John McGahern and the real deal

The philosopher John Moriarty used to say that, if anybody wants to fully understand his work, they only have to read John McGahern’s last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun. Truly, the novel’s consecration of the Irish countryside, and its acute observations of the deeply instinctive ritualisation of the agrarian quotidian, can offer us a glimpse into the otherwise dense, cryptic vision that Moriarty’s writings make of the Irish physical and metaphysical terrain.

As a culmination of a forty year writing career, McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun demonstrates the distillation of a life’s work in myth making that Moriarty perhaps identifies with – his own legendary writing career being one that was prolifically compressed into the final fifteen or so years of his life. Both, in other words, exemplify a distinct, well-formed and stable – not to say predictable – late style in the manner that Edward Said and, latterly, Katie Roiphe have ascribed to a strain of art and particularly in writing. It is an aesthetic that, consciously or not, harbours a kind of impulsion towards legacy making.

The late style is, in fact, the subject of Eamon Wall’s chapter in the Derek Hand and Eamon Maher edited collection of Essays on John McGahern.

A timely addition to the renaissance of McGahern studies in recent years, Essays on John McGahern brings together some of the leading scholars in the field. As a magnificent companion to the 2018 Zeljka Doljanin and Máire Doyle edited John McGahern: Authority and Vision, and Richard Robinson’s John McGahern and Modernism (2017), Essays on John McGahern puts forth the case for the long lasting effects that McGahern’s body of work have on Irish letters. One clear consequence of McGahern’s writings must be in destabilising the Joyce-Beckett trajectory that identifies so much of contemporary Irish literary critical thought. To use the editors’ words, “he is an author who, in many ways, creates a fictional world that had never been.” In doing so, McGahern offers a naturalistic vision that is no less challenging to the established cultural norms, notably without foisting on his readership the social-realist well-meaningness that would have been thematically convenient, given the way that Irish society took shape in the latter half of the twentieth century. And yet, to the extent that the Irish fictional form is generically malleable, McGahern’s resistance to generic stability is itself characteristically Irish.

One key aspect of McGahern’s work that appears to have been taken critically for granted is the tremendous quiet lives that pervade the writing. The rural setting – barring the occasional festivities – of much of his stories perhaps explains this equanimity to some degree, but even when characters remove to the city, their affairs continue to be conducted in bubbles of quietude in the midst of urban cacophony. Quiet punctuated only by tensed moments of Pinteresque silence – these too have come to define McGahern and how we understand his work and his person. They are the tools of his defiance, not in the face of the clerical and secular powers who were central to the controversies post-The Dark, but rather of his refusal to be drawn into those very noises surrounding him, opting instead to go about fulfilling his commitment to his craft, recognising the futility of agitated busy-ness since “all human life is essentially in the same fix” as he remarks in the essay, “The Solitary Reader”.

In their different ways, the pieces gathered in Essays on John McGahern address some of the foregoing aspects of the McGahern legacy, both literary and biographical, and do so more intentionally than other recent scholarship. Organised broadly around three topics of style, place/memory, and relationships, the variety of interests and approaches resonates with the general critical difficulties of attempting to pin McGahern down to this or the other definitive perspective. Therein lays the richness of the oeuvre and, by implication, the present collection.

One by one, the essays bear witness to the lingering influence that John McGahern has had on the Irish condition, rendering a culture of self- and mutual reliance into a complex weave that involves the personal, the communal and even the national psyche. The occasional peeks into the visionary mind that he affords us, in the form of portrayals of modulations between extravagance and austerity in the novels, must surely find analogy in the mood of the Tiger years and the subsequent downturn. As must his courage in dealing with gendered and especially sexual taboos be the sombre presages of institutional abuse revelations, as well as the general erosion of Church authority in Ireland.

As evaluations of a legacy go, Essays on John McGahern does a fine job to affirm the deep-seated belief of generations of readers who have clung on to their hero as a central figure in Irish intellectual life. As the editors say in their Introduction to the volume, the readers have known this all along, and it is time that critics and scholars catch up. This collection marks that coming apace.


Derek Hand and Eamon Maher (Eds.). Essays on John McGahern: Assessing a literary legacy. Cork: Cork University Press, 2019.

Lim Lee Ching

%d bloggers like this: