John McGahern

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Eileen Kennedy (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5601

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 collection of short stories, Getting Through, in 1980. Both books received wide critical attention; but so far as I can determine, no one has pointed out how The Pornographer, despite its lurid title, is essentially conservative, a circling back to ideas and values explored in McGahern's first novel The Barracks (1963).

The circling back is unexpected because McGahern, once he had portrayed provincial life in his first novel, shows his protagonists, in later novels, finding some hope of fulfillment, by moving from their small farms and restrictive villages to the city. In The Barracks, McGahern portrays the monotonous rural village from which Elizabeth, the heroine, is alienated; and then, in The Dark (1965), the author has young Mahoney, a studious farmboy, deciding to confront his destiny in the city—Dublin. In the third novel, The Leavetaking (1974), McGahern's schoolteacher, Patrick Moran, has moved from the country to Dublin and then, ultimately, chooses London over Dublin. But in The Pornographer, McGahern's urban protagonist, who spends his time drifting into bars, dance halls, and affairs, decides—after several painful events—to leave the city for the farm he had inherited. This essay will explore the themes running through McGahern's novels and assess the significance of the circling back in The Pornographer.

Born in a nursing home in Dublin, in 1934, John McGahern spent his early years in various small towns in County Monaghan and County Leitrim with his mother, a schoolteacher. Because of their work, his parents lived apart. When McGahern was about ten, his mother died of cancer, and he went to live with his father in the barracks at Cootehall, County Leitrim, where his father was a police sergeant. He was educated at Presentation College in Carrick-on-Shannon and from there he studied at St. Patrick's Dublin, graduating from University College Dublin. For several years he was a primary teacher in an Irish Catholic school; and then, in 1963, Faber and Faber published his first novel, The Barracks, which won Ireland's important literary prize, the AE Memorial Award.

McGahern's achievement in that first novel—the only one in which his protagonist is a woman—is so extraordinary, its tone so distinctive, and its poise so remarkable that some feel it is his best. Life as a passage from darkness to darkness is the theme of this finely crafted novel, which opens with the children querying their stepmother Elizabeth “Is it time to light the lamp yet?” and closes with the boy asking his widowed father the same question.2

The story is set in a rural Irish village, west of the Shannon. Sergeant Reegan, a fifty-year-old policeman, lives there in the barracks with his second wife Elizabeth (his first had died) and his three children, who never call her mother. Reegan and Elizabeth, in her early forties at the novel's opening, have been married four years—they had met when she was home in Ireland worn-out after nursing through the London Blitz—and the unrelenting demands of their hard life cause Elizabeth to think that perhaps Reegan had married her to...

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have a housekeeper.

Elizabeth is gracious but keeps to herself, sensing that no one in this forgotten outpost can understand the daring voyages of the soul that she ventures on. Reegan is hot-headed and sardonic, a man born to authority—he had fed on the wild ideals of the Irish Free State—but hounded now by a self-important Superintendent whom he hates. Stern with his children, inexpressive with his wife, Reegan is driven by an overwhelming desire to throw off his hated job and take up small farming. In spring, when he plants the potato crop “the frustrations and poisons of his life [were] flowing into the clay he worked” (p. 90).

The plot of this somber novel is simple. Elizabeth discovers that she has cysts on her breasts, and the almost-certain knowledge that she only has a brief time to live causes her to examine and reexamine the meaning—if there is any—of her life. As she looks back, she realizes that she had tasted life feverishly only once, and for a few months: in London, she had fallen in love with a doctor, Halliday, who had made love to her and who off-handedly had offered to marry her, even as he told her he could love no one, he found life so meaningless. Shaken by his nihilism, realizing that marriage with him would be bitter, she had refused him. When she learned of his death in a car crash, she buried him in her mind. But Halliday had awakened her to a sense of herself, to her uniqueness, and his insistent question, “What is all this living and dying about anyway?” torments Elizabeth confronting her own death.

Reegan unthinkingly accepts the Church's teachings, praying the rosary with his family, implicitly believing in life after death; Elizabeth is a solitary seeker whose quest for meaning is knitted to the turning of the seasons, to the ritual of the church year. McGahern masterfully recreates the rhythms of these two cycles signalling the passage of time so that the tension in the novel arises from Elizabeth's participation in the events of these cycles and her knowledge that time is bringing death closer. She takes joy in seeing the rushes and wildflowers, sign of Lady's Eve, sprinkled on the doorsteps by the children, as they kick off their boots to walk barefoot in May; in making her pilgrimage in August to Mary's Well, next to the church she loves, where she finds quietude but no answers to her questions; and in placing candles in her windows on Christmas Eve to light the way for the Christ Child, even though she cannot believe with the fullness of faith.

Concealing her physical pain and mental torment from the family, Elizabeth struggles to keep house. Tempted to go away and have other loves, she realizes

… that her life with these others, their need and her own need, all their fear, drew her back into the activity of the day where they huddled in their frail and human love, together.

(p. 126)

Her illness causes Reegan to unearth in himself a capacity for tenderness, to put into words his passionate concern. If before his conversation had centered on his hate for the Superintendent, now he goes out of his self-pitying moods to meet her needs, and to take courage to change the direction of their life. Driven by a brutal intensity, he forces the children to drag turf that will be sold in town; and, with the profits, he plans to leave the police force, to take up small farming.

In McGahern's wedding of the church year to Elizabeth's life, he makes the Christmas celebration, five months before her death, a climatic scene. Exhausted from her holiday preparations, Elizabeth goes to bed late on Christmas Eve; and Reegan, returning from his night patrol much later, joins her. After making love, they “lie in the animal warmth and loving kindness of each other against the silence of the room. … And they were together here. It didn't have to mean anything more than that, it'd be sufficient for this night” (p. 150). Their physical and emotional union is paralleled in the Christmas dinner scene where the family are united in a human communion, the ritual of the meal taking on a spiritual dimension, transcending the here-and-now. It

began and ended in the highest form of all human celebration, prayer. It was a mere meal no longer with table and tablecloth and delf and food, it was that perfectly, but it was above and beyond and besides the wondrous act of their reality.

(p. 151)

There are hints, more suggestive than conclusive, that Elizabeth's search for meaning has been touched by flashes of grace. Early one November morning, when as she looks out on the river and up to the woods across the lake, she utters softly “Jesus Christ” as she gazes at the winter beauty which culminates in the “radio aerial, that went across from the window to the high branches of the sycamore, a pure white line through the air” (p. 141). Reflecting on the Stations of the Cross, “She saw her own life declared in them and made known, the unendurable pettiness and degradations of her own failings raised to dignity and meaning in Christ's passion.” If she cannot take hope in Christ's Resurrection, she does sense that “on the cross of her life she had to achieve her goal” (p. 161).

