Prospecting for gold: my year with John McGahern

Frank Shovlin reveals the hidden links to WB Yeats, Dante and Paolo Vivante he unearthed while researching the horde of papers left by McGahern to NUIG

John McGahern, right, after he handed over his literary archive to NUI Galway in 2003,  with Dr Iognaid O Muircheartaigh, President of the College, and  librarian Marie Reddan. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

John McGahern, right, after he handed over his literary archive to NUI Galway in 2003, with Dr Iognaid O Muircheartaigh, President of the College, and librarian Marie Reddan. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy


I spent most of the academic year 2012-2013 working through John McGahern’s voluminous papers housed at the Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. It is difficult to estimate just how many pages of material form the collection, but perhaps up to 50,000, and I did not come even close to reading it all. The earliest drafts are easy to read in fine, careful handwriting, but this changes markedly in later years to become small, jagged, often written in red ink, though very rarely illegible. There are multiple drafts of almost every short story and novel as well as a good deal of unpublished material, including several plays and McGahern’s first attempt at a novel, The End or the Beginning of Love, probably completed by as early as 1960. Most texts begin in handwriting and advance to typescript. Many begin in old style school copybooks, others in foolscap, some just as scribbles on wayward scraps of paper.

Without time spent trawling through this archive, the book I have just published – Touchstones: John McGahern’s Classical Style (Liverpool University Press, 2016) – could not have been written. Hours, days, weeks and months spent with the papers helped clarify, confirm, and, from time to time, inspire, many of my thoughts on his methods and writing practices. Every one of my chapters benefits in some way from that work. Sometimes it was a case of simple immersion -- allowing oneself to marinade in draft after draft of a story (there are 23 drafts of Christmas for instance) or passage from a novel so that one enters into imaginative and aesthetic sympathy with the writer. On other occasions the days spent going through these drafts would throw up fresh, new ways of thinking about a text. So, for instance, the realisation that Joe Ruttledge of That They May Face the Rising Sun was at one time named -- however unlikely it may seem -- Walter Domino, confirmed for me that Yeats’s great dialogue and poetic statement of his doctrine of the mask, “Ego Dominus Tuus”, was a key part of the pattern that made up the novel’s overall texture. Or, in the case of the short story Bank Holiday, the discovery that the book that so fascinates the narrator at the beginning of the story is Paolo Vivante’s The Homeric Imagination, helped bring ideas of epic time further out into the open.

For the purposes of illustration, I’ll look closely at two examples of how nuggets hidden among the papers changed the way I had to think about McGahern. The first crucial influence to be considered is WB Yeats. Thinking of the censorious and anti-intellectual Ireland in which he grew up, McGahern recalls the very profound impression left on him by the realisation that he had at least one Irish literary forebear who had risen above it all:

The more we read of other literatures, and the more they were discussed, the more clearly it emerged that not only was Yeats a very great poet but that almost singlehandedly he had, amazingly, laid down a whole framework in which an indigenous literature could establish traditions and grow.

“Yeats”, he puts it more informally in some scribbled notes on his favourite of the Sligo writer’s plays, Purgatory, “always instinctively knew what he was at”. McGahern read voraciously across all of Yeats’s work. Unlike some critics, he took Yeats’s plays seriously, and though Purgatory remained the one with most hold over him, he read them all and used at least two lesser-known dramatic works, Where There is Nothing and The Land of Heart’s Desire, as inspiration for his fiction. Yeats’s poetry is never far from McGahern’s mind. Even Yeats’s more obtuse, esoteric work plays its part in forming McGahern’s aesthetic practice -- A Vision, McGahern writes, is a “rag bag but useful”. When trying to define what constitutes “great” writing McGahern allows himself to use a word that held no fear for Yeats but from which most writers, and nearly all critics, shy away: “all great writing has a spiritual quality that we can recognize but never quite define. [...]Call it moral fragrance or style or that older, healing word – magic”.

