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'A calculating, control freak,' claims the first wife of late author John McGahern

ISOBEL CONWAY THE first wife of the late John McGahern has emerged from obscurity to allege that the writer was far from upset about the banning of his book The Dark and, in fact, revelled in his new-found notoriety.

Far from being shattered and disillusioned after the book was banned by the Irish Board of Censorship in 1965, John McGahern, who died in March, enjoyed his role as a cause celebre, claims the woman who was by his side and shared his life at the time.

"The truth is John was very pleased after the book was banned because it got him a lot of attention internationally, adding to his success. Marrying me soon afterwards in a registry office abroad was deliberate, to make the conflict even sharper," claimed McGahern's Finnish-born first wife Annikki Laaksi, to whom he dedicated The Dark.

Denounced from pulpits all over Ireland and fired from his teaching job in a North Dublin school for writing an allegedly pornographic book, they met in Paris in 1964.

A virtual recluse, Laaksi lives frugally off a pension in a tiny flat above a hardware shop in a suburb of Helsinki.

Until last week she appeared unaware of the critical acclaim and financial success that he enjoyed in recent years. After their divorce in 1969 they never spoke again and she tore up all his love letters.

The 71-year-old retired translator and radio drama director claimed that McGahern lied about the break-up of their marriage in his autobiography Memoir , inventing a fictional high-flying career for her. She disputes most of what he wrote - approximately five pages out of 272 - about the circumstances of their break-up. Angry and astonished at the "lies" she alleges he told, she now wants "to set the record straight".

McGahern had untruly suggested that the marriage finally collapsed when she returned to Finland, lured by the offer of a top job in TV. She wanted him to join her so he could write full-time while she earned enough for the two of them, he wrote.

But she told the Sunday Independent yesterday: "But this is all fantasy and lies. There never was a top job in TV or permanent work in the theatre either and the last thing I wanted was John coming back with me: you see, he hated Finland and the marriage was already over anyway."

Laaksi said that McGahern was looking for a mother figure in his relationship and during their four years together he never once gave her a birthday or Christmas present. But they had enjoyed a good sex life and on one level they were soul mates.

"If my English had been better I probably would not have married John at all, because I later discovered that we had not that much in common after all. There was intense physical attraction but that, in itself, is not enough to build lasting happiness.

"The idea of marrying in the first place was his," Laaksi remembers. "Of course, the furore about the book in Ireland upset him a bit at the time. He married me to cause an even greater stir - I often think that - I am quite cynical about it all." She alleges that John McGahern showed an unexpectedly controlling side in their relationship, but she also acknowledges that she became a controlling and even tyrannical force in his life. McGahern eventually began to associate her with his bullying father.

Recalling her meeting with John's father, she said: "The moment I entered the McGahern family house in Leitrim I sensed the horror and the violence. It was stifling, I could hardly breathe and I refused to stay a second night in the place. "The father reminded me of pictures of Hitler's henchman Goebbels."

Breaking down in tears, she added: "I do regret not keeping a letter or two and except for my stupid pride I would have perhaps got in touch - just for old time's sake - when the time was right.

"We had some really good times and I did love him," Ms Laaksi concluded.