Celebrated Irish Novelist John McGahern, 71

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 1, 2006

John McGahern, whose evocative novels and short stories about the bleak life of the Irish countryside made him one of Ireland's most respected writers, died March 30 of cancer at a Dublin hospital. He was 71.

His work was once banned in his homeland, but in later years, he became a revered figure for his unsentimental and subtly written tales of a rural Ireland coming to grips with centuries of tradition and the strictures of the Catholic Church.

Mr. McGahern (pronounced ma-GAH-ern) wrote six novels, four collections of short stories and a memoir that was published in the United States less than two months ago. His writing is prized as much for its prose as for its plots and is often compared to that of 19th-century masters Anton Chekhov and Thomas Hardy. He was widely seen as the literary heir of Ireland's foremost novelist, James Joyce.

"At his best," British writer Jonathan Raban wrote, "McGahern writes so beautifully that he leaves one in no doubt of his equality with Joyce: The similarities between the two writers spring from a sense of tradition which is thoroughly and profoundly shared."

Mr. McGahern spent the final 33 years of his life on a farm in County Leitrim, the region in northwestern Ireland where he grew up. He worked slowly, taking as long as 12 years between books, and drew on his memories and his close observation of the Irish landscape.

His 1990 novel "Amongst Women" was considered his masterpiece and was a finalist for the Booker Prize. It depicted the life of an aging Irish revolutionary and his tyrannical control over his family. Only when Mr. McGahern's memoir, "All Will Be Well," came out did it become clear how much the novel owed to McGahern's early life.

"The whole artistic process is the recovery of a lost world," Mr. McGahern said in 2003. "I would never have written if I didn't need to write. It's something that obsesses you, that won't go away until you write it down."

Reference sources disagree on the place of Mr. McGahern's birth on Nov. 12, 1934: It was either Dublin, County Roscommon or County Leitrim. The eldest of seven children, he was close to his mother, who had been a schoolteacher and was the first person from her village to attend college. His father, a veteran of the Irish Republican Army in the 1920s, was a hot-tempered police officer who was away for months at a time.

When Mr. McGahern was 9, his mother died of breast cancer -- a loss that haunted him the rest of his life. The children then lived with their father at a police barracks.

Mr. McGahern endured frequent beatings from his father, but he was a good student at a top Catholic secondary school and struck up a friendship with Protestant neighbors, who allowed him to use their well-stocked library. He attended a teachers college and graduated in 1957 from University College Dublin. He took a teaching job but was determined to be a writer.

When Mr. McGahern's first novel, "The Barracks," was published in 1963, novelist Anthony Burgess said no other writer "caught so well the peculiar hopelessness of contemporary Ireland."

His second book, however, a portrait of adolescence called "The Dark" (1965), was declared obscene by the Irish Censorship Board for its depiction of masturbation and the suggestion of a sexual advance by a priest toward a boy.

Besides having his book banned, Mr. McGahern was fired from his teaching job. He abandoned the Catholic Church and left Ireland to spend several footloose years in London, Paris, Finland and the United States.

He and his first wife, Finnish theater director Anikki Laaki, were divorced in 1970. In 1973, he returned to Ireland to live on a farm with his second wife, Madeline Green, an American photographer. She survives him, along with four sisters.

From 1970 to 1985, Mr. McGahern published two novels and three collections of short stories. In 1990 came "Amongst Women," which Mr. McGahern trimmed from 1,200 pages to 184. For that novel and other works, he was often praised as one of the finest prose stylists in English.

"I think that nearly all good writing is suggestion, and all bad writing is statement," he said last year. "Statement kills off the reader's imagination. With suggestion, the reader takes up from where the writer leaves off."

Mr. McGahern composed his final book, the memoir evoking the spirit of his long-dead mother, after receiving his own cancer diagnosis.

"Heaven was in the sky," he wrote in the book. "My mother spoke to me of heaven as concretely and with as much love as she named the wild flowers. Above us the sun of heaven shone. Beyond the sun was the gate of heaven."

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