John McGahern's letters: ‘Do you think it would be right to send a copy to Samuel Beckett?’

Frank Shovlin, editor of The Letters of John McGahern, on bringing together more than a thousand correspondences, starting with a thank you note sent by the author in 1943

The publication of The Letters of John McGahern is the culmination of seven years’ work, beginning in the summer of 2014 with a conversation between myself and Madeline McGahern and ending with this large book of some 850 pages, containing more than a thousand letters and emails from her late husband to a wide variety of correspondents, commencing with a thank you note written to his father in April 1943 and ending with an email dictated to Madeline four days before his death in March 2006.

The letters were sourced from individuals and from a number of archives on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the institutions to hold runs of correspondence are NUI Galway; the National Library of Ireland; the Linen Hall Library, Belfast; Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas; Lilly Library, Indiana University; University of Maryland; Emerson College, Boston; New York Public Library; Emory University, Atlanta; University of Victoria, British Columbia; Brotherton Library, University of Leeds; Faber and Faber archive, London; and the BBC Sound Archive, Reading.

The single most important source of correspondence was Madeline who, with the help of friends, catalogued a significant number of letters both to and from McGahern sent over the years, thus giving me a strong base from which to begin building the book.

Rather than try the impossible and synopsise the volume in one short essay, it might be instructive to briefly consider one year in McGahern’s life – 1970 – which saw him live in three different countries and bring to publication his first remarkably achieved collection of short stories, Nightlines. The year begins with McGahern staying, as he often did, in his sisters’ house in Leytonstone, attempting to come to some final decision with his celebrated Faber editor, Charles Monteith, about the final order in which the stories ought to appear. Keen “to take the emphasis off adolescence” he makes one final change before heading back to Paris where he has been based in Madeline’s apartment for much of the previous year.


Writing to his American editor, Patrick Gregory, a few days later from Paris he is again settling on the final shape of Nightlines. Gregory deeply dislikes the story Lavin and wishes it were not in the book. But McGahern is steadfast, determined to keep the rather grim account of a lonely old pervert as seen through the eyes of two country boys. The nods to Joyce’s An Encounter are unmistakable and it’s unsurprising when the book is published later that year that Joyce is so frequently indexed as McGahern’s most obvious ancestor.

“Reviewers confronted suddenly by an author of this quality,” commented Roy Fuller in The Listener, “are apt to make wild and perhaps unhelpful comparisons, but it is worth saying that for me the present book constantly recalled Dubliners.” As much as McGahern admired James Joyce, such insistent comparisons irritated him, as he writes to Monteith: “If it’s like Dubliners then the sensible thing to do is read Dubliners.”

That kind of Irish cover has been literally played to death, and is as dead as the literature it symbolised.

At this point Gregory was with Atlantic, having begun his career at Knopf, the firm that had published the US edition of The Dark in February 1966, but he was soon to leave Atlantic for Gambit. Though McGahern had been happy to follow Gregory from Knopf, both he and Monteith thought it best for Nightlines to come out with Atlantic. We see here the beginnings of a complex and largely luckless US publishing history for McGahern, a situation that did not fully correct itself until his late return to Knopf under the editorship of Sonny Mehta in the 1990s. This fraught story is one of many subplots that weave their way in and out of the letters over the years.

McGahern continued, through the spring of 1970, to send out stories to magazines in advance of the collection as a whole being published: The London Magazine took My Love, My Umbrella; Encounter published Wheels; Bomb Box went to The Listener. The small fees paid by these periodicals, alongside Arts Council grants, were, at this time, McGahern’s main sources of income – it was not until 20 years later and the popular success of Amongst Women that he could live a comfortable life thanks to the proceeds of his writing.

Thatched cottages

In March McGahern went back to London for a fortnight, largely to meet Monteith and his new American editor, Peter Davison of Atlantic. From the start, the relationship with Davison – then one of the most powerful figures in US publishing – was uneasy and was made worse when McGahern was shown Atlantic’s proposed cover for Nightlines, which depicted a green and brown drawing of a peasant woman wearing a shawl and carrying a stick walking down a path away from a thatched cottage.

