02 April 2006

McGahern lit up our darkness

Sunday Business Post

By Tom McGurk
02 April 2006

It is extraordinary how sometimes in history tiny moments can, in retrospect, be seen as enormous and defining moments.

Take 1964 in Mississippi when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger and the American Civil Rights movement was born. Or 1968 in Caledon, Co Tyrone, when a squat in a contested local government council house began Ireland’s civil rights movement. Or 1965, when The Dark, a novel by an emerging young Irish writer called John McGahern, was banned by the Censorship of Publications Board.

Of course, a book being banned was nothing new - practically every major Irish writer had a book on the list. But somehow this was different. This was the newly-confident Ireland of Sean Lemass, with radio and television already reshaping popular culture and with growing numbers emerging from second-level education.

Could it be that the country was still in the clutch of the old ayatollahs, and that a new generation of Irish writers would join their predecessors on the banned index?

Worldwide, the mid-1960s was a seminal time, defining what was to follow in the next half century. In Ireland, it was no different.

The McGahern ban made the papers. It was not without its truly Irish comic possibilities, because, to make matters worse, the writer was then relieved of his National School teaching post on the instructions of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

That McGahern had married a ‘‘divorced foreign women’’ served as sublime subtext to the plot. In the Ireland of 1965, at the beginning of a major social revolution, Christ and Caesar were not merely, as Joyce put it, ‘‘hand in glove’’; they had a stranglehold on Irish life, private and public.

In retrospect then, it was indeed a defining moment. Although McGahern was the unwitting - and, indeed, unwilling - victim of it all, that moment marked his career and opened a gap between Ireland past and Ireland present, that in time grew as though split by an earthquake.

The society of 1965 that banned McGahern and all the others was the same society out of which so much of McGahern’s own ‘Dark’ was conceived. The Catholic hierarchy and conservative politicians still presided over the widespread poverty that had existed at the creation of the state. The winners in Ireland’s unequal society simply bought into that system. The losers were exported. In fact, the exporting business had become the defining instrument for maintaining social cohesion.

All sorts of losers were exported. The unemployed went to Britain, the illegitimate children and the unmarried mothers to Church institutions, the post-civil war republicans to America, and the writers onto censorship lists or exile. Post-independence Ireland, having utterly failed to deliver on the revolutionary dream of a republic that would cherish ‘‘all the children of the nation equally’’, set about a complex and subtle process of exclusion as a method of social and intellectual containment.

Of course, it had none of the excesses of totalitarian state power visible elsewhere in Europe, but make no mistake, the new Irish state knew who its friends and its enemies were. At its core was a powerful political class aided by an ever-present and secure civil service. Later, when the concept of semi-state employment developed, the power of the new Irish state became immense. It had signalled as much in its earliest years. The methods employed to win the Civil War by a resurgent ‘Redmondite’ middle class - in the form of the first pro-treaty government - had blooded the new rulers of Ireland. Critical to the cementing of their authority was their relationship with the Catholic Church which, following the departure of the ruling colonial class, was the only establishment remaining in post-colonial Ireland.

Even when de Valera limped back into power in 1932 with the remnants of the defeated republicans, he quickly learned that Maynooth was an indispensable ally.

There was no safer political place in the new Free State than behind the big backsides of the bishops. The notion of state censorship of ideas was central to postcolonial Ireland and in this, Church and state could hold hands publicly. Critically, political and literary censorship were two sides of the same coin. What was conventionally served up as dealing with ‘‘dirty’’ books was not actually about moral censorship but, more importantly, about the containment of the imagination. For some, Ireland had dreamed too dangerously as the century began, and that should never be allowed to happen again.

No wonder then that, during the first 50 years of this independent 26-county Irish state, the writer became the subversive. As subversives go, John McGahern was the most unlikely, but when the history of the time is written, he will probably be seen as the most influential. He became the bleakest and most powerful of the South’s social historians. Art was his object, of course, but his resonance is truly that of post-colonial Free State Ireland with all its darkness.

Importantly and interestingly, like the land itself, his work is partitioned off from his fellow grand-masters Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney and their Northern experience. While they write out of a moment that has never come, he writes out of the moment that has come, but has singularly failed. His is the tale of lost opportunities, theirs the tale of opportunities still only imagined. Their purgatories are the same, only different you might say.

McGahern became a quite magnificent stylist of Hiberno-English with a prose style Mozartian in the subtlety of its elegance and diminuendo. It is earth, fire, air and water rooted in the topsoil of the imaginative hinterland of his rural childhood.

Like Patrick Kavanagh before him, ‘‘naming these things is the love act and its pledge.” There is majesty in the big books, including Amongst Women and That They May Face The Rising Sun but for me, his short story mastery is unforgettable. The form in itself strikes out for that place where prose and poetry intersect and, as a platform for McGahern’s unique signature of effortless music and rhythmic balance, their power is magical.

The sublime example of his prose mastery was so infectious that a whole new generation of Irish writers could do little else but gather up their pens and sprint joyfully after him. To be Chekhov, Flaubert and Solzhenitsyn at the same time is a remarkable achievement and, yet somehow, McGahern managed it all, adding magnificent modesty and a wicked sense of humour.

Some years ago, while I was filming a television interview with him, he showed me what he jokingly called his ‘‘writing room’’. He took me down to a bedroom and there in one corner, piled with ballpoints and loose-leaf pads - like you would buy in the local corner-shop - was what looked like a large school desk. Here was the ‘‘cradle of genius’’ and I was overwhelmed by the ordinariness and modesty of it all. He lived long enough to witness the Ireland he was born into slowly disappear.

Finger by finger, the clasping fist McGahern felt throughout his writing has finally been removed, though quite what has rushed in to replace its grip on all of us is another day’s work. Whether in the end we have exchanged one form of domination for another remains to be seen.

With his life’s opus now at an end, McGahern’s reputation is complete. As the state fell over itself this weekend to share in his mystique, his revenge and his triumph - not that he wanted either - were complete also. In the long history of an ancient people, none of this is new. McGahern followed a well-beaten path across the fields. Forever, it seems, the druids and the poets have been in competition for our affections. Who we fall for defines who, and what, we are.

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