How McGahern did it

Anthony Caleshu

In 2003, John McGahern deposited his papers in the James Hardiman Library at the National University of Ireland, Galway, where he was Adjunct Professor of Irish Studies. Since his death in 2006, his wife Madeline has deposited additional materials, and the collection now comprises more than 1,400 items in thirty-three grey cardboard boxes. Draft versions of each of McGahern’s six novels (as well as the unpublished The End or the Beginning of Love), all but one of his thirty-eight published stories, his Memoir, and various plays and essays make up the bulk of the archive. In his Introduction to the catalogue of the McGahern papers, NUI Galway librarian Fergus Fahey writes that the ‘principal challenge’ was establishing chronology, since few drafts are dated and some are presumably missing; thus the drafts appear in what Fahey calls a ‘roughly’ chronological order.1

As with many of the other works whose evolution is documented in the Galway archive, the short story ‘Bank Holiday’ appears first in McGahern’s even cursive handwriting, and then in typescript with handwritten notes, edits and additions. The story underwent substantial revision, and every so often McGahern wrote a new draft by hand; one of these appears in a thin casebook bearing the inscription ‘Bank Holiday, Novel’. A total of twenty-three drafts and/or fragments of ‘Bank Holiday’ survive in the archive, culminating in a ‘fair copy’ that is nearly identical to the version published in the Irish Times and in the collection High Ground in 1985. Together, the surviving drafts tell us much about the evolution of the story and provide an unusually detailed insight into McGahern’s writing process.

The story follows Patrick McDonough, a 50-year-old civil servant, as he starts the Saturday morning of a Bank Holiday weekend with the ‘elation’ of having no plans but to walk about Dublin. Within a couple of pages, however, that elation is gone and he has gone back to his apartment, where he finds a telegram lying in the hallway signed Mary Kelleher, ‘a name he didn’t know’. She was given his name by an old friend, James White, who now works for the Tourist Board in New York. He rings the number she’s left. Mary, a young American, is in Dublin to do some manuscript study towards a doctorate in medieval literature. The two go to lunch, to the beach, to a pub (where they have a prickly encounter with a Kavanagh-like figure referred to as ‘the poet’, who calls McDonough ‘a mediocrity’) and then to McDonough’s bed. The story concludes, in its published version, as follows:

There were no serious complications in sight. They were so tired and happy that it was as if they were already in possession of endless quantities of time and money.

It would take no small concordance to note all of the changes McGahern made over the twenty-three drafts. There are two different points of view, eight variant openings and almost as many endings. At the level of the individual word and phrase there are countless variations, as might be indicated by the respective openings of the fifth draft and the published story:

It had been an unusual summer, hot for weeks, and the white morning mist between the bridges seemed a guarantee of the hot weather lasting beyond the August Bank Holiday weekend.

It had been unusual weather, hot for weeks, and the white morning mist above the river, making ghostly the figures crossing the metal bridge, seemed a certain promise that the good weather was going to last beyond the holiday.

But the greatest fascination of the drafts is in McGahern’s development of his protagonist, Patrick McDonough. In a 2001 interview with Eamon Maher, McGahern spoke about his approach to creating characters:

There’s a very interesting thing that Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘If you start with a person, you end up with a type, but if you start with a type you wind up with nothing.’ You set out to discover something in your writing and it is through the attempt to discover that you reflect. If you have your mind made up about something you’ll reflect nothing.2

McGahern’s many revisions of ‘Bank Holiday’ are very much dedicated to discovering McDonough. In the published version, McDonough is presented as careful and cautious, if not stuck in his ways; there are few references to his appearance beyond his generic ‘tie and jacket’. In the drafts, however, McDonough’s appearance is of central concern, and he, like so many of McGahern’s men, is handsome. Here’s the third paragraph from what appears to be the first draft, the yellow-lined paper extensively annotated:

He was tall and handsome, that rare enough figure, a handsome man who grew more handsome as he aged. His hair was a dull silver, parted in the centre. Except for the hair and lines of the face and that certain stillness of a man sure of his own ground, it would be hard to credit that he was a senior civil servant celebrating his fiftieth birthday. His shirt was open-necked, the grey tweed jacket with a blue thread beautifully cut. He was well aware of his good looks, and there were times when he felt they travelled with him like a curse.

That last simile is ominous; soon the ‘curse’ of McDonough’s good looks becomes his ‘bad luck’. In the second draft, that bad luck is given a name:

He had extraordinarily bad luck in Margaret O’Neill. She was small and excitable, a teacher of violin, and had fallen in love with him like all the others. But when he could not give her what he could not give she had a serious breakdown. He had tried to visit her in the home but she would not see him.

Margaret O’Neill (whose name changes in later versions to Rita O’Halloran and to Melanie) exists only in the unpublished drafts, and in most of the extant versions her love for McDonough pushes her to the point of threatening confrontation. The story of this relationship is used as a counterpoint to his newfound love for Mary Kelleher. The many drafts that contain this backstory read like a psychological thriller, with McDonough as the aloof hero and Margaret/Rita as the sensitive woman he’s made hysterical with longing. Long after she has been released from the psychiatric institution, he runs into her quite accidentally one day, and ‘her easy friendliness took him completely by surprise’. (I take this and the following from draft 7, but other early drafts tell this story in much the same way.) He finds himself, with all self-aware irony, attracted to her and, ‘[throwing] all his natural caution aside’, asks her to marry him. We’re told there is something unnatural in her ‘complete calm’ and in the ‘casual[ness]’ of the next few weeks ‘that should have warned him’. Their wedding night confirms this:

… he suggested a last drink in the hotel bar. She said she was tired but for him to go. He had a long drink of draught Bass, he remembered, but did not delay. She was in bed when he got back, the light turned off, and though she did not object to his turning on the light she covered her eyes with a pillow. He could not understand the persisting tenseness, and out of some instinct drew the bedclothes quickly back before he turned off the light, and there in her hand above the flowered night-dress was the open razor.

