Friday, May 18, 2012

In pursuit of John McGahern

The Barracks, Cootehall
Aghawillian School
The first stop on a drive into Counties Roscommon and Leitrim in pursuit of John McGahern was at Cootehall, where lived McGahern’s father, an  ex-IRA senior officer rewarded, post civil-war, with the position of senior police officer at a quiet and peaceful country village Garda Barracks (Police Station).  When young John was but ten years old his mother, with whom hitherto he and his siblings had been living on a nearby smallholding, died.  Thereafter the children were obliged to share their domineering father’s private quarters at the Barracks.  The two-storey late eighteenth century building, nestling beside the river Boyle was probably built originally to accommodate a British army guard.  Presently it is a private house.  While there I photographed the house and the lake behind it onto which the young John McGahern would row the Barracks’ boat to read in peace the books which were his escape from the tyranny of life at home.  On the road in front of the Barracks McGahern’s family have had erected a memorial to him. It bears words from the book:  “. . . . a white moon rested on the water, there was no wind, the stars in their places were clear and fixed.  Who would want change since change will come without wanting?  Who this night would not want to live?”
McGahern's grave in St Patrick's Churchyard
If his life at Cootehall barracks provided McGahern inspiration and material for his first novel, “The Barracks”,  Augawillan, where he spent his first happy years with his siblings and his mother, similarly influenced, “Amongst Women”.  So graphic are McGahern’s descriptions of walks up the hill from home to the village school at which his mother taught that, to be there, in the village, on the tree-lined hill outside the school (now also converted into a private house, the school having been moved to a new, larger, building lower down the hill.) invoked in me a strong sensation of déjà vu.  Before leaving Aughawillan I visited St Patrick’s Church to pay respect to McGahern at his grave, which he shares with his mother, and to give silent thanks for the immense pleasure he has posthumously given to me through his writing.

McGahern’s last novel, “To Face the Rising Sun”, follows the lives of a group of people who have in common  the lake which their homes either overlook or of which they are within a stone’s throw.  John McGahern eventually settled in a house on the shores of Laura Lough near Fenagh, County Leitrim.  The narrator of “To Face the Rising Sun” also moved from the city to live tranquilly on the shore of a lake.  Although the Loch is not identified in the book there is more than enough circumstantial evidence within the narrative to suggest that Lough Laura had considerable influence on its geography.
Laura Lough near Fenagh

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Search for Oscar

Yesterday drove to Cong, best known as the location of the Hollywood (John Wayne) version of Maurice Walsh’s short story, “The Quiet Man” but, of far more interest to me, the surroundings of Cong are also the location of two homes of Oscar Wilde’s ancestry.  First I went in search of the ruins of Ballymagibbon House, eighteenth century home of Wilde’s Flynn ancestors.  The site of the ruin is far and hidden from a narrow lane by impenetrable woodland edged by bog so I abandoned the chase and drove on in search of a compensatory lunch.  Along the way I unexpectedly sighted, on a distant ridge, the second of my quarries; ‘Moytura’  the house Wilde’s father had built as a bolt hole from Dublin and in which Oscar spent many of his childhood holidays.  (Often spending time, apparently, with George Moore and his siblings.)

Moore House

Moore House, was the ancestral home and birthplace of the Irish artist and writer George Moore (b.1852 - d1933).  These days Moore is most remembered for his 1894 novel, ‘Esther Waters’, a critical  social commentary of the horrendous plight of abandoned single mothers in his day.   Moore had originally intended for himself a career as an artist  and went to Paris to further that ambition.  There he met Pissarro, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Daudet, Mallarmé, Turgenev and, above all, Zola, under whose influence Moore dropped painting for writing.

The ruined, burned out shell of Moore House is presently hidden within a forestry company’s plantation.  Even in its poignantly sad decrepitude there is enough left of the building, today the protected home of a colony of Horseshoe Bats, to easily imagine how grand it might have been in its heyday but Moore House is but one of Ireland’s abundance of these sad ruins.  The building was destroyed by fire in 1922, towards the end of the civil war, by the IRA who believed Moore’s brother to be a pro-treatyist.  Ironically, it was the IRA who, in 1964, had a memorial plaque raised beside the road opposite the ruins of Moore Hall lauding the family for their famine relief work and for their ‘refusal to barter their principles for English gold’!
Irish wit on a notice on the wall of the ruin.