News and Events
John McGahern photograph exhibition and lecture
On Tuesday October 8, as part of the Red Line Book festival, Paul Butler mounted a photographic exhibition, Still, with various visual representations of Leitrim inspired by the writings of John McGahern, and Eamon Maher gave a talk on the importance of place in Memoir. Below see some of the photos from the exhibition and the talk.
Launch of the Quinn Collection
As part of Library Ireland Week 2011, ITT Dublin Library was delighted to launch a significant new acquisition. The Quinn Collection brings together some 1300 books dealing with a wide range of issues in French literature and culture.
They were kindly donated by Dr. Tom Quinn who, as a PhD student, had been entrusted with them by his supervisor, Dr. Leslie Davis of DCU. Dr. Eamon Maher, Director of the National Centre for Franco-Irish Centre at ITT Dublin, emphasised the value of the collection to researchers in the field and looked forward in particular to postgraduates availing of this marvellous resource.
The care with which the library staff at ITT Dublin had catalogued and arranged the collection was a sign to Dr. Quinn that the books had found a great home and that the collection bearing his name would be a living collection, which is exactly what he and Dr. Davis would have wished.
John McGahern piece by Eamon Maher, The Irish Times - Tuesday, March 1, 2011
THE fifth anniversary of the death of John McGahern falls on March 31st. When the news filtered through that he had passed away in 2006, a sombre mood took hold of the country. For many people McGahern had been a reassuring presence, someone whose writings captured in a special way the Zeitgeist of a nation. Commentators noted the special role Catholicism played in his work, in spite of his self-professed agnosticism. A new study just published examines the complex relationship the writer had with Catholicism.
McGahern lost his job as a primary school teacher after the banning of his second novel, The Dark , in 1965. The then Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, intervened directly to ensure that the writer be dismissed. This novel had not only described the masturbatory activities of its adolescent main character, but even went so far as to depict inappropriate sexual behaviour by a priest towards an adolescent male cousin, as well as sexual abuse by a father on his son.
The Irish public was not prepared for such a realistic portrayal of what were still taboo subjects at the time. In a letter to Michael McLaverty, a writer whom he admired greatly, McGahern stated: “What disturbs me very much is that the book’s a religious work if it’s anything at all”. This view was not shared by the Catholic Church or the Censorship Board and McGahern unsurprisingly found himself deprived of his main source of income and forced to leave Ireland to seek alternative employment abroad.
In an interview from 2001, McGahern showed few signs of bitterness about what had happened to him. In fact, he was at pains to point out the positive aspects of his Catholic upbringing: “The Church was my first book and I would think it is still my most important book,” he said. “And it’s through the church I first came to know all I’d know of manners, of ceremony, of sacrament, of grace.” Influenced no doubt by his devout mother, McGahern regretted reneging on the promise he made to her that he would become a priest. Literature became a type of surrogate priesthood: “Instead of being a priest of god, I would be the god of a small, vivid world.”
While he appreciated rituals like Benediction, the Stations of the Cross, the Corpus Christi processions, the May altars erected to the Virgin Mary, he was also conscious of the repressive side of Catholicism: “Authority’s writ ran from God the father down and could not be questioned. One of the compounds at its base was sexual sickness and frustration, as sex was seen, officially, as unclean and sinful, allowable only when it too was licensed.”
By portraying the society he was brought up in as it was and not as how people would like it to be, McGahern put himself on a collision course with the church, a conflict from which there could only be one winner. By the time of his death, however, a reconciliation of sorts had taken place, as evidenced by the presence of seven priests at the altar for his funeral Mass in Aughawillan, which ended with a decade of the rosary being recited at his grave.
In spite of arranging such a traditional funeral, John McGahern remained a non-believer to the end. Nevertheless, his literary vocation was closely linked to a religious quest, a quest that required a painful dredging up of past traumas, that demanded a cold look at the society that shaped him and an unflinching commitment to render in a truthful manner the people and society that made him into the writer he subsequently became. The Irish public that had demonstrated such revulsion for The Dark came to revere the author of Amongst Women (1990), That They May Face the Rising Sun (2002) and Memoir (2005), as they began to recognise the accuracy of McGahern’s depiction of Catholic rural Ireland.
It would be impossible to do McGahern’s work justice without remarking on the central role the Catholic religion plays in it. It is omnipresent in the language his characters use, their recitation of prayers, their observance of rituals. In his wonderful essay, The Church and its Spire , McGahern observed how at a certain point his spiritual needs could no longer be met through the Catholic Church. This did not mean that they failed to find an outlet elsewhere, however. He regretted how in Ireland, rather than espousing Gothic architecture with its noble spires lifting man’s gaze from the avaricious earth, we went instead for the Romanesque spirit, which he described as “the low roof, the fortress, the fundamentalists’ pulpit-pounding zeal, the darkly and ominous and fearful warnings to transgressors”. Now that that particular church appears to have all but disappeared, it is fortunate that we can still find traces of it, should we so wish, in McGahern’s writings.
Eamon Maher’s 'The Church and its Spire': John McGahern and the Catholic Question, with a foreword by Fintan O’Toole, is published by the Columba Press
Piece on Jacques Derrida in Irish Times
(This article was written by EAMON MAHER and appeared The Irish Times on Tuesday 25th January 2011)
SINCE his death in 2004, the reputation of the philosopher/theorist, Jacques Derrida, whose name is synonymous with “deconstruction”, has gone from strength to strength. A man of immense intellect and boundless energy – his publications output of more than 70 books is nothing short of remarkable – he never attained the type of respect among the French academic establishment that he enjoyed in the United States, where “French theory” became a growth industry in university campuses from the 1970s onwards.
His ostracism in France may have had something to do with the fact that his approach was very far removed from the traditional discourse that the French system demands. Also, he is a figure whom it is difficult to situate in intellectual terms: was he a philosopher or a literary critic? In a sense he was neither and both. Impossible to classify, he inspired suspicion and adoration in equal measure. Benoît Peeters’s biography, simply entitled Derrida , published by Flammarion, is the first to be published since the author’s death.
Peeters is conscious of the magnitude of his task: after all, Derrida was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. Although the biography contains 740 pages, one has the impression that it could have been a lot longer, so rich was the life and the work of this exceptional thinker. Also, the biographer was keenly aware of the wariness displayed by Derrida towards biography: in one of his conference papers, for example, he cited the following comment of Heidegger in relation to Aristotle: “He was born, he thought, he died”. All the rest was just anecdotal, in Derrida’s view. However, Peeters states that writing the life of Derrida means telling the story of a Jew from Algeria, who was (temporarily) banned from school at 12 years of age and subsequently became the most translated French philosopher of all time. It means coming to grips with a complex, tormented man who always felt like an interloper in the French university system. There is something unique about the capacity of the pied-noirs , the French colonists in Algeria, to view French society through the eyes of the “outsider”. Small wonder, then, given his origins, that the “Other” forms such an important part of Derrida’s philosophy.
Generations of Irish third-level students from the 1970s onwards were exposed to the ideas of French theory in faculties as diverse as sociology, anthropology, English and, of course, French. It challenged them to question the traditional trust placed in language to convey meaning. It also taught them to question “givens” and to deconstruct myths that are often treated as reality. In the current crisis we are undergoing, such skills could prove invaluable.
From the time he came to Paris to attend the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in 1949 to his death in 2004, Derrida was at the centre of some of the most seismic events in world history. He would be accepted into the École Normale Supérieure in 1952, which marked the beginning of a long association with the venerable rue d’Ulm institution as a student and professor. Louis Althusser was a close friend and colleague, but he was also close to the writers Jean Genet and Hélène Cixous.
Paul de Man was the person responsible for establishing and spreading his reputation in America, where he would spend a lot of time giving seminars and serving as visiting professor in various prestigious institutions. With other philosophers such as Maurice Blanchot, Michel Foucault, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas, his relations were marked by controversy and the occasional bitter exchange. Life in academe is not renowned for its serenity, but some of what is described by Peeters is nothing short of vicious.
The Algerian war preoccupied Derrida, as it did Camus, another pied-noir , and his family had to move to France to escape the atrocities that preceded independence. He lived through the turmoil of May ’68 and had a lifelong association with leftist politics without ever aligning himself definitively to communism or socialism. He was shocked by the repercussions caused by 9/11 and visited New York shortly afterwards. He was totally committed to his students, whose work he always corrected with care and whose careers he promoted zealously. Shortly before his death, it was strongly rumoured that he would be awarded the Nobel prize, but it was just one more honour that escaped him.
Reading this biography, one’s respect for Derrida grows as one discovers the human side behind the public persona. He was a child of the Mediterranean who experienced rejection on numerous occasions because of his “otherness”. He suffered from sporadic depression, and had one well-publicised romantic entanglement that caused great pain to him and those close to him. He knew all about alienation and, while he was capable of vindictiveness, he was also prepared to mend bridges and start afresh. All in all, Peeters’ work shows us a new dimension of Derrida and makes the man, if not his work, less impenetrable.