The John McGahern Library

A fitting tribute to Leitrim’s favourite son

 

The Guardian newspaper called him “arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett”. A former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) went one further calling him “Ireland’s greatest writer”. The people of Leitrim simply call him one of their own. The John McGahern Library in Lough Rynn Castle Estate & Gardens was opened on November 9th 2006 by then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as a fitting tribute to Leitrim’s favourite son. We invite you to experience this peaceful, relaxing and beautiful setting as you sit down amongst our collection of some of his most-revered work, lovingly displayed for all to enjoy.

 

John McGahern – from farm to fame

John McGahern was born in Dublin in 1934, before heading back to the family home in County Leitrim. The son of a Garda (police) sergeant and a schoolteacher, he was the eldest child of seven. While his father was stationed in a barracks in County Roscommon, the rest of the family maintained the small family farm back in Knockanroe. When the matriarch died suddenly of cancer in 1944, ten year old John and the rest of the McGahern clan went to live with their father in his barracks in Cootehall.

After completing his schooling, John won a scholarship to the Presentation Brothers secondary school in Carrick-on-Shannon, accumulating multiple academic accolades along the way. After being offered a place at the prestigious St. Patrick’s College of Education in Drumcondra, he trained to become a teacher. After a stint in Scoil Eoin Báiste (St. John the Baptist Boys) in Clontarf, he returned to third level education in University College Dublin, where he graduated with a BA in 1957.

By 1962, the Arts Council awarded McGahern the prestigious AE Memorial Award for an extract from his novel ‘The Barracks’. Upon being published the following year, McGahern’s reputation for uncompromising realism was starting to spread. Awards like the Macauley Fellowship Award quickly followed, allowing McGahern to take a year out to live in London, Spain, France and Germany.

McGahern’s second novel in 1965 would deal with the experiences of an adolescent boy growing up in Roscommon with an abusive father. Hailed as the best account of Irish adolescence since Joyce, ‘The Dark’ exposed a deep clerical tyranny. Perhaps it was this that led to the book being banned by the Censorship Board, who claimed it posed a risk to public morality because of its “indecent or obscene” content and ordered that 260 advance copies be seized by Irish Customs and Excise officers. What’s more, at the behest of archbishop John Charles McQuaid, McGahern was dismissed from his teaching post. The archbishop even intervened with the INTO (Irish National Teachers’ Organisation) to ensure they didn’t support McGahern’s appeal against his dismissal.

While the episode cost McGahern his job, it gained him huge public interest and media attention. However, disillusioned and demeaned, he left Ireland soon after his dismissal, spending the next ten years between England, France, Spain and the United States. Admitting the “whole business” left him “unable to write for three or four years after”, his next book, a collection of short stories called ‘NightLines’, wasn’t published until 1970.

In 1974, McGahern decided to address the circumstances of his dismissal with his third novel. ‘Leavetaking’ vividly portrayed the circumstances of his dismissal from his teaching position. This therapeutic discharge of sorts allowed him to move back to Ireland and settle on a small farm with his second wife, Madeline Green.

‘The Pornographer’ (1978) and ‘High Ground’ (1985) were followed by what is seen as John McGahern’s greatest work. Nominated for the Booker Prize and awarded the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literature award, ‘Amongst Women’ (1990) recounted the final years of an IRA soldier and domineering family man as he lived on a small farm in the west of Ireland. While other novels, short stories, plays and honours followed, ‘Amongst Women’ has taken its place in Irish history, being described by literary genius John Banville as a “masterpiece” and celebrated playwright Thomas Kilroy as “one of the most significant achievements in Irish fiction”.

In 2006, aged only 71, John McGahern succumbed to cancer in Dublin’s Mater Hospital. Having become an elder statesmen of Irish letters in his final years, word of his death was broadcast across Ireland and the world. To the many readers and critics who found his work pessimistic, if not depressing, he would often offer this retort:

“My favourite optimist was the American who jumped off the Empire State Building and, as he passed the 42nd floor, was heard by the window washers to say ‘So far, so good.’ ”


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