And if her passion for Halliday had awakened in Elizabeth a desire for a total love, she ultimately glimpses a vision of love that is transcendent:

She had come to life out of mystery and would return, it surrounded her life, it safely held it as by hands; she'd return into that which she could not know; she'd be consumed at last in whatever meaning her life had. Here she had none, none but to be, which in acceptance must be surely to love.

(p. 174)

She moves to further statement:

All real seeing grew into smiling and if it moved to speech it must be praise, all else was death, a refusal, a turning back. …

(p. 174)

Elizabeth's triumph over pain and nothingness is seen by F. C. Molloy merely as “A moment of relief: no searching after explanations, being satisfied with the need to love, and letting life and death take their course.” He believes “The vision of despair continues to the end. …”3 My view of her death is not so bleak: Elizabeth's life has been a day-to-day enactment of her love for her family. Her unfailing kindness to the stepchildren, her holding back sharp words when the pain overwhelms her, her persistence at the household tasks, give her life a radiance, some shining splendor of the spirit; and, during her illness, her emotional relationship with her husband intensifies and deepens. She had always kept back, hidden in her trunk, some money saved from her days in London; and when she reveals this small treasure to him, her disclosure underlines her coming to trust him completely, just as his concern for her causes her to realize “how lucky she was to have found Reegan, to be married to him and not to Halliday, where she and he would drive each other crazy with the weight and desperation of their consciousness” (p. 127).

Elizabeth may not have found a completely fulfilling answer to Halliday's question about the meaning of life; but the reader is aware—much more than she—that she has taken her existential situation and, within the limits of her freedom, has shaped her life into one of significance and meaning The Barracks is a somber novel, but it is neither grim nor depressing. Elizabeth's struggle and limited achievement leave the reader feeling some exaltation: she has not succumbed to defeat or despair. In her own way, Elizabeth has given her life meaning, one lit up with the luminosity of love.

McGahern's second novel, The Dark, has a cast of characters who may seem like a continuation of the story of Reegan and his children. The Dark opens with a widowed father, named Mahoney, threatening his son, who is nameless throughout the novel, with a brutal whipping for saying “Fuck.” Mahoney is a small farmer, whining and hard-working, who by turns beats and cajoles his children; and in this isolated family group, the children are at war with their father. Set in the rural west of Ireland, this Bildungsroman tells how young Mahoney, influenced by his dead mother's wish that he become a priest, weighs a vocation to Holy Orders. His cousin, Father Gerald, a country pastor, also urges him to consider the possibility. But the boy is torn by strong feelings of adolescent sexuality, and the sexual acts with himself described in graphic detail underline even more his isolation and loneliness. He feels drawn by the “security” of the priesthood, the serenity and sureness of heaven; but he knows, from his masturbatory fantasies, he cannot live a celibate life. In a visit to Father Gerald, he is compelled to tell the priest his reason for not becoming a priest; and, surprisingly enough, the man seems to understand the boy's troubled sexuality. His final advice is something he would never admit in public—people would think him a madman:

Remember your life is a great mystery in Christ and that nothing but your state of mind can change. And pray. It's not merely a repetition of words. It's a simple silent act of turning the mind on God, the contemplation of the mystery, the Son of God going by way of Palm Sunday to Calvary and on to Easter.4

Returning to the farm, young Mahoney informs his father of his decision; but he cannot answer his father's question of what he would do with his life. Instead, the adolescent begins the working out of his life through a tentative exploration of the possibilities of freedom, a liberation from his father's bullying and the drudgery of the farm. Highly intelligent and sensitive, he is determined to go to the university. He spends his high school years in incessant study, helping on the farm, and cunningly overcoming his father's domination; and with no human outlet for his sexual energies, he continues his masturbatory fantasies. His hour of triumph arrives when he wins a scholarship to the University of Galway. The summer before entering the University, he sees that he excels his father in physical strength. Young Mahoney feels he is a man, “able to take a man's place,” and, as he notices that his father is growing old, he finds it “hard to imagine that this was the same man who'd made the winters a nightmare over the squalid boots, the beatings and the continual complaining” (p. 111).

But at Galway, young Mahoney is unhappy. Unable to decide on a career, he watches the other grim, security-driven students choose courses that will give them a living. Drifting through classes, the boy senses that “there'd be little dream, mostly the toil of lectures, and at night the same swotting and cramming in a room for the exams same as last year” (p. 129). He fears that he will fail or fall sick or lose his scholarship; he longs to dance, but cannot bring himself to enter the dance hall. A pompous lecturer, falsely accusing him of “hooliganism,” dismisses him from class. The professor's bullying, the boy realizes, is the mirror of his father's; and he sees tyranny as the way of university life. Riddled by self-doubt, he uncertainly makes a bid for freedom, one which brings his father to Galway. Young Mahoney is considering leaving the University to work as a clerk for the Electrical Supply Board (E.S.B.) in Dublin. “Chained to a desk all day would be the worst part” (p. 133), but he would have money and be freed from his dependence on his father and the dread of sickness and failure. The father and son talk with the Dean of Students, who seems to the boy another contemptuous tyrant. He decides to enter the E.S.B. “If it was no use you could leave again, and it didn't matter, you could begin again and again all your life, nobody's life was more than a direction” (p. 139). For the first time, he can

laugh purely, without bitterness … and it was a kind of happiness, at its heart the terror of an unclear recognition of the reality that set you free, touching you with as much foreboding as the sodden leaves falling in the day, or any cliché.

(p. 140)

The book closes with a quiet scene of reconciliation in which the father asks the son for mutual forgiveness. Young Mahoney tells him: “I wouldn't have been brought up any other way or by any other father” (p. 142).

Although The Dark has some apparent similarities with Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the comparison should not be pressed. Like Stephen Dedalus, the boy in The Dark has overpowering sexual drives and considers a vocation to the priesthood. Young Mahoney is highly intelligent and excels in his studies, but he has none of the intellectual arrogance and psychic certainty with which Stephen Dedalus leaves Ireland to “encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience.” Unlike Stephen, the boy does not desire to be a creator of mortal beauty nor does he reject his faith. Instead, young Mahoney fumblingly works out his life, walking hesitantly toward freedom. It is significant that in scenes at Father Gerald's house where he weighs the decision to become a priest, he picks up the one volume that seemed livelier than the rest, Tolstoy's Resurrection. By choosing not to become a priest, the boy is beginning the resurrection of his own life; but it will move by fits and starts—no one choice is clear-cut before him. McGahern, through his protagonist, seems to be indicating that human decisions are fraught with uncertainty but that to achieve some happiness, freedom must be won daily. Stephen Dedalus is an urban hero who can leave Ireland boldly; but young Mahoney is a farmboy whose sights are set no higher than the city.

