John McGahern

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John McGahern
File:John McGahern by Patrick Swift.jpg
John McGahern, by Patrick Swift, 1960
Born (1934-11-12)12 November 1934
Knockanroe, County Leitrim, Ireland
Died 30 March 2006(2006-03-30) (aged 71)
Mater Hospital, Dublin, Ireland
Resting place St Patrick's Church, Aughawillan
Pen name Sean
Occupation Writer
Language English
Nationality Irish
Period 20th – 21st century
Genre Novel, Short Story
Notable works The Barracks,
The Dark,
The Leavetaking,
The Pornographer,
Amongst Women,
That They May Face the Rising Sun
Spouse Annikki Laaksi (married 1965, divorced 1969); Madeline Green (married 1973)[1]
File:The Aughawillan School, Co Leitrim.jpg
Aughawillan School, where John's mother taught until her illness and death in 1944
File:The Barracks.jpg
The Barracks, in Cootehall, where John lived from the age of 10
File:The Grave of John McGahern and his mother Susan.jpg
The grave of John and his mother Susan

John McGahern (12 November 1934 – 30 March 2006) is regarded as one of the most important Irish writers of the latter half of the twentieth century.

Known for the intrinsic and precise dissection of Irish life found in works such as The Barracks, The Dark and Amongst Women, The Observer hailed him as "the greatest living Irish novelist" before his death in 2006.[2]


Born in the townland of Knockanroe about half a mile from Ballinamore, County Leitrim, John McGahern was the eldest child of seven. His mother brought up the family on a small farm which she ran with outside help as she was also the local primary school teacher. His father lived some 20 miles away in the police barracks at Cootehall in County Roscommon. He was the Garda sergeant of the village. When John was around nine or ten his mother became ill with cancer and died.[3]

The family then moved to Cootehall to live with their father. John completed his primary schooling there, and won a scholarship to the Presentation Brothers secondary school in Carrick-on-Shannon. He travelled there daily and again won the county scholarship in his Leaving Certificate enabling him to continue his education to third level.[3]

He was offered a place in teacher-training at St Patrick's College of Education in Drumcondra. Upon graduation he began his career as a primary schoolteacher at Scoil Eoin Báiste (Belgrove) primary school in Clontarf where, for a period, he taught the eminent academic Declan Kiberd before turning to writing full-time.[citation needed] He was first published by the London literary and arts review, X magazine,[4] which published an extract from his first – abandoned – novel, The End or Beginning of Love.

McGahern's novel The Dark was banned in Ireland for its alleged pornographic content and implied sexual abuse by the protagonist's father. In the controversy over this he was dismissed from his teaching post. He subsequently moved to England where he worked in a variety of jobs (including on building sites) before returning to Ireland to live and work on a small farm near Fenagh in County Leitrim, located halfway between Ballinamore and Mohill.[citation needed]

He died from cancer in the Mater Hospital in Dublin on 30 March 2006, aged 71. He is buried in St Patrick's Church Aughawillan alongside his mother.[citation needed]


McGahern's six novels follow his own life experiences to a certain extent. Reading his autobiography, All Will Be Well: a Memoir, proves the large autobiographical content in of his novels and short stories.

The early novels: The Barracks and The Dark

His first published novel, The Barracks covers life in a rural Garda barracks especially from the point of view of the sergeant's second wife, Elizabeth Reegan. She is dying from cancer, just as McGahern's mother died. The writer lived in the Garda barracks in Cootehall from the age of 10 until he left home for higher education and work. His father, was also the sergeant and did marry a second time, although not during his time as a policeman. The Barracks was adapted for the stage in 1969 by Hugh Leonard.[5]

His second book, The Dark covers the teenage experiences of a young scholarship student in rural Ireland. The main character, Mahoney junior, has to contend with his father – who beats him and the other children – as well as indecision about what to do with his life after secondary school. McGahern's (real) father was also a difficult character. He lived on a farm after his retirement – by which time the author had left home – and also treated his children harshly including administering dangerous beatings. Mahoney junior's attitude towards his father evolves over the timespan covered by the novel from fear and hatred towards greater acceptance.

Note: "The Barracks" and "The Dark" came from McGahern's re-writing of his first, unpublished, novel, The End or Beginning of Love.[6]

Mid-career literature: The Leavetaking and The Pornographer

The next novel, The Leavetaking introduces us to Patrick Moran, a young schoolteacher in Dublin. The novel is set during his last day in the school. He will be formally fired that night for having married a divorced non-Catholic woman during a leave of absence year. The novel is divided into two parts: both of which are essentially flashbacks. Part 1 covers the teacher's childhood up to the moment of his mother's death (again, close to autobiographical). He had promised his mother that he would become a priest and as he is unable or unwilling to do so instead becomes a schoolteacher ("the second priesthood"). Part 2 flashes back to how he met his wife, how exactly the church authorities fire him, and his actual dismissal by the church authorities (who ran most public schools). The book is a close reflection on McGahern's own experiences of being dismissed from his teaching post in the early 1960s for much the same reasons as Patrick Moran as well as the scandal caused by his second book, The Dark, with many sexual references.

In 1979, The Pornographer was published. The protagonist who writes pornography for a living is now living in Dublin. He has a sexual relationship with Josephine and she becomes pregnant. The "pornographer" is not keen on keeping the baby, or his connection with its mother. The novel again covers the subject of death by cancer – the writer's aunt in this case is dying in hospital – as well as visits to rural Ireland.

