(In America it was called By the Lake, in case – he used to say – the original title might make readers think the book had something to do with Japan.) The setting was McGahern’s own place, the remote and sparsely populated corner of County Leitrim where he lived, worked and is now buried.
The family’s conspiratorial resistance to their tyrant is wonderfully done, and Moran’s dark turbulence is invoked in that grave, measured language which is McGahern’s signature.
In the 1960s and 70s he published four bleak and daring novels of Irish life, The Barracks (1962), The Dark (1965), The Leavetaking (1974) and The Pornographer (1979).
Over and over again, like Michael Moran in Amongst Women, McGahern “walks the fields” of his places and people, his memories and his history, his strong likes and dislikes, his local territory.
And so the name and its possible origins became a vague memory, but a memory that surfaced recently, prompted by seemingly unconnected events. I was in Rome on a tour that included the room where Ignatius of Loyola died. Responding to some gentle teasing from the others, I protested that I was most certainly not named after that intense Iberian, and left it at that. The same evening, however, I saw on the internet that the writer John McGahern had died, but only made the connection some weeks later: in his splendid Memoir McGahern reports that when his mother’s health is threatened by another pregnancy, his father presses her to see a healing priest, a Father Ignatius.
In the early 1920’s he began a campaign for the publication of the scientific papers of William Rowan Hamilton, the 19th century mathematician and poet. The campaign included correspondence with Einstein, who offered strong support. The project was delayed by the untimely deaths of the first editors and eventually commenced under the editorship of his younger brother, John Lighton. There is a suggestion of sibling pressure being applied; moreover, the letter to Einstein followed closely on the publication of a paper in which Edward Hutchinson had questioned the basis of relativity; it is likely that Einstein was unaware of the paper, which was shown by others to be erroneous. The seeming disconnect between the letter and the paper is perhaps an early indication of greater difficulties ahead for their author.
Seamus will tell you that he saw the bottle coming. But he also says that what he actually saw was a Belfast milk bottle with a burning rag in it and he just could not duck. He went down at the feet of Pearse and Connolly.
McGahern trained as a primary school teacher and taught before resigning during controversy over his second novel, The Dark (1965), and his experiences inform some of the best stories.
An essay called “Censorship” recounts (as he does in Memoir) the banning of The Dark in Ireland in 1965, and McGahern’s subsequent dismissal from his job as a primary schoolteacher in Dublin.
(Ernie O’Malley, the leader of one such column in Munster, is an important figure in Love of the World, where McGahern is acute about his mixture of quixotic romanticism and manipulative violence).
I meant to read John McGahern's That They May Face the Rising Sun ages ago but books have a way of finding their moment. I was on holiday, not far from where the novel is set in McGahern's native Leitrim, when I came across a copy in our cottage.
In an essay called “The Solitary Reader”, McGahern tells an ugly story about an incident at the Booker Prize dinner in 1990, the year Amongst Women was shortlisted.
Having put on the masks of fiction, he must have felt finally released into telling his own story directly – though even then there was much that is kept dark and secret.
“Church and State became inseparable, with unhealthy consequences for both.” The essays spell out forcefully the political opinions which provoked, and darkly underlay, his deliberately non- political fictions.