Old Irish ways

Memoir

John McGahern <em>Faber & Faber, 272pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0571228100

John McGahern has always been a mesmerising writer of fiction. His ravishing Memoir discloses the source of his genius, telling the story of a little boy and his growth to manhood after his mother, "my beloved" - a schoolteacher who gave birth to seven children in nine years - died of breast cancer when he was only nine.

McGahern was born in 1934 in an Irish Free State where the ever-powerful Catholic Church had effortlessly expan-ded into every crevice of command left behind by the British. In a "climate of suppression and poverty and fear", Ireland, by 1950, was a near-theocracy in which church and state worked hand in hand, rather like Franco's Spain.

McGahern comes from County Leitrim in the north-west. Poor, wet, its citizens blessed with no running water or electricity and only the occasional radio, Leitrim becomes almost heavenly in McGahern's enchanted descriptions of walks with his mother along its country lanes: "In their branches the wild woodbine and dog rose give off a deep fragrance in summer evenings, and on their banks grow the foxglove, the wild strawberry, primrose and fern and vetch among the crawling briars."

Susan McGahern was the kind of devout believer whose masochism required her to accommodate a brutal husband, willingly hiding her head in God: "In Him and by Him and for Him I live and place my trust . . ." This trust was placed in the Catholic Church of that time, indicted now by so many witnesses to its child abuse and brutality. John, Sue's eldest, had been her loving shadow. As she lay dying in an upstairs bedroom, her husband, who did not visit her, sent a lorry to pick up their children and the family furniture, leaving his wife to listen to the sound of everything she loved depart. McGahern conveys this misery with shimmering beauty; you can almost hear his heart crack as the lorry drives away.

From that time on, he was subject - as were his six siblings - to his father's sud-den rages and regular beatings. Scoldings, shouts and blows poured over the children like holy water, repeated daily, as was the saying of the rosary. There were beatings at school. They lived off cows' heads so large they could not fit into the pot - McGahern had to quarter them with a hacksaw and cleaver. He was also put to work in the woods and fields of Leitrim. Throughout these years, the place sustained him, as did its people, who would comfort him as they dug potatoes, saying: "The country will be full of auld spuds and eejits long after we are dead and gone".

The eejit in question, his handsome, hypochondriac father, who would remove the scabs of childhood impetigo with a sharp knife, was as autocratic as the Church. John shared his father's double bed until he was nearly 16, fondled by him as he lay there - on thigh and belly only.

There is nothing dramatic about McGahern's accounts of such frightfulness, and no outright condemnation either. He rejects the violence of his father and the Church, but "religion and religious imagery were part of the air we breathed". McGahern describes the primitive Irish Catholicism of hell, purgatory, limbo and the small red lamp burning before the ubiquitous and gory picture of the Sacred Heart with such detachment, that it becomes clear that a good part of his own sacred heart stopped the day his mother died. After that, he could survive anything.

His unblinking gaze both rejects and honours his mother's world. And so he describes a church that gave him much through its ceremonies and imagery. Its litanies live in his writing and he often uses repetition - of a walk, a time of year, a circumstance - like an incantation, or a decade of the rosary. The old Irish ways live on in his prose and he relishes the language of his people, as in this advice to a father of too many child-ren: "Dump the priest and put a cap on that oil well of yours."

McGahern promised his mother he would become a priest when he grew up. He promised her he would never change his mind. He did, but only in a fashion. This memoir is his offering to her, and a mass for his own people, the Irishmen and women of decades ago, those who left to earn money in England, those who stayed behind in poverty, working all the hours their God allowed. "Mine was a silent generation and it disappeared in silence," he writes. Now, in this account of his and their "precious" lives, he has spoken out, exquisitely, for all of them.