I would like to have been in Ireland yesterday for John McGahern’s funeral. But I’d already been over in Monday for another one and it would have been logistically impossible. Besides, it would have been impertinent, for I knew McGahern only through his writing. But he and I had a good friend in common, and my friend went to Leitrim for the funeral. This is how he described the day.
It was a traditional Irish funeral in a country church. There was no music, and there were no speeches by the graveside.
His first cousin said the mass and gave the homily, which had been worked out between the two of them for several days and contained McGahern’s own directions as to what should be in — lines from John Donne, from Proust, from Yeats, and then a version of himself, why he ended up back in the church, though he was an unbeliever. For all his differences with the church, it was where he first discovered his first book, his first magic, his first aesthetic, his first sense of beauty, and he could no more turn his back on it than he could turn his back on a part of himself.
[Seamus] Heaney and [Brian] Friel and all the boys — they all travelled. The Minister for Culture was there …. All the playwrights were there, and the short-story writers — Eugene McCabe, Colm Toibin, Tom Murphy — they all turned up and stood in the rain outside the door. The two Lessons were read by neighbours from the area in which That They May Face the Rising Sun is set.
He was buried behind the church, in the same grave as his mother, under that same headstone that he had laughed so much about — his father showing off what a big man he was by getting the biggest headstone in Ballinamore. And there it was: “Susan McGahern N.T.” [National Teacher] He was buried with her, and his instructions were that the four local men from around his area were to fill it in the grave fully. There was to be no token spadeful and then waiting for everyone to go. It was to be filled in fully, and while that was going on the rosary was to be said by the graveside so that people could hear clay returning to clay.
It was a wild Leitrim day — clouds scudding across the sky, but bright. An Irish spring day. Not cold. Just as the coffin was being lowered into the grave there was a peal of thunder and a shower of rain. Then it cleared as quickly as it had come. The four sisters were there, and Madeline, his second wife.
The locals turned out for him. He was brought from Dublin this morning, and at every village in Leitrim the route was lined by locals. Apart from anything else, there was a sense of silent gratitude to him for his redemption of other people’s shame — because the Ireland that hammered him is now coming out in the tribunals looking into corruption, child abuse and the rest. And people who did nothing then were just so grateful that there was a wholesomeness about him that they hadn’t realised at the time. There was sense of gratitude to him for having stayed rather than having gone. It would have been awful if he had died in exile in Italy or somewhere. But to have stayed on and then to have seen through the change was what everyone was grateful to him for.
He had extraordinary integrity. But also an extraordinary concern with his place in history and the rest of it. He choreographed the last few years of his life once he got the cancer — in the televison programmes he made for example: there wasn’t a single aspect of his version of himself that he wanted to leave to chance. It’s going to be a hard job for a biographer to crack into an alternative version. He has left such a definitive — and it would seem irrefutable — set of answers to questions.
He left instructions that everyone that was at the funeral was to be invited to a proper wake, with drinks laid on in the hotel in Carrick-on-Shannon. It was like a wedding reception rather than a funeral. The hotel staff were welcoming people with drinks. Then the bell went and everyone was summoned in to “Mr McGahern’s Meal”.
The best piece about him was by Colm Toibin in the Irish Times. It ends like this:
One night in Co Leitrim, when he had recovered from his first bout of illness, Catriona Crowe and myself sat up late with him. We drank and talked. He’d found the hospital and its community of doctors and nurses interesting and funny but also difficult. He was half amused and half annoyed at being offered professional counselling in the face of death, he said. He sighed at the very thought of it. Then he lifted his glass, drank his whiskey and having left a few seconds of silence he spoke again. “We bloom only once and you’d want to be very foolish not to know that”. He looked at us and laughed calmly and resumed the earlier discussion about some recent books he had loved. In the morning, he and Madelaine took us for a walk around the lane by the lake — the world of his last novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun. I remember him explaining the strange brutality of the way swans send their young away from them and into the world. He was, as always, fascinated by things in their variety. He was also laughing and talking, managing his manners and responses — the same gift for poise and grace his readers find in his sentences. In ‘Memoir’, his last book, he was to find that gift useful one more time. It seems immensely sad despite his own calm acceptance of our fate in the world, that his great gift for words and for friendship had bloomed only once, and will not come again.