Amongst Women is John McGahern’s eighth work of fiction, and is likely to become his best-known work. A huge best-seller in Ireland, it has been nominated for numerous literary prizes and was the recipient of the lucrative and prestigious Irish Times-Aer Lingus award. All McGahern’s work has received the highest critical acclaim, and he has generally been considered the most knowing, able, and resourceful diagnostician of Irish family life in the post-Independence era. WithAmongst Women, however, he clearly touched a national nerve. In addition, this novel, which is the author’s first in thirteen years, brings to optimum expression many of the preoccupations of McGahern’s earlier works. Despite its apparent simplicity of narrative and style, therefore,Amongst Women should be regarded as a complex event in the literary and cultural life of modern Ireland.
The novel is dominated by the figure of Michael Moran, and by the fact that domination is the only style of interrelationship of which he is capable. A veteran of the civil war that won Ireland’s independence (1919-1921), which was essentially a guerrilla operation on the part of the insurgents, Moran continues to use the vigilance, sense of vulnerability, and iron discipline that were crucial to survival in more extreme times. To Moran, his survival instincts seem all the more necessary in view of the disappointments and ineptitudes of the society brought into being by the struggle for independence.
McGahern uses deft touches to reveal his material’s wider, nonfamilial resonances, such as the connection he tacitly admits between different codes of extremism. Moran is the connection’s embodiment and would-be apologist, which furnishes him with an iron-clad consistency. The use of “Daddy” by every member of the family, including his second wife Rose, is a homely but effectively ironic commentary on the cult of personality that Moran has created within this microcosm of society constituted by his family. Yet, for all of his strength and command, Moran is the character who dies. According to McGahern’s moral imagination, there is more to life than systematic consistency.
The core of the novel consists of both the representation of Moran’s formidable power and of the inevitability of resistance to it. McGahern’s chief means of representation are a loving, though strictly unsentimental, use of the rituals and repetitions of Irish rural life: meals, day trips, the saving of crops, the recitation of the Rosary, and the arrival of the mail. It is through the observance of these ceremonies that the force of Moran’s power is seen at its keenest, and—as McGahern is at pains to remind the reader—at its most ordinary. Because of the tonally flawless recollection and expert deployment of this material,Amongst Women exceeds the scope of its own ostensibly narrow concerns; it becomes a valediction for a way of life whose continuities and collectivities cannot Operate with any degree of credibility in modern Ireland.
Moran’s scrupulous insistence on the observance of the traditional pieties of Irish family life is a self-conscious attempt on his part to withstand the crude, objectionable, and commercialized aspects which he sees as contaminating influences. His resistance to change is also a failure to acknowledge difference; this failure is a source of perpetual discouragement and disappointment to him, particularly regarding his children. His critical, rejecting attitude to the world around him is also responsible for his isolation, and for his repeated claim that his family should, by following his example, consider itself above the world in which it finds itself. Understandable as Moran’s inflexible conception of independence is, it inevitably engenders resistance. McGahern handles sympathetically the sense of inevitability both in Moran’s position and in the challenge of change which his children unwittingly but ineluctably bring to it.
This responsiveness is seen to best advantage in the portrait of Rose. At once an outsider and an intimate partner in Moran’s regime, she is a lens through which the reader may form a critical perspective on the protagonist’s patriarchal comprehension of life. The way of life is observed predominantly through women. Moran’s eldest son Luke has absconded from the family home before the novel opens. When he turns up briefly late in the novel, Luke is seen to have nothing in common with his father or his family. His presence sounds an extreme note of difference, alerting the reader to the struggle for harmony which the women in the family have been obliged to carry out. This note of difference is augmented by the career of Luke’s younger brother Michael, who also refuses to reconcile himself to his father’s rule and strikes out for himself. In their vehement assertion of their own independence, both Moran boys identify themselves as their father’s sons; in order to maintain his own distinctiveness, however, Moran can never entertain such a perception of...
(The entire section is 2056 words.)