The Dark, with its sexually explicit scenes, caused a succès de scandale for McGahern, a teacher in a Dublin Catholic boys’ school. Following the banning of the book for indecency or obscenity by the Irish Censorship Board and McGahern's marriage outside the Church, the author was forced out of his teaching position.5 Perhaps, for these reasons, McGahern makes the flight to freedom even more explicit in his third novel, The Leavetaking, where he draws heavily upon his personal experiences. That book portrays a single day in the life of the protagonist, Patrick Moran; and the decisive event of that day is linked to his whole biography through stylistic devices like reverie, association, and recurring imagery. These techniques emphasize one of the thematic concerns of the novel, the long shadow time past casts on time present.

Part One focuses on Patrick's parents and their strange marriage. His mother, a deeply religious schoolteacher who had thought of becoming a nun, unwittingly encourages her son's attachment, strongly oedipal, to her. Patrick's father, a police sergeant, unfeeling to the point of emotional brutality, lives away at the barracks, so that the boy, raised almost wholly by his mother, is pliant to her wishes, especially her hope that someday he will say Mass for her. McGahern probes in detail the histories of the parents as though to discover what emotional alliance could produce a Patrick Moran. The author describes Patrick's mother's work as a teacher, her sensitivity to beauty, and her odd courtship by Sergeant Moran. The searing poverty out of which Sergeant Moran comes, raised by a mother deserted by her husband, is also portrayed. This marriage of gentleness to harshness, of passivity to authoritarianism forms the background of Patrick's early years until his mother develops cancer, and the young boy watches her fading away. Part One culminates in the break-up of the family. In a heavily charged scene, which symbolically recreates the long erosion of the marriage, Sergeant Moran, remaining at the barracks, orders his men to remove the furniture from the house and bring the children to him. The men arrive and as they hammer apart the beds—which have rusted too much in the damp to come apart—their blows resound through the house and into the room where the mother lies dying. In the first leavetaking of the novel, the boy goes to his father, and that night they receive word the mother has died. Guilt-ridden, Patrick feels he has not loved her enough, has not told her enough that he loved her; and these feelings color his attitude toward himself and life.

In Part Two of the novel, Patrick, knowing that he cannot give up his longing “to enter the mystery of the lovely and living flesh of women,”6 chooses his mother's path of teaching; and wanting the anonymity of the city, he moves from his position as country schoolmaster to a teacher in a Catholic boys’ school in Dublin. In many ways, Patrick, up to this point, could be young Mahoney of The Dark. Both are intelligent men, inclined toward dream and reverie; both have lost their mothers who have wanted them to be priests; both have authoritarian fathers with whom they are in conflict. But if, in The Dark, the protagonist only can grope his way toward some freedom, Patrick Moran, in The Leavetaking, strikes a decisive blow for it. If young Mahoney cannot bring himself to enter the dance hall, Patrick pursues pleasure, which McGahern captures in a brilliant contrast that underlines the difference between Patrick's mother's great wish for him and his own desires. Patrick describes the queue for the dance hall where there was

… Matt Talbot's altar against the wall, the little wooden kneeler and the statute of the Virgin dustcoated and shabby, dustcoated too the glass jars in which fresh daffodils and narcissi stood: old mad Dublin labourer who fell with chains festering in his flesh where we queued to dance.

(p. 86)

At the dance he meets and falls in love with a country girl studying to be a teacher—she is very much like his mother—but she ultimately rejects him. Succeeding women find him attractive, and he has several affairs, hoping to find love and, therefore, a meaning to life.

Taking a year's leave of absence from his position, he travels to England where he falls in love with Isobel, a young American divorcée. The scenes in London are lively but unconvincing: McGahern's strength lies in his treatment of Irish figures and especially the rural landscape. Patrick marries Isobel in a registry office, and they return to Ireland where he does not reveal his marriage because it will mean the loss of his job. Learning of the marriage outside the Church, the school manager asks him to resign. Patrick refuses, thus forcing his dismissal: he will not make it easy for the oppressive authority of the Church to be rid of him. At the end of the novel, Patrick has cast away all hopes for security in Ireland—he will go to England with his wife—but he finds meaning and strength in his love. He has taken a definitive stand for freedom, even though this final leavetaking demands exile. With Isobel, he will find an inner freedom as well because he will be able to throw off his guilt-ridden memories of his mother, “the life would have made its last break with the shadow, and would be free to grow without warp in its own light” (p. 82).

If The Dark explores the father-son relationship, in which the mother was virtually nonexistent, The Leavetaking explores the mother-son relationship, in which references to the father, after Part One, are scarce. In The Dark, the father is the major influence against whom the son must do battle; in The Leavetaking—though her influence is more subtle, and hence, more invidious, the mother is. In both novels, McGahern seems to be suggesting that the freedom to grow into personhood comes from throwing off the powerful parental forces that have shaped one; that one comes into some fullness of being by choosing, whatever insecurities follow, freedom. And both young Mahoney and Patrick Moran must leave their country villages, their rural landscape and its restrictions, for the city where they can test the possibilities of that freedom.

The cold, nameless narrator—he is the protagonist—of McGahern's fourth novel, The Pornographer, lives in the city, in a room where daylight rarely filters in. The anonymous city—Dublin's bars, dancehalls, bus stations, train platforms—is the gray landscape where this rejected lover and pornographer broods over the dualism between body and soul. His brooding does not prevent him from making a comfortable living from his hack work, a metaphor, in the book, for his deadness of heart; and the city, where no one questions his habits or his occupation, gives him the freedom to follow his sexual desires, to drift from one woman to the next, to assuage, temporarily, his sense of anomie. At thirty, almost rootless, he has one strong tie: his love for his aunt, dying of cancer, and her brother, his uncle, relatives who had raised him in the country after his mother died.

