I first met John McGahern in the 1990’s, when I was teaching a summer course in contemporary Irish literature for Georgetown students at Trinity College in Dublin, where John was then residing. He was one of the people I was hoping to entice to come to my class, and when I asked him, he agreed immediately and was instructive and delightful in his remarks. Moreover, he returned in subsequent years and invited me to stay with him and his wife in Leitrim on my trips north to Donegal, where my many cousins live.
When I was planning for my return this summer to Ireland and England, John was one of the people I was most interested in seeing. Hence I was greatly dismayed last spring when I read in The New York Times that he had died. The literary critic Richard Pine, writing in The Guardian at the time of the writer’s death, called McGahern “Ireland’s leading novelist, whose work reflected his country’s new self-confidence.”
Happily, McGahern has left us this fine memoir as well as a rather sunny final novel, By the Lake, by which to remember him. Amongst Women (1990) was clearly his masterpiece and well deserved to win the Booker Prize for which it was nominated. But politics, mainly British, shamefully deprived him of that accolade. An Irish novel whose principal character was a leader in the battle for Irish independence was more than the traffic could bear in those days of bloody civil war in the North of Ireland.
But McGahern went on writing, nonetheless, and All Will Be Well is a fitting conclusion to his life’s work. It also helps us understand his fiction, since much of it arose out of his personal and family experience. In his thanks at the beginning of this memoir, he cites especially his sisters, who saved much of the material he uses and, of course, his wife, Madeline, to whom he was extremely devoted. Clearly there was a lot to save, since the writer refers to these scrapbooks and collections of documents frequently. They imbue All Will Be Well with a feeling of immediacy that only primary sources can provide.
John McGahern’s early life was very much involved with his mother, to whom he was deeply dedicated. Her early death from breast cancer cast a large shadow over his childhood. His father was a more distant character who served, quite proudly, as a sergeant in the Irish Garda and lived most of the time many miles away from the family home. John was the first child and the oldest boy in the family—which earned him an uncomfortable place in his father’s affections. He never felt able to please him. One finds a similar situation occurring in several of his early novels. Indeed, this memoir mirrors the novels in a number of ways, indicating just how home-grown McGahern’s fiction was and how skillfully he mined those experiences.
McGahern showed an early determination, not at all unusual for an Irish boy of his age, to become a priest, and then have his mother receive the cloth bands that bound his hands during part of the ceremony of ordination and stay on to be his housekeeper. But that was never to be, since she died when he was only 9. The fact that almost half the memoir is devoted to these nine years underscores her importance in his life and leads to the great disruption he felt when he and his siblings had to move into their father’s police barracks. By any measure his father was a bully, who ran his family as he ran the barracks, strictly according to his own lights. Eventually he remarried, though he insisted on going through the ritual of asking John’s consent, which only infuriated the young man, since it was so patently a charade.
Young John longed to escape, and he found a way by becoming a writer. Writing would enable him to encompass all the other ambitions that had ever excited him, for a writer could be anything he wanted through his imagination. His course was now set, and he was determined to follow it.
It was the 1950’s when a half-million Irish emigrated to England and the United States, the largest number ever, but John stayed put and went on to a teachers’ college, eventually moving to Dublin. His father continued to be a problem, especially in regard to the younger children, Frankie in particular.
These pages take the reader immediately into the world of Amongst Women, for the parallels are almost exact. McGahern has mined the rich and troubled vein of his own family to give us the world of the novel, with his own younger brother Frankie as the prodigal son who rejects the tyrant father to escape to England and the comfort of his older sisters. What clearly gives the novel its richness is the lived experience from which it springs. All the pain John suffered from being the oldest child has been transmuted into the gold of fiction, and the stern sergeant he had to endure as a father is now the retired freedom fighter who lords it over his family and anyone else he can dominate. Without all those painful personal experiences, there would never have been the splendid novel that is Amongst Women.