Remembering John McGahern
Remembering John McGahern takes place at The Parade Tower at Kilkenny Castle this evening at 6pm and is the first event in a packed literature strand for 2012, curated for the first time by Cormac Kinsella. Our festival box office manager, Cathy Hogan, reflects on John McGahern
There is a very large amount of much information contained within Denis Sampson’s book, Young John McGahern – Becoming a Novelist. Every line is so relevant that it’s impossible to read quickly for fear of missing a quote from McGahern, W.B. Yeats or Proust, an important and fresh observation from Sampson, or a titbit of historical information.
I started reading Sampson’s biography expecting it to be an account of the award-winning Irish author’s early life. Although it does cover the facts and figures, Becoming a Novelist is about McGahern’s personal and professional journey before and during his early writing days, and about the people who influenced his work.
This book is a veritable who’s-who of literature (especially from the first half of the twentieth century) most of whom influenced McGahern. Shakespeare, Beckett and Patrick Kavanagh are some of the most prominent, but there are living greats such as Anthony Cronin – who will also appear at the Kilkenny Arts Festival (August 12th). Cronin will be in conservation with Colm Tóibín and accompanied by Dónal Lunny & friends. And on the subject of music with literature, last week when I was reading Mike Scott’s autobiography, Adventures of a Waterboy, I had to do so with his music playing in the background. With Young John McGahern, I felt a constant need to read W.B. Yeats’ poetry, which I happily did between chapters. But to round all of these connections off I popped out to buy Mike Scott’s CD, An Appointment with Mr Yeats which contains fourteen of Yeats’ poems rearranged as Celtic rock.
Back in young John McGahern’s world, in Chapter 4 which is entitled ‘Writing all the time’, Sampson quotes McGahern as saying: ‘As long as you believe in yourself nothing can happen to you. Your proper books must be your life, to shape experience, to be able to leave life with some grace.’ That pretty much sums up life for me.
McGahern’s great work, Memoir, was recommended by my writing supervisor at NUI Galway, John Kenny, as the seminal memoir. I concur. Dr. Kenny is also one of organisers of the annual John McGahern International Seminar and he is the editor of their impressive Yearbook. The first of these, published in 2008, boasts contributions from Irish idols such as Seamus Heaney, Joseph O’Connor, Vincent Woods, my former NUIG fiction course lecturer, Mike McCormack, and my third year project editor, Brian Leyden. And the writing circle continues to contract...
Another book valued by McGahern was Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s An tOileánach/The Islandman. I bought a copy to take with me on my road trip to Cádiz in Spain, where I spent my combined Erasmus and writing year in 2010. But I had grossly under estimated the number of hours that would be spent, not just driving but also searching for accommodation, orientating each new town, recovering from it all, as well as all the other elements that came with my first solo multinational (and multi-language) road trip. The result was that by the time I got to Nantes in France and I was staying with my festival friend, Anissa, I gladly gave her an early birthday present of O Criomhthain’s unopened book, knowing that I would buy a new copy once I finished the rest of my four-year work-study cycle. Two years (and a degree) later I’m still waiting for the free time to read for pleasure. Nevertheless I was delighted to be bringing The Islandman along some of my journey through Europe. A note to our youth (and the not so youthful) on the subject of ‘The Solitary Reader’ that McGahern managed to become at the age of ten or eleven and expounded throughout his adult life. He said: ‘I believe it changed my life and without it I would never have become a writer.’ I envy him that grounding. But it’s never too late...
Denis Sampson will be joined by Colm Tóibín and Anne Fogarty for the Remembering John McGahern event at The Parade Tower on Saturday, August 11th at 6pm, where they will ‘explore the life, work, and legacy of this extraordinary writer.’