Wednesday, February 3, 2016

John McGahern - The Writer and the Archive - RTÉ Radio 1 Book Show Special

John McGahern
The 30th of March brings about the tenth anniversary of the passing of the acclaimed Irish writer, John McGahern. In the decade since his death, Ireland and its people, society and identity, have changed beyond recognition. One of McGahern's great achievements in his writing, in any of his accomplished forms; novel, drama, short story or essay, was an ability to get to the very heart of Ireland and especially of rural Ireland and the lives of its people. The time, place and context of McGahern's writing would be recognisable constants, vivid as any character within his writing. McGahern's writing spanned over five decades and tracked the huge social changes in Ireland across this time.

The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1 recently broadcast a feature on John McGahern, focusing on the life and career and also his archive. It was a pleasure to have the programme host, Sinead Gleeson, visit the archive here at NUI Galway and see first-hand the collected literary legacy of one of Ireland's most accomplished and beloved authors.

The award-winning writer had a body of loyal readers around the globe from publications from the early 1960s in The New Yorker magazine, through his early novels, The Barracks (1963) The Dark (notoriously banned on grounds of indecency in 1965) and Amongst Women, (1990) to name a few. McGahern's short-story collections, such as Nightlines (1979) and High Ground (1985) drew readers to his power of expression within the contained form of the story. John's later writing would see a life's work come full-circle and culminate in such loved works as the novel That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) and the revealing and striking Memoir (2005)

The archive of John McGahern is held with the James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. Deposited by McGahern in 2003, just three years ahead of his death, the archive is a literary treasure-trove that records not just the vast and prolific writings of McGahern, but also his literary relationships with other writers and offers a unique insight into the mind and processes of McGahern as both a writer and person.

Such unique material in the archive includes the manuscript for The End or the Beginning of Love, the unpublished novel by McGahern, that was accepted for publication by Faber and Faber in 1962, but which was withdrawn by McGahern as he believed it to be not good enough. 
McGahern's unpublished novel

Other material from this period includes a letter from William Maxwell, fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine addressed to Elizabeth (Cullinane) that is confirmation of the young McGahern's publication in the prestigious magazine. In the letter Maxwell writes that 'The John McGahern story [Strandhill, The Sea] went through' and that 'whoever handles him will be writing him to tell that it is accepted'; he goes on to state that 'if you see any more [manuscripts] of this calibre floating around Dublin, start them on their way to me.' (1963) (P71/1171)

Also from this time are two letters from John McGahern to Mary O'Malley in relation to the Threshold literary journal published by the Lyric Theatre, and found within the archive of the Lyric Theatre, also within the Hardiman Library. He asks to be considered for publication although 'I have not appeared in print' (17 January 1959) and later discusses publishing an extract from one of his novels (26 June 1962).

Drafts of Bank Holiday

The archive reveals the private and intimate world of the writer at work. The writing style of McGahern is revealing of how he worked. He wrote long-hand, often in coffee-stained school copy books and A4 notebooks. The scrawl of handwriting gives a sense of working on fleeting ideas that would often change and fluctuate. The number of drafts and revisions show McGahern rarely let go of an idea or a narrative completely but would often return to make changes, often to as much or as little as a single word or line, but which would bring the setting or characters or plot in a new direction. One short-story, Bank Holiday, has over twenty identifiable drafts alone.

The John McGahern archive consists of forty boxes of manuscripts. All evidence of 'the writer at work' is within this volume of manuscripts and covers the breadth of McGahern's writing in prose, drama, fiction and essay.  The papers give the reader a unique and otherwise impossible accessibility to the mind of McGahern. McGahern himself said of the separate worlds of the writer and the reader: "I think each of us inhabit a private world that others cannot see" – the archive brings those two private worlds together and is perhaps the only place this can happen.

Drafts of The Power of Darkness - a play by John McGahern

You can listen back to the  RTÉ Radio 1 Book Show, hosted by Sinead Gleeson here:

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