A new biography exploring the life and work of one of Ireland’s most loved writers, Leitrim native John McGahern, has been published. Written by fellow writer and acquaintance Aubrey Malone, the book, entitled ‘Leitrim Observed: A Biography of John McGahern’ is the first full-length biography to be written about the late novelist, who is regarded as one of the most important Irish writers of the latter 20th century.
Originally working as a primary school teacher in Dublin, McGahern published two books, ‘The Barracks’ and ‘The Dark’, before he left Ireland for some years to live in East London, where he continued to write and work as a teacher. After returning to Ireland in the 1970s, he went on to produce a rich stream of fiction, with his 1990 novel ‘Amongst Women’ in particular receiving widespread acclaim, as well as a Booker Prize nomination.
In this new book, Aubrey Malone tells the complete story of Ireland’s Chekhov, from his strife-torn youth under a cruel father, through a controversial career that saw him produce a steady array of classic novels and short stories, right up to his elegiac swansong, ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’.
The book also explores some lesser-known aspects of his life: his problems in teaching on both sides of the Irish Sea, his failed romances, and the brave manner in which he negotiated the cancer that led to his death at the age of 71 in 2006.
Also a former teacher turned writer, Malone first met McGahern in 1990 when interviewing him about ‘Amongst Women’. After finding out they had a lot in common, the two kept in touch by letter and over the phone over subsequent years. Malone, who currently lives in Dublin, is a seasoned journalist who has written a number of novels and short story collections over the years.
The biography is now available to purchase in bookstores and online.
‘His father tried to get him to stay with him in the barracks, telling him he was too much with women’
A handsome young police sergeant called Frank McGahern started dating Susan McManus, a primary schoolteacher, in 1924 in the small Leitrim town of Ballinamore where she had her first job. Soon afterwards they became engaged.
Eight years later, when Frank was still dragging his heels about bringing her to the altar, she gave him back his ring. Pressed into action at this, he proposed to her again. She said yes.
They were married in 1932, the year of the Eucharistic Congress. It seemed appropriate. McGahern often said that religion was “the weather” of his childhood. He was born two years later.
A pair of twins, Breedge and Rosaleen, arrived soon afterwards. McGahern was so jealous of them he caused their pram to crash one day by unlocking the brakes. Then there was another girl, Margaret. Monica and Dympna followed before the last child. That was another boy. He was born in 1943. They called him Frankie.
Having so many children in so few years wasn’t unusual in the Ireland of the time. There was little family planning to speak of and McGahern’s father wasn’t they type of man to abstain from sex. Men generally married for sex in those days. McGahern wrote in Memoir, “There was no other way to have it.”
His mother came from a poor family. She grew up on the side of a mountain. Pupils from the school she went to brought turf from their homes to light the classroom fire. She was very clever at school and won a King’s scholarship to a boarding school in Carrick-on-Shannon. She was the first person in her family to go to Secondary School. Afterwards she won another scholarship, to Trinity College in Dublin. She trained to be a teacher there.
She was a gentle teacher who refused to hit her pupils. That was expected at the time. Her casual attitude to discipline got her into some trouble with the authorities but made her very popular with the pupils.
Her job was never secure. She was placed on what was called “The Panel.” It meant she wasn’t guaranteed being kept in any of the schools in which she taught. It all depended on the numbers. If they fell below a certain quota she lost her job. It was a case of, “Last in, first out.”
She worked in most of the schools in the area at one time or another. Each time she got a new job she moved house as well. McGahern attended no less than seven schools by the time he was nine.
She and her husband lived apart for most of the year. That was because of a ruling of the time that a Garda sergeant wasn’t allowed have a wife who worked. He wanted her to give up her job even though she was earning more than he was. She refused to do that. She lived in Leitrim. He lived – and worked – in a barracks in Cootehall. That was twenty miles away in Roscommon. The family went to the barracks during the school holidays. McGahern’s father cycled to Leitrim on his days off.
She eventually got a permanent post at Aughawillan national school. The money she was earning enabled her to buy a house. She bought one that was attached to a farm. It was easier to do that than to find one on its own. It was a small bungalow outside the town of Ballinamore.
McGahern’s paternal grandmother lived with them as he was growing up. She was a difficult woman to get on with. He spent the first two years of his life with her when his mother was teaching. When he was three, his mother decided to bring him to school with her. She led him by the hand through the lanes that surrounded their house. He stayed with her all day in the classroom to give his grandmother a break from him.
McGahern felt cut off from other children as a sergeant’s son. “Because of the long history of oppression in Ireland,” he said, “law was associated with the British. People never thought the police force belonged to them. It was seen as alien, a hostile force.”
His father tried to get him to stay with him in the barracks, telling him he was too much with women. He saw their world as too cosy. In the barracks he told him he’d be able to grow up as a man. He’d be able to curse and play men’s games and stay up late. He bought him a bicycle to persuade him to join him. But McGahern refused to make the journey.
The beatings stopped for a while after he was warned but then they started again. His mother would also get hit if she tried to stop them. McGahern spent the whole of one day in a tree trying to stay out of his way.
His belligerent nature had a legitimacy to it before he married. He’d been active in the War of Independence before Ireland became a Republic. McGahern listened to tales of violence told in hushed tones as he sat around the fire at night, tales of ambushes, “of men followed to Australia and murdered, tales of men dumped over the sides of boats.” His father was in his element relating these.
When he was applying to become a guard he was asked what his previous work experience was. He replied, “Three years in the IRA.” This was said with great pride.
He resented the fact that he was never promoted beyond the rank of sergeant. The main reason was his temperament. He was regarded as a loose cannon. He may have been a hero to fellow republicans but once the War of Independence was over a different regime took over. People became fearful of his rages.
He wanted the police to be armed. There was a bank robbery one time in Ballinamore and the robbers got away without being caught. He was enraged. He told McGahern that if he had a gun on him that day, not one of the robbers would have left the town alive.
McGahern was both fascinated and repulsed by him. He had so many sides to him he could never figure him out. His aggressiveness was tempered by a tendency towards hypochondria, his egotism by a deferential attitude he held towards members of the clergy and people of a higher class than him.
He had an obsessive fear of poverty. He frequently told his children that they were eating too much and that one day they’d all end up in the Poor House. Playing the martyr medically as well as in terms of finance – he was a hypochondriac – he bored them nightly by listing out all the food they’d eaten and what it cost. Such an inventory was generally followed by a recitation of The Rosary. This was exploited for every ounce of dramatic potential. As McGahern listened to him saying it he was more aware of an actor giving a performance than somebody getting in touch with their spiritual side.