Mine is such a strange country. (The kids and I have been over for a short break, and I’ve been reading the papers and sniffing the air.) On the one hand, Seamus Heaney can fill the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to overflowing to hear him read from his new collection of poems, District and Circle. [What a lovely title.] And soon there is to be a major public celebration of the centenary of Sam Beckett’s birth. Two years ago, the government planned to stage a huge public celebration of the centenary of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (which was set in June 16, 1904), but was stopped in its tracks by Stephen Joyce’s [Executor of the Joyce literary estate] barmy obsession with copyright. The Minister for Culture turns up for John McGahern’s funeral. And so on. So this is a society that takes its writers seriously, right?
Er, only up to a point. Such reverence as exists is a comparatively recent growth, and I’m not sure how deep it goes. My countrymen’s treatment of McGahern provides an interesting case in point. He grew up in a small rural community quite like the one in Mayo from where my mother’s family came, so his background is one with which I am intimately familiar. In my childhood (the 1950s), the parish priest was the most powerful figure in the community. The local Garda (police) Sergeant was the representative of State authority, but in general he would defer to the church. The parish priest was also the ‘Manager’ of the (State-funded) primary school, with authority to hire and fire teachers.
Imagine, then, the difficulty of dealing with the abuse of clerical power. It would have taken a brave parent who, suspecting that his or her child had been sexually abused by a priest, would take the complaint to the sergeant, because it would mean taking on the authority of the church in the full knowledge that the civil authorities would not back such a citizen’s challenge. The consequences of a complaint could be catastrophic for an individual: at the very least it would involve social ostracisation; there might also be irreparable damage to one’s business or career; there would be questions about one’s suitability as a parent; and if one persisted and provided statements to the police, they would often turn out to have been ‘mislaid’ or destroyed when the time came for legal proceedings.
This excerable state of affairs lasted from the foundation of the State in 1922 until the 1990s when the scandal of priestly abuse finally could no longer be concealed and the moral authority of the church finally began to crumble.
John McGahern was a primary school teacher. But then he made a fatal error: he published a novel — The Dark — about sexual abuse and clerical tyranny, which graphically evoked the claustrophobic atmosphere of rural Ireland. The response of the established order was swift and ruthless. The book was banned (of course) for obscenity. But McGahern was also sacked from his job in Belgrove National School, Clontarf, Co. Dublin, on the instructions of the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, an authoritarian monster named John Charles McQuaid. McGahern’s union — the Irish National Teachers Union (INTO) — which had generally been good at defending teachers who were unfairly dismissed, declined to support him because of a technicality (he had not paid his subscription while abroad on a scholarship).
In the light of his later eminence and fame, losing a job as a teacher might not seem a big deal. But we need to remember that McGahern made very little money from writing until quite late in his career. So losing a secure and pensionable job must have been a serious blow at that vulnerable stage of his life. He left Ireland following his dismissal and spent the next ten years in England, France, Spain and the United States. He said later that the banning of his book and subsequent dismissal left him “unable to write for three or four years after the business” and it wasn’t until 1970 that his next work was published, a collection of short stories entitled NightLines.
All this I knew. What I hadn’t known about was the twist in the tale. Here’s how the Sunday Independent tells it:
Official Ireland humiliated John McGahern until the last months of his life by withholding a modest pension that represented tangible acknowledgement that he had been greviously wronged when he was sacked as a teacher in the early Sixties.
In one fell swoop McGahern was robbed of his profession and his livelihood and spent years struggling to make a living, including a spell working on the buildings.
The best-selling novelist had to wait 12 years after his 60th birthday to get his pension from the State — a shameful delay that caused some financial hardship for the writer and his second wife, the American photographer Madeline Green.
The small stipend was also hugely symbolic. McGahern was a much-loved and gifted teacher and receiving his pension showed that the State accepted that he was unfairly dismissed.
Even as the cancer that was eventually to kill him took hold, there was, it has been claimed, a final humbling delay by “functionaries or zealots” in the civil service in processing his payment.
Senator Joe O’Toole, a former General Secretary of the INTO said: “He was sacked for no good reason. When he returned from his scholarship [Mcgahern had won a year’s scholarship abroad] he was directed by his principal not to go to his classroom and to stay in the staff room. He tried to contact the parish priest with whom he was very friendly to find that the priest had gone on holiday and left a sort of apologetic message for John saying that the situation was ‘out of his hands’.”
So the scandal over John McGahern’s pension lasted until very recently, which is what makes me wonder how sincere is my countrymen’s commitment to literature and literary freedom. Is it just that we like slipstreaming in our writers’ global celebrity — after they’ve won the Nobel (like Beckett and ‘Famous Seamus’ Heaney) or critical acclaim (as with McGahern). But until that point we revile them as trouble-makers and pornographers? My friends tell me that ‘The Dark’ — that novel that cost John his job — is currently selling out in every bookstore in Ireland, and so is effectively unobtainable offline. Which is a nice irony, given that it was unobtainable for a very different reason when I first sought it out as an undergraduate.
Ireland is now a very different country from the clerically-dominated, introverted, philistinic society of my childhood. But is it any more tolerant? I’m not convinced that it is. True, the old orthodoxy has lost its grip. But in its place has come a new orthodoxy based on the worship of a localised version of liberal capitalism, in which laws are routinely bent to accommodate corrupt planners, businessmen and politicians. I’m sick of hearing friends and family pointing to a housing development here, or a hideous bungalow there, which contravene all known planning regulations. When I ask how these breaches came about, I am told stories about the local “Fianna Fail mafia”, about corrupt relationships between local authority civil servants and local developers, about kickbacks and favours and blackmail. And when I ask why nobody protests or objects I get the same cynical shrug of the shoulders that people got in the 1950s when clerical misbehaviour — or police connivance in same — was mentioned.
If a new John McGahern were to arise — one who told the truth about the despoiling of the Irish environment by developers, for example; or about the corruption of the police in some northern counties; about the officially-tolerated lawlessness of some parts of Limerick City; about the ways that Sinn Fein is funding its inroads into Southern politics; about the scandalous state of public health services; or about the lawyers who have hijacked and crippled many of the Tribunals now inquiring into Ireland’s recent sordid past — I don’t think he or she could expect any more tolerance than was shown to John McGahern all those decades ago. Plus ca change…