The narrator picks up at a dancehall Josephine, a sturdy near-virgin (in an unfulfilling one-night stand earlier, her membrane had been only partially penetrated), and they go to bed together that night. Casually he begins an affair with her, she more the aggressor than he; and when they make love, she refuses to use contraceptives, saying they are unnatural. Predictably, she becomes pregnant. More comic than tragic, Josephine is drawn in bold strokes. Conventionally Catholic, she works in a bank and at thirty-eight is eager for marriage and motherhood; but in some ways she seems unrelentingly contemporary, like a caricature of Ireland coming into the twentieth century, studding her conversation with American slang gleaned from the movies and writing tourist articles for Waterways, a magazine that promotes travel on the Shannon by houseboats equipped with “… hi-fi, central heating, fridges, push-button starters.”7 And she bursts with energy as she connives to trap the narrator into marriage. She refuses to have an abortion, and he will marry her only to legitimatize the child; then he will divorce her. In an unconvincing turn of plot, she moves to London where her protector is an elderly magazine publisher who wants to marry her and adopt the child after it is born. She cannot bring herself to marry him, flees his house, and some time later she is taken in by an Irish construction worker and his wife, the Kavanaghs. After the baby is born, the protagonist goes to see her in London but refuses to see the child, knowing that it is part of her scheme to have his heart so moved by the baby he will marry her. He arranges to meet her in a Fleet Street bar where she arrives accompanied by Michael Kavanagh, who beats him so mercilessly that his face is disfigured for weeks. The beating is the moment of grace for the narrator who hides from his assailant in the sheltered doorway of a church.

Intertwined with this plot, which McGahern often treats with a touch of humor which has not been present in his writing before, is another story. Visiting his aunt in a Dublin hospital, the narrator meets Nurse Brady, a dark-haired country girl, “man-mad,” his caustic aunt calls her. Raised on a farm with her brothers, she is frank and unaffected; and subsequent meetings with him culminate in his making love to her, which he associates with “the sweet fragrance of the new hay” (p. 175). His numb heart is beginning to come alive, he feels the twinges of love for the nurse. But he feels he should not see her until he is free of his responsibility to Josephine; and when he finally confesses that affair to the nurse, his painful admission, a realization of his fault in the matter, signals a step in his growth as a human being.

The narrator is learning that his uncaring ways and irresponsible behavior have continuing repercussions. The beating he gets from Michael Kavanagh parallels his recognition that he has used Josephine coldly, that he has been “shamefully shallow” in his initial encounters with the nurse. And his coming to terms with his aunt's painful illness causes him to think about the meaning of life. If at the opening of the novel, he had felt of his aunt's approaching death: “Now that it was taking place it amounted to the nothing that was the rest of our life when it too was taking place” (p. 13), he can assert, near the close of the book, that the struggle to find meaning is the important thing:

We can no more learn from another than we can do their death for them or have them do ours. We have to go inland, in the solitude that is both pain and joy, and there make our own truth, and even if that proves nothing too, we have still that hard joy of having gone the hard and only way there is to go, we have not backed away or staggered to one side, but gone on and on and on even when there was nothing, knowing there was nothing on any other way.

(p. 203)

Using echoes of Biblical images, he continues his reflections—their import will not be clear until the book's final pages:

All the doctrines that we had learned by heart and could not understand and fretted over became laughingly clear. To find we had to lose: the road away became the road back. … All the time we had to change our ways. We listened to others singing of their failures and their luck, for we now had our road. All, all were travelling. Nobody would arrive. The adventure would never be over even when we were over.

(p. 203)

When his aunt dies, the narrator goes to the country for her funeral. There his uncle shows him his newly bought farmhouse, completely furnished down to the blue and white mugs in the kitchen and the wedding and baptism photographs, as well as an ordination one, amid the religious pictures on the wall. The narrator finds these emblems of stability and permanence, of tradition and commitment “very lovely.” And he observes that the house has a “solid hall door looking confidently down the road” (p. 233), a telling detail because of his earlier reference that he now has his road. And it is the “road back” for the narrator because after his aunt's burial, he reaches a decision. He is “going to try to make a go of” his life, to change his ways. He sums up his past:

By not attending, by thinking any one thing was as worth doing as any other, by sleeping with anybody who'd agree, I had been the cause of as much pain and confusion and evil as if I had actively set out to do it. I had not attended properly. I had found the energy to choose too painful.

(p. 251)

His road back will be to propose marriage to his dark-haired nurse and to return here, to his roots, to his inherited farm. Moving out of his narcissism, he feels a “fierce need to pray” (p. 252), for himself and his friends, even though prayers could not be answered. The novel ends on an exultant note, in which the rain is a kind of baptism for the narrator. He remembers, with respect, his uncle standing on the platform of the railroad station, a scene that had opened the book. Like The Barracks,The Pornographer circles back, opening and closing with the same scene, but the later novel is less fearful, more affirming of life. The urban protagonist, who as pornographer had counterfeited the act of love, who had allowed his personal pain to make him an outcast from life's feast, has slowly and painfully realized that he must follow his “instinct for the true, to follow it with all the force we have, in all the seeing and the final blindness” (p. 252).

If Elizabeth in The Barracks had found some meaning to her life in the living out of her love, the protagonist of The Pornographer also seems drawn to the need for some roots, for commitment to a person. Like the protagonists of The Dark and The Leavetaking, he, raised in the country, chooses the city. But the city, where he has exterior freedom, also helps to keep him “dead of heart,” as he follows its ways, trading the permanence and stability of the land for the city's commercialism. Nurse Brady, spontaneous and direct, raised on a farm, is the protagonist's choice over Josephine: the smell of freshly cut meadows turning to hay is preferred to the fridges and hi-fis of the Shannon houseboats. McGahern's fourth novel, then, is a circling back to the conservative ideas and traditional values explored in The Barracks: the road away becomes the road back.


  1. 10 January 1975, p. 29.

  2. The Barracks (1963; rpt. London: Quartet Books, 1977), p. 7. All further references to this work appear in the text.

  3. “The Ireland of John McGahern,” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 19 (1977): 12.

  4. The Dark (1965; rpt. London: Quartet Books, 1977), pp. 74–75. All further references to this work will appear in the text.

  5. See Bruce Cook, “Irish Censorship: The Case of John McGahern,” Catholic World, 206 (1967): 176–79. Although some critics, like Bruce Cook and F. C. Molloy, have pointed out apparent structural flaws in The Dark, Paul Devine, in “Style and Structure in John McGahern's The Dark,Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 21 (1979): 49–58, provides a close and illuminating study of McGahern's technique in the novel.

  6. The Leavetaking (1974; rpt. London: Quartet Books, 1977), p. 85. All further references to this work will appear in the text.

  7. The Pornographer (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 55. All further references to this work will appear in the text.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161

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.”

