Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Though he wrote an earlier unpublished piece of long fiction, The Barracks is the first of John McGahern’s published novels. It was, generally, favorably reviewed and won for McGahern Ireland’s A. E. Memorial Award in 1962 and an Arts Council Fellowship in 1964. The Barracks contains in it many of the themes which he would subsequently pursue: the meaning or lack of meaning of an individual life, in the brief passage from birth to death, between light and darkness; the place of love, in both its sexual and its psychic manifestations, in this search for meaning; the circular journey that many of his later central characters undertake from the west of Ireland. It also establishes the uncertain mood and introduces the stylistic experimentation of subsequent work. The Dark, thematically, is a continuation of the saga of the remaining Reegans in The Barracks: The now-nameless young son is at the center of this work as he strives to free himself from poverty and repression in the person of his father, and from the Church in the person of his uncle. What uncertain light the hero may find working for the National Electricity Board in Dublin did nothing to mitigate the fury of the Irish censors who, presumably because of the masturbation scenes, the child molestation scenes, and the criticism of the Church, banned the book. McGahern was fired from his teaching post by the Reverend Manager of the school. He had, however, gleaned from his experiences material for two more novels, The Leavetaking (1974) and The Pornographer (1979), and three collections of short stories: Nightlines (1970), Getting Through (1978), and The High Ground (1983). Although he has lived in England, on the Continent, and in the United States, McGahern has taken his metaphors for the human condition from the Irish among whom he grew up, and he has used his native Irish countryside to good fictional advantage in The Barracks.