Brendan Hoban on ‘The Letters of John McGahern’

A new insight into the life of John McGahern      

Western People 7.12.21

A favourite writer – of mine as of so many others – is the late novelist, John McGahern. I’m reading his letters at the moment, edited by Frank Shovlin. It’s a huge tome, all 870 pages of it, a comprehensive listing from 1957 to March 2006 when, during his final illness, he dictated emails and letters to his wife, Madeline.

The wonder is that McGahern’s letters have seen the light of day because, in his own estimate, he was ‘no good at letters’ and while he enjoyed receiving letters, he disliked writing them.

Despite that, McGahern during the course of his life wrote hundreds, indeed possibly thousands of letters to family members, writers, professional contacts, friends and acquaintances that reveal another side of the reserved, enigmatic novelist – with comments that he would never have considered making in public.

Indeed, as Shovlin admits, while McGahern enjoyed reading other people’s letters, he would have disliked the idea of ‘an edition of his letters being made public’. He had a studied reserve about his reading public gaining access to the writer’s mind and he felt anyway that letters were ‘never quite honest’ in that ‘out of sympathy or diffidence or kindness or affection’ letter writers tend to hide their true feelings.

Clearly, McGahern never expected his scribblings to be made public as can be seen from the unselfconscious nature of the writing, but that makes his letters all the more valuable in that they reveal some of the truth behind the studied silences.

The tension between the private world of the writer and the public world of the reader was a constant McGahern theme. But, despite his reserve, the letters open up a new level of understanding of the work of one of Ireland’s greatest novelists.

It’s a huge indulgence not just because it opens up a private world of a writer who avoided the limelight but also, as McGahern himself once wrote in an introduction to John Butler Yeats’ letters, because letters can be ‘gossipy, profound, irascible, charming, prejudiced, humorous, intelligent, naïve, contradictory, passionate’.

Like, for example, his visit to Maynooth University in the late 1970s. McGahern had his problems with the Catholic Church – though not with Catholicism – and the relationship hadn’t been altogether kind to him in that it involved losing his job as a teacher in Clontarf on the orders of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

So when McGahern was invited to Maynooth it was unusual and unexpected. McGahern, in a letter to a fellow-novelist, Colm Tóibín, felt the Maynooth authorities considered themselves adventurous in inviting a banned writer. McGahern, however, was ‘determined not to play the game’ and gave a boring lecture on the writer and philosopher, John Ruskin. His comments on some of the Maynooth authorities who attended are instructive. We get a clear view of what McGahern really thought, apart from his lecture on Ruskin.

That said McGahern had the breadth of vision and the generosity of spirit not to confine his understanding of Catholicism to the antics of the Maynooth authorities or indeed the personality of an individual priest. McGahern understood the force of ritual, the depth of tradition, the richness of the Catholic heritage and, with consummate ease, he could distinguish all of that from the petty nay-sayers (both inside and outside the Church) who contrive to present Catholicism as a negative, oppressive cultic experience that lacks breadth and depth and richness.

Throwing off the trappings of the Catholic religion would be for McGahern the equivalent of denying, as he put it, ‘the weather of his childhood’. Denying himself the culture of Catholicism because of the limitations of the clergy would be, for McGahern, the equivalent of refusing to eat meat because he fell out with the butcher.

Yet there was in McGahern an unswerving commitment to the truth of things. He came at life along a seemingly narrow lane with a quietude, a formality, a calmness and a deceptive simplicity. But in his acute observation he was, in effect, lifting stones and inviting us to examine what lay beneath them. He brought to his writing what the novelist John Updike described as ‘that tonic gift of the best fiction, a sense of truth’ as well as a sense of transparency that permits us to see imaginary lives more clearly than we see our own.

In The Dark McGahern invited us to see the spectre of child abuse in Irish life, twenty years before television programmes trumpeted its presence. And, of course, he was reviled for it. Later in life he was amused, as he told Eileen Battersby of The Irish Times ‘that his despairing honesty, once considered a crime of betrayal, had become a badge of honour’.

His great themes were death, suffering, pain and the loss of faith, of hope, of love, what Declan Kiberd called ‘the mystery of our presence in the world’. And he worked them through 34 short stories, six novels, a play and a memoir.

My own favourite was his last book, Memoir, where all the themes that he had worked and re-worked during his life were pushed through the sieve of his own personal experience.

The loss of his mother, of course, was the defining experience of his life and he felt that loss all his days. What struck me about this book was that he was able to make grief tender, as if it mellowed in the crucible of his own pain.

McGahern has that greatest gift of all writers – he helps us to see ourselves as we are.

This book, The Letters of John McGahern, edited by Frank Shovlin (€37), gives us more than a glimpse of the man himself.

Similar Posts

One Comment

  1. Brendan Cafferty says:

    Brendan Hoban: The Letters of John McGahern…

    Many people have fond memories of things like Easter, Christmas ceremonies, etc. The only time the Late Late Show was ever held in Belfast during Gay Byrne’s time, McGahern was a guest on it. He spoke of his memories of things like the Easter ceremonies and such, and despite his problems with losing his job as a teacher he bore no ill will towards the Catholic Church as such. After the show a Loyalist came up to him and remarked that ‘after what you have been through with the RC Church, losing your teaching job, driven into exile etc, you bear it no ill will, not even the Kremlin could achieve such compliance’.

Join the Discussion

Keep the following in mind when writing a comment

  • Your comment must include your full name, and email. (email will not be published). You may be contacted by email, and it is possible you might be requested to supply your postal address to verify your identity.
  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger. Comments containing vulgarities, personalised insults, slanders or accusations shall be deleted.
  • Keep to the point. Deliberate digressions don't aid the discussion.
  • Including multiple links or coding in your comment will increase the chances of it being automati cally marked as spam.
  • Posts that are merely links to other sites or lengthy quotes may not be published.
  • Brevity. Like homilies keep you comments as short as possible; continued repetitions of a point over various threads will not be published.
  • The decision to publish or not publish a comment is made by the site editor. It will not be possible to reply individually to those whose comments are not published.