John McGahern McGahern, John (Vol. 156) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John McGahern 1934-2006

Irish novelist, short story writer, and playwright.

The following entry presents an overview of McGahern's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 9, and 48.

A controversial and provocative Irish literary figure, McGahern writes traditionally structured fiction in which he challenges many of his homeland's conventional social, sexual, and religious values. Focusing on protagonists for whom life in modern Ireland has become restrictive and repressive, McGahern examines such themes as the failure of love, the erosion of marital compatibility, the difficulty of maintaining hope, and the burden of Irish parochialism and religious conservatism. Often employing religious diction, imagery, and motifs, McGahern presents a vision of contemporary Ireland characterized by symbols of death, darkness, infertility, and impotency. His writings have been compared to those of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, and Anton Chekhov.

Biographical Information

McGahern was born in 1934 in Leitrim, Ireland. His mother was a schoolteacher, and his father served as a police officer. Due to their jobs, McGahern's parents lived apart and after the death of his mother from cancer McGahern went to live with his father in the police barracks. For seven years, McGahern taught at St. John the Baptist Boys National School in Clontarf. The Barracks (1963) won two of Ireland's most prestigious literary awards—the A. E. Memorial Award and the Macauley fellowship—enabling McGahern to take a leave of absence from his teaching post in order to write full time. In 1965 McGahern married Finnish theatrical producer Annikki Laaksi. That same year his second novel, The Dark, was banned in Ireland by the Irish Censorship Board due to content which portrayed a young boy's dawning sexuality and his conflicting desire to become a priest. McGahern's well-publicized battles with the Censorship board and with the Catholic school hierarchy made him anxious to leave Ireland. McGahern also came under scrutiny by the Catholic church for marrying Laaksi, a Protestant. For several years McGahern travelled throughout Europe, teaching at universities, writing, and lecturing in the United States, Ireland, Canada, and England. In 1974 he returned to Ireland to live on a small farm in County Leitrim with his second wife, Madeline Green, whom he married in 1973. In 1989 the president of France awarded McGahern the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, and in 1990, his novel Amongst Women was short-listed for a Booker Prize and won the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Fiction Prize. In 1992 Amongst Women was also given the GPA Award by John Updike for the best book written by an Irish writer during the three previous years. John McGahern died of cancer on May 20th 2006.

Major Works

In his first novel, The Barracks, McGahern introduces many of the themes and motifs that recur throughout his works. In this intimate portrait of a middle-aged woman's physical, psychological, and spiritual struggle with cancer, McGahern explores such subjects as alienation and despair, conformity, the search for self, and the transience and apparent meaninglessness of life. His next book, The Dark, is regarded by many as more technically adventuresome than his first novel. Featuring an episodic structure, shifting points of view, and passages of stream-of-consciousness prose, The Dark focuses on an adolescent boy's problematic relationships with both his widowed father and the provincial Irish society. Censorship and marriage outside the church are both topics forming the foundation for The Leavetaking (1974). The novel is an account of Patrick Moran's dismissal from his teaching position at a Catholic boy's school because of his marriage to a non-Catholic American woman. The work concludes with an assertion of the power of love to overcome prejudice and rejection. In The Pornographer (1979), a young Irish author enlivens his mundane existence by creating autobiographical stories embellished with the erotic escapades of the two lead characters. Utilizing allusion, symbolism, and a conventional narrative style, McGahern focuses on the writer's confrontations with birth, love, and death in his emotionally and morally corrupt milieu. After the publication of The Pornographer, McGahern did not publish another full novel until Amongst Women (1990). Amongst Women opens with the approaching death of the central character, Michael Moran. The narrative then moves backwards and follows the relationships between Moran, his children, and his second wife, Rose. Moran is an abusive man—both physically and verbally—to his family, but his daughters and his second wife are fiercely loyal to him, whereas his sons have distanced themselves from his presence. Amongst Women deals with several of the recurring motifs seen in previous McGahern works, including the power struggles between fathers and sons and the role of women as victims or heroines. In his short story collections, McGahern pursues thematic concerns that are similar to those presented in his novels. In Nightlines (1970), the cycle of life and death is portrayed as a disappointing pattern from which escape is impossible. The stories in Getting Through (1978) display some of the guarded optimism that McGahern revealed in The Leavetaking, although the dominant mood remains bleak. High Ground (1985) continues to explore McGahern's focus on relationships between fathers and sons, the banality of conformity and compromise, and sexual and religious conflicts. The Collected Stories (1993), a collection of thirty-four of McGahern's short works, deals with the turmoil inherent in family relationships.

