Bridging the gaps in McGahern’s journey to becoming a great writer

Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist

Denis Sampson

Oxford University Press €34, no ebook

Review: Val Nolan

The late John McGahern once remarked of his youth that “I became a writer by accident”. One can imagine him saying so with a wink, for the formation of an artist — a writer especially — is not something which occurs in isolation. It is a mysterious and over-romanticised process. However, in McGahern’s case it was also a deliberate and diligent undertaking. Without it, the most meaningful Irish novels of the last half-century might never have been written.

The story of McGahern’s early years is therefore more of a responsibility than a biographical inevitability, and the man who has taken up this challenge is the Montreal-based scholar Denis Sampson. Where his previous work on McGahern took a broad approach to the oeuvre, the emphasis of this new volume is different. Young John McGahern focuses on the lost era between the author’s well documented childhood and his debut on the literary scene, a crucial decade during which he began to discover his talent and nurture his distinctive vision.

The outlines of this period will be familiar to many. Having liberated himself from a violent and domineering father, McGahern moved to Dublin in 1953 to pursue teacher training at St Patrick’s College. Punctuated by spells in London, he eventually secured a job at a school in Clontarf and sold his “classic novel”, The Barracks, to Faber, who published it in 1963.

For Sampson, the figure who emerges from this 10-year apprenticeship is a “secular subversive,” a “confident joker,” and an enthusiastic participant in Dublin’s “Freemasonry of the intellect”. The latter, a “vigorous underground life of its own that paid scant regard to Church or State”, is the means whereby the academic orientates his subject here. The McGahern he presents to the reader is a dynamic young rebel; the seeds of Irish fiction’s avuncular master are present, yes, but so too is a deep dismay at the claustrophobic nature of the mid-century state. His “years of training in secret” are framed as a private cold war against the authoritarian powers of the day, a clash which would turn hot with the banning of The Dark in 1965.

The conflict at the heart of Young John McGahern is thus one of creative expression and intellectual freedom. Sampson traces its roots to the uncompromising character of the novelist himself, forged amidst “the violence, fear, and repression he experienced at home”. A love of reading, that “privileged space away from his father’s influence and interference”, would come to define him, and on McGahern’s move to the capital it served as his gateway drug to “the pleasures and possibilities of city life”. Indeed Sampson argues that, without the breath of literary experience gained by the would-be writer during his time in Dublin, McGahern’s rural talent might have come to naught.

Careful critical scrutiny supports this claim. Sampson’s slim volume is a model in tracing the young man’s first encounters with writers such as Thomas Mann and Leo Tolstoy. It supplies nuanced readings of the influence Daniel Corkery and Marcel Proust had on McGahern’s fiction, with Sampson proposing that the author’s ability to identify meaning in intense personal circumstances derives directly from the books he discovered via Dublin friends such as Éanna and Brendán Ó hEither.

Through these acquaintances, McGahern encountered Joyce’s fiction for the first time (Ulysses still largely unknown in Ireland at the time). He also absorbed the influence of Kavanagh (though “a single visit to McDaid’s” was enough for McGahern), along with the critical writing of Anthony Cronin.

Crucially, Sampson’s assessment of McGahern’s reading underlines Beckett’s “emblematic presence” in the Leitrim man’s prose, a complex devotion to “the pain of non-being” all too tempting to overlook.

That this literary crash-course took place during his time at the priest-run St Patrick’s College supplies an essential dichotomy to the decade which made McGahern. Sampson charts a mind freed from “the insularity of the institution” by independent study but, in the process, he reveals something more: a profoundly moral young man struggling with the Church’s “absolute control over the behaviour of individuals and over public discourse”.

Teacher training, McGahern found, was little more than “deliberate anti-intellectualism” best characterised by its “fear of both literature and refinement”. Sampson deploys some choice quotations in this section, but though he draws extensively on McGahern’s own Memoir (2005), as well as the author’s posthumously collected essays, he is careful throughout to provide added value in the form of critical context and analysis. He argues that McGahern’s considered rejection of Church authority in favour of literature was a way for the author to cement his connection to the experiences of humanity at large.

Nonetheless, the novice teacher’s anger at the priesthood’s “half-barbaric” practices would yield some positive results. It later found purchase in his great short-story The Recruiting Officer, something which illustrates Young John McGahern’s effectiveness as a guidebook to the inspiration behind many of the author’s best known works. Throughout the book, Sampson unearths the origins of little masterpieces such as High Ground and Crossing the Line, positing real-life notables such as Nuala O’Faolain as inspiration for the girls in Sierra Leone and My Love, My Umbrella.

Scrupulously researched by Sampson, with the few gaps ably patched with extrapolations from the author’s fiction, Young John McGahern is a serious study of a unique Irish talent’s journey from naivety to novelist. While aimed primarily at academics, casual readers will also find much of interest here, particularly the discussion of McGahern’s early unpublished novel The End or the Beginning of Love. Moreover, Sampson’s intense little volume offers the closest thing that thus far exists to a biography of this beloved writer. For that alone he has earned our attention and our respect.

* Dr Val Nolan lectures at NUI Galway. His work includes a definitive account of the McGahern banning, If it was Just Th’ol Book, which was published in last August’s Irish Studies Review.

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