near where his aunty ran a shop and his uncle ran a service station, a bench has been erected with this quote from Rising Sun: “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”.
These are competing visions of life. McGirl, the man of action, is the one our society feels more comfortable with. The McGahern quote makes many people shudder. The very thought of a life where nothing happens (no importances, no big shows, no scrambles for wealth, power and celebrity, no bucket lists) fills our over stimulated and over entertained society with fear. The thought of being alone with life itself, free of distractions, is greeted with a sense of dread.
McGahern doesn’t advocate changing the world, or rejecting it, or seeking to escape from it. He seeks a way to live in it. In Rising Sun, the Ruttledges, the characters based on McGahern and his wife, reject an offer to return to their lives in London. Ruttledge, McGahern, through his growing interaction with the local community, and his appreciation of the beauty of his natural surroundings, comes to find a richness and fullness he had not expected.
McGahern said people did not live in a nation called Ireland, but in thousands of tiny republics, families, that have their own manners and rules. The same is true of the communities, networks of interwoven primary relationships and acquaintanceships, which we all inhabit. Our life satisfaction, happiness, call it what you will, arises from these relationships.
Michael Moran sought validation from the outside world, he resented its indifference, and he sought to control his own little republic with all the ruthlessness of a tin-pot dictator. It’s a metaphor for the false enticements, wealth and celebrity, that distract so many people from a quiet enjoyment of the precious life. In Amongst Women, Moran, the father, dies unhappy and uncomprehending. In Rising Sun, Ruttledge, the son, finds peace and happiness, not far away in Dublin and London, but right there in the same fields that Moran had walked like a man trying to see.
In his last book, Memoir, he wrote: “All understanding is joy”. In Rising Sun we share his understanding, and his joy.