Shaun O'Connell (essay date summer 1984)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5440

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 McGahern leads some of his characters through a door into the light, into a problematic freedom, out to an open field in which they first run free, but from which they eventually seek release, so some return to familiar confines. In The Pornographer McGahern turns his hero homeward, back to the same rural Ireland his early characters could not wait to leave. Having enacted the myth of Daedalus, flight past the nets, McGahern's late hero enacts the counter-myth of Antaeus. “My elevation, my fall,” says Antaeus in a Heaney poem. So too might say McGahern's bright, young men who come home again. Ireland, no longer a prison, is transformed into a haven.

Most of McGahern's early characters are drawn inward, earthward, though some pull away from home. Those who flee from inland Ireland usually do not get farther than Dublin, where McGahern was born in 1934. Often the escapees in his stories and novels are taken West, as was the young McGahern, son of a police officer stationed at Cootehall, County Roscommon, an isolated area of bogs, meadows, low hills and scattered lakes. Speaking from an Anglo-Irish perspective in Woodbrook, David Thomson registers the area's cultural limitations in the 1930s, the time of McGahern's childhood: “Cootehall is a typically Irish village; it straggles and has no architectural design; and it is dominated by a police barracks and a large grey, ugly Catholic chapel.” For Thomson, “this sad village” became “one of the most romantic places in the world.” For McGahern, a young Irishman yearning for release from provincial village life, Cootehall was one of the least romantic places in the world. This was the perpetual place in which his childhood was rooted. Home was a police barracks set near a bridge over the dark Boyle Water, at the edge of a West-Irish village.

However, the mythic center of McGahern's fictional world is Carrick-on-Shannon, a few miles away, in County Leitrim, where he was educated at Presentation College before he went on to St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra, and University College, Dublin, thus completing a territorial circle which would also enclose most of his characters. His parishioners swim toward city lights, but a psychic and cultural undertow draws them back to what F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a similar context, called “that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” Carrick is, though, more river than field, for there the Shannon becomes navigable in its downriver flow toward the Atlantic, or ceases to be navigable on an upriver journey. A point of difficult passage.

An economically and geographically depressed area of small dairy farms while McGahern lived there, Carrick has recently been promoted as a must-stop for those who cruise the Shannon. In Rambles in Ireland Monie Begley urges vacationing Shannon boaters to stop off at Carrick for the Festival of the Shannon (traditional music, “canoe races and other festivities”), advice heeded in The Pornographer by two sets of lovers. McGahern's characters cross between sometimes hang between these worlds. Many cannot choose between, the fetters of a fast-fading, rural, isolated Ireland and the debilitating freedom of an expanding, urban, European Ireland. Reflecting Ireland's conflict of convictions, McGahern seems uncertain at times which way to have them turn, so many turn in circles. The structural design of McGahern's fiction is, as well, circular.

“All a wheel,” thinks a former teacher and ex-Christian Brother in “The Recruiting Officer.” In “Wheels” the narrator returns from Dublin to a West-Ireland farm to try to break “this ritual wheel” of responsibility which rolls between and over the generations. Throughout McGahern's writings, characters are raised by a hard father or driven by an aspiring mother, then they are drawn toward the humming lights of the cities, where they are cursed with the ironic gift of consciousness and brought to the ends of their tethers; finally they return, sadder if not wiser, scarred, back where their journey began, where their long voyages often end. Such is the plot of The Barracks, his first novel, a work which embodies the ur-McGahern myth and aesthetic pattern of circularity: a pointless cycle ending in death. Only in The Pornographer does a citizen of McGahern's fictional world return home willingly; only in this novel does he try to restore the world to which he returns, as does the hero in Joseph Campbell's “monomyth.”

McGahern's Ireland, its regions and its citizens, is divided by a deep-running pattern of faults. Yet his divided Ireland, surprisingly, is not political. For all we know from reading McGahern, the “troubles,” which have ripped Ireland apart for fifteen years, never happened. Only rarely does he note in passing that there are two Irelands, North and South. In The Pornographer the rail lines which once linked these political units are, fittingly enough, torn up. Connections, regional and personal, are problematic. The central character, the pornographer, meets a woman, a writer for a magazine called Waterways, who tells him that there is talk of reopening the canals between the Shannon and Erne rivers, thus joining North and South again in friendship. “A watery embrace,” he says, a jibe which adapts a political-regional image to his own sexual obsessions. In The Pornographer transit lines between the two Irelands are torn up and water links are imaginable only as sexual tropes.

McGahern is more concerned with the latent politics of Irish life: provinciality, family enclosure and Church repression of sexual expression, an Ireland not far from the starved land in Kavanagh's The Great Hunger. To stay within the circle of acceptability is, spiritually and sexually, to starve, but to range outside the province of the predictable in Ireland, particularly for sexual purposes, is to bring about retribution. “Either you toe the line or you get out,” says the hero of The Leavetaking. Repression is the means by which community is sustained. This point is clearly made in a scene from The Pornographer in which we trace the sexual adventures of the hero's chief pornographic characters, Col. Grimshaw and Mavis Carmichael. They too travel inland, for a boat trip up the Shannon, where they assault and rape an Irish yokel while he is in a drunken stupor. Mavis assures the Col. the lad will remember nothing when he wakes. “He'll think he was dreaming. Doesn't the whole country look as if it's wet dreaming its life away. He'll want to be no exception. He's a prime example of your true, conforming citizen.” Like Joyce's Citizen in Barney Kiernan's pub, who meets Bloom's plea for love with scorn, McGahern's citizen is held up for satire, an example of the thwarted Irish character.

Throughout McGahern's works other sex-driven, yet repressed citizens appear, though they are treated more sympathetically. The sexual fantasies included in The Pornographer might well be the dreams of his sad Irish men and women, particularly those landlocked in the moist valleys of Roscommon-Leitrim. Pornography is the black mass celebrating Irish repression. McGahern's sexual politics mock Irish containment: physical psychic, regional.

His characters are cornered, burnt-out cases. The most moving of these lost souls is Elizabeth Reegan, heroine of McGahern's first novel, The Barracks. Though she has known some freedom and love in London, where she served as a nurse during WWII, she chooses a life of confinement and indifference when she returns to her Irish village, where she marries a widower, cares for his children and lives out the rest of her days in seething conformity.

Married to a police officer who cannot talk to her except to complain about his barracks supervisor, and caring for children who ignore her, Elizabeth is trapped inside a quotidian, “shackled, a thieving animal held at last in this one field.” Like other McGahern characters, she sees no purpose in her life. “She was existing far within the recesses of the dead walls and gaping out in mute horror.” Her sense of transiency is made more poignant by her realization that she has cancer, a terminal condition which makes her life seem a meaningless cycle:

A girl child growing up on a small farm, the blood of puberty, the shock of her first sexual act, the long years in London, her marriage back into this enclosed place happening as would her death in moments where cigarettes were smoked.

