A first novel was banned by the 1960s Irish censor, and divorce and a civil marriage meant ejection by the Church from his primary teaching post. He ended up working in England before launching his writing career.
His work is based in the homes and lanes of Leitrim in western Ireland, and his own childhood, where the death of his schoolteacher mother, when he was nine, and the emotional and physical violence of his father, formed much of his later approach to the business of living.
Leitrim is Ireland's most depeopled county where the boggy land is allegedly sold by the gallon and every family would have emigrants.
McGahern only relaxed into his celebrity latterly, living quietly on a smallholding, eager for gossip in the local pub and at the Mart, walking the lanes he had walked with his beloved mother and making poetic prose out of the rhythm of local life.
When asked how he met his new fame after his Booker Prize nomination, McGahern replied: "Well now, maybe we are all famous in Leitrim, there are so few of us."
His last novel, That they may face the rising sun, depicts the community around Lough Allan, and a couple returned from England to their home place.
Neighbours share farm duties, and forever enquire: "Is there any news?" The words describe the routines of everyday life and the comfort they bring, finding beauty in detail and solace in the familiar.
But McGahern writes of no country idyll. His last work, Memoir, tells the story of his upbringing where the gentleness of his mother is counterpoint to that emotionally bullying father and a hard rural routine which seems to stretch back to pagan times. Seldom has there been a better depiction of the desolation of bereavement than that of McGahern's in the wake of the premature loss of his mother.
When asked about emigration, McGahern replied: "The pity is that, for those who went, the place they had left remained more real than the place where they had come to live."
For this child of Leitrim, McGahern's words gave reality and understanding of origins that surpassed description or storytelling. It is the power of the writer to create time, place and person that is endlessly fascinating.
And that is why I became an English teacher.