Touching vignettes of a vanished age

by John Boland

With the death of John McGahern in March 2006 and of Seamus Heaney last August, Ireland lost its two most loved writers, McGahern in particular having secured a unique niche in the affections of his devoted readers.

Loveability is not, of course, a prerequisite for a writer’s success or standing, and up to recent decades we never expected poets or novelists to be cherishable figures – or, indeed, to be anything at all other than the creators of books that we might be interested in reading.

And so it was irrelevant to lovers of literature whether or not Yeats was loftily unapproachable, Samuel Beckett defiantly private or Patrick Kavanagh crankily rude – all that mattered was what they wrote. Anyway, most readers tended to imagine their favourite authors as oddballs – and probably prickly ones at that.

But in a celebrity-obsessed age, we expect – indeed, demand – that the writers we admire have fascinating personalities off the page as well as on it, and we go to public readings in order to savour those personalities. Hence the popularity of literary festivals, whether at Hay-on-Wye or Listowel or Galway, their halls and tents thronged with doting fans who want the experience of being in the same room as their literary pop idols – and perhaps of getting to bend their ear during the obligatory book signings that climax such events.

In his later years, John McGahern experienced a lot of such devotion. With the publication in 1990 of Amongst Women, a novel about family that touched many Irish people, the 56-year-old, who had been publicly ostracised for his early novels, suddenly found himself lauded as a wise and humane observer of Irish life, and anyone who knew him could see that he took both comfort and pleasure in this exalted, if somewhat surprising, new standing.

This was especially noticeable during readings and interviews, where he drew increasingly large crowds and where the defensive diffidence that had characterised former public appearances was replaced by a relaxed acknowledgement of his recently bestowed status as avuncular explainer to the nation of its fears, failings, regrets and hopes.

His fiction, though, was never as cosy or benign as the public persona and in his stories – the form in which his true mastery lay – there are revelations and insights that are as harsh about human nature, its cruelties and its vanities, as anything you’ll find in Joyce’s Dubliners or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburgh, Ohio, or some of William Trevor’s more savage stories.

By now, of course, they’re vignettes of a vanished age. McGahern’s Ireland predates not just the recent recession but also the Celtic Tiger that created it, and there’s something of a time-capsule snapshot about the marvellous passage in Oldfashioned, written in the 1980s, with its description of a then-changing rural Ireland:

“The tide that had gone out to America and every part of Britain now reaches only as far as a bursting Dublin, and every Friday night crammed buses take the aliens home.

“For a few free days in country light they feel important until the same buses take them back on Sunday night to shared flats and bed-sits . . .

“As in other churches, the priest now faces the people, acknowledging that they are the mystery. He is a young priest and tells them that God is on their side and wants them to want children, bungalow bliss, a car, and colour television. Nights, when he’s not supervising church bingo, he plays the guitar and sings at local hotels where he is a hit with tourists.”

This also predates the clerical sex abuse scandals and it’s tempting to wonder how McGahern, so alert in his fiction to other forms of abuse, would have treated this subject if its extent had been known to him at the time he wrote Oldfashioned. As it was, his awareness of the society that shaped his upbringing and informed his writings was so acute to the nuances of human behaviour that the best of his work, although of another era, remains timeless in its understanding and insights. Much of the best is in these superb stories, and Faber’s reissuing of them is welcome, though puzzling. The book is a straight reprint, if with a different cover, of the 1992 collected stories, even though before he died McGahern had assembled a volume called Creatures of the Earth, which contained most of the stories in the 1992 book, along with two that had been recently written.

Faber published that selection in 2006 but has now reverted to the earlier collection, which means that those two later stories – Creatures of the Earth and Love of the World – are missing. As they were among his finest, that’s a pity, though we must be grateful for the reminder of what was lost with McGahern’s death and of what vibrantly lives after him.

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