The Great Hunger is a striking (and necessary) counterbalance to the frequently voiced sentimental, romantic exaltation of the Irish peasant. It is a firm refutation of the ‘noble peasant’ myth.
The poem is not only the depiction of the “sad, grey, twisted, blind, awful” life of one Irish peasant-farmer; it is also a terrible and moving composite image of human frustration. Held by the “grip of irregular fields,” Maguire is emblematic of all human beings in their material and spiritual struggle against squalor, emptiness, and sexual deprivation.
The tyranny of the soil dehumanizes Maguire and his fellow potato gatherers. Time for them is measured by the land and its demands; holidays are remembered by the color of the fields. Maguire, only once removed from the beast he drives in that he, unlike them, is aware of his plight, is, in the end, “a sick horse nosing around the meadow for a clean place to die.”
Those tied to the land like Maguire become eunuchs, as youthful dreams of love eventually turn to lust, self-abuse, and finally impotence. Promises to marry “before apples were hung from the ceilings for Halloween” are delayed, and in the delay Maguire dismisses “children as tedious” and becomes lost to “passion that never needs a wife.” Such deprivation leads to self-deception as a mechanism of survival. Sitting on the wooden gate one July day and “riding in day-dream’s car,” Maguire is moved to “high ecstasies” by the glory he beholds while, ironically, “Life slipped between the bars.”
Religious strictures and rigid communal standards also stifle one’s humanity and sense of divine truth. Symbolically, when Maguire leaves Mass, he coughs “the prayer phlegm up from his throat”; ritual without meaning chokes spiritual truth. A puritanical, overactive sense of sin—a part of the general spiritual condition of Maguire’s community—operates in his mind. One day as he eyed a passing young woman, he “rushed beyond the thing/ To the unreal. And he saw Sin/ Written in letters larger than John Bunyan dreamt of.”
Excessive idealism and the quest for eternal truths also stirred Kavanagh’s satiric ire. Too often, like Maguire, people turn “from five simple doors of sense” to the door “whose combination lock has puzzled/ Philosopher and priest and common dunce.” Kavanagh would have his reader probe the everyday and the commonplace with common sense.