His wife Madeline and sisters stood by as throngs of people gathered around the coffin to pay their last respects.
No funeral could have been more appropriate. A simple service with no eulogies or oration, it expressed the understated honesty and integrity of the man.
Father Liam Kelly, who led the service, pointed out that McGahern had made a cyclical journey of return in being buried beside his mother in the small country cemetery of St Patrick’s Church, Aughawillan.
“Some of John’s best writing is cyclical - ending up where it began. And so it seems appropriate that we should gather in St Patrick’s in Aughawillan, where John came to Mass as a small child,” said the priest.
That McGahern chose to be buried in the church at all is a mark of the lack of bitterness he harboured for the institution that had hounded him out of his job as a schoolteacher in the 1960s, after he married a divorcee. The Church was also instrumental in the banning of his books.
Fr Kelly said: “He never held a grudge or a trace of bitterness. He was too big for that.” It was that character and the monumental achievement of the work he leaves behind that inspired so many so turn out to pay their final respects on Saturday. From the visitors to the Mater Hospital in Dublin, where the writer had died of cancer on Thursday, to those that followed the cortege westward to Leitrim, where the lanes and hedgerows were lined with people paying their respects to the great man as his coffin passed.
At the small white, pebble-dashed church of St Patrick’s, a speaker had to be set up to carry the priest’s voice to the crowds that couldn’t fit into the church. Poet Seamus Heaney was among the mourners, as was playwright Brian Friel, novelist Eugene McCabe and representatives of the Taoiseach and President.
Arts Minister John O’Donoghue came in person from Kerry as the two men had been friends.
“His death is a death in the family, not just for his own family and friends, but for the whole country which has come to know him through his writings,” said Fr Kelly.
This sense of personal loss was echoed among the mourners on Saturday.
McGahern had written of the Irish family and of our private inner worlds.
Now he lies beside his mother Susan under a simple stone cross in Aughawillan. Nearby are the fields and lanes of his native Leitrim, winding out in pathways where he used to walk, that were familiar to him and where he was happy.