The wording below was the introduction wording to ‘Return of the Mac: an evening to commemorate John McGahern’s 10th anniversary’ at 7pm in The Shannon Conference Suite at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham on Thursday 26th May, 2016.
In a year when several artistic greats have departed, when we have had commemorations coming ‘out our ears’, it may seem a tad indulgent to be remembering another dead hero. But the hero in question here is the late John McGahern. Consequently, my fellow Irish Studies student, Daniel Cassidy, and I are of the opinion that it is fitting that such a highly regarded wordsmith should not be remembered with just a minute’s silence or the raising of a glass of the good stuff, but with us remembering what made him so special in a more formal setting.
Thankfully, the great Pat Collins of Harvest Films was commissioned to make a documentary on McGahern, which was recorded in late 2004 and can be viewed in its entirely below (if you cannot make it on the 26th). As with all of Pat’s work, it is a carefully crafted vessel that captures the distinctive grooves and nuances of the artist that will form the main basis of our McGahern celebration, followed by a Questions and Answers section. Daniel and I are by no means doyennes of the man’s work, but we do appreciate a great Irish hero and the need to savour the accomplishments he, or she, has done once in a while.
Born on the 12th of November 1934, John McGahern died ten years ago on the 30th March 2006 after a long battle with cancer. I was lucky enough to hear him being interviewed in the months leading up to his death in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre. He had the capacity crowd in the palm of his hand from the off and got a standing ovation by the end of it by which time I witnessed Julian Barnes and others shed a few tears as we knew we had seen the last of this kind, wise, funny and courageous man. (The RTE archives below show that he really enjoyed a live audience!)
On being asked about whether he felt bitter at his father’s often-bizarre behaviour to him, he said with Zen-like composure ‘Bitterness is a part of my brain I have no reason nor desire to go to’. This was at the heart of why we admire him – he endured such pain and heartache and managed to write about it and the disappearing world around him with sensitivity, scrupulous precision and ‘minute realism’ to quote Brian Lynch.
In 2002, Declan Kiberd wrote ‘People first of all shuddered and then they realised: “my God, he has told our innermost story.”…I think people have that feeling when they read McGahern: in some way the stories of their own families has been told with a kind of tenderness and honesty and a mixture of wistfulness and longing, that is appropriate to the experience. So they actually feel ratified by him, they who once refused to ratify him’.
McGahern offered us a glimpse of what is the best and worst about his native land and its people. From the rural retreat of County Leitrim, he gave us a depiction of an Ireland that was slow to take to modernity and change.
He used a local voice that had a universality about it. His scenes were not confined to any one place or time much like Friel’s and Heaney’ work. But while Friel could be skewered and Heaney dense in their message, McGahern had a candour and a refreshing perspective that few others voiced:
‘I think the ordinary is the most precious in life. I think that either life is of no value or of absolute value; and I think it is of absolute value. And I think that in that sense, a woman combing her hair or a man eating an egg is as important an act as any other’.
RTE Radio’s Bowman: Sunday: 8.30 had a wonderful two part radio documentary on McGahern from their archives in May 2016.
Listen here to Part One from the 1st of May 2016.
Listen here to Part Two from the 8th of May 2016.
The New York Times Obituary of John McGahern.
The Guardian Obituary of John McGahern
The Independent Obituary of John McGahern.
The Daily Telegraph’s Obituary of John McGahern.
A subscription is needed to access The Irish Times Obituary of McGahern – here instead is some reader feedback to the paper’s response to his death.
John McGahern staged on his 10th anniversary by Maire J Doyle
A wonderful documentary, Three Days In Summer by McGahern friend and fan, Ronan Gallagher, featuring Declan Kiberd and others.
The opening of the local John McGahern library in 2007 by none other than Bertie Ahern.
A great blog by Trevor Cook on McGahern, McWilliam’s Stoner and other observations.
A review in The Irish Times of the excellent new Stanley Van Der Ziel book on MGahern.
Less polished, but one for fans is this interview with Terence Wench from 1993: