John McGahern, regarded as one of the most important Irish writers of the latter half of the twentieth century, is born in Knockanroe about half a mile from Ballinamore, County Leitrim, on November 12, 1934. Known for the detailed dissection of Irish life found in works such as The Barracks, The Dark, and Amongst Women, The Observer hails him as “the greatest living Irish novelist” before his death in 2006.
McGahern is the eldest child of seven. Raised alongside his six young siblings on a small farm in Knockanroe, McGahern’s mother runs the farm with some local help whilst maintaining a job as a primary school teacher in the local school. His father, a Garda sergeant, lives in the Garda barracks at Cootehall in County Roscommon, a somewhat sizeable distant away from his family at the time. In 1944, when McGahern is ten years old, his mother dies of cancer, resulting in the unrooting of the McGahern children to their new home with their father in the Garda barracks at Cootehall.
In the years following his mother’s death, McGahern completes his primary schooling in the local primary school, and ultimately wins a scholarship to the Presentation Brothers secondary school in Carrick-on-Shannon. Having travelled daily to complete his second level education, McGahern continues to accumulate academic accolades by winning the county scholarship in his Leaving Certificate enabling him to continue his education to third level.
Following his second level success, McGahern is offered a place at St. Patrick’s College of Education in Drumcondra where he trains to be a teacher. Upon graduation from third level education, McGahern begins his career as a primary schoolteacher at Scoil Eoin Báiste primary school in Clontarf where, for a period, he teaches the eminent academic Declan Kiberd, before returning to third level education in University College Dublin where he graduates in 1957. He is first published by the London literary and arts review magazine, X, which publishes in 1961 an extract from his unpublished first novel, The End or Beginning of Love.
McGahern’s first published novel, The Barracks (1963), chronicles the life of the barrack’s Garda sergeant’s second wife, Elizabeth Reegan, who is in the decline of health due to cancer. The Barracks is adapted for the stage in 1969 by Hugh Leonard.
McGahern marries his first wife, Finnish-born Annikki Laaski, in 1965 and in the same year publishes his second novel, The Dark, which is banned by the Irish Censorship Board for its alleged pornographic content along with its implied sexual abuse by the protagonist’s father. Due to the controversy which is stirred by the book’s publication, McGahern is dismissed from his teaching post and forced to move to England where he works in a variety of jobs, including on building sites, before returning to Ireland to live and work on a small farm near Fenagh in County Leitrim.
After the publications of The Leavetaking (1974) and The Pornographer (1975), his fifth and perhaps best known novel, Amongst Women, is published in 1990. The novel details the story of Michael Moran, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) veteran of the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War, who now dominates his family in the unforgiving farmlands of County Leitrim, near Mohill.