McGahern, the banned book and the censored interview
ONE morning 50 years ago I caught a plane to London to talk to John McGahern. His novel, ‘The Dark’, had been banned by the Censorship of Publications Board and he was in the UK because he had lost his teaching job at St John the Baptist boys’ primary school in Clontarf as a result. He was looking for work, anything ranging from laboring on the sites to supply-teacher freelancing.
We had known each other in Drogheda, where he had taught, and Dublin, and he had promised me an exclusive interview.
He had his side of the story to tell and l felt it would be a considerable scoop for me, then a 29-year-old feature writer and sub-editor on the ‘Evening Herald’.
We met at the National Gallery and walked towards Leicester Square where there was a pub he knew and talked over a lunch of cold ham. He gave me a copy of his book and I returned to Dublin that evening fairly excited by what I had got in my notebook.
I conveyed my enthusiasm to the then-editor, the late Aidan Pender who, initially, was encouraging.
McGahern was, after all, the big story of the day. But I sensed a change the next day after an editorial conference – which was out of bounds for me – and other opinions weighed against the tone of the story. The editor changed his mind.
My copy was ‘spiked’.
I phoned John in London and gave him the news. This was a great disappointment to me, but John seemed philosophical. Andrew Hamilton of the ‘Irish Times’ London office, had been waiting in the wings and the story became a Times exclusive.
I had kept a carbon of my lost scoop and dug it out this week from my collection of McGahern material when Pat Kenny presented a historical slot on the book’s banning. John McGahern died in 2006. Here is my interview – seeing print at last.
I crossed Trafalgar Square at lunchtime through the pigeons and the tourists to meet a young man with a bow tie and a confident stride who clutched a paper bag in his left hand.
His name is John McGahern. He is aged 30 and is a writer. In the bag were two copies of his second novel 'The Dark', which has been banned in Ireland.
As we walked from the National Gallery towards Leicester Square I asked him about newspaper reports concerning the ending of his employment as a teacher in Dublin.
He said to me: "It's total nonsense to talk of no dismissal."
There had been reports that he had been dismissed from his post as a primary teacher because of the banning of his book. And there had been reports that he had not been dismissed but was "not being re-appointed".
He prepared to make his first statement on the matter to me.
Before he flew to New York for the publication of his book there that week he spoke for the first time about the controversy which has blown up about his dismissal from his teaching job in Ireland late last year.
"I was given a year's leave of absence (to take up the Macaulay Fellowship) in 1964. The whole point of seeking leave of absence is that, if it is granted, you eventually return to the position you vacated after the term expires. It is held open for you by the employment of a substitute."
Commenting on newspaper reports that he was aware of the reason for not being re-appointed to the teaching staff of the school, Mr McGahern said: "There was no question of mutual understanding between the school manager, Father Carton, and I. I met Father Carton in an atmosphere of courtesy and I think he must have mistaken courtesy for agreement.
"There certainly was the question of the acceptance of the dismissal. There didn't seem any alternative nor does there now."
Mr McGahern then retraced events which led up to his meeting with the school manager, Very Rev Patrick J Carton at the end of October.
"I came back from Spain, but because of a minor accident there I was not able to resume work and on the date the leave of absence expired I notified both the Department of Education and the school manager to this effect. I did not receive a reply from either.
"Three weeks later I again wrote to the manager saying I had been passed by the doctor and would return in a week. The morning of the day I was due to travel I received a telegram from the principal of the school with the message 'Telephone before travelling'.
"I decided to ask a friend, Dr Roger McHugh, Professor of English at UCD, to contact the principal to find the reason for the telegram, as I did not feel like conducting an interview by long-distance phone just as I was about to travel.
"The principal refused to give Professor McHugh any information. I travelled to Dublin and Professor McHugh told me of the business when I arrived.
"I presented myself for work on Monday morning, October 11. The principal met me at the school and told me that the manager had left instructions that I was not to resume duties, that he had taken his holidays two or three days previously and would interview me when he returned four weeks later. Over four weeks had elapsed since my first communication with the manager and I had received absolutely no communication from him."
By this time, 'The Dark' had been published and banned and the whole matter had become a subject of public discussion and was eventually raised in the Dáil by the Labour Party leader, Brendan Corish.
Mr McGahern went on: "I returned to London and, in a little over four weeks, returned to Dublin to see the manager. Practically the first words he said to me were: 'What entered your head to write such a book? You caused a terrible shemozzle. I couldn't take you back after that. There'd be an uproar.'
"He told me he hadn't read my books, but that people had come to tell him that there was some vulgarity in 'The Barracks', but that he personally had no objection to a bit of vulgarity. But what had entered my head to write the last thing, he asked. Didn't I know there were certain things that could not be touched on?
"Then he turned to the question of my reported marriage (Mr McGahern married Finnish theatrical director Annikki Laaksi in Helsinki in November).
"I admitted that though I was legally married I had not been married in the Church. He advised me how to go about rectifying that, how to go about it when I went back to London, 'for my peace of mind'.
"Then I asked, since I wished to live in Ireland, was there any possibility of getting an appointment - when I had regularised my marriage - in, perhaps, a different school at some later time when the publicity would have died down.
"His answer was definite: 'Nowhere in the Archdiocese of Dublin, but maybe down the country'.
'It was this statement that leads me to believe that the manager was not acting independently, but under instructions from a higher authority.
"I then asked was it because of 'The Dark' then that he couldn't have me back. He grew careful and answered 'partly'.
"I left under the impression that 'The Dark' was the main reason for my dismissal and that there was a conspiracy to leave everything vague in case of future trouble.
I asked him later what he felt about the banning of his book in Ireland. "It was unfortunate," he said.
"It has nothing to do with writing. It has to do with publishing. Any sort of written work is a private activity of the imagination. Being banned creates all sorts of confusion. A writer writes his work. He submits it through a publisher to the public. His only responsibility is to make the formal gesture of presenting a private world. The public are totally free to accept it or reject it. That's not the writer's business.
"And one makes this social gesture of presenting the private world in the hope that, since one had to create a world for egotistical reasons in which it was possible to live, a world of the imagination, it is one's hope that some quiet natures would be able to reflect nine inches from their noses on the intolerable accident of being born."
Always reluctant to speak of his writing he admitted, hesitantly: "I am working on language".
He finally gave me this statement: "One's trade lasts a whole life long which is an ambition, rather comic, towards a style".