Critical Reception

Critics have noted many common traits in McGahern's works such as the use of first-person narratives, rural backgrounds, young and educated Irish protagonists, and the backdrop of failed relationships. Reviewers have found it significant that McGahern's father figures are typically described as abusive and authoritarian, while the mothers in his works commonly have short life spans and are used as symbols of escape. The Barracks and The Leavetaking have reminded many critics of the writings of French existentialists, in that the novels focus on characters who quest for answers in their seemingly futile and meaningless lives. McGahern is known for his often bleak characterizations and Lindsay Duguid has described McGahern as having the ability to “wring melancholy from a stone.” Several commentators have praised McGahern's use of both a lyrical and stark “realist” prose to augment the dreariness of his characters' positions in life and to describe the banality of their existence. Although McGahern has been faulted by those who consider his portrayal of characters dominated by rural values a misrepresentation of Ireland's more cosmopolitan identity, critics have generally praised his incisive delineation of Irish parochialism and his commentary on the vacuousness of modern life. Praise for McGahern's Amongst Women and The Collected Stories has been nearly unanimous, with fellow writers such as John Banville and Penelope Fitzgerald complimenting his prose. While reviewing Amongst Women, Banville stated: “It is compact but not dense, spare yet rich, and brimming with tension.” Fitzgerald has lauded McGahern's ability to capture the small things in which his characters seek refuge in the face of hopelessness, and praised his poetic touches. Duguid summed up much of McGahern's career in a review of the novel, asserting that it is a “portrait of a particular era and a survey of a nation's past and future.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Barracks (novel) 1963

The Dark (novel) 1965

Nightlines (short stories) 1970

The Leavetaking (novel) 1974

Getting Through (short stories) 1978

The Pornographer (novel) 1979

High Ground and Other Stories (short stories) 1985

Amongst Women (novel) 1990

The Power of Darkness (play) 1991

*The Collected Stories (short stories) 1993

That They May Face the Rising Sun (novel) 2002; published in the U.S. as By the Lake

*This collection contains the stories from Nightlines, Getting Through, and High Ground, in slightly rearranged order, as well as two previously uncollected stories, “The Creamery Manager” and “The Country Funeral.”

Eileen Kennedy (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kennedy, Eileen. “The Novels of John McGahern: The Road Away Becomes the Road Back.” In Contemporary Irish Writing, pp. 115–26. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

[In the following essay, Kennedy discusses the recurring themes in The Barracks, The Pornographer, The Leavetaking, and The Dark.]

Well known and highly praised in Ireland and England, John McGahern—whom Julian Jebb in the Times Literary Supplement ranked as “among the half dozen practicing writers of English prose most worthy of attention”1—was relatively unnoticed in this country until the publication of his novel, The Pornographer, in 1979, and a...

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Shaun O'Connell (essay date summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Connell, Shaun. “Door Into the Light: John McGahern's Ireland.” Massachusetts Review 25, no. 2 (summer 1984): 255–68.

[In the following essay, O'Connell explores the relationship between McGahern's protagonists and the lands they call “home.”]

Throughout most of his impressive oeuvre—four novels and two story collections—John McGahern imagines Ireland as dark, dank and dour. Ireland is a prison to which his characters are sentenced, from which they are unable or unwilling to escape. Their lives, turning in a narrow gyre, embody McGahern's vision of the constricted state of the nation.

However, in his writings of the late 1970s...

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Patricia Craig (review date 13 September 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Craig, Patricia. “Everyday Ecstasies.” Times Literary Supplement (13 September 1985): 1001.

[In the following review, Craig examines the parallels between McGahern's own life and the life of the protagonist in The Dark.]

In “Oldfashioned,” perhaps the most highly-charged and accomplished of the stories in his new collection, [High Ground,] John McGahern allows himself a loaded observation about the works of an Irish documentary filmmaker:

they won him a sort of fame: some thought they were serious, well-made, and compulsive viewing, bringing things to light that were in bad need of light; but others maintained...

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Richard Lloyd (essay date September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lloyd, Richard. “Memory Becoming Imagination: The Novels of John McGahern.” Journal of Irish Literature 18, no. 3 (September 1989): 39–44.

[In the following essay, Lloyd discusses the influence rural Ireland has on McGahern's novels.]

Although heralded in England and Ireland, John McGahern has gone virtually unnoticed in the United States. His first novel, The Barracks (1963), received Ireland's most prestigious award—the A.E. Memorial Award. His second and third novels, The Dark (1965) and The Leavetaking (1974), also received praise and spurred some reviewers to compare his talent to Joyce: “At his best, McGahern leaves no doubt...