Whether she plans to harm herself or him isn’t made clear, and McDonough’s retrospective reflection on the experience is dealt with quickly. He has come through it unscathed, better than unscathed in fact. His sexual life is not over as he once feared; instead, ‘his story coupled with his looks made him “interesting”, even more attractive to women than before’.

McGahern first contemplates cutting the razor scene in draft 13, with two interlocking Xs sprawling across pages 3 and 4 in black and red ink, but in draft 14 Rita is back with her ‘good old-fashioned bone handle cutthroat’. In draft 15, McDonough thinks of Rita, but McGahern crosses her out again – four pages marked with those great Xs in red and black pen. In draft 16, Rita and her razor appear to be gone, but in the last paragraph she resurfaces (as in the first draft) as the ‘wife’ he once had:

His wife had loved him with a fierce possessiveness before they were married, and when he could no longer live with that love or possessiveness those feelings turned into a far stronger hatred. That [sic] form that hatred took was to deliberately set out to woo him. She succeeded. They were married. On their wedding night, as he pulled back the sheet out of some fear or instinct before getting into the bed, he saw in her hand the open razor, the blade drawn open.

McDonough’s past with Margaret/Rita/Melanie is finally excised altogether in draft 19, and does not appear again; in the published story, we learn that McDonough has separated from his wife, but we know nothing more about her.

In the 2001 interview with Eamon Maher, McGahern said: ‘I think fiction is a very serious thing, that while it is fiction, it is also a revelation of truth, or facts.’ Similarly, at the end of his short Preface to his late volume of new and selected stories, Creatures of the Earth, he writes:

Among its many obligations, fiction always has to be believable. Life does not have to suffer such constraint, and much of what takes place is believable only because it happens. The god of life is accident. Fiction has to be true to a central idea or vision of life.

It may be that McGahern removed the razor from ‘Bank Holiday’ because by the eighteenth draft he had simply come not to believe it.

Draft 19 is handwritten in a small grey exercise book of forty-nine pages.3 Whereas most of the drafts (and indeed the final version) end with McDonough and Mary Kelleher discussing their future after a happy week together, in this draft McGahern extends the timescale of the story, sending them on a trip to a hotel in Paris, where McDonough took another girl years ago. Though Mary declares her love for McDonough, he no longer thinks it’ll work out and he tells her as much, leaving her to ‘[tell] him that she decided to leave that evening and he was not to follow. There was only one such love in any life.’ The next three pages flash back to their contemplating having a child together, but McGahern crosses this passage out. Instead, McDonough returns to Dublin, alone, where he again meets ‘the poet’, who apologizes for having insulted McDonough in front of Mary at the pub: ‘I was looking for you for weeks. I didn’t mean to call you a mediocrity.’

The final new element of this draft is the reappearance of McDonough’s old friend James White, the man responsible for telling Mary to look McDonough up in Dublin. In the last paragraph of the published version, McDonough imagines visiting New York to see Mary at Christmas, and muses that White ‘would be surprised’ to see that McDonough and Mary had become a couple. In draft 19, however, with the couple now split, McGahern flashes forward to a year later. White is on holiday in Dublin; he has arranged to meet McDonough and has referred to ‘big news’. Having come to regret letting Mary Kelleher go, McDonough ‘wondered what the news was, if it concerned Mary Kelleher, and was strangely nervous’. Upon meeting White, however, McDonough has to prompt him about Mary, only to suffer the anticlimax of his old friend’s having no more than a ‘dim recollection’ of her: no report of her asking after McDonough, no report of her pining for him like the women of previous drafts. White’s news, uttered with great enthusiasm, is that after many years abroad, he and his wife are returning to Ireland, and he wants McDonough to be the first visitor to their place in Aran. There’s little comfort for McDonough in White’s, and the draft’s, last line: ‘You could spend three days with us in Aran and then we’d cross to Clarenbridge and eat whole portions of the ocean.’

In a mid-1990s interview with Liliane Louvel, McGahern spoke of the short story as ‘just a small explosion’. ‘In a way,’ he said, ‘the whole world begins before the story begins, and in a way a whole world takes place afterwards, which the reader imagines.’4 The drafts of ‘Bank Holiday’ can be read as evidence of a long struggle to keep the explosion small. To get to the final version, McGahern had to exhaust the possibilities of alternative storylines and secondary characters who might inform McDonough’s development, and even the possibility that the story might be a novel. In the published version, the backstory of McDonough’s razor-wielding wife, the trip to Paris with Mary Kelleher, and the reappearances of ‘the poet’ and James White are all absent; the setting and timescale are narrowly focused. We are left with McDonough and Mary in love after a week together in Dublin. McGahern often spoke of the influence of Chekhov, but it took twenty-three drafts for him to find his way to following Chekhov’s famous advice: ‘It is not necessary to portray many main characters. Let two people be the centre of gravity in your story: he and she.’

1 All drafts cited are from the John McGahern Papers, James Hardiman LIbrary, National University of Ireland, Galway, P71/569-591. I thank Fergus Fahey for his great help with the drafts.
2 ‘Catholicism and National Identity in the Works of John McGahern’, Studies: an Irish Quarterly Review, no. 357, vol. 90. Spring 2001.
3 The folder P71/587 contains an exercise book written both front to back and back to front with what seem to be three drafts; what I’m calling draft 19 is the most complete of these. The folder also contains a draft of another story, ‘The Creamery Manager’.
4 Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 34, Spring 2000.



Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 37 Winter 2009–10.