Farewell to rural Ireland's voice
Sean O'Hagan recalls the day he met the celebrated Irish writer John McGahern, who died last week
Sean O'HaganSunday 2 April 2006 00.52 BST
hen I met John McGahern for the first time last August, just before the publication of Memoir, his extraordinary excavation of a childhood blighted by a bullying father, he fleetingly mentioned his 'illness', and only then when the tape recorder was turned off. He seemed in good spirits, engaging and slightly mischievous as we relaxed, post-interview, in the Dog & Duck in Soho.
As we parted, he invited me to come and visit him at home in County Leitrim, which I said I would, but, because of work and family commitments, never made the time to. I was saddened and filled with regret when I heard the news on Radio 4 last Thursday: 'John McGahern, the Irish novelist, has died, aged 71.'
I would have liked to have got to know him better, but I am grateful, too, that I got to meet him. He was entertaining company, engaging and opinionated, and with a glint in his eye when he told certain stories of home - the kind of stories that, in their gleeful, gossipy detail, spoke volumes about the ongoing cut and thrust of rural Irish life, even in times of relentless change.
He reminded me in some ways of our neighbours at home, farmers mainly, who often step down off an idling tractor to pass the time of day with my father, one muddy boot resting on the gate, as the talk turns inevitably to cattle and land, who has died and who is ill.
This, too, was John McGahern's literary stock in trade, the rendering of small lives lived out against the odds in a country that, when he began writing fiction, seemed unable to shake off the dead weight of its repressive, priest-ridden past. In 1965, his second novel, The Dark, was famously banned in Ireland for being pornographic, and he lost his teaching job on the instructions of the Archbishop of Dublin, the joyless John Charles McQuaid. One gets a measure of what kind of man McGahern was by his reaction to the ban, which was neither to protest it, or accept it, but to simply ignore it. 'I didn't think it was worth protesting about,' he told me. 'It would have given the censorship board too much honour. For me, all that mattered was whether the book was well written or not.'
McGahern wrote steadily and with quiet dedication for a few hours every day and often, he confessed, discarded months of endeavour when it led him nowhere. 'You write and write and create a world,' he said, 'or it can all just as easily disappear.'
In all six of his novels, McGahern created what he memorably described as 'that inner formality of calm that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess'.
In 1990, his fifth novel, Amongst Women, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was generally regarded as his masterpiece, at least until the startling arrival of his sixth and final work of fiction, 2002's That They May Face the Rising Sun. Set amid a small rural community in Ireland, the homes of which are spread out around a lake, it is an experimental and impressionistic evocation of everyday life in which, as he put it, 'Nothing happens. And, everything happens.'
He called it his 'anti-novel' and seemed genuinely surprised that it had ended up on the Northern Ireland GCSE syllabus, as well as becoming his bestselling book in America. Success, like his short-lived infamy, never fazed him. The work, long laboured over and refined to a kind of stark, descriptive poetry, was everything.
'In a way, you have to follow your own life,' he said, towards the end of our meeting. 'That's what I wanted to do from the start. Everything begins with one person and one place. It's like John Donne's line: "For love, all love of other sights controls, And makes one little room an everywhere." That's really what I try to do in my writing.' And that is what he did, beautifully, and without compare.