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New book shows how writer John McGahern was brutally honest with friend Seamus Heaney

Editing the correspondence that John McGahern exchanged with family, friends and literary luminaries has provided a deeper appreciation of his fine fictions, writes Professor Frank Shovlin

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John McGahern with his wife Madeline at the Mansion House in 1990. Picture by Dara Mac Donaill

John McGahern with his wife Madeline at the Mansion House in 1990. Picture by Dara Mac Donaill

The Letters of John McGahern, published by Faber, €36.99

The Letters of John McGahern, published by Faber, €36.99

Frank Shovlin

Frank Shovlin

John McGahern

John McGahern

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John McGahern with his wife Madeline at the Mansion House in 1990. Picture by Dara Mac Donaill

Writing in April 1984 to his French translator, Alain Delahaye, from his base on the beautiful campus of Colgate University in upstate New York, John McGahern is struck by the artistic integrity of the visiting poet, Yves Bonnefoy – Delahaye’s countryman, and a writer who would become part of McGahern’s private imaginative pantheon over the following years.

He seemed to me to speak out of an enlightened common sense,” he tells Delahaye. “He’d plainly lived for long in that solitary place where poetry happens, and spoke clearly of its simple unchanging laws.”

Working over the past seven years on editing The Letters of John McGahern has brought me closer to “that solitary place” which this most careful of artists had to enter in order to write his finest work.

Readers of this volume will learn much about McGahern, his development as a writer, his triumphs and his defeats, his relationships with friends, family and fellow writers. Collected for the first time within the book are over 1,000 letters, cards and – towards the end of his life – emails from McGahern.

The first such is a short note written to his father when he was eight, thanking him for a book of the Count Curly Wee and Gussy Goose comic strip; the last is an email to the poet Paul Durcan dictated to his wife Madeline four days before his death, in which he declares that he has “found no sustenance in Heaney’s verse for many years”.

To take that late judgment in isolation would be misleading, for Heaney and McGahern knew each other as friends over many years. Both had been “discovered” by Faber’s legendary Irish editor Charles Monteith in the 1960s, with both beginning and ending their careers at Faber.

February 1963 saw the publication of McGahern’s first novel, The Barracks, a remarkably mature reflection on terminal illness and its implications told from the point of view of Elizabeth Reegan, a nurse returned from England in the wake of a failed love affair, married to an emotionally stunted garda sergeant and now coming to terms with the breast cancer that will kill her almost before she has really begun to live at all.

As early as the following May we see the Belfast fiction writer and secondary school headmaster Michael McLaverty urging McGahern to meet a new young member of his staff who “is endowed with taste and discernment and has read and reread passages in your book with unstaled admiration for its style and quiet power”. That young man is Seamus Heaney.

The two writers exchanged letters over 30 years, read together at times, and visited each other in Leitrim, Dublin, Newcastle upon Tyne and Harvard. The exchanges are warm and courteous, though if McGahern disliked a poem he made no attempt to dissemble. He admired the landmark collection North, though made it clear in a letter of May 1975 that he disliked ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’.

Heaney appreciated such candour, writing in response, “I remember you not liking some of them, but as far as I’m concerned, publication of them is one way of exorcising this pressure to ‘say something about the north’. It has cleared my head already.”

We see the same unblinking honesty with other writers, most prominently Colm Tóibín, with whom there is an intriguing and frequently amusing exchange over almost two decades.

Other writers to correspond with McGahern include Paul Muldoon, Mary Lavin, Tom Kilroy and Brian Friel. With the last of these especially, there is an unmistakeable sense of jousting and occasional mistrust – McGahern, for instance, feels that Friel is behind Field Day’s rejection of his play The Power of Darkness, subsequently staged by the Abbey and eviscerated by the critics.

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But there are moments of great support too: when, in 1974, McGahern’s third novel The Leavetaking is published, Friel writes admiringly and dismisses Terence de Vere White’s savage Irish Times review: “Any poor bastard who is apparently immune to the image & experience you offer is to be pitied. I think it’s your best book.” McGahern responds gratefully by return of post: “A writer can only hope for such a letter from another writer he respects once or twice in a lifetime.”

And de Vere White was not the only Irish reviewer wishing to take McGahern down a peg or two. Bruce Arnold in the Irish Independent thought McGahern’s second collection of stories, Getting Through (1977), an abject failure: “The stories are all marking time. They could as well not have been written and some of them… should not have been written. They do not matter.”

Such views were easy for McGahern to ignore when he had rave notices in The Listener, The Guardian and elsewhere. So impressed was John Updike by the book that he was moved to write a personal note of gratitude for McGahern’s sheer brilliance in the shorter form: “Your short stories… are magical, and honest with a purity rare on all five continents.”

My own first contact with John McGahern’s fiction was as an undergraduate at University College Galway in the early ’90s where we studied one of his finest stories, ‘Gold Watch’. It left a deep and lasting impression on me – one I have never been able to shake off, and nor would I wish to.

Thinking hard about these marvellous letters has helped me to see more clearly, to understand better the peculiar power of the work of this great writer. I am confident that for those many others out there like me who fell in love with the fiction early, The Letters of John McGahern will open doors, providing light where there was once darkness and permitting new, exhilarating appreciation for the work. 

Frank Shovlin is Professor of Irish Literature in English at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool; ‘The Letters of John McGahern’ is published by Faber, €36.99


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