I just finished reading the beautifully written, moving and sometimes infuriating Memoir (in the US- All Will Be Well: A Memoir) by the late Irish novelist John McGahern. I must admit I’ve never read any of his novels, but he was one of the most important Irish authors of the late 20th century, and having read his personal story, I would be interested in reading some of his other works too.
This book focuses on the writer’s young life during the 1930’s/40’s in Co. Leitrim, in the early days of the independent Republic of Ireland. He grew up in a rural setting in a very conservative and often repressive country heavily dominated by the Catholic Church in all aspects of life. Reading this book really highlights how much Ireland has changed since then- Ireland as I experienced it during my 5 years living there was SUCH a more liberal and outward looking society, and that rapid change is a story in itself and one I’m not at all equipped to tell!
Anyway, the young McGahern’s childhood revolved around his parents; his deep affection and close relationship to his loving and peaceful mother, and in stark contrast, his complex relationship with his violent, cold and domineering father. McGahern’s early life was spent mostly in his mother’s care before her early death due to cancer, and he shares beautiful memories of her profound trust in god, her gentle care for her many children, and her firm but clever way of dealing with her difficult (to say the least!) husband. After his mother’s death, which obviously effected him greatly, he and his siblings lived under the domination of their father, who was a man of great anger, violence and incredible self-centredness. McGahern’s childhood and teen years become a tale of survival under terrible and stifling conditions, and of his escape from those conditions through education and an ever growing love of literature.
One things that I couldn’t help but think about as I read this book was the two very different approaches to religion presented by McGahern’s parents. They were real people, so I don’t know if you can really say they are symbolic, because I’d say that ignores the complexity of real personalities and lives, but at the same time I couldn’t avoid thinking of them in somewhat symbolic terms. McGahern’s mother was a deeply devout woman, whose faith was no doubt deepened as she struggled to cope with her illness and husband, and her expression of that faith is truly beautiful, whatever your thoughts on religion might be. She trusted god to see her through all the challenges and she shares that faith with her son through her love, her gentleness and her hope that he’ll one day become a priest. On the other hand, McGahern’s father represents religion as a force of control and power. He is also extremely devout, and yet seems to see no contradiction in his professed devotion to the church and his beating of his children, angry and domineering behaviour towards basically every person he comes into contact with, and his absolutely self-absorbed attitude. For him, religion is a way to bend others to his will, a justification for him as a husband and father to exercise absolute authority over his wife and children, and a means to view himself as superior to others. I found him absolutely infuriating throughout the book, I must admit!
The book is an interesting look at life in rural Ireland in the first half of the 20th century, as well as simply being a very moving and well-told story, all the more so for being true. It is beautiful and uplifting, while also, at times, being difficult to read due to the painful situation and personalities presented. It’s hard to imagine surviving spiritually/physically/emotionally with such a father, but it’s obvious that it was the love of McGahern’s mother that saw him and his siblings through it all. Overall, an excellent read!