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Irish author breathes life into family memories

Irish writer John McGahern, born in County Leitrim in 1934, adds to the rich literature of growing up in Ireland with his memoir, "All Will Be Well."

The title refers to an encouraging remark of the author's mother in a letter to her husband about troubles in the family. McGahern explains: "This is the story of my upbringing, the people who brought me up, my parents and those around them, in their time and landscape. My own separate life, in so far as any life is separate, I detailed only to show how the journey out of that landscape became the return to those lanes and small fields and hedges and lakes."

The tension of the memoir is the pitting of McGahern's love for his mother, Susan McManus McGahern -- a graduate of Trinity College, an elementary school teacher, a mother of six, who died of breast cancer at age 42 -- against his problematic relationship with his father, Frank, a charming tyrant.

Susan had wanted Sean (John) to become a priest. He didn't do it. "The pull of life was too great," McGahern writes.

McGahern is one of the best novelists writing in English. His earlier works, "Among Women" (1990) and "By the Lake" (2002), are masterpieces of the economy of form. There is not a word out of place in them; nor is there in "All Will Be Well." McGahern writes elsewhere about this capacity to say the true thing: "We have to feel deeply and to think clearly in order to discover the right words."

He joins other Irish writers Frank O'Connor ("My Father's Son"); Brian Friel ("Dancing at Lughnasa"); William Trevor ("Excursions in the Real World"); Seamus Deane ("Reading in the Dark") and George O'Brien ("The Village of Longing") in describing their experiences of growing up in rural Ireland in the 20th century. Ireland then was a country whose citizens suffered the excesses of religious zeal, sexual repression and government austerity with a quiet dignity, imagination and reserve.

The author describes the life the family lived when he was 3 years old, "in a small bungalow a mile outside the town of Ballinamore. Our father lived in the barracks 20 miles away in Cootehall, where he was a sergeant." His mother would walk him along the lanes to the Lisacarn School and keep him with her all day. This was because Sean may have been too much for his grandmother, his father's mother, to handle.

McGahern and his mother both had a love of the natural world. It is evident in McGahern's writing. He remembers the walks with his mother: "In places, the hedges that grow on the high banks along the lanes are so wild that the trees join and tangle above them to form a roof, and in the full leaf of summer it is like walking through a green tunnel pierced by vivid pinpoints of light."

In addition to himself, there were three sisters at home, Breedge and Rosaleen and infant Margaret. They would later be joined by two more children, Dymphna and Frankie. The family moved from place to place in County Leitram (a map in the book would have been helpful), depending upon where Susan McGahern would be assigned to teach.

After McGahern's mother died of cancer, the author explains the children's survival defenses: "All our energies were concentrated on surviving under our father -- the beatings, the cries, the shouts, the anger, lingered like a shame in the house -- Did he know that what he was doing was wrong, or care?" McGahern asks.
McGahern thinks his father knew the harm he was causing. But his father had mastered an actor's capacity to pretend to forget his rages and court the children's favor when he needed it.

About his brothers and sisters, the author says: "Much self-discipline and good manners were necessary to have endured so many vicissitudes for so long, but I suspect it was all made possible by need and habit and love."

McGahern longed to be a writer but along the way became an elementary teacher. He graduated from St. Patrick's Training College, "drifted from the Church" and spent time in Dublin during the '50s with men and women chafing under what he called childish repression and sectarianism. He says he retains affection and gratitude for his early upbringing in the Church and could no more turn against it than he could turn on any deep part of his life.

The author married a Finnish woman, Annikki Laaksi, but their careers and personal lives prompted them to drift apart. McGahern's book "The Dark," written in 1963-1964, was banned in Ireland. This meant he was unable to resume his teaching job. He met Madeline Green while in London and they began living together. They moved to Ireland, first to Clifden and finally purchased a stone cottage within a few miles of his boyhood home in Leitrim.

McGahern has taken his mother's advice and is straightforward and optimistic -- as much as an Irishman can be optimistic -- in his writing. Some in Ireland think that he was too hard on his father in the memoir. (Forgiving but not forgetting are Irish traits.)

McGahern himself in a recent conversation said that, regrettably, there are still too many men like his father living in Ireland. If this book has importance beyond a memoir, it is to point out how some men in Ireland, diminished by church and state in their roles, subjugated their families to tyrannies as unyielding and profitless as those imposed upon themselves by outside forces.

McGahern has created a masterwork memoir of an Irish family: its children's tears, a mother's love and a father's perfidy, etched in searing, understated take-no-prisoners prose.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News book reviewer.

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>All Will Be Well

A Memoir

By John McGahern, above

Knopf, 289 pages, $25

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