The barracks: John McGahern Garda station to reopen as museum

The Cootehall barracks where he slept as a boy is now a vibrant community facility

The former cell at the barracks in Cootehall, Co Roscommon, is now a unisex toilet. The upstairs "married quarters", where John McGahern; his father, Frank, who was a Garda sergeant; and his six siblings slept is a freshly painted suite of meeting rooms, alongside a remote working hub with three hotdesks.

What was once the family living room is now the "reading room", home to the permanent John McGahern Barracks Exhibition, which on Friday will be launched online by local resident and former president of Ireland Mary McAleese .

The Garda station, on the Boyle river beside the arched entrance to the Oakport estate, closed in 2012.

In December 2013 Brian Hayes, then minister of State in charge of the Office of Public Works, handed over the keys to the community, predicting that the planned McGahern commemorative museum would attract many locals, scholars and tourists.


"It was incumbent on us as a local action group to make sure that the barracks was preserved for future generations," says Maurice Gannon, chairman of the Cootehall Community Development Group .

Seven years on the group is ready “the minute restrictions are eased” to throw open the doors of the “John McGahern Barracks”, which will commemorate not just its most famous resident, but also recall policing in Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s and rural life in Ireland in that era.

Sophisticated Dubliner

Among those who joined Gannon and his committee to help steer the project was retired academic Tom Inglis, who admits that when he first read The Barracks and The Dark in the 1960s, "I felt this was a part of Ireland I did not want to know because I was a wannabe sophisticated Dubliner".

Five years ago the sociologist moved to a lakeside home near Cootehall and discovered that his newly acquired converted schoolhouse was Laphoil , a national school briefly attended by McGahern and two of his sisters in the 1940s. “It was serendipity,” says the UCD emeritus professor, who adds that McGahern’s writings have given him “a way of understanding the local community and the landscape”.

Gannon, another "blow-in" albeit one living in Cootehall for almost 20 years, has also discovered a McGahern connection. His grandmother Margaret Gannon taught with McGahern's mother, Susan, in Lisacarn national school in Co Leitrim in the 1930s .

Inglis who has written a 64 page illustrated booklet to accompany the exhibition, and he says the project was for him a way to contribute to the community and also to become part of it.

He and Gannon are keen to stress that the centre will be a vibrant community facility as well as a museum dedicated to one of Ireland’s most admired writers, who moved there in 1944, at the age of nine, following the death of his mother.

The cell inside the back door was never occupied, Gannon believes, “except maybe by one or two fellows who had too many jars in Doyle’s”.

Jam jar theft

In the former day room where the station orderly recorded local “crimes”, there’s a makeshift bed, as the orderly on night duty was required to be close to the telephone, even though it was unlikely to ring at night.

The committee recently found a stash of documents giving an insight into the type of crime the team of four Cootehall-based gardaí had to investigate. There were reports of pitch and toss games, illegal because of the wagers involved, and also complaints about jam jars being stolen, and horses and carts being left unattended outside the pub.

McGahern's nephew Patrick Gilligan reckons "Sean", as he was known to the family, would be happy with this "very nice tribute", especially because of the community involvement .

The physicist, who was based at the Mater Private hospital when his uncle was undergoing treatment there, remembers the writer as someone who was “good craic”.

“When I was younger I had a motorbike, and if I called to see him he would pop on to the back with his cap on and come for a spin,” he recalls.

He notes that it has been 15 years since his uncle died. “Time flies,” hes says. “We miss him still. Cootehall had mixed memories for the McGaherns, but he ended up going back to that part of the world. I think he’d be very pleased. They have done a great job there.”

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland