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  • John McGahern, Post-Revival Literature, and Irish Cultural Criticism
  • Stanley van der Ziel

John McGahern’s attitude to many Irish writers from the first half of the twentieth century was often ambivalent. He instinctively disliked and distrusted the overt polemical stance adopted by many writers in the decades immediately following Independence, even if he could find in those same writers qualities of style or vision that he admired and, on occasion, even echoed in his own fiction.

His relationship with the poet Patrick Kavanagh is a case in point. As early as 1959 he wrote to Michael McLaverty that, “Kavanagh is an irresponsible critic and a careless poet. It is a pity he doesn’t take more care with his poems because he is richly gifted.”1 On the one hand, McGahern deplored Kavanagh’s part in the brash literary culture that existed in Dublin in the 1940s and 1950s. He later immortalized his youthful experience, both of being subjected to what he described in an autobiographical essay from the 1990s as “the doubtful joy of Kavanagh’s company,” and of the general atmosphere of that imaginatively and intellectually stifling Dublin-bohemian milieu, by re-imagining it in his fiction.2 Such stories about rural drifters in the Hibernian metropolis as “My Love, My Umbrella” and “Bank Holiday” draw on the future novelist’s youthful experiences of literary coteries in Dublin during his twenties, as does the brilliant satire on midcentury Dublin literary culture that is The Pornographer (1979).

Kavanagh appears as a character in both those short stories, and the portrait those fictions paint is not a flattering one. The unnamed poet in the Scotch House (the pub on Burgh Quay sometimes known as Flann O’Brien-Myles na Gopaleen’s “office”) in the earlier of the two stories, “My Love, My Umbrella,” from Nightlines (1970), draws clearly on Kavanagh and his quirks. His appearance and his reliance on baking soda as a remedy for heartburn are obviously based on the Monaghan poet. Moreover, the snippets of his conversation overheard by [End Page 123] the narrator and his lover are recognizably taken from Kavanagh’s poetry and occasional prose—his attention to “the blossoms of Kerr Pinks” as objects of aesthetic beauty references the early seminal poem “Spraying the Potatoes,” while the idea that “a man could only love what he knew well, and it was the quality of the love that mattered and not the accident” is loosely adapted from Kavanagh’s 1959 essay “From Monaghan to the Grand Canal” (or perhaps from one of his lectures on poetry).3 “Bank Holiday,” from the 1985 High Ground collection, not only shares its title with one of Kavanagh’s poems (as do two other stories from the same collection, “Gold Watch” and “A Ballad”); its plot also includes a confrontation between a middle-aged poet and a young civil servant which, as has been well documented, was based on a real meeting between McGahern and Kavanagh in a Dublin pub during the late 1950s.4 A number of aspects of the failed poet and one-time provincial journalist Maloney in The Pornographer also replicate recognizable traits and habits both of Kavanagh and of his contemporary Flann O’Brien. Maloney attends the funeral of the narrator’s aunt wearing a “wide-brimmed black hat [that] made him look more like an ageing dance-band personality than a mourner.”5 This ridiculous hat replicates the headgear considered to be “the badge of the literary man” in Dublin during the 1940s and 1950s, which was favored by both O’Brien and Kavanagh.6 Maloney’s fraught relationship with his readers draws on the same originals, as the different “acts of aggression” that Maloney perpetrates against the readers of his magazine column in the form of either “‘rocks’ or ‘jawbreakers’” or unvarnished insults—“he despised [his readers] and was fond of describing [them] as ‘the local pheasantry [sic], crap merchants and bull-shitters’” (P 26)—are reminiscent, respectively, of the belligerence of O’Brien’s “Cruiskeen Lawn” columns and of Kavanagh’s cantankerous occasional journalism in Kavanagh’s Weekly and elsewhere.

On the other hand, McGahern harbored great affection and admiration for Kavanagh...


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