John McGahern and The Deep Well of Want: portraits of the artist’s world

Photographer Paul Butler has captured on film the landscapes and enviroment that inspired the author for an exhibition marking the tenth anniversary of his death


My first introduction to John McGahern was on a sun holiday back in 1990. After rapidly chewing my way through a series of end of the world action hero thrillers, I quickly ran out of reading material and a friend passed me a copy of Amongst Women. I must admit that it was very far removed from my usual reading material. However, while intrigued with the main character, Moran, it was McGahern’s strong descriptive language that really drew me in. His minute description of the landscape fired my imagination. I visualised through his words the changing seasons, the wildlife, hedges, colours, weather; all leaped from the page and took root in my psyche.

“To leave the ever-present tension of Great Meadow was like shedding stiff, formal clothes or kicking off pinching shoes.”
(Amongst Women)

I became immersed in his precise detail, especially the way he evoked the countryside, the customs of the people, the striking landscapes and house interiors. I had never been to this part of Ireland and yet I could easily visualise McGahern’s literary universe. His collected short stories became a well-thumbed book that followed me through college and spoke to me in a particular way. Living in small, dimly tungsten-lit, damp rooms, I would read his stories over and over until they ended up as film scenes in my mind, opening up the possibility of wonderful back stories. Being a penniless mature student, I could certainly relate to some of the settings.

“She was determined to grasp at a life of her own desiring, no longer content to drag through with her repetitive days, neither happy nor unhappy, merely passing them in the wearying spirit of service; and the more the calls of duty tried to tie her down to this life, the more intolerably burdened it became.”
(The Barracks)

I have a lifelong interest in photography and the outdoors. However, Leitrim and the northwest was not on my radar. Growing up in the Dublin suburbs, it was always great to escape to the great outdoors with the camera on my shoulder; however, normally I headed east or down south. Therefore, at the beginning of the millennium, my wife, son and I moved from Dublin and set up home in Farnaght, which is close to Mohill in Co Leitrim. Here I was right bang in the middle of McGahern country. The decision taken by my wife and myself to move to Leitrim permitted me to marry my interest in McGahern and my passion for images. As already mentioned, I always considered McGahern a visual writer and when I ventured out around my new surroundings with camera in hand, I stepped into his world. In no time at all the images quickly started to unfold in this magical setting, a place untouched by time. It was as if John McGahern and his characters had simply got up from the kitchen table, grabbed their coats and walked away. The further I ventured out to explore, the more this beautiful world opened up to me.

“Within the deep walls on the lake, a butcher’s calendar of the year before was hung. Above the tables of the months and days was a photo of two boys wheeling bicycles while driving sheep down a country lane between high stone walls. Helping them were two beautiful black-and-white collies. High-class beef, mutton and lamb at best prices. Large and small orders equally appreciated.”
(That They May Face the Rising Sun)

Pictures grew before me, moody trees peering through the early morning mist, the golden light permeating ancient woodland bordering the lakes, the big, black-blue clouds rolling across an April sky, abandoned dwellings sitting in a boggy field. His description of interiors, the real smells and sounds of houses, his careful, minimal use of words to set up a scene, it was all so deliberately scripted that I could not fail to think of it in photographic or filmic terms.

There was no end to this magic; the inspiration from McGahern’s world was definitely influencing my view through the lens. I really enjoyed exploring the many derelict and abandoned cottages dotting the countryside; they are a treasure trove of remnants from a fading world. It was amazing to step inside and find the curtains still framing the windows, or religious memorabilia fixed to the walls, or the old kitchen utensils left in place. I found myself, out of respect, recording these scenes, as if I was a photographic archaeologist, recording a scene for posterity.

“Somewhere, outside this room that was an end, he knew that a young man, not unlike he had once been, stood on a granite step and listened to the doorbell ring, smiled as he heard a woman’s footsteps come down the hallway, ran his fingers through his hair, and turned the bottle of white wine he held in his hands completely around as he prepared to enter a pleasant and uncomplicated evening, feeling himself immersed in time without end.”
(The Collected Stories, The Wine Breath)

When a local person passes away, I am astonished by the amount of cars that arrive to offer condolences, as if the whole county knew that person. The soothing sound of the bell from our local church in Gortletteragh carries across the fields, while in the local shop the radio presenter reads out daily death notices.

Little did I realise that all the stories from McGahern I had read many years earlier were now overlapping with my photographic ideas and technique through a postgraduate thesis I have now embarked on.