Back to the country: Amongst Women and That They May Face the Rising Sun (By The Lake)

His fifth and best known novel is Amongst Women, the story of Michael Moran, an IRA veteran of the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, who now dominates his family in the unforgiving farmlands of County Leitrim, near Mohill. The book is remarkable for its detailed and understanding portrayal of a hardened, and unapologetically idealistic protagonist. An ex-IRA commander, Moran detests the 'small-minded gangsters' who now run the country for which he fought. Though Moran's presence surely dominates the novel, the positive attributes of his stern moralism (Moran doesn't touch alcohol, for one) and sense of self-worth are passed on to his children, who become successful adults (both emotionally and financially) in both Dublin and London.

This is a return to Roscommon/Leitrim setting after two Dublin/London books. Once again, it seems to fit into a sequence, with the "McGahern" character most closely reflected by Luke, who left home, emigrated to London, and refuses to get close his father again. Unlike Luke, McGahern did return home from Dublin for visits, but his difficult relationship with his father did make such visits awkward. He is portraying the house he left behind with the remaining kids being brought up by his father, his father's remarriage, and his young brother's struggles with his father and school.

His final novel That They May Face the Rising Sun (published in the United States as By the Lake) is an elegiac portrait of a year in the life of a rural lakeside community. McGahern himself lived on a lakeshore and drew on his own experiences whilst writing the book. Lyrically written, it explores the meaning in prosaic lives. He claimed that "the ordinary fascinates me" and "the ordinary is the most precious thing in life".[7] The main characters have – just like McGahern and his wife – returned from London to live on a farm. Most of the violence of the father-figure has disappeared now, and life in the country seems much more relaxed and prosperous than in The Dark, or Amongst Women.

Other writing

McGahern is also considered a master of the Irish tradition of the short story. Several collections were published as well as Love of the World, a collection of non-fiction essays. His autobiography, Memoir (All Will be Well: a Memoir in the US), was published in 2005 a year before his death.

His work has influenced a younger generation of writers, such as Colm Tóibín. Some of his works have been translated into Japanese and other languages.

McGahern is generally thought to have exhausted the tradition of rural Irish modernism, although many younger writers continue to copy his detached and knowing style.

McGahern was a member of the Irish Arts honorary organisation Aosdána and won many other awards (including the Irish-American Foundation Award, the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, and the Prix Etranger Ecureuil). He taught at universities in Ireland, England, the United States and Canada. In 1991, he received an honorary doctorate of Trinity College, Dublin. He was also a farmer, although he liked to joke that it was the writing that kept the farm (rather than the farming revenue allowing him to write)!

Awards and honours

  • 2003 Irish PEN Award
  • 2007 National Archive Choice
  • 1990 Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize


List of works

  • The Barracks (1963) AE Memorial Award, McCauley Fellowship.
  • The Dark (1965)
  • The Leavetaking (1975)
  • The Pornographer (1979)
  • Amongst Women (1990), Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award (1991), GPA Award (1992), nominated for the Booker Prize (1990).
  • That They May Face the Rising Sun (2001), Irish Novel of the Year (2003), nominated for the IMPAC Award. Published in the USA under the title By the Lake (2002)
  • Memoir (2005). Published in the USA in 2006 under the title All Will Be Well.
  • Love of the World (2009) Collected non-fiction and essays.
Short story collections
  • Nightlines (1970)
  • Getting Through (1978)
  • High Ground (1985)
  • The Collected Stories (1992), includes the three previous volumes of short stories (some of the stories appear in a slightly different form) and two additional stories – 'The Creamery Manager' and 'The Country Funeral'. The former first appeared in Krina (1989).
  • Creatures of the Earth: New and Selected Stories (2006) contains several stories collected in The Collected Stories, here revised by McGahern for the last time. Again two new stories, 'Creatures of the Earth' and 'Love of the World', are included.
  • Sinclair (1971) (radio)
  • Swallows (1975) (television)
  • The Rockingham Shoot (1987) (television)
  • The Power of Darkness (1991) (theatre)

Amongst Women was filmed as a television mini-series in 1998, directed by Tom Cairns, and starring Tony Doyle as Moran.

One of McGahern's best-known short stories, Korea, was made into a feature film of the same name directed by Cathal Black and produced by Darryl Collins in 1995. In 1996 Korea won the Asta Nielsen Best Film Award at the Copenhagen Film Festival and was runner-up for the Audience Prize at the Seattle Film Festival.


  1. Wroe, Nicolas. "Ireland's Rural Elegist". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-08-17.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. McKay, Mary-Jayne (16 March 2010). "Where Literature Is Legend". CBS News. Retrieved 16 March 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 McGahern, John (2006). All Will Be Well. New York: Knopf.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "The End or the Beginning of Love", X, Vol. II, No. I (March 1961). An extract from McGahern's first novel, The End or the Beginning of Love . The novel was never published. After his visit to London McGahern decided to re-work the novel into two novels: The Barracks (1963) and The Dark (1965). See Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist, Denis Sampson (OUP, 2012); "The extract in X attracted interest from a number of publishers. Fabers, among other publishers, wrote to me. T. S. Eliot was working at the firm then.” – McGahern in an interview organized by Linda Collinge and Emmanuel Vernadakis for the JSSE 20th, anniversary celebration, 24 May 2003 [1]
  5. "Irish Playography – Hugh Leonard". Retrieved 21 April 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist, Denis Sampson (OUP, 2012). The End or Beginning of Love was never published in full but an extract was published in X magazine, Eds. Patrick Swift & David Wright, Vol. II, No. I (March 1961), which was McGaherns first appearance in print.
  7. John Mc Gahern speaking on RTÉ radio programme Rattlebag in January 2002.
  • McGahern, John (2006). All Will Be Well. New York: Knopf.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • McGahern's work is discussed and illustrated in the video 'Reading Ireland (Educational Media Solutions (2012), 'Reading Ireland, Contemporary Irish Writers in the Context of Place', Films Media Group)

External links