Visionary storyteller amongst the greats

IRELAND and Europe lost a world-class writer yesterday with the death of novelist John McGahern.

His sudden death in the Mater Hospital came after a long battle with cancer, the same disease that claimed his mother Susan, to whom he was so close. Her death, when McGahern was almost 10, left an indelible mark on the man and his work.

McGahern, who was aged 71, rose to prominence over four decades ago with the publication of his first novel The Barracks, in 1963. In it, the central character Elizabeth Regan anticipated her own death by cancer, a clear echo of McGahern’s traumatic loss of his mother.

But it was the publication and banning of his follow-up novel, The Dark, in 1965, which led to McGahern becoming a household name in Ireland. Depicting an abusive father’s relationship with his eldest son, The Dark was ahead of its time in revealing the sick underbelly of Catholic Ireland. It sparked outrage and was suppressed by the Censorship of Publications Board.

However, it was largely due to an unrelated matter McGahern finally lost his job as a national school teacher in his birth city of Dublin, his marrying of a US divorcee leading to his sacking in the mid-1960s.

For three decades afterward McGahern barely gave an interview, spending time abroad, before returning to Ireland in the early 1970s to tend a farm he bought in Leitrim, near where his mother was from and where McGahern spent much of his childhood. By his side was the love of his life - now his widow - Madeline.

Farming by day and writing in the mornings, McGahern penned some of the most enduring fiction of modern Irish writing at his Co Leitrim home. Drawing on his rural background and unusual upbringing by a disciplinarian garda sergeant father, McGahern wrote books that drew heavily on his own autobiography. From the death by cancer of Elizabeth Regan in The Barracks, to the last day of a disgraced schoolteacher in The Leavingtaking (1975), McGahern always faithfully rendered the country we live in, in a prose of simple, though lyrical beauty that has been emulated by many less-successful imitators.

But it was in 1990s, with his work Amongst Woman that McGahern really left his enduring monument. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it was widely seen as a crime Amongst Women lost to AS Byatt’s Possession that year. There is justice, however, that McGahern’s is the book people now remember, telling the relationship of a tyrannical old IRA man Moran to his three daughters, and how that relationship transforms as Moran ages.

The year following the publication of Amongst Woman was also an uneasy one for McGahern, as he ventured for the first time into drama and saw his first play savaged by the critics after it opened on the Abbey stage. The Power of Darkness was directed by Garry Hynes and rarely has a play received such a vitriolic critical reception. It was to be 12 years before McGahern published again.

The time it took to produce his last novel, 2001’s That They Might Face The Rising Sun, has more to do with McGahern’s slowness as a writer than it has to do with silence after criticism, however. Prolific is not a word easily associated with McGahern.

It was therefore remarkable that he produced his 2005 Memoir in little more than three years’ writing. The work marked a shift for McGahern, as he began to grant interviews again, even cooperating on a documentary about his life, A Private World, directed by Pat Collins and broadcast on RTÉ One last year.

Maybe McGahern was content to speak because he knew he didn’t have much time left. It was only a few short years ago that he was diagnosed with cancer. And, yet only three weeks ago, he was reportedly in great spirits, though gaunt.

By all accounts, he was very peaceful at the end and very alert. He will be remembered not only as a master prose writer of world standing, but as a truly polite and gentle person of great sensitivity.

As his one-time pupil and friend Professor Declan Kiberd of UCD said: “He was a recorder of the last 50 or 60 years of Irish life and it is now hard to understand this country without reading his books.” And read his books is what ordinary Irish people did - in their thousands. There can be no greater tribute than that.

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