John McGahern Biography

Born November 12, 1934, in Dublin, Ireland; died of cancer, March 30, 2006, in Dublin, Ireland. Author. Novelist John McGahern's lyrical portraits of his native Ireland and its denizens earned him a reputation as one of the country's most eminent writers of his generation. Often termed the successor to James Joyce, McGahern wrote stories that "moved deliberately through their agonies of love and misgiving," asserted the New York Times ' James F. Clarity, "always with reference to the dominating Catholic culture and the rigors of wresting existence from the fields and the peat bogs."

Born in Dublin in 1934, McGahern grew up in the northwest part of Ireland in the counties of Leitrim and Roscommon. He was the first of seven children in his family, and was devoted to his mother, a former teacher, and devastated by her death from cancer when he was nine. The remainder of his youth was marked by hardship: For a time, he and his siblings lived with their brutish father, a police sergeant and veteran of Ireland's 1919–21 War of Independence, in police barracks, and McGahern resisted his father's determination to pull him out of school so that he might learn a trade. As a teenager, he bicycled seven miles daily to attend high school, and discovered a love of literature thanks to the kindness of a neighbor with a well-stocked library.

As a young man, McGahern taught school and took classes at the University College of Dublin. He graduated in 1957, and began writing short stories while still keeping his teaching job. Hs first novel, The Barracks , was published in 1963 to critical acclaim. The novelist Anthony Burgess asserted that McGahern that had no peer in capturing "so well the peculiar hopelessness of contemporary Ireland," according to the Washington Post 's Matt Schudel. Taking a year off from his teaching duties, McGahern spent time in London, and returned to Ireland with a Finnish-born wife, a theater director named Anikki Laaki.

McGahern was forced out of his job after his second novel, The Dark , caused a sensation when it appeared in 1965. The story of a teenage boy and the anxiety he experiences about his suitability for the priesthood, the novel mentioned masturbation and hinted of a possible sexual advance by a member of the clergy. The Roman Catholic authorities in Ireland condemned McGahern's novel, and it was even banned for a time by the Irish Censorship Board. He refused to comment publicly on the fracas, saying only years later that "by protesting I would give them too much honor," the Los Angeles Times quoted him as saying. "Besides, a book has a life of its own. Once it is written, it belongs to its readers."

McGahern spent the next few years living abroad. Divorced from Laaki, he married an American photographer, Madeline Green, and the two settled down on a piece of land in County Leitrim in the early 1970s. For the remainder of his life, McGahern farmed, wrote, and took the occasional visiting professorship. His 1975 novel, The Leavetaking , centered on the story of a teacher who is fired when he marries a foreign divorcee, echoing what McGahern's superiors had told him years before—that it was not so much the scandalous content of The Dark that forced their hand, but the fact that he had wed a foreigner, too.

In between novels McGahern produced short stories and plays for radio, television, and the stage. His literary style, noted a Los Angeles Times tribute, "included a loving attention to the detail of Ireland's rural life: its plants and animals, its textures and smells—and the witty idiom and darker insular dynamics of its people." He worked slowly, and there was a ten-year span between his fourth novel, The Pornographer , in 1980 and the fifth, Amongst Women . Hailed as his masterpiece, Amongst Women was shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Man Booker Prize, and adapted for television in an acclaimed 1998 miniseries that aired on the British Broadcasting Service. The story's protagonist is Michael Moran, a former soldier who tyrannizes his family. The Times of London described the character as "an unpredictable, severe man obsessed with appearances and lacking any self-awareness … based largely on [McGahern's] recently deceased father." The paper went on to note, however, that Moran "is drawn memorably with feeling and some understanding. But almost equally compelling is the picture it gives of the cohesiveness of the family in rural Ireland."

Diagnosed with cancer, McGahern died in Dublin on March 30, 2006, at the age of 71. Survivors include his wife and four sisters. His final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun , was published in the United States as By the Lake in 2002, but his last work was a loving homage to his mother, Memoir . Published in 2006 in the United States as All Will Be Well , the work recalled happy moments in McGahern's childhood spent with her, especially on walks through the countryside. "My mother spoke to me of heaven as concretely and with as much love as she named the wild flowers," he wrote, according to the Washington Post obituary. "Above us the sun of heaven shone. Beyond the sun was the gate of heaven."


Chicago Tribune , April 1, 2006, sec. 2, p. 11; Los Angeles Times , March 31, 2006, p. B11; New York Times , March 31, 2006, p. A17; Times (London), April 1, 2006, p. 66; Washington Post , April 1, 2006, p. B6.

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