Regarding McGahern’s admiration for Yeats, reading through the multiple drafts of Strandhill, the Sea was especially instructive. First published under the title Summer at Strandhill in The New Yorker (September 21st, 1963), and republished with substantial revisions as Strandhill, The Sea in The Irish Press (April 27 th, 1968), the story formed part of McGahern’s first published collection, Nightlines, in 1970. Early handwritten drafts of the story see pleasure turn to homage, with McGahern thinking deeply about places sacred to Yeats. At one point he refers to the Pollexfen mills at Ballisodare and later thinks better of such an open prompt, changing Pollexfen (Yeats’s mother’s name) to another, less well known, name in the Yeats family tree, Middleton. Another change is made by McGahern when he originally allows himself to luxuriate in place names associated with Yeats, but excises them for the published story:

They’d seen the morning gradually darken, the sky falling into one black threat from the first small clouds of the morning by Lissadell and now it was full over Rosses and all Sligo Bay, and when it finally closed about Knocknarea it must rain, and then it’d be the whole long afternoon indoors listening to them drone.

In another yet more telling passage not to make the final cut the boy narrator rails against his father’s unceasing utilitarianism:

With his father everything had to be of use, there was no enjoyment [...]Even the year before he’d killed the beautiful river that ran through Sligo forever.

‘What’s the name of the river?’ he asked.

He couldn’t remember.

‘Can you not remember out of the Geography.’


‘It shows the interest you have. The Garravogue, and the mountains,’ he’d pointed from the parapet of the bridge, ‘are the Ox Mountains, where it rises, and it flows through Lough Gill into Sligo bay. I did it with you last year and you’ve forgotten and it comes up every second year on the Scholarship paper.’

And it seemed that no one could look from the bridge and the foam of the falling water where the men were spinning for the trout and say the word Garravogue softly and simply enjoy it in this its day. No one could read Shakespeare either, anything that was useful must surely be a crushing bore.

Another draft of this passage tells us that the boy’s father, by failing to permit the imagination to run free, had “managed to ruin the magic of the town forever, on Markievicz Bridge, while they waited for the bus back to Strandhill”. The final published version of the story sees the boy steal some comics from a shop in order to break the dreariness of his family seaside holiday. It is only through them and the written word therein that the boy can restore the magic of imagination to which his father’s life of toil persistently denies all access:

The turning of the pages without reading, pleasure of delaying pleasure to come. Heroes filled those pages week after week. Rockfist Rogan and Alf Tupper and Wilson the Iron Man. The room, the conversations, the cries of the seagulls, the sea faded: it was the world of imagination, among the performing gods, what I ashamedly desired to become.

As so often in McGahern, it is inward one must turn in the quest for truth and clarity, and in the closing realisation by the boy narrator there are hints of that epiphany that strikes Patrick Kavanagh at the conclusion to his great poem Kerr’s Ass in which he sees in his mind’s eye “the God of imagination waking/In a Mucker fog”.

On the question of the coincidence of Yeats’s and McGahern’s geographies, another point is worth making. While stories like Strandhill, the Sea, Doorways and The Stoat see McGahern’s characters walk the holy ground of Sligo, there is one significant occasion when the roles are reversed and Yeats finds himself in McGahern’s Roscommon and Leitrim. The passage in question opens Book III of The Trembling of the Veil, Yeats’s autobiographical account of his development as a writer and the friends who influenced him as the nineteenth century became the twentieth. The book is titled Hodos Chameliontos (the way of the Chameleon), and focuses on Yeats’s peripatetic and varied experiments in communing with the spirit world.

One of Yeats’s stranger ideas to come from the 1890s and the beginning of his immersion in the rituals and beliefs of the Order of the Golden Dawn was his wish -- influenced by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s symbolist play Axël -- to establish a Castle of Heroes on a lake isle in Lough Key, County Roscommon, a lake that would, a half-century later become a very real part of John McGahern’s world when he moved to live with his father in Cootehall, Co Roscommon after the death of his mother. Yeats begins Hodos Chameliontos with a remembrance of this time in his life:

When staying with Hyde in Roscommon, I had driven over to Lough Kay, hoping to find some local memory of the old story of Tumaus Costello, which I was turning into a story now called Proud Costello, Macdermot’s Daughter, and the Bitter Tongue. I was rowed up the lake that I might find the island where he died; I had to find it from Hyde’s account in the Love Songs of Connacht [...]Presently we stopped to eat our sandwiches at the ‘Castle Rock’, an island all castle. It was not an old castle, being but the invention of some romantic man, seventy or eighty years ago. The last man who had lived there had been Dr Hyde’s father, and he had but stayed a fortnight. The Gaelic-speaking men in the district were accustomed, instead of calling some specially useless thing a ‘white elephant’, to call it ‘The Castle on the Rock’. The roof was, however, still sound, and the windows unbroken. The situation in the centre of the lake, that has little wood-grown islands, and is surrounded by wood-grown hills, is romantic, and at one end, and perhaps at the other too, there is a stone platform where meditative persons might pace to and fro. I planned a mystical Order which should buy or hire the castle, and keep it as a place where its members could retire for a while for contemplation.

