Saturday, April 01, 2006

A man who 'loved the chat and the people'

From today's Irish Times.

A man who 'loved the chat and the people'
Marese McDonagh

The daffodils and heather are in bloom at John McGahern's modest house overlooking the lake. The shed is full of firewood. The gates were open yesterday and a lonely black and white sheepdog raced excitedly at the sound of a car. But the master is not coming home.

The people remember him fondly in Cootehall and Foxfield and Aughawillan and around all those country lanes he immortalised in his work. A bunch of daffodils has been placed against the grey stone wall in front of the barracks at Cootehall, an austere building beside the river and the majestic entrance to Coote Lodge.

Many people have since his death made the point that John McGahern should have won the Booker prize in 1991 - and indeed as far as the people of Co Roscommon are concerned, he did.

A stone's throw from the barracks where the seven McGahern children spent so many difficult years with their sergeant father, there is a tribute to Cootehall's most famous son. On the bridge over the Boyle river a detailed map outlines the many local tourist attractions and notes that John McGahern, "a master at describing provincial life", was brought up in the village. With a nod to what should have been, it proudly proclaims that he won the Booker prize for Amongst Women in 1991.

In Henry's bar opposite Cootehall church where the great and the good gathered not too long ago to say farewell to Seán Doherty, another famous local son, Chris Henry, remembered McGahern as a kind man. "I had a lovely letter from him when my brother Jim died last September," she said. The last time she saw "Seán", as he was known to family and locals, was on a recent visit when he was surrounded by a camera crew.

In Mohill there were similar memories of how celebrity sat uneasily on the shoulders of a man more comfortable in the local mart than at the great literary occasions.

Elderly men on the main street took off their caps when his name was mentioned. Anne Earley reckoned that McGahern would have smiled wryly at the accolades and the many tributes to his literary genius.

Earley's bar closed a few years ago but John, a creature of habit , used to drop in there every Thursday with Francie and Mai McGarty, an elderly couple who lived close to him out beside the lake.

"Thursday is mart day in Mohill and they would pop in in the afternoon," recalled Anne. Her husband, Luke, an undertaker and a dear friend of the McGaherns, has been entrusted with the funeral arrangements. A difficult task but an honour, said Anne.

In her coffee shop, a black and white photograph of John and his late friend, Francie has pride of place. "Madeline took it in the bar and she gave it to Luke," said Anne. Madeline, John's wife, rang the Earleys an hour after John passed away to convey his wishes.

He wished to be brought home to his beloved Leitrim and to lie at peace at Aughawillan churchyard beside his beloved mother.

Asked how she would remember her friend, Anne Earley replied without hesitation: "With a smile on his face. People who only saw him on television thought he was serious but he was a great man for the stories. He was a man of the people." That's what they said at O'Callaghan's shop and bar on Main Street, Mohill, another of the writer's haunts.

"John was a gentleman. There was nothing put on about him," said Eilish O'Callaghan from her perch in front of shelves. "He was a humble man, but very chatty. He loved the chat and the people."

© The Irish Times

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