‘The Cleggan Project’: John McGahern’s Unproduced Screenplay

So I’ve been deep in the John McGahern archives here at NUI Galway of late preparing some preliminary offerings from my project to contextualize John McGahern’s screenwriting efforts (mostly unproduced) within his larger body of work. While I intend this to be a reasonably lengthy article when it’s complete, I’ll be delivering a paper this weekend on one McGahern script in particular – an untitled screenplay set around Cleggan Co. Galway –  at the 10th annual North East Irish Culture Network (NEICN) conference at the University of Sunderland.

Though never produced, the Cleggan film is of a piece with McGahern’s sustained investigation of Irish community living and the transformative challenges it faced in the second half of the Twentieth Century: ‘Again it is about family,’ he writes in notes describing his protagonist, the widowed schoolmaster James Lacey (‘56 years of age, handsome, athletic – a golfer and sailor – intelligent, uncomplicated’) and the small village existence he has lived all his life.

Through reference to Lacey and his supporting characters, the film’s narrative style, and its isolated rural setting, this paper is going to look at how the Cleggan project fits within McGahern’s established oeuvre. Specifically I’ll be examining the extent to which a thematic dialogue exists between the draft screenplay and McGahern’s 1990 novel Amongst Women.

The panel that I’m part of, which also offers presentations on playwright Gary Mitchell and short story writer Claire Keegan, begins at 3:15 pm next Saturday, November 10th, at Sunderland’s Priestman Building (Room 103).

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Bridging the Gaps in McGahern’s Journey to Becoming a Great Writer

My review of Denis Sampson’s latest, from this weekend’s Irish Examiner:

Young John McGahern: Becoming a Novelist

Denis Sampson

Oxford University Press; €21

The late John McGahern once remarked of his youth that “I became a writer by accident”. One can imagine him saying so with a wink, for the formation of an artist – a writer especially – is not something which occurs in isolation. It is a mysterious and over-romanticised process, however in McGahern’s case it was also a deliberate and diligent undertaking. Without it, the most meaningful Irish novels of the last half-century might never have been written.

The story of McGahern’s early years is therefore more of a responsibility than a biographical inevitability, and the man who has taken up this challenge is the Montreal-based scholar Denis Sampson. Where his previous work on McGahern took a broad approach to the oeuvre, the emphasis of this new volume is different. Young John McGahern focuses on the lost era between the author’s well documented childhood and his debut on the literary scene, a crucial decade during which he began to discover his talent and nurture his distinctive vision.

The outlines of this period will be familiar to many. Having liberated himself from a violent and domineering father, McGahern moved to Dublin in 1953 to pursue teacher training at St. Patrick’s College. Punctuated by spells in London, he eventually secured a job at a school in Clontarf and sold his “classic novel” The Barracks to Faber, who published it in 1963.

For Sampson, the figure who emerges from this ten year apprenticeship is a “secular subversive,” a “confident joker,” and an enthusiastic participant in Dublin’s “Freemasonry of the intellect”. The latter, a “vigorous underground life of its own that paid scant regard to Church or State,” is the means whereby the academic orientates his subject here. The McGahern he presents to the reader is a dynamic young rebel; the seeds of Irish fiction’s avuncular master are present, yes, but so too is a deep dismay at the claustrophobic nature of the mid-century state. His “years of training in secret” are framed as a private cold war against the authoritarian powers of the day, a clash which would turn hot with the banning of The Dark in 1965.

The conflict at the heart of Young John McGahern is thus one of creative expression and intellectual freedom. Sampson traces its roots to the uncompromising character of the novelist himself, forged amidst “the violence, fear, and repression he experienced at home”. A love of reading, that “privileged space away from his father’s influence and interference,” would come to define him, and on McGahern’s move to the capital it served as his gateway drug to “the pleasures and possibilities of city life”. Indeed Sampson argues that, without the breath of literary experience gained by the would-be writer during his time in Dublin, McGahern’s rural talent might have come to naught.

Careful critical scrutiny supports this claim. Sampson’s slim volume is a model in tracing the young man’s first encounters with writers such as Thomas Mann and Leo Tolstoy. It supplies nuanced readings of the influence Daniel Corkery and Marcel Proust had on McGahern’s fiction, with Sampson proposing that the author’s ability to identify meaning in intense personal circumstances derives directly from the books he discovered via Dublin friends such as Éanna and Brendán Ó hEither.