While John McGahern was no mystic, nor a believer in the sorts of esoteric spiritualist philosophies followed by Yeats, he did strongly believe, as is clear from glancing at his short but crucial manifesto The Image, in “images that yet/Fresh images beget”. The notion of establishing a Castle of Heroes is doubtless something that McGahern would have found faintly amusing, but for him, no less than for Yeats, the lakes and rivers of north Roscommon and south Leitrim became places of intense meditation where the imagination could be nurtured. It was while escaping into the still waters around Cootehall in the barracks boat that it first occurred to McGahern that he might become a writer, and thus live many imaginative lives rather than just one real, solid, limiting existence.

But though McGahern did not share Yeats’s ambitions to actually inhabit the castle in Lough Key, he shows himself conscious of Hodos Chameliontos in a romantic subplot that appears in his unpublished first novel The End or the Beginning of Love. Here the hero of the book, Hugh, a young man typical of several of McGahern’s later characters – and particularly redolent of young Mahoney of The Dark – is wooing his first love, a local Boyle schoolteacher, Kathleen Lynch:

The girl caught her breath as they came suddenly out of the wood in view of Lough Key. A long level field sloped down to the shore of the lake, shimmering and heaving in the light wind that blew across the crescent of mountain beyond, the blue Curlews and the darker Arignas. They went down the sloping field. The bright water was full of islands. A hundred yards off shore the old castle of the McDermott’s rose out of the lake; roofless, lush weeds growing out of the leprous, crumbling walls and towers. [...]

“It is always beautiful,” Kathleen sighed.

“The old castle and the new,” Hugh showed her, pointing to the old feudal castle in the lake and the proud house of the King-Harmans on a mound to their left. It looked out over the islands and water.

“It is the castle of Una Bhan?” she asked.

“Yes. Do you know the song?”

“I taught it in school.”[...] She began to sing, shyly and very low. The gaelic vowels fell with a heavy sadness from her lips, the weary plaintive lament of Costello who had waited three hours at the ford of Dunoige while his beloved was held in the bleak castle on the lake like a bird in a sally cradle. He had lived as the priest of his own love on the island where Una was buried, and was found dead on her grave.

There were doubtless several reasons why McGahern decided against publishing The End or the Beginning of Love despite the fact that Faber had shown interest; one was a dissatisfaction with the extent to which he had allowed the writers he most admired to live in the prose. The above quote is an example of this too open homage, and McGahern would find many ways in the years that followed to keep Yeats close without having him overpower his own work. The homage exists not only in the real parallels summoned up by contemplation of the castle in Lough Key, but in the romantic, frankly revivalist language used by Kathleen to describe it: ‘heavy sadness’, ‘weary plaintive lament’ and ‘sally cradle’ are too close to the fin-de-siècle reverie of The Wind Among the Reeds, and McGahern knew it. Future romances drawn in works like The Leavetaking, The Pornographer and Amongst Women would never again be so indulgent.

The second example of the archive’s usefulness allowed me to see Dante’s The Divine Comedy as a background text to McGahern’s last, brilliant novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun. Just as Dante’s journey begins in the awful darkness of the Inferno, so too McGahern exposes us early to the hellish rape scene by the lake with John Quinn as a proud Lucifer. As in Dante, we move slowly from these hideous depths into the light of Paradise, the possibility of witnessing the Creator’s majesty as we face the rising sun. McGahern tells us in his memoir that for him as a child growing up in the west of Ireland in the middle of the twentieth century, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory were real places that invoked real feelings:

Heaven was in the sky. Hell was in the bowels of the earth. There, eternal fire raged. The souls of the damned had to dwell in hell through all eternity, deprived forever of the sight of the face of God. At its entrance was a great river. Across a wide plain, naked and weeping, came the souls of the damned from the Judgment Seat, bearing only a single coin to give to the boatman to take them across the river into eternal fire.

Similarly, Dante’s The Divine Comedy is divided into the three parts, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, and describes Dante’s journey through these three places, guided first by Virgil and towards the end of Purgatorio onwards by the great object of Dante’s love, Beatrice. Virgil is described throughout as Dante’s ‘guide’, sometimes his ‘dear guide’, sometimes his ‘sweet guide’. Virgil is depicted as all knowing and empathetic: “That wise and gentle man, who knew everything”.