McGahern, intensely conscious of the need for Irish literature to break with provincial constraint, was horrified, writing to Davison in the strongest of terms: “My prose stands against everything the cover says. Surely Yeats, Joyce and Beckett gave Irish letters some universal dignity… That kind of Irish cover has been literally played to death, and is as dead as the literature it symbolised.”

He had no such troubles with Faber who, for the time being at least, was happy to keep publishing his books in their characteristically classical, uncluttered dustjackets, without illustration. Difficulties of another kind were brewing in Faber’s legal department: John’s father, Frank, was threatening to sue over the story Bomb Box, which depicts the awkward relationship between a hypochondriacal rural Irish garda and his eldest son. McGahern asked Monteith to change the names of some characters and this proved enough to take the heat out of the situation.

By the summer, John and Madeline were becoming restless in Paris and set out to travel through southern France, stopping briefly in Corrèze with the playwright and screenwriter Claude Duneton, before going to Barcelona and Madrid. By this point another opportunity had arisen via a friendship with the poet Richard Murphy, who arranged for the couple to take a house in Cleggan, Co Galway, where Murphy had been living on and off for several years. On their return to Paris in early October the couple packed up the flat and headed for Ireland.

Next Saturday he'll be going in to Galway University to speak at a literary society there, but otherwise he seems to be content to be far away from people generally

Early November sees the first letters from Cleggan in what would turn out to be a sojourn of almost a year in which time McGahern worked productively on the novel that would be published as The Leavetaking in 1974. Also in this period he established a good working relationship with the BBC, converting his story Why We’re Here into the radio play Sinclair and beginning work on a radio version of Tolstoy’s melodrama The Power of Darkness. As Nightlines is published, McGahern’s thoughts turn to one of his artistic heroes, as he writes to Monteith: “Do you think it would be right to send a copy to Samuel Beckett; I’d rather, if you think it good, if Faber sent it, because he might feel he had to read it if the author sent it.” Monteith agrees enthusiastically and later writes to McGahern of Beckett’s admiration for the work.

A triumphant return

On December 4th, McGahern makes his first public appearance in the Republic since the banning of The Dark five years earlier when he reads from his work at UCG’s Aula Maxima. It is a triumphant return and McGahern, nervous about how he might be received, goes on the attack, reading his new, sexually charged story, My Love, My Umbrella, to a packed house. In part this strident return had been forced on the author: McGahern had told almost nobody, not even his father, of the return to Ireland, and so it was with a sense of deep discomfort that he had read Mary Kenny’s Irish Press column a week earlier titled McGahern Takes a Cottage in Connemara.

“He has hired a cottage there with his Anglo-American wife Madeleine, and leads a quiet, industrious life in the area. He meets his old friend the poet Richard Murphy in the Pier Bar almost daily, and next Saturday he’ll be going in to Galway University to speak at a literary society there, but otherwise he seems to be content to be far away from people generally. Cleggan people recall his being there nine years ago when he wrote his first novel ‘The Barracks’ so he is well integrated in that spot.”

That almost every detail of this piece was inaccurate did not hide the fact that it carried a core truth. The article was problematic for McGahern in several ways, not least the fact that his father knew nothing of Madeline’s existence. John would now have to come clean and face into a visit home to Co Roscommon. It was a tough end to a busy year and for a moment seemed like it would mark an end to the Cleggan experiment. But with the help of a local priest things were smoothed over with his father and McGahern entered 1971 emboldened to continue his writing life on the Atlantic coast.

The letters allow us to know so much more about the life and work of John McGahern. To have worked on them these past years has been a humbling and enriching experience. I can only hope that readers of this book will be drawn back to McGahern’s work with fresh eyes and a desire to once more face into the dazzling imaginative world of one of the great writers of prose fiction that this, or any, country has produced.

Frank Shovlin is professor of Irish literature in English at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool. The Letters of John McGahern is published by Faber & Faber on September 2nd