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Antoinette Quinn (essay date autumn 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Quinn, Antoinette. “Varieties of Disenchantment: Narrative Technique in John McGahern's Short Stories.” Journal of the Short Story in English 13 (autumn 1989): 77–89.

[In the following essay, Quinn explores McGahern's use of melancholy and disappointment as recurring emotions in Nightlines and Getting Through.]

Nightlines, the title of John McGahern's first collection of stories, (1970), promises a series of sombre narratives; Getting Through, the title of his second, (1978), connects communication with strategies of survival; High Ground, (1986), his most recent collection, hints at elevations of theme or perspective, but a...

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Lindsay Duguid (review date 18 May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Duguid, Lindsay. “The Passing of the Old Ways.” Times Literary Supplement (18 May 1990): 535.

[In the following review, Duguid offers a positive assessment of Amongst Women.]

The Ireland of the 1950s is prime literary territory. From that point in the country's history it seems easy both to look back to the comparatively recent events of the Troubles and the Civil War and to be aware of the steady encroachment of modern life—cars, bungalows, flights to London. The past and the future seem to be held in balance. William Trevor, Jennifer Johnston and Molly Keane have all portrayed the disintegration of the old society in the newly independent country, and...

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Hilma Wolitzer (review date 2 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wolitzer, Hilma. “Living with a Father's Erratic Will.” Chicago Tribune Books (2 September 1990): 4.

[In the following review, Wolitzer examines the father-daughter relationships in Amongst Women.]

When Michael Moran informs his grown daughters that the Irish War of Independence was the highlight of his life, they cluck with concern over his lost glory days. They don't take him to task for the personal war he's waged at home at Great Meadow, on the outskirts of Dublin, all of their lives.

Only one of his five children, a son named Luke, has managed to escape the domestic battleground. Luke lives in London, and while he maintains an...

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Michael Harris (review date 9 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Harris, Michael. Review of Amongst Women, by John McGahern. Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 September 1990): 6.

[In the following review, Harris considers the cultural differences between American and European readings of Amongst Women.]

Michael Moran was once a dashing hero of the Irish War of Independence. Now he is a prickly and embittered old man living “amongst women”—his young second wife and three daughters. He has cut his ties with the past but disdains the present, he has isolated himself and his family, “that larger version of himself,” but dreads the loneliness sure to come when his sons run away and his daughters marry.


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John Banville (review date 6 December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Banville, John. “In Violent Times.” New York Review of Books 37, no. 19 (6 December 1990): 22–23.

[In the following review, Banville examines the violence—both physical and emotional—in Amongst Women.]

These three novels deal with violence, in one form or another. This is not the only thing they have in common. Indeed, there are more similarities than differences between them. However, one of them, Amongst Women, is utterly unlike the other two in one respect, that it is that rarest of things in contemporary fiction in English, an achieved and almost perfect work.

John McGahern was born in Dublin in 1934, the son of a...

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Eamonn Wall (review date spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wall, Eamonn. Review of Amongst Women, by John McGahern. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11 (spring 1991): 330–31.

[In the following review, Wall offers a positive assessment of Amongst Women, calling the novel “one of the great works of Irish fiction.”]

John McGahern and Brian Moore are pivotal figures in a quintet of Irish fiction writers (with Edna O'Brien, Aidan Higgins, and William Trevor) that emerged in the fifties and early sixties and who, by mixing modernist influences with native realism; have produced a new kind of Irish fiction. These writers have published some remarkable novels over the years, and have excavated Irish...

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D. J. Enright (review date 8 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Enright, D. J. “Stuck in the Slot.” London Review of Books 14, no. 19 (8 October 1992): 9.

[In the following review, Enright compares the role of women in Amongst Women and The Collected Stories.]

One of John McGahern's stories begins thus: ‘There are times when we see the small events we look forward to—a visit, a wedding, a new day—as having no existence but in the expectation. They are to be, they will happen, and before they do they almost are not: minute replicas of the expectation that we call the rest of our life.’ The story ends: ‘I was free in the Sligo morning. I could do as I pleased. There were all sorts of wonderful...

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Lesley Glaister (review date 17 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Glaister, Lesley. “Seizing the Moment.” Spectator 269, no. 8571 (17 October 1992): 31–32.

[In the following review, Glaister discusses the emotional disappointments of the characters in The Collected Stories.]