In That They May Face the Rising Sun, the part of Dante is taken by Ruttledge and that of Virgil by Jamesie, and sometimes, to a lesser extent, by the Shah. These parallels are made absolutely explicit only once, three pages from the novel’s end, when Jamesie bemoans Patrick Ryan’s lackadaisical attitude to his farming chores:

‘Isn’t Patrick Ryan the most hopeless man? The poor cattle alone and fending for themselves on that big hill and Patrick astray all over the country. I may not have travelled far but I know the whole world,’ he said with a wide sweep of his arm.

‘You do know the whole world,’ Ruttledge said. ‘And you have been my sweet guide.’

That ‘sweetness’ that Dante attaches to Virgil is there too at the beginning of the novel, in McGahern’s very first description of Jamesie, who “was shining and handsome. An intense vividness and sweetness of nature showed in every quick, expressive movement”. A few pages later, we see Jamesie describe himself in distinctly Virgilian terms: “ ‘I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world’”. Of course, Virgil and Jamesie are not an exact match, nor are they intended to be, but once the Dantean allusion is recognized, other aspects and moments of The Divine Comedy come into focus across the novel.

Words like paradise, heaven, hell and even purgatory are used far too frequently throughout the novel to be merely figures of speech or throwaway descriptors. Stranger in Paradise, the song sung by the two belligerent lorry drivers at the mart to cool a dangerously overheating and potentially violent exchange, is not chosen idly but to bring us into the Dantean underworld. Jamesie, as well as being Ruttledge’s ‘sweet guide’, is consistently portrayed as a saintly and sagacious presence, as in the following meeting with Kate:

‘You were like an angel coming today,’ Kate said. ‘I was a bit down.’

‘No good, Kate. No good and I thought you didn’t believe,’ he countered sharply.

‘There are lay angels,’ she said.

‘No wings. Can’t fly,’ he called out as he cycled after the disappearing heron.

His ability to be in the right place at the right time with a quiet word of advice or a helping hand seems, at least in one memorable scene when Ruttledge fears he will lose a much loved cow in calf, almost supernatural:

He turned and found Jamesie staring at the cow. The spruce wood behind him was almost in night. He had crept up without a sound. ‘Hel-lo. Hel-lo,’ he called in a hushed, conspiratorial voice.

‘You’re an angel of the Lord.’

And he is given to dispensing pithy advice about the nature of the world through which he guides the Ruttledges, who he loves dearly, but who he also sees as somewhat innocent. When Kate tells him that Patrick Ryan’s parents acted unfairly by favouring Patrick over their other son Edmund, Jamesie advises simply that “There’s nothing right or wrong in this world. Only what happens.”

But Jamesie is not Ruttledge’s only guide. If one wanted to take the Dantean parallels to their limit one might read Kate as being analogous to Beatrice who leads Dante through paradise. More compelling is an association of the Shah as a guide through purgatory, for it is one of the few places he has spent any time outside of the small community at the core of the novel. The purgatory in question can be found on a lake isle in Donegal:

‘I’m going on a bit of a holiday and leaving this here,’ he announced as he placed the metal box on the table. He had never gone on a holiday, unless three days many years before on Lough Derg counted as a holiday. From time to time he would still recall how much he had suffered: the cold, the wet, the lack of sleep, the never-ending circle of prayer in bare feet, the hunger, the sharp stones. ‘If hell is anything like it I’m sticking to the straight and narrow’.

Station Island in Lough Derg -- or St Patrick’s Purgatory -- has inspired writers like Seán O’Faoláin, Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney. It is a place of penance that traditionally acted as a portal to the underworld where pilgrims are required to undergo a rigorous round of spiritual exercises that includes fasting, staying awake throughout the night and reciting many thousands of prayers as they circle in their bare feet the jagged stones of former monastic cells and the interior and exterior of the Basilica. It is by no means unusual for someone like the Shah from this border county to have ‘done’ Lough Derg, but McGahern wishes to have him visit purgatory for reasons beyond rural Catholic devotion.

In one draft of the novel McGahern considered allowing the reader see the shadow of Dante a little more clearly in a conversation between Ruttledge and the Shah about John Quinn’s first unsettling visit to the Ruttledge house:

‘It was a strange apparition -- the sweet talk, the poetry. The birds singing like troopers, the blue mountains, the swans: businessman’s poetry.’

