All Will Be Well

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Overview

From award-winning author John McGahern, a memoir of his childhood in the Irish countryside and the beginnings of his life as a writer.McGahern describes his early years as one of seven children growing up in rural County Leitrim, a childhood was marked by his father’s violent nature and the early death of his beloved mother. Tracing the memories of home through both people and place, McGahern details family life and the beginnings of a writing career that would take him far from home, and then back again. ...
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All Will Be Well

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Overview

From award-winning author John McGahern, a memoir of his childhood in the Irish countryside and the beginnings of his life as a writer.McGahern describes his early years as one of seven children growing up in rural County Leitrim, a childhood was marked by his father’s violent nature and the early death of his beloved mother. Tracing the memories of home through both people and place, McGahern details family life and the beginnings of a writing career that would take him far from home, and then back again. Haunting and illuminating, All Will Be Well is an unforgettable portrait of Ireland and one of its most beloved writers.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Powerful.... If you haven’t read McGahern, this is a good place to start, at the heart of a lyric grief and an embittering passion.”
The New York Times Book Review

"Few have a story so full of pain and beauty as that of the revered Irish man of letters John McGahern."
The Boston Globe

“McGahern seeks not to exploit his past but to understand it and to make it pertinent and meaningful to others.”
The Washington Post Book World

Verlyn Klinkenborg
The course of All Will Be Well takes us through the writer's life, almost down to the present. And yet what makes this memoir so moving is its insistence — shared with many of McGahern's stories and novels — on the power of the single day that passes before us. For McGahern, daily routine is the root of our being, the arena of our noticing. It has an ontological glow, as if life were best understood in the episodic rhythms of daylight and darkness.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Now in his early 70s, award-winning novelist McGahern grew up in rural Ireland, the oldest of seven children in a dysfunctional, devoutly religious family. He adored his schoolteacher mother, who died of breast cancer when he was nine, and he writes of her with awe and tenderness. The young McGahern set his sights on the priesthood, a dream tied up with his love of his mother: "We'll live together in an old presbytery close to the church, and when you die I'll say so many Masses for you that you'll hardly have to spend any time in purgatory." She was the opposite of his coldly calculating father, Frank, who was suspicious, secretive, miserly and fueled by a need to dominate everyone in his life. The kind of husband who prayed for his dying wife, but didn't sit by her bedside, and the kind of father who didn't attend his children's weddings, Frank was the obvious inspiration for the patriarch of McGahern's most famous work, Amongst Women. The writing is lyrically beautiful and rich in details of Ireland of the '40s and '50s. Yet the memoir is also hard to penetrate because of its digressions and the unfortunate editorial choice to run the text together without chapter breaks. (Feb. 13) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
McGahern recalls a tough childhood in "the hidden Ireland," his mother's death when he was but a child, and his career as one of Ireland's most distinguished novelists. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A gloomy memoir of growing up amid harsh conditions in rural Ireland. Born in 1934, novelist McGahern (By the Lake, 2002, etc.) traces his childhood in and around Leitrim, a central lake town at the base of the Iron Mountains where the soil is extremely poor and life rather grim and joyless. Early on, he and his three sisters (more siblings arrived later) lived with their paternal grandmother and mother in Ballinamore, while their father, a former IRA member now serving as a sergeant in the army, was stationed at the barracks 20 miles away in Cootehall. Young Sean, as the boy was known, clung to his gentle mother, Sue, a schoolteacher. Although she never beat her children, she couldn't protect them from the occasional explosive brutality of their willful, handsome father or the routine canings received at the hands of schoolmistresses. At the base of the violence tolerated by this deeply Catholic society, asserts McGahern, "was sexual sickness and frustration": Sex was deemed unclean, and the division between body and soul firmly demarcated. After their mother died of cancer, ten-year-old Sean and his siblings lived at the whim of their coldly calculating father. The children drew together for survival, scrambling to educate themselves and then get away from home. Sean was accepted at a teachers' training college in Dublin closely associated with the Church, which assured him of a good job at a time when many Irish people were forced to find employment in Britain or abroad. His father gradually declined in mental and physical health just as Sean's literary star was rising; his first novel, The Barracks, won the AE Memorial Award in 1963. After he married, the author moved back to Leitrim,mostly as a gesture toward the memory of his beloved mother. Occasionally meandering, but possessing a quiet authority and subtle emotional power.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400079865
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/8/2007
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 437,565
  • Product dimensions: 5.29 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

John McGahern wrote six highly acclaimed novels and four collections of short stories, and was the recipient of many awards and honors, including an award from the Society of Author, the American Ireland Fund Literary Awards, the Prix Ecureuil de Littérature Etrangère and the Chevalier de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Amongst Women, which won both the GPA Book Award and the Irish Times Award, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. He died in 2006.
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Read an Excerpt

The soil in Leitrim is poor, in places no more than an inch deep. Underneath is daub, a blue-grey modelling clay, or channel, a compacted gravel. Neither can absorb the heavy rainfall. Rich crops of rushes and wiry grasses keep the thin clay from being washed away.

