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General literature studies

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Published online April 19th, 2019.

Reproduced with kind permission from The Irish Times


It is hard to believe that John McGahern has been dead 13 years. Along with Seamus Heaney and Brian Friel, his work enriched the lives of many people, exerting as it did, in spite of the rawness of the issues broached, a soothing effect on his vast audience. Although the majority of his writing was situated in the northwest midlands of Ireland – the area of Leitrim-Roscommon – it has reached a global audience. This is because the existential dramas which he sketched with such wonderful poise are ones with which everyone can identify. Sons in conflict with autocratic fathers; wives forced to cater for the needs of their husbands and children while sacrificing their own hopes and desires; the traumatic uprooting associated with emigration; the back-breaking toil of trying to make a living off the land; the rituals surrounding death; all these are captured in a way that gives McGahern fans the impression that they are actually living out these experiences as much as reading about them. When he describes the sour smell of a sweaty headband from the threadbare hat of an elderly farmer, or long days spent saving the hay, or evokes the image of sedge in bogland bathed in moonlight, or recalls walking through the lanes of Leitrim hand in hand with his beloved mother, he unlocks emotions and memories that are deeply buried in people’s psyche.

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