On the Verb 'to be'

"John McGahern's stories of endurance and return (both human and natural) were drawn from Leitrim’s rushy hills, sodden with darkness and light."
"John McGahern's stories of endurance and return (both human and natural) were drawn from Leitrim’s rushy hills, sodden with darkness and light."

(First published by Elsewhere: A Journal of Place)


After they died, I experienced a slow longing to see my grandparents again, but also for Rossinver itself. Their now-permanent absence seemed increasingly entangled with my yearning for that small corner of north Leitrim where they were from: the acre of mown grass at the back of their bungalow, within earshot of the Ballagh river, and haunted in summer months by quick-darting swallows, skirting close to ground whenever skies were changing, blue to grey. 


The poems I wrote for my grandparents – deathbed portraits, reaching through loss – were also tributes to this place that had shaped not just my siblings and myself, but several generations of my Dad’s family: a weathery place, rich with rain, that for me, visiting in summer months from the Dublin suburbs, had always been both recognisable and strange, a home away. 


I felt a similar sensation last autumn when I moved to Carrick-on-Shannon, with my bicycle and a bagful of books in tow. There was a quiet happiness in arriving not only in this town – with its wide, surging river and cautiously bustling streets – but at being able to call Leitrim my home county. By choosing Carrick, I imagined that I was somehow mending a gap, bridging the long aftermath of my grandparents’ lives.


The first time I decided to read the elegies for my Grandad in public, I had forced myself, beforehand, to practice the lines aloud, like an actor, until I knew their sound by heart. Regardless of what I consciously felt while reading, my voice and body could complete the performance, by reflex if necessary. This is now one of my preparatory rituals for any live event: I read (noisily) to myself, the very repetition of the words gradually providing a protective shelter against whatever gusts of panic or self-consciousness may arrive in the actual moment.


In decamping to Leitrim, of course, I was entering the demesne of a number of literary figures, past and present. On my daily walks, I pass a mural celebrating Carrick’s writers, including John McGahern, whose stories and often mordant essays my Grandad used to quote with admiring precision. “It takes some skill”, I recall him saying, definitively, “to finish a sentence with the verb ‘to be’”: a feat the Leitrim author had managed to do, with his adage that “all understanding is joy, even in the face of dread, and cannot be taken from us until everything is.” 


Another of McGahern’s creative credos concerned “the quality of feeling that’s brought to a landscape”, and his belief that this “is actually much more important” in the making of literature “than the landscape itself”. The question of “whether it contains rushes or lemon trees”, he said, is less vital than “the light of passion” that an author brings to the view. I agree with him. But I also suspect that he made these remarks partly in resistance to a culture accustomed to placing (perhaps even pigeon-holing) its writers: as if by re-affirming his fidelity to literature’s universality, he were also implicitly raising a question mark over its so-called “Irish” variety, or the applicability of this brand to his own origins and literary practice.


In fact, Leitrim, specifically, rooted and nourished McGahern: filtering that “light of passion” he so sought and valued, and helping to sustain the restraint and fierce clarity of his writing, with its breathing fields and hedgerows, its turning seasons. It was here that his revolving cast of reticent, perceptive characters became real, where his skill in rendering their flinty, sidling conversation was honed. His stories of endurance and return (both human and natural) were invariably drawn from Leitrim’s rushy hills, sodden with darkness and light – without a lemon tree in sight.


McGahern’s was a particular kind of attachment to a particular part of the world, his work lit through by a clear-eyed attentiveness to his own locale – an observational intimacy, allowing both vividness and depth. What I find in McGahern’s fiction is close, I think, to what led me back to Leitrim in life: the desire to stand on the fringes of a single place, only partly my own, with its hidden history and visible dailiness, looking in, hoping at last to belong.


Further Reading:

John McGahern, Love of the World: Essays.

Ciarán O'Rourke (first published in Elsewhere: a Journal of Place) // March 2021