‘It's not hard to give the wrong signals in this world,’ says a female character in one of John McGahern's collected stories. And in tale after tale [in The Collected Stories] this sentiment is dramatised: fathers misunderstand their sons, sons their fathers, and love affairs founder for lack of understanding.

It is a feature of a collection of short stories that a writer's preoccupations become obvious through...

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William O'Rourke (review date 14 February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: O'Rourke, William. “Among the Lonely Souls of Ireland.” Chicago Tribune Books (14 February 1993): 1, 6.

[In the following review, O'Rourke compares McGahern's The Collected Stories to the writings of D. H. Lawrence.]

On the heels of William Trevor's Collected Stories Ireland sends us another, John McGahern's [The Collected Stories]. That has something to do with the age of both writers (Trevor was born in 1928, McGahern in 1934), but it is also due to the Irish affinity for the modern short story. The daddy of them all, James Joyce's brief 1914 collection, Dubliners, has spawned generation upon generation of short stories, in...

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New York Review of Books (review date 8 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Big News from Small Worlds.” New York Review of Books 40, no. 7 (8 April 1993): 22.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of The Collected Stories and compares the collection to Adam Thorpe's Ulverton.]

“As they were controversial, they won him a sort of fame: some thought they were serious, well made, and compulsive … bringing things to light that were in bad need of light; but others maintained that they were humourless, morbid, and restricted to a narrow view that was more revealing of private obsessions than any truths about life or Irish life in general.”

Thus is described the work of the...

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Michael L. Storey (review date winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Storey, Michael L. Review of The Collected Stories, by John McGahern. Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 1 (winter 1994): 118–20.

[In the following review, Storey explores the recurring themes in McGahern's body of work.]

John McGahern is an Irish anomaly. The critical view says that, Joyce excepted, Irish writers of fiction—O'Faolain, O'Connor, Lavin, Trevor, Edna O'Brien and others—are writers of short stories who also write novels. McGahern seems to be the exception that proves the rule. Next to his five novels, which have brought him critical acclaim, prestigious awards and notoriety (his second novel, The Dark was banned in Ireland), his...

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Elizabeth Shannon (review date 14 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Shannon, Elizabeth. “A Chilling Clarity—The Collected Stories by John McGahern.” Commonweal 121, no. 1 (14 January 1994): 38.

[In the following review, Shannon offers a positive assessment of The Collected Stories.]

When John McGahern's first novel, The Barracks, was published twenty years ago, a reviewer in the London Spectator said; “… McGahern's development will be well worth watching.” He might have added that each of his ensuing books would be well worth reading. Since the publication of The Barracks, which won the A.E. Memorial Award, McGahern has written three more novels, three collections of short stories, and one play....

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Lori Rogers (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rogers, Lori. “Courting Performance: Coercion and Compromise.” In Feminine Nation: Performance, Gender and Resistance in the Works of John McGahern and Neil Jordan, pp. 59–76. Lanham: University Press of America, 1998.

[In the following essay, Rogers discusses the role of domesticity in McGahern's prose.]

The reliance—whether unconscious or not—of supposedly essential, self-reliant and self-defined men upon the domestic performances of women is investigated before its consecration within marriage by McGahern's novel The Pornographer and Neil Jordan's film The Miracle. In the former, the protagonist reveals through his profession and his...

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Hugo Barnacle (review date 14 January 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barnacle, Hugo. “On the Farm.” New Statesman 131, no. 4570 (14 January 2002): 51–52.

[In the following review, Barnacle offers a positive assessment of That They May Face the Rising Sun.]

A couple of downshifters, Joe and Kate Ruttledge, have left their advertising jobs in London and moved to a small farm in Ireland near where Joe grew up. John McGahern walks us through a year in the lives of the Ruttledges and their neighbours [in That They May Face the Rising Sun]: the cycle of the seasons, birth and death among animals and humans, simple tasks, complex rivalries, gossip. If McGahern is familiar with Cold Comfort Farm, he certainly doesn't...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Fitzgerald, Penelope. Review of The Collected Stories, by John McGahern. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4671 (9 October 1992): 21.

A positive review of The Collected Stories in which Fitzgerald lauds McGahern's narrative abilities.

Koenig, Rhoda. “Pluck of the Irish.” New York, no. 26 (25 January 1993): 60.

Koenig explores the romantic roles men and women play in The Collected Stories.

Review of By the Lake, by John McGahern. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 4 (28 January 2002): 268.

The critic offers a positive assessment of By the...

(The entire section is 154 words.)