McGahern's rare oul' times in the city
John Boland on a new book that chronicles the late, great writer's time in Dublin
If James Joyce is celebrated as the great chronicler of our urban life, John McGahern is widely regarded as his polar opposite -- the quintessential countryman who was only truly at home among the fields, villages and small towns of rural Ireland.
This view of McGahern comes from the novels and stories themselves, most of which are set in the Roscommon/Leitrim hinterland that bred him and to which he later returned. Yet he spent many of his formative younger years in Dublin, where he completed his education, worked as a teacher, formed important friendships, socialised in the city's bars and dancehalls, conducted love affairs and wrote the early fiction that would change his life.
This Dublin of the 1950s and 1960s is photographically evoked in the latest edition of The John McGahern Yearbook, and it was evoked in prose by McGahern himself when, towards the end of Memoir, which was published in the months before his death in 2006, he wrote: "My life in the Dublin of the time would not have been much different to the lives of many young men. We worked.
"We went to dancehalls and cinemas and theatres; the big hurling and football matches in Croke Park, race meetings in the Phoenix Park or Baldoyle or Leopardstown; we met and talked and drank and argued in bars."
And he recalled that "the girls we picked up in dancehalls we courted in doorways and back alleys, and on dates took them to cinemas or out to places like Howth by the sea".
As for the girls themselves, they "didn't drink stout or beer; the more adventurous had wine or gins-and-tonics and even brandies; most of them didn't drink alcohol" -- although one who did was the late novelist and memoirist Nuala O'Faolain, with whom he had a liaison.
Dublin's pub life was an attraction, too, and throughout his autobiographical writings there are mentions of particular bars in the vicinity of O'Connell Street and Grafton Street, though he recoiled from the "violence and megalomania and darkness" he encountered in some of the more "bohemian bars" -- reserving a particular distaste for McDaid's of Harry Street, the haunt of Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, John Jordan and a motley crew of lesser talents and desperate hangers-on.
This raffish milieu, memorably evoked in Anthony Cronin's 1976 memoir Dead as Doornails, received withering treatment from McGahern, who declared that "a single visit to McDaid's was enough to cure me of any desire for literary company for a month. Like all closed, self-protective societies, they believed that everything of importance took place within their circle, while all of them were constantly looking outwards without seeing in this any contradiction".
He had just as little time for the regime he underwent in St Patrick's teacher-training college in Drumcondra. "We were not trusted," he recalled in a 1997 essay. "I don't think they seriously wanted to educate us. In fact, you could get into trouble for reading books in the study hall."
As for his teaching years in Belgrove school in Clontarf, although he wrote in Memoir that he "liked the eight-year-old boys I taught" and that "I believe most of them grew to trust and like me", those callers to RTé's Liveline some months back who had less benign memories of his teaching style might prefer to agree with his admission in the 1997 essay that "I didn't enjoy teaching" and that "there is a certain discipline that is pleasurable, but I wouldn't call that enjoyable".
Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, who didn't find McGahern's banned second novel The Dark (1965) in any way enjoyable, put paid to his teaching career, though it was his (at the time recent) marriage to a divorced Finnish woman in a registry office that was seized on by the Irish Teachers' Union as a reason for not opposing his sacking.
As the union's general secretary told him: "If it was just the auld book 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" -- adding that anyway there had been "hundreds of thousands of Irish girls with their tongues out for a husband".
McGahern, though, countered by observing that he hadn't noticed too many tongues pointing in his direction.
That anecdote is told in Memoir and the incident marked the ending of McGahern's life in Dublin, though he retained a fondness for the city, especially its less pretentious bars and restaurants -- Wynn's on Lower Abbey Street, Larry Tobin's on Duke Street and Botticelli's in Temple Bar were special favourites -- and in later years he and his wife Madeline acquired a little house in Stoneybatter.
But the Dublin that helped to shape him was largely gone, though it's preserved in some of his finest short stories. There you'll find "the lighted globes inside the Scotch House" on Burgh Quay, where the customers "waited impatiently on the slow pulling of the pints". Or St Stephen's Green in the evening, which "looked full of peace within its green railings".
Or Webb's bookshop, the floor of which had been "freshly sprinkled and swept" although it "was dark within after the river light". Or the "sense of a cool dark waiting in Mooney's, a barman arranging ashtrays on the marble where you could hear in the silence footsteps going up and down Grafton Street".
Or, indeed, on the same Grafton Street, "aimlessly strolling in one of the lazy, lovely Saturday mornings in spring" and relishing a "time that did not have to run to any conclusion". These are evocations as memorable as anything in Joyce of a capital city's haunting hold on the imagination.
The John McGahern Yearbook, Volume 4, is compiled and edited by John Kenny and published by NUI Galway at €35.