The fields between the lakes are small, separated by thick hedges of whitethorn, ash, blackthorn, alder, sally, rowan, wild cherry, green oak, sycamore, and the lanes that link them under the Iron Mountains are narrow, often with high banks. The hedges are the glory of these small fields, especially when the hawthorn foams into streams of blossom each May and June. The sally is the first tree to green and the first to wither, and the rowan berries are an astonishing orange in the light from the lakes every September. These hedges are full of mice and insects and small birds, and sparrowhawks can be seen hunting all through the day. 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. The beaten pass the otter takes between the lakes can be traced along these banks and hedges, and in quiet places on the edge of the lakes are the little lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otter feeds and trains her young. Here and there surprising islands of rich green limestone are to be found. Among the rushes and wiry grasses also grow the wild orchid and the windflower. The very poorness of the soil saved these fields when old hedges and great trees were being levelled throughout Europe for factory farming, and, amazingly, amid unrelenting change, these fields have hardly changed at all since I ran and played and worked in them as a boy.

A maze of lanes link the houses that are scattered sparsely about these fields, and the lanes wander into one another like streams until they reach some main road. These narrow lanes are still in use. In places, the hedges that grow on the high banks along the lanes are so wild that the trees join and tangle above them to form a roof, and in the full leaf of summer it is like walking through a green tunnel pierced by vivid pinpoints of light.

I came back to live among these lanes thirty years ago. My wife and I were beginning our life together, and we thought we could make a bare living on these small fields and I would write. It was a time when we could have settled almost anywhere, and if she had not liked the place and the people we would have moved elsewhere. I, too, liked the place, but I was from these fields and my preference was less important.

A different view of these lanes and fields is stated by my father: “My eldest son has bought a snipe run in behind the Ivy Leaf Ballroom,” he wrote. In some ways, his description is accurate. The farm is small, a low hill between two lakes, and the soil is poor. My father would have seen it as a step down from the world of civil servants, teachers, doctors, nurses, policemen, tillage inspectors to which he belonged. Also, it was too close to where my mother’s relatives lived and where I had grown up with my mother. The very name of the Ivy Leaf Ballroom would have earned his disapproval.

A local man, Patsy Conboy, built it with money he made in America. He first called it Fenaghville—it was the forerunner of the Cloudlands and the Roselands—and later it became, more appropriately, the Ivy Leaf. All through the 1950s and into the 1960s he hired famous dance bands. In spite of being denounced from several pulpits, the ballroom prospered and Patsy Conboy became a local hero, dispensing much employment. People came by bus, by lorry, hackney car, horse trap, on bicycle and on foot to dance the night away. Couples met amid the spangled lights on the dusty dance floor and invited one another out to view the moon and take the beneficial air: “There wasn’t a haycock safe for a mile around in the month of July.” All the money Patsy Conboy made on the dancehall was lost in two less rooted ventures: a motorcycle track that turned into a quagmire as soon as it was used and an outdoor, unheated swimming pool amid the hundreds of small lakes and the uncertain weather. They were not rooted in the permanent need that made the ballroom such a success.

Patsy was more than able to hold his ground against the pulpits. When he was losing money digging the unheated swimming pool out of daub and channel, men turned up for work with letters from their priests stating that they had large families to support and should be employed. Patsy was unmoved: “My advice to you, Buster, is to dump the priest and put a cap on that oil well of yours. They have been capping such oil wells for years in America. Families are smaller and everybody is better off.”

He was living close by when we bought the snipe run. The Ivy Leaf was then a ruin, its curved iron roof rusted, its walls unpainted, and Patsy had gone blind. Nothing about Patsy or his ballroom or the snipe zigzagging above the rushes would have commended themselves to my father. We settled there and were happy. My relationship with these lanes and fields extended back to the very beginning of my life.

