Dr Heather Laird Research Seminar – Easter 1916 Rising Centenary Commemorations – John McGahern

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John McGahern, staring at something to his left whilst wearing a turtleneck. Circa 1975.

John McGahern is one of the only writers who I have read completely. The novels, the stories, the non-fiction. As much of the criticism as is readily available. I’ve never read the play actually now that I come to think of it. Oh well. It did get panned. There are a few other writers who I’ve come close to completing. Chekov. Mann. I tried with Melville. Shakespeare. Friel. Calvino. Camus. Lost interest in each, there always being time to return. It’s not as if being a completist is the aim. We’re not collecting baseball cards here. Christ America you’re insidious.

It does help of course if you’re well read. You need the straws to go with the sparks. It can be a distraction however. You must have read someone before you can write about them. Or speak about them. Or misquote them. I always felt it was the deepest cut imaginable when Sartre accused Camus of not having read the books he quoted. It’s said they fell out over Marx.. I think it was more over that nuclear option of an insult. There was no return from such depths. Or maybe there was. But he died.

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The Easter 1916 Centenary Commemorations have been front and centre in the national consciousness of late. I’d hyperlink to a webpage on them but there’s surely no need. They were all very civilised. Touching. Dignified. No men in balaclavas and sunglasses. Kept tacitly out of frame. Unprovocized. You can use it if you want, first one’s free.

Let’s smash cut away from the Easter Centenary for a moment. Don’t worry this will all be wrapped in a bow at blog’s end. Let’s hope.

Last November I attended a seminar presentation here at the School of English, UCC, given by Dr Heather Laird, entitled Writing Working-Class Mothers. The role of the working-class mother figure within Irish literature was expertly detailed, the significance and shading of various representations outlined using examples that spanned two hundred years of Irish writing. Dublin based texts dominate our ideation of the term “working class”. Dr Laird sought to expand this view to include  both regional urban settings as well as the rural. Incisive and insightful, I look forward to reading her upcoming work on the subject. The greatest take-away for me from that day however, was the depth and breadth of Dr Laird’s reading. I stopped making notes of each title and character around the twenty mark. There were many more. The in-depth knowledge required achieved through extensive reading before the first critical word may be uttered, which I referred to in my opening paragraph, was evident that day. Dr Laird’s example is one I will seek to follow in my own studies.

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An actor playing a 1916 volunteer appraises his life choices.

Leafing through old back issues of the now dormant journal Cork Review, edited by Thomas McCarthy, I came across a piece by John McGahern entitled “Easter”. It is an early excerpt from the novel which would become That They May Face The Rising Sun, although its working title was then “That He May Face The Rising Sun”, an interesting insight in and of itself. “Easter” corresponds to a passage which appears late in the published novel, pages 251-259 of the Faber paperback edition. It describes an Easter Sunday visit from Jamesie, the mercurial Irish-everyman of the novel, to the house of his neighbours, Joe and Kate

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“Eireann’s nobel emblem boys…”

Ruttledge. Joe Ruttledge stands as counterpoint to Jamesie’s character in both, more reserved and thoughtful, a cipher for McGahern himself. A commemorative march is taking place from the local IRA monument to the graveyard at Shruhaun. Jamesie recounts a childhood memory of witnessing the killing by the Black and Tans of a number of local volunteers, for which the monument was erected. He tells of how he and his father rescued the lone survivor from a bog, and how when the man went on to become a local politician he never acknowledged his saviours. Jamesie has a jaundiced view of the commemoration, seeing it as myopic of the true nature of the past, ‘They carried placards with slogans and photos of Pearse, McDermott, and Sands on green, white and gold backgrounds. The effect was somehow sinister and cheap’ (258). Sinister and cheap. I like that one.

The reprisal killing of a local Protestant man William Taylor is also detailed. The excerpt and novel are identical, word for word, bare one detail: the name changes. Here it is:

Then they came for poor Sinclair, the Protestant, nine fields away. The Sinclairs were quiet and hardworking and they kept to themselves like all the Protestants. They knew as much about the ambush as we knew. ‘Sinclair’s wife met them when they came to the back door. She thought they were calling about a mare they had advertised in the Observer that week and pointed them to the byre where Taylor was milking. They shot him like a dog beneath the cows and said he confessed before he was shot. Oh, we are a beautiful people Kate. (256)

 

The Cork Review excerpt has the name as Taylor throughout. It’s a mistake. As much the copy editor’s fault as McGahern’s. It’s interesting for me because it immediately links the passage to one which appears in Amongst Women, another of McGahern’s novels which was published twenty one years previously. The killing of “the spy” William Taylor, is mentioned as one of the memories which the lead character Moran and his friend McQuaid share every year when they meet.

 

From year to year they used  the same handrails to go down into the past: lifting the cartwheel at the crossroads, the drilling sessions by the river, the first ambush, marching at night between safe houses, the different characters in the houses, the food, the girls… The interrogation of William Taylor the spy and his execution by the light of a paraffin lantern among his own cattle in the byre. (14)

The killing of a British Colonel dominates the reminisces of Moran and McQuaid and is detailed in length, whereas the above passage is the only mention of William Taylor. McGahern would exonerate Taylor twenty years later, using the bitter remembrance of Jamesie to indict the character Moran.  That his remembrance of that murder is set beside the banal details of ‘the food, the girls…’ shades the character further towards psychopathy.

Insights gained from close reading. Are they significant, or does it prevent us from seeing the wood from the trees? Either way piecing the above details together was thrilling for me. I find such things thrilling yes, I lead a very sheltered life.  I hope that Dr Laird, herself a keen appreciator of McGahern’s work, will see the above analysis as both an original insight, and as a testament to her teaching, and the example of her critical approach.

Perhaps I should’ve chosen McGahern as the subject of my thesis? Too late now! I’ll always have a deep love of his work which perhaps a thesis would taint.

God’s mercy on “the spy” William Taylor.

 

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