In London she had had an affair with an alcoholic doctor, named Halliday, who initiated her into sex and, after his fatal car accident, introduced her to death. “What the hell is all this living and dying about anyway?” Halliday would yell, posing a frequent question for McGahern characters. Surely this torment must have a purpose, they insist.

For Elizabeth, Halliday provided the gift/curse of consciousness: “it was as if he's put windows there, so that she could see out her own world.” However, as her life closes in, Elizabeth sees bars on those windows and wonders at the worth of a consciousness which sets her apart from others, an awareness which grants her painful attentiveness to her own deteriorating condition and presents her with no rhyme or reason for living.

Finally, as she lay dying, Elizabeth ceases to ask for an Answer; she accepts her own passing, irresolute condition. “Nothing could be decided here. She was just passing through.” It is not so much that she has arrived at meaning, but that she can finally praise life's mystery. “All the apparent futility of her life in the barracks came at last to rest on this sense of mystery.” She chants the rosary at her death, as much for its music as for its matter.

If McGahern's mothers transmit mystery, his fathers pass along their own miseries, often with the back of their hands. The Dark opens with Mahoney whipping his son for swearing. Yet Mahoney is even more eager to inflict psychic than physical shock, for he brings his strap down on the chair arm, not on the boy. The effect is even worse, for the boy “couldn't get any grip on what had happened to him, he'd never known such a pit of horror as he'd touched, nothing seemed to matter any more.” Since Mahoney is a widower, no woman mitigates his brutality, so he is an extreme version of The Barracks's stern father, Reegan. As Reegan had made his children dig turf, Mahoney makes his children pick potatoes in the lashing rain. McGahern's fathers curse their children with corporal punishment and hard labor. They initiate their children into the stern ways of the world. Mothers hold out a sense of escape into life's mysteries, but fathers know better.

As difficult as paternal discipline is for children, paternal love is worse. Occasionally Mahoney tries to express affection for his children, but he can never wholly give, nor can they ever quite receive. When Mahoney takes his children fishing, the day ends in complaint, his and theirs. However, the real perversion of love is also more psychic than physical. Sometimes at night the lonely Mahoney climbs into bed with his son, hugs him, smothers him in “the dirty rags of intimacy.” In a bed of childhood horrors, fleas feed on father and son, mixing their blood in a bond which sickens the boy. He asks: “Why had things to happen as they did, why could there not be some happiness, it'd all be as easy.” He includes no question mark, so he expects no answer.

The boy in The Dark seeks relief through masturbation and other modes of self-referential dreams. His stark options: either find release from his perverse family thrall or face death, like Elizabeth Reegan. The literary lad determines “It's the same stake as Macbeth's except for the banality of the whole situation. It's fight a way out or go down.” However, he finds in Ireland only great hatred, little room. Though he escapes from home, he finds no satisfying alternative place for himself. His vocation for the priesthood and his aspiration to become an educated man are both destroyed by disappointing role-models. Finally the boy's hopes overcast, like an Irish sky.

He is not only disappointed, he is assaulted. When he visits Father Gerald, Mahoney's brother, he is met by death imagery—a burial ground looms outside Father Gerald's residence—and sexual harassment. Father Gerald gets into bed with him to hug and joke about sex. To underline his point, McGahern doubles examples of sexual assault. The boy discovers that his sister, Joan—for whom Father Gerald had found work in a draper's shop—had been fondled by the draper. Thus the whole male, adult population of The Dark is composed of child-molesters. The boy, who misses Father Gerald's faint traces of pathos, rages at all adults: “how your hands hungered for their throats.” We see the world from his perspective (“your hands” and “their throats”), a world of adult oppression of the young.

Yet the boy battles on. He will not live his father's life on the farm or his uncle's life as a priest; his is Jude Fawley's dream: self-transformation through higher education. There he would learn and love. Yet this dream also quickly diminishes, for he is too shy to approach women and he quickly decides that university life is a sham. A lecturer throws the boy out of class because he smiled, a gesture the lecturer calls “hooliganism.”

McGahern's patterns of adult monstrosity make The Dark a stark parable. All elders are killers of the dreams of youth. Ireland's good country people—its priests, its teachers, its fathers—are caricatured. It is small wonder, then, that the Irish Censorship Board banned the novel in 1965, for it seems designed to shock Irish sensibilities through its sexual explicitness and its sustained scorn for Irish culture.

The Dark is a cautionary tale, dramatizing the modern defeat of young Irelanders. In the end the boy does not quite know what he wants out of life. Like Paul Morel or Stephen Dedalus, he dreams of release through art, yet decides to settle for an unadventurous clerkship in Dublin. Neither exile nor native, artist or artisan, the boy is paralyzed in the civil service, an Irish purgatory.

In McGahern's third novel, The Leavetaking, a young man is again defeated by narrow-minded Ireland, though he faces defeat with more resiliency than the sad hero of The Dark.The Leavetaking portrays a fictionalized version of pivotal events in McGahern's own life, his own difficult passage. McGahern, like Patrick, the novel's central character, was punished for a gesture of independence. After he married a non-Catholic, Patrick, like McGahern, was dismissed from his teaching post at a Catholic boys’ school. Patrick married an American, while McGahern married a Finn. However, Patrick had not written a novel banned by the Irish Censorship Board, so his reason for dismissal was at least clear. It is less certain whether McGahern was let go for his marital or literary affront. In any case, in The Leavetaking Patrick follows his author into exile, that wider world elsewhere for so many Irish writers. Like Macbeth, the young man in The Dark was unable to fight his way out of his castle keep, Ireland. In The Leavetaking he leaps the moat.

It has been argued that McGahern is too much a child of his generation, locked into the problems which faced young men in the 1950s, his decade of coming-of-age. Anthony Cronin, Irish man of letters, has suggested that McGahern, like Edna O'Brien, persists in misrepresenting Ireland—which Cronin sees as urban, open and secular—by portraying characters who are dominated by rural values, taboos and religious repressions. Yet the circumstances of McGahern's life suggest that his Ireland is not fanciful, though the terms in which he portrays Ireland may at times be extreme. After all, McGahern's book was banned in Ireland and he was dismissed from his teaching post. While the rest of the English speaking peoples were discovering sex—“Between the end of the Chatterly ban / And the Beatles’ first LP,” as Philip Larkin put it—Ireland was still preserving its innocence with repression. In No Country for Young Men, Julia O'Faolian explains that

the tide of permissiveness which lapped the shores of Ireland, like an oil slick riding the warm Gulf Stream, was safely navigable only as long as you kept off its coastal rocks. Laws here had not changed, nor people's attitudes underneath.