‘What on earth was he selling?’

‘Paradise. His own little bit of heaven. Himself.’

Every world is both a material world of surface and a world that extends far underground. A stranger cannot reach the underworld of memory and knowledge and law without guides. The Shah had the knowledge and intelligence, and while it was clear that John Quinn amused him greatly, he was only willing to be a guide within certain limits.

McGahern thought better of using such a revealing nod towards The Divine Comedy in the final published version of the book, but Dante was very clearly on his mind throughout its composition.

Apart from this rather loose scaffolding of moral guides and journeys through unknown and unfamiliar worlds, what other use has McGahern for Dante? Some critics have noted of That They May Face the Rising Sun that it is not really a novel at all, and that it is very difficult to place it into one genre or another. Declan Kiberd suggests of the previous novel, Amongst Women, that “the epic strain in the Irish novel has never been more definitively affirmed”. And he goes on to suggest -- rightly, in my view -- that McGahern shows an affinity to epic unseen in other Irish writers of his generation. “McGahern”, he argues, “is the major contemporary inheritor of a durable mode of Irish writing: an artist of the self-enclosed world. Another name for this kind of work is ‘epic’”.

Kiberd’s essay was written before the publication of McGahern’s last novel, but everything he has to say about Amongst Women’s epic style applies even more truly to That They May Face the Rising Sun, and fascination with the genre is what draws McGahern to Dante in the late work and what interested him in Homer from at least the 1970s onward.

Key to McGahern’s thinking on epic style is Paolo Vivante’s brilliant study of Homer’s ‘poetic perception of reality’, The Homeric Imagination (1970). To read Vivante is to read McGahern, and one is struck again and again across his study by lines which must have been strikingly useful and redolent of McGahern’s own thought processes about artistic representation and the workings of the imagination. “Can any story”, wondered Vivante, “be told as if its incidents took place entirely by themselves, in their own time, out of relation with any definite period? [...]Such is in Homer the time of nature. Its basic unit is the day”.

It is from Vivante’s study that McGahern quotes in early drafts of the short story Bank Holiday when he has the story’s central character, the middle-aged, high-ranking civil servant, Patrick McDonough, become obsessed with a particular line he returns again and again to read in a Dublin bookshop: “McDonough had come to Hannas to look at one book, a book on Homer’s world and a phrase that had fascinated him for months.” The phrase then quoted comes from chapter four of The Homeric Imagination, titled ‘Time and Life in Homer’: “What is he doing with his life, we say: and our judgement makes up for the failure to realize sympathetically the natural process of living”. Here Vivante expands on what he sees as Homer’s particular way of treating time, and it is here that McGahern and Vivante overlap most strikingly. “Homeric poetry is concise, forcible”, writes Vivante: “Its condensed power partly resides in the way it renders the lapse of time, of life [...]what we mean by life and experience is integrated into the meaning of each verbal form, while for Homer the actual fact of living is nothing else but being alive, keeping alive, growing”.

Interestingly, in later drafts of Bank Holiday, and in the final published version, all mention of Homer is excised, as is the quote from Vivante. But the plotline of the book that McDonough feels compelled to return to, but not to buy, is retained in a scene where the bookstore manager offers a discount but is repelled: “The manager moved away, flicking the feathers along a row of spines in a gesture of annoyance. The spell was ended, but it was fair enough; the shop had to sell books, and he knew that if he bought the book it was unlikely that he would ever give it the same attention again”.

Here is one of those examples in McGahern where a character has need of a touchstone, a magical formula of words that casts a ‘spell’ and makes life somehow clearer and more tolerable. While Homer and Vivante are no longer named, their presence is retained in McGahern’s treatment of time in the story. And it is this idea of the touchstone and McGahern’s awareness and use of it that motivated me to write my study of his work. It was a critical concept inaugurated by Matthew Arnold when he wrote in his essay The Study of Poetry that “there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us most good, than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry”. Over and over again, both in his published works and in the hundreds of drafts stored amid his papers in Galway, one sees McGahern applying this method, conversing with the great dead to create masterpieces of his own.

Thanks to the generosity of the Leverhulme Trust in the UK and a Moore Institute Fellowship at NUI Galway, I was placed in a position to enter into my own sympathetic communion with McGahern. My admiration for him and his work, far from being dampened by those long days, remains undimmed, and I am surer than ever of his exalted place within the canon.
Prof Frank Shovlin is a senior lecturer in the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool

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