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John McGahern| 80th Anniversary

November 12, 2014

John McGahern

John McGahern

It seems fitting to mark what would have been John McGahern’s 80th birthday.

In his obituary of McGahern for The Guardian in March 2006, Richard Pine commented that McGahern was arguably the Ireland’s most important writer since Samuel Beckett. Yet Mc Gahern studies are still at an early stage.

The James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway is a place I know rather well.  As an undergraduate, I fed my JSTOR habit there constantly, and sighed over many an assignment at the first floor computer suite.

One of the most tantalising words under ‘Book Search’ was  Basement. For this book lover, it conjured up dusty tomes smelling of old leather and cloth, with creamy rough-cut pages. Pure fantasy, of course. Special Collections on the ground floor held some of the Library’s precious holdings. The basement , though also a home for old journals, held books that had to be ordered at the main desk. And, until recently, the Library had a space problem when it came to accessing archives.

Not any longer.

Research Building, James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. Photo: NUIG

Research Building, James Hardiman Library, NUI Galway. Photo: NUIG

The new Research Building gives postgraduate students and visiting scholars a comfortable and up-to-date space in which to do their research. And it makes the lives of the staff a bit easier too!

A few weeks ago I signed in to the Archive Room. Archive Librarian Kieran Hoare had arranged for two boxes to be brought up: Box 20 &  Box 21 from the John McGahern Archive were waiting for me. I surprised even myself with my reaction to these cardboard treasure troves.

I sat in front of them for a while, rather like a child in front of a large, wrapped Christmas present; too excited to open it. Eventually, I shook myself. Removing the lid, I gently lifted out the first folder and, rather teary-eyed, opened up the intimate world of a great writer.

Box 20 contains, in the main, work related to McGahern’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s play, Power of Darkness. There are drafts and redrafts; introductions discarded, re-written. Gradually, the handwriting became more familiar. I strained to read struck-out phrases or words. Trying to read a writer’s mind.

McGahern Mss. Photo from NUIG

McGahern Mss. Photo from NUIG

Reading and writing. Nothing beats it.

Though seated in a brand new, quiet research room, the feeling was that of freewheeling down a hill on a ‘high-Nelly’ bicycle. There is a great privilege in research, although it’s a hard task at times. I hope I’ll never tire of the byways it takes me down.

The John McGahern Archive is one of the jewels in the crown at the Hardiman Library. Find out more about it at

And today, on what would have been McGahern’s 80th birthday, maybe take a trip to your own library. Read an essay or two from Love of the World – ‘The Solitary Reader’ perhaps. Or settle in, this winter’s evening, and take up That They May Face the Rising Sun.



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