Through these acquaintances, McGahern encountered Joyce’s fiction for the first time (Ulysses still largely unknown in Ireland at that point). He also absorbed the influence of Kavanagh (though “a single visit to McDaid’s” was enough for McGahern), along with the critical writing of Anthony Cronin. Crucially, Sampson’s assessment of McGahern’s reading underlines Beckett’s “emblematic presence” in the Leitrim man’s prose, a complex devotion to “the pain of non-being” all too tempting to overlook.

That this literary crash-course took place during his time at the priest-run St. Patrick’s College supplies an essential dichotomy to the decade which made McGahern. Sampson charts a mind freed from “the insularity of the institution” by independent study but, in the process, he reveals something more: a profoundly moral young man struggling with the Church’s “absolute control over the behaviour of individuals and over public discourse”.

Teacher training, McGahern found, was little more than “deliberate anti-intellectualism” best characterised by its “fear of both literature and refinement”. Sampson deploys some choice quotations in this section, but though he draws extensively on McGahern’s own Memoir (2005), as well as the author’s posthumously collected essays, he is careful throughout to provide added value in the form of critical context and analysis. He argues that McGahern’s considered rejection of Church authority in favour of literature was a way for the author to cement his connection to the experiences of humanity at large.

Nonetheless, the novice teacher’s anger at the priesthood’s “half-barbaric” practices would yield some positive results. It later found purchase in his great short-story ‘The Recruiting Officer’, something which illustrates Young John McGahern’s effectiveness as a guidebook to the inspiration behind many of the author’s best known works. Throughout the book, Sampson unearths the origins of little masterpieces such as ‘High Ground’ and “Crossing the Line”, positing real-life notables such as Nuala O’Faolain as inspiration for the girls in ‘Sierra Leone’ and ‘My Love, My Umbrella’.

Scrupulously researched by Sampson, with the few gaps ably patched with extrapolations from the author’s fiction, Young John McGahern is a serious study of a unique Irish talent’s journey from naivety to novelist. While aimed primarily at academics, casual readers will also find much of interest here, particularly the discussion of McGahern’s early unpublished novel The End or the Beginning or Love. Moreover, Sampson’s intense little volume offers the closest thing that thus far exists to a biography of this beloved writer. For that alone he has earned our attention and our respect.

  • Dr. Val Nolan lectures at NUI Galway. His work includes the definitive account of the McGahern banning, ‘If it was Just Th’ol Book’, which was published in last August’s Irish Studies Review. 

This article originally published in the Irish Examiner, 21st April 2012, p.16.

A History of the John McGahern Banning Controversy

Irish Studies Review

I meant to plug this sooner, but ‘If it was Just Th’oul Book …’: A History of the McGahern Banning Controversy – my article on the banning of John McGahern in 1965 – was published a little while ago in the Irish Studies Review. It’s the first time this crucial event in McGahern’s life has been looked at it any depth.

The article examines the banning of John McGahern’s novel The Dark in Ireland in 1965, along with the subsequent controversy surrounding its author’s dismissal from his teaching position in Dublin. This so-called McGahern Affair provoked wide-ranging and vigorous debate about both the censorship legislation and the role of clerical authority in the Irish educational system. Throughout the article I delve pretty heavily into contemporary journalism, reviews, parliamentary records, and letters-to-editors to construct the most detailed account available of this central event in the development of McGahern’s reputation, with the involvement of figures such as Bishop John Charles McQuaid, journalist Peter Lennon, and Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington contextualised against the social transformation of 1960s Ireland.

Anyone with institutional access to a decent university library ought to be able to access the article online via the link above, though if you’re having trouble with that or are locked out by the ivory tower paywalls, just let me know and I’ll send you on the PDF. Knowledge should be free, etc., etc.

For what’s it’s worth, the gestation of this project was a curious one. It was originally an idea for a short story, an alternate history of what might have happened if McGahern had not been banned.  The process of putting together the divergent timeline necessitated researching what actually happened in considerable detail, with the lack of one single history of the banning sending me deep into the embarrassment of riches offered by the newspapers of the era. It didn’t take long to conclude that reality was far more fascinating than anything I was going to make up on the topic.

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