Remembering John McGahern

Today marks the third anniversary of the death of John McGahern (November 12, 1934 – March 30, 2006), one of Ireland’s greatest writers of the twentieth century. His novel, Amongst Women, which tells of the story of a domineering IRA veteran, was shortlisted for the Booker prize and won Ireland’s GPA Book Prize. McGahern himself was awarded Ireland’s AE Memorial Award and the Irish-American Foundation Award, among other prizes.

McGahern is rightly praised for the power of his descriptions, in particular his descriptions of characters trapped in bleak circumstances in rural Ireland. Through sonorous language and with painstaking detail, McGahern could summon the mood of a place and the daily routines that make up so much of life in a rural place. To get a sense of his style, consider this passage from the opening of his first novel, The Barracks.

The bright golds and scarlets of the religious pictures on the walls had faded, their glass glittered now in the sudden flashes of firelight, and as it deepened the dusk turned reddish from the Sacred Heart lamp that burned before the small wickerwork crib of Bethlehem on the mantlepiece. Only the cups and saucers laid ready on the table for their father’s tea were white and brilliant. The wind and rain rattling on the window-panes seemed to grow part of the spell of silence and increasing darkness, the spell of the long darning-needle flashing in the woman’s hand, and it was with a visible strain that the boy managed at last to break their fear of the coming night.

“Is it time to light the lamp yet, Elizabeth?” he asked. (The Barracks, p. 7, Penguin Books)

An almost identical description appears at the very end of the book. By then, the step-mother, Elizabeth, has passed away; the father, Ned Reegan, an Irish guard, has confronted his watchful boss, Quirke; and the children’s interest in preparing for darkness by lighting lamps and lowering blinds suggests the continuation of life, even quotidian life, after the death of the novel’s central figure.

Such repetition isn’t surprising in a long work like a novel. But it can be daring, even jarring, in a shorter work such as a nine-page story.

McGahern’s story, “The Stoat,” which appears in Ireland: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, begins with the narrator, a golfer, discovering a rabbit which has just been attacked by a stoat.

I was following a two iron I had just struck just short of the green when I heard the crying high in the rough grass above the fairway. The clubs rattled as I climbed towards the sound, but it did not cease, its pitch rising. The light of water from the inlet was blinding when I climbed out of the grass, and I did not see the rabbit at once, where it sat rigidly still on a bare patch of a loose sand, crying. I was standing over the rabbit when I saw the grey body of the stoat slithering away like a snake into the long grass.

The rabbit still did not move, but its crying ceased. I saw the wet slick of blood behind its ear, the blood pumping out on the sand. It did not stir when I stooped.

What follows is a graphic and gripping description of the injured rabbit and the rapacious pursuit by the stoat.

And then the story shifts to its main action, which concerns the narrator’s father, a fifty-year-old widower and schoolteacher, who has placed an ad in the paper, looking for a mate. A grim little comedy follows, and McGahern shows that his descriptive power works as well in miniature as it does in large.

Teacher, fifty-two. Seeks companionship. View marriage. “What do you think of it?” he asked.

“I think it’s fine.” Dismay cancelled a sudden wild impulse to roar with laughter.

“I’ll send it off, then, so.”

After about a month he showed me the response. A large pile of envelopes lay on his desk. I was amazed. I had no idea that so much unfulfilled longing wandered around in the world. Replies came from nurses, housekeepers, secretaries, childless widows, widows with small children, house owners, car owners, pensioners, teachers, civil servants, a policewoman, and a woman who had left at twenty years of age to work at Fords of Dagenham who wanted to come home. The postman inquired slyly if the school was seeking a new assistant, and the woman who ran the post office said in a faraway voice that if we were looking for a housekeeper she had a relative who might be interested.

(I love the detail of the woman in the post office remarking about her relative in “a faraway voice.” Perfect.)

Eventually, the father’s attentions focus on a Miss McCabe. The son accompanies the father to a meeting with Miss McCabe in the lobby of the Ormond Hotel.

She was small and frail and nervous, a nervousness that extended, I suspected, well beyond the awkwardness and unease of the whole contrived meeting. There was something about her—a waif-like sense of decency—that was at once appealing and troubling. Though old, she was like a girl in love, in love with being in love a whole life long without ever settling on any single demanding presence until this late backward glance fell on my bereft but seeking father.

Dinner follows, and a sort of unspoken engagement.

But a complication arises, and the story concludes with McGahern repeating word for word an earlier description of the stoat.

How he pulls this off, I’ll leave for you to discover. I’ll point out his daring. I’ll let you experience firsthand his deftness.

Photo of house and mountains in County Leitrim by dingbat2005, Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.

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