Academic journal article Antipodes

On the Trail of John McGahern

Academic journal article Antipodes

On the Trail of John McGahern

Article excerpt

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, A FRIEND, WHO IS A WRITER, SUGGESTED that I should read John McGahern. At that stage I wasn't aware of his short stories and novels, and so I was imme- diately interested in an Irish writer who lived in the country, wrote about farmers and the Catholic Church. My familial con- nections to Ireland date back to convicts transported to Aus- tralia in the 1820s on my mother's side of the family, and to a free settler on my father's side, John Ryan, who emigrated to Australia in the 1850s from Nenagh, Co., Tipperary. An Irish sensibility to language, storytelling and humor were a part of the air that I breathed as a child. My paternal grandfather was known as Shine Ryan. One of the few books in our house was Around the Boree Log by John O'Brien. Growing up in the south- west of Victoria, I was familiar with many typical Irish names: Gleesons, Kennedys, O'Briens, Moloneys, Gavins, etc. The po- tato fields of Tower Hill and Koroit are a direct connection to an Irish landscape of rolling hills, narrow lanes and small farms. The names of people buried in the Tower Hill cemetery are further testament to the influence of the Irish. When I first read John McGahern's fiction it was as though I was getting back in touch with an uncle.

McGahern achieved infamy and notoriety in Ireland in the 1960s when his second novel, The Dark, was banned in Ireland. Shortly after, McGahern was sacked from his teaching position in Dublin. The "McGahern affair" caused a stir in Ireland, not only because of the so-called "dirty book," but also because Mc- Gahern married a Finnish theatre director, Annikki Laaksi, in a foreign registry office. Such offences against the traditions and customs of Catholic Ireland could not be tolerated. An official from the Irish Teacher's Union commented to McGahern at the time: "If it was just the auld book, maybe-maybe-we might have been able to do something for you, but with marrying this foreign woman you have turned yourself into a hopeless case entirely" (Memoir 251'· After his dismissal as a teacher, McGa- hern moved to England to teach, and then later he taught at Colgate University in New York. In 1974, he bought a farm in County Leitrim and returned to live and write there with his second wife, Madeline Green.

The first McGahern book that I read was Amongst Women, his Booker Prize shortlisted novel. There was much that I liked about the novel, despite the dark, gloomy protagonist of Moran, the former IRA soldier and farmer who ruled his family with an authoritarian glare. In many ways, McGahern could have been writing about a number of farmers from the Western District of Victoria. Leaving the IRA aside, these were strong, powerful dairy farmers who fathered large families, attended Mass regularly, and who ruled their families with the authority some farmers preserve for dealing with cattle. One of my neighbors used to chase his sons with a stock whip when he needed them. Another insisted on paying his sons wages rather than paying them a percentage of the milk check, which was a more common practice and was much greater in value. For that farmer, it was a way of maintaining his authority over his ten children.

There were many other facets of Amongst Women that ap- pealed to me: the central focus of a family pulling together to make the best of a situation; the close proximity of the charac- ters to paddocks and farm animals; the importance of Church and community; the tensions between family members. But it was also the quality of the writing. McGahern's quips and telling statements that he allows his characters speak of hard truths and generational conflict. When the youngest son, Mi- chael, asks his brother Luke in London to return home and pay his father, Michael Moran, a visit in Ireland, Luke's reply is as sharp as Moran's might have been: "I see no reason to go back there. I found it hard enough to get out of the damn place." The tension McGahern creates between Moran and the children who fear him is also highlighted when Moran says to his new wife, Rose, who has brought change and a lightness of air into the previously somber household: "If you listened a bit more carefully to yourself I think you might talk a lot less. …

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