When I was three years old I used to walk a lane like these lanes to Lisacarn School with my mother. We lived with her and our grandmother, our father’s mother, in a small bungalow a mile outside the town of Ballinamore. Our father lived in the barracks twenty miles away in Cootehall, where he was sergeant. We spent the long school holidays with him in the barracks, and he came and went to the bungalow in his blue Baby Ford on annual holidays and the two days he had off in every month. Behind the bungalow was a steep rushy hill, and beside it a blacksmith’s forge. The bungalow which we rented must have been built for the blacksmith and was a little way up from the main road that ran to Swanlinbar and Enniskillen and the North. The short pass from the road was covered with clinkers from the forge. They crunched like grated teeth beneath the traffic of hoofs and wheels that came and went throughout the day. Hidden in trees and bushes on the other side of the main road was the lane that led to Lisacarn where my mother taught with Master Foran. Lisacarn had only a single room and the teachers faced one another when they taught their classes, the long benches arranged so that their pupils sat back to back, a clear space between the two sets of benches on the boarded floor. On the windowsill glowed the blue Mercator globe, and wild flowers were scattered in jamjars on the sills and all about the room. Unusual for the time, Master Foran, whose wife was also a teacher, owned a car, a big Model-T Ford, and in wet weather my mother and I waited under trees on the corner of the lane to be carried to the school. In good weather we always walked. There was a drinking pool for horses along the way, gates to houses, and the banks were covered with all kinds of wild flowers and vetches and wild strawberries. My mother named these flowers for me as we walked, and sometimes we stopped and picked them for the jamjars. I must have been extraordinarily happy walking that lane to school. There are many such lanes all around where I live, and in certain rare moments over the years while walking in these lanes I have come into an extraordinary sense of security, a deep peace, in which I feel that I can live forever. I suspect it is no more than the actual lane and the lost lane becoming one for a moment in an intensity of feeling, but without the usual attendants of pain and loss. These moments disappear as suddenly and as inexplicably as they come, and long before they can be recognized and placed.

I don’t think I learned anything at school in Lisacarn, though I had a copybook I was proud of. I was too young and spoiled, and spoiled further by the older girls who competed in mothering me during the school breaks. I remember the shame and rage when they carried me, kicking and crying, into the empty schoolroom to my mother. Everybody was laughing: I had sat on a nest of pismires on the bank until most of the nest was crawling inside my short trousers.

I am sure my mother took me with her because she loved me and because I had become a nuisance in the house. I had three sisters already, the twins Breedge and Rosaleen and the infant Margaret, not much more than three years spanning all four of us. Our grandmother had been a dressmaker and stood arrow-straight in her black dresses. My handsome father, who stood arrow-straight as well until he was old, was her only child. She had been a local beauty and was vain and boastful. She was forever running down the poor land of Leitrim and its poor-looking inhabitants, which must have done nothing for her popularity. It was true that my father’s relatives were tall and many were handsome: “When we went to your mother’s wedding and saw all those whoosins from Cavan—Smiths and Leddys and Bradys and McGaherns—we felt like scrunties off the mountain,” my Aunt Maggie told me once laughingly. The McGaherns set great store on looks and maleness and position. There was a threat of violence in them all, and some were not a little mad and none had tact. There was a wonderful-looking first cousin of my father’s, Tom Leddy, a guard like my father, who had also married a teacher. He was stationed at Glenfarne on the shores of Lough Melvin. Years later, out of the blue, he called soon after my father had remarried to find my stepmother alone in the house, a clever, plain-looking woman who adored my father and was both his slave and master. Having introduced himself forthrightly, he demanded, “Who are you? Are you the new housekeeper?” “I’m Frank’s wife,” she responded. “Frank’s wife,” he looked at her in amazement and broke into such uncontrollable laughter that he had to sit down. “Frank’s wife. That’s the best one I’ve heard in years. The whole country must be going bananas.” When he rose, he repeated, “Frank’s wife. You have made my day. Well, whoever you are, tell Frank that his cousin Tom Leddy called and that I’ll call soon again one of these years,” and left as abruptly as he came.

Whether my grandmother was a little mad as well, I was too young to know. She either had a great influence on my father or their temperaments were similar. Who can tell whether certain temperaments are ever influenced by nurture? They were both violent and wilful. Once, when she caught me burning bits of paper in the open grate of the small range to watch them blaze in the fascination children have with flame, she caught and thrust my finger between the glowing bars. She disregarded both my cries and my mother’s horrified protestations. “You have the child half ruined already. There’s only one way he’ll learn.” Neither she nor my father had any sense of humour, and they hardly ever smiled or laughed, and they looked on any manifestation of enjoyment in others as a symptom of irresponsibility. They also saw it as diverting attention from themselves. The difference between them was great as well. My father was intelligent and could be charming, even gallant, when he wanted. Though he was as vain and proud as she, he was never boastful: “Nobody blows themselves up other than fools. If you need praise, get others to do it for you.”

I was a single star until the twins arrived, and I became insanely jealous of the natural transfer of attention. On dry days, when my mother was at school, my grandmother often left the twins out in the sun between the house and the forge, high on the sloping pass of clinkers that ran to the open gate on the road. I was forever around the forge, and she would warn me to mind them before going back into the house, having locked the brake on their big pram. I must have been planning how to get them out of my life for some time. I learned to unlock the brake, and one day, after careful checking that nobody was watching either from the forge or the house or the road, I pushed the pram down the slope. The pass wasn’t steep and the wheels would have bumped and slowed on the clinkers, but before it came to a stop the pram wheeled off the pass and overturned. The twins weren’t hurt, but all this time my grandmother had been observing me from behind a curtain, and made not the slightest attempt—she had only to tap the window—to protect the twins, though she was out of the house and able to seize me as I was watching the pram overturn in terrified dismay.

From the Hardcover edition.

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