“He took down the plain wooden box that held his shaving kit from the top of the medicine press and opened it on the sewing-machine to get his cut-throat razor and he stroked it over and back the strip of fine leather tacked to the side of the press. After he’d tested its sharpness he laid it carefully on a newspaper in the window and searched the box for the brush and stick of soap.”
(The Barracks)

My initial impression of Leitrim, before we relocated there, was of an empty place, damp and full of trees. No doubt this was related to the advertisements that appeared regularly back in the eighties of acres for sale, or tree planting. However, I was relieved that my ignorance was totally unfounded. That said, the land is poor and marshy, but it nevertheless displays a stunning beauty in all seasons.

“It was so beautiful when she let up the blinds first thing that “Jesus Christ”, softly was all she was able to articulate as she looked out and up the river to the woods across the lake, black with the leaves fallen except the red rust of the beech trees, the withered reeds standing pale and sharp as bamboo rods at the edges of the water.”
(The Barracks)

McGahern’s description of how the fields and laneways burst into life during the spring and summer months really sums up beautifully the magic of this place. Due to less intensive agriculture, the fields are quite small and are bounded by a wonderful array of hedgerows. The seasons matter here; in fact, they determine everything and I find myself noting what jobs the farmers are doing in the area at a particular time. I have always felt that as the N4 merely skirts the lower part of the county, the people and environment have mostly been left to their own devices.

“The fields between the lakes are small, separated by thick hedges of whitethorn, ash, blackthorn, alder, sally, rowan, wild cherry, green oak, sycamore, and the lanes that link them under the Iron Mountains are narrow, often with high banks. The hedges are the glory of these small fields, especially when the hawthorn foams into streams of blossom each May and June.”

While the heavy grey days of November with head-height sagging grey cloud can make you feel quite melancholic, the effect of this neutral light on the falling leaves and leaf litter carpeting everywhere is an annual treasure. October through to May are my favourite months, with the light and colour ranging from suppressed to riotous. Spring gives you the big sky months, monstrous cloud formations rolling across the land. Captured on a wide-angle lens and printed in black and white, they evoke a deep and touching experience.

“When you’re in danger of losing a thing it becomes precious and when it’s around us, it’s in tedious abundance and we take it for granted as if we’re going to live forever, which we’re not.”

When you wander through the dark state forests close to our home, devoid of activity save for badger sets and a mattress of dark neutral brown pine needles, stillness befalls you. Venture further and step out into the bright light of old native wood provides a spellbinding sight.

A few years ago Coillte moved into the area around where I live and within a couple of days, 40 years of growth was felled and shipped off. The devastated area quickly became populated with natural growth. The one very positive from the wood harvest is the amount of light that now floods into the area.

“There was no longer the dripping on the dead leaves, the wood clamped in the silence of white frost except for the racket some bird made in the undergrowth.”
(The Collected Stories, Christmas)

When localised fog sits close to the ground it creates the most atmospheric scene: everything slows, delicate moisture coats the grass and hedgerow and when that fog is accompanied by a freeze, the senses heighten to the sound of a crunch underfoot, or the squawk of a jay as it bolts from the trees flying low over the high field beside the access road close to my home. A couple of weeks ago, while driving out of our drive a large hare ran in front of the car pounding through the fog as if laying down a challenge, while in the cleared wood a buzzard sat perched on a tall stump watching proceedings. What a way to start a Wednesday morning! Landscape and nature go hand-in-hand in this photographer’s paradise.

“The weak winter sun had thawed the fields soft enough to course the hare on, and though it still hung blood-orange above the hawthorns on the hill the rims of the hoof tracks were already hardening fast against their tread.”
(The Collected Stories, All Sorts of Impossible Things)

People have asked me why I moved to Leitrim. It is hard to put into words, but I will try. When you arrive home from work after a long drive and step out of the car, you see an autumn mist rising from the fields. The dogs rush over to greet you. Looking up at a bright clear starry sky you let out a breath, the wisps float upwards towards the faint steep call of a high-flying redwing migrating to our shores for winter. Life is not so bad for this northside Dub living in Leitrim.

“..the best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything.”

Paul Butler’s exhibition, The Deep Well of Want, forms part of the symposium that is being held in St Patrick’s, Drumcondra on April 28th-29th to mark the 10th anniversary of John McGahern’s death

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