The hero of The Leavetaking certainly seems stuck. He left, but has returned. On his final day as schoolmaster he paces the playground, watching gulls’ shadows float on the concrete, his own thought floating in similar hazy circles. Roger Garfitt has described this circularity as McGahern's Buddhist cast, his characters turning on a Wheel of Karma. Certainly Patrick erects a metaphysic out of his immediate circumstances. For him all life turns and returns. He journeyed from rural Ireland to Dublin, where he won his teaching job; to London, where he won his wife; then back to Dublin, where he lost his job.

If I believed in anything, and it was without conviction, it was that once upon a time we had crawled out of the sea and were making a circular journey back towards the original darkness.

Had the novel ended at that point we would be granted the same No Exit vision we find in The Dark, where the boy sinks into a routine job, stuck for life. However, The Leavetaking and Patrick (finally a hero worthy of a name) go on to another stage of development.

In a near magical gift of grace—suggesting McGahern's determination to plot in a possibility of relief for his hero—love, in the person of Isobel, an American, walks into the London bar where he works. They match. He has a mother problem: when she died, Patrick's life became meaningless, a mere cycle of regret-nostalgia. She has a father problem: he is managerial, overbearing, another child molester. Patrick and Isobel set out to rescue each other, to build their own separate world. Finally private happiness is possible in a McGahern parable.

Still, the problem of the public life remained to be solved. Patrick returns to Ireland with Isobel—they live on Howth, where Molly said yes to Bloom—and resumes his teaching duties. Here Patrick faces a revealing choice. He knows he cannot hope to retain his position if it becomes public that he married a Protestant, so either he has to lie—say he was married in a Catholic Church in England—or pretend he is not married. He chooses the latter, but Dublin remains a small town, gossip travels fast and soon it is widely known that he is living with a woman on Howth. Then he is dismissed, leaving him where we find him on the opening page of the novel, walking the gull-shadowed concrete of the schoolyard, reverberating in reverie. He did not toe the line, so he is dismissed. The proposition seems confirmed.

Yet Patrick helped to contrive his own dismissal, for he set up a situation which challenged the Irish-Catholic establishment to act and then blamed the power structure when it did exactly what he knew they would. His stage-managed dismissal is his final act of exorcising Ireland. He sets up a situation in which he is forced to choose between his country and his love and, of course, chooses his love at the willing price of exile. Father Curry, an alcoholic who continues to drink despite his ulcer—another Irishman suffering from self-inflicted wounds—meets with Patrick to announce his dismissal and asks why he flew in the face of God. However, Patrick is well-insulated against such taunts; he sees Father Curry as fat, old and bigoted, a horrific version of the priest his mother wished him to be. In engineering his own banishment, Patrick makes his separate peace with all the men he might have become had he stayed. He will not be a policeman, like his father; a teacher, like his mother; or a priest, a role both he and his mother had desired for him. What he will become is uncertain. Like the boy in The Dark, he seems to have inchoate aesthetic longings, but as yet has no form in which to translate his impulses. All that seems to matter is that he, unlike earlier McGahern lads, has found his love, a love which constitutes both a profession and a world. The novel ends with a rhetorical flourish which echoes Arnold's “Dover Beach,” another land's-end haven where love alone is certain good:

Ah love, let us be true to one another! When we

tire we hear the rain on the slates and in the

distance the muffled breathing of the sea.

“How perilous it is to choose / not to love the life we're shown,” asks Seamus Heaney in “The Badgers.” Often McGahern's bright young men and fading women hate the lives they are shown. Through death, self-annihilation in meaningless work, or exile, they fight their ways out. Elizabeth dies; the young man in The Dark makes it to Dublin; Patrick, in The Leavetaking, will make it again to London, with his wife. Though their lives ease, these novels and stories of McGahern's early career show characters who find Ireland a world well lost.

In the fiction of McGahern's middle forties—Getting Through and The Pornographer—his characters take new turns: some farther out, some deeper in. Though it never comes easy, some find new ways to live with Ireland. These works constitute a mid-career summing-up, a rounding out of a series of major and minor fictions which embody parables on the state of Ireland, its men and women. What had been bleak and constricting (The Dark,Nightlines) takes on a faintly optimistic cast (Getting Through). These works clarify McGahern's revised vision of Irish culture, character and place.

Unlike some of the stories in his early collection, Nightlines, which stress separation, the stories in Getting Through stress reconciliation. “A Slip-Up,” for example, describes an elderly couple who left Ireland for London—as though we were picking up the Patrick-Isobel story years later—and their memories of home. Increasingly the husband recollects their days on an Irish farm. Lost, wandering the alien streets of London, in his imagination he walks “safe in the shelter of those dead days, drawing closer to the farm between the lakes they had lost.” In “Faith, Hope and Charity” an Irish laborer is killed in a ditch cave-in in London. Perhaps, then, London has its own dangers which make Ireland seem more a haven than a trap.

However, themes in Getting Through run in several directions. Some stories still feature characters who struggle against obstructions which keep them isolated in Irish backwaters. A teacher dreams of “all sorts of impossible things” he might do outside his village, but fears change more. A policeman regrets that he has only a broken fiddle to play to a crone in an isolated village, while others play their fine violins to beautiful women in Galway. Other stories focus not on regions and freedom, but on the perverse contrivances of the imagination to supply counter-realities. McGahern implies that not just rural Ireland is smothering, but that any actuality, any life shown, is enough to set off the imagination in flight for some better place or state of being. “Doorways” is about a young man who would rather think than act, so life and love slip away while he stands imagining “all sorts of wonderful impossibilities” in life's doorways; he stands still, though “the day was fast falling into its own night.” The imagination soars like Daedalus, but crashes like Icarus. Thus Getting Through leaves McGahern's representative men and women in conflicting states of being and ambiguous relation with Ireland. However, his next novel steadies his vision of Ireland.

In The Pornographer McGahern brings his characters full circle, back to the moist valleys of Roscommon, the rivers which soak the countryside of Carrick-on-Shannon. McGahern's wheel turns and turns again, yet there is, too, a sense of progression, of moving on past obstructions to a new resolution. At the end of The Barracks a woman dies of cancer and her family is land-locked in West Ireland, a bleak fate; at the end of The Pornographer another woman dies of cancer and another family is fated to remain in West Ireland, yet optimism buoys the novel. Elizabeth Reegan had little choice, found no exit, but the unnamed narrator, the pornographer, chooses his fate, removes himself from the doorway of indecision and unrealized imaginative possibilities.

The pornographer lives in contemporary Dublin—as much plate glass and disco as it is Georgian and pubs—where he practices his artificial art. He has, it seems, left old Ireland behind. Recovering from a lost love, the pornographer insulates himself from pain by making his appointed rounds: to the hospital to visit his dying aunt; to his room where he contrives more consequenceless sexual acrobatics for Col. Grimshaw and Mavis Carmichael; to pubs where he discusses sexual and literary aesthetics with his publisher, Maloney. The pornographer's doorway is revolving. Between “the womb and the grave,” all is an empty cycle, a dutiful dance.

“Dance” is not only a metaphor, but also a site, for at a dancehall on O'Connell St. the pornographer meets a 38-year-old woman, a semi-virgin who jolts him out of his numb cycle. Josephine comes to represent something deeply, darkly Irish to her 30-year-old lover. John Updike was right to note “the hero's deadly coldness, and Josephine's credible, vital humanity,” but he misses some of her threat to the pornographer; after creating the illusion of permissiveness, she comes to stand for Irish conformity.

First she is fertile Ireland. Josephine brings him on a boat trip up the Shannon, where they leave behind the world of contemporary artifice in Dublin and enter a mythic realm: “there was a feeling of a dream, souls crossing to some other world. But the grey stone of the bridge of Carrick came solidly towards us out of the mist around eight.” This metaphoric and actual passage ends in Josephine's womb. In a bay above Carrick he enters her, fertilizes her. Finally the McGahern hero unifies geography and psyche, body and mind; he possesses and is possessed by Ireland-as-woman.

But the pornographer will not be so easily netted. Pregnant, Josephine quickly sheds her easy ways: they must marry, settle down; he must give up writing pornography and find a proper job. When he refuses, she moves to London to have her baby, yet still seeks to have him face his responsibilities.

He, however, has other plans, centering upon a 23-year-old nurse who attended his dying aunt. Dancing with her, he feels he is “holding glory,” not responsibility. While Josephine represents something grasping in the Irish character, the nurse suggests youthful vitality. Like other McGahern women, Josephine and the nurse, even the hero's failed first love, are factors in an argumentative design:

It seems we must be beaten twice, by the love that we inflict and then by the infliction of being loved, before we have the humility to look and take whatever agreeable plant that we have never seen before, because of it being all around our feet, and take it and watch it grow, choosing the lesser truth because it's all that we'll ever know.

The nurse, then, this “agreeable plant” drawn from native ground, will nurture his growth. He even has the one dear perpetual place in mind to plant his new life. His business with Josephine finally settled in London, his aunt buried, the pornographer vows to make a new start with the nurse at his side, deep in the Irish countryside, at a rural farm. The McGahern hero willingly goes home again. “There comes a time when you either run amok completely or try to make a go of it. I'm going to try to make a go of it,” he tells Maloney.

Even more than Josephine, Maloney provides impediments to the pornographer's development. (In The Leavetaking a character named Maloney, a headmaster, caned boys. In The Dark the similarly named Mahoney brutalizes his son. McGahern, who often has no name for his heroes, has found a name for his villains.) In The Pornographer Maloney, a publisher of smut, seems at first the least constricting of men. Failed reporter, failed lover, cynic, dandy, aesthete, Maloney's mutability embodies modern Ireland's openness. Yet, McGahern shows, a fierce moral righteousness runs just underneath the skins of Irish men and women, still. Maloney argues the hero is stupid for getting the woman pregnant, so he should be punished with marriage. Josephine argues responsibility; Maloney argues retribution.

Maloney explains that the pornographer must pay because life, unlike art, has consequence. Col. Grimshaw could not get Mavis pregnant, for such things do not occur in pornography. “Art is not life because it is not nature.” This Wildean theorizing inspires Maloney with the plan to have the pornographer recreate in pornographic terms, for the Col. and Mavis, the Shannon trip on which Josephine became pregnant. Thus Maloney's “art” is a parody of life. “Life for art,” he argues, “is about as healthy as fresh air is for a deep-sea diver.” The pornographer carries out his publisher's instructions as though hypnotized. At this point he is caught between high-minded self-sacrifice urged by Josephine and Maloney, who both urge him to marry, and life-defeating artifice, his tawdry “art.” At the end of the novel, with the help of the nurse, he rejects both. The hero defines his life in his own terms, rejecting pressures to conform to Irish expectations. McGahern would have us see that life is not all dire consequence, and art is not without such consequence. Further, both art and life should hold glory.

Yeats thought “one's verses should hold, as in a mirror, the colours of one's own climate and scenery in their right proportion.” McGahern too seeks such proportion, such balance. The bold clash and colors of his early works has given way to patterns of complexities; revulsion against most things Irish has modulated into a tense truce or a qualified acceptance of the national landscape.

It is an extraordinary turnabout which brings the pornographer to take up his new life and his new wife in the Irish countryside, the trench from which McGahern had previously sent so many of his fictional characters over the top. Of course Ireland has greatly changed since the days of The Barracks and The Dark—images of solitary confinement, apt for Ireland of the 1950s.

Though still a tight, little island, contemporary Ireland is a place where a freer life is possible. The pornographer can avoid being trapped into marriage, choose his love and still stay on in Ireland. Perhaps McGahern will go on to demonstrate in later fiction the workings out of such an idyll as the pornographer hopes for himself and the dancing nurse in the Shannon valley. (Why would she wish for such a life after living in liberated Dublin? Isn't she following the downward spiral of Elizabeth Reegan, another nurse who gave up urban freedom for rural marriage and the family? Or has Irish country life changed sufficiently to make her rustic retreat another form of renewal? Since McGahern does not represent the young nurse's point-of-view, such questions linger.) The glory that the pornographer holds in the nurse's body is the promise of renewal through love and sex, set in an Irish remote field, but the novel ends before we see whether such a new life can be more than a rhetorical assertion.

For all that, McGahern, having made the easy case against Irish parochialism, now brings his considerable talents to focus on the mixed blessings of Irish provincialism, a more exacting challenge. The wall against which the McGahern hero pushes so long and hard has yielded to counter-pressures from Common Market commonality. In the face of such change, McGahern writes parables which suggest, as Edith Wharton once said about another ancient regime in decline, “there was good in the old ways.” McGahern's revised version of the Irish pastoral is edged in irony, weighted by expectation and sustained by compelling fictional energies.

Principal Works

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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.”

Patricia Craig (review date 13 September 1985)

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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 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.

Change the medium, and you have a summary of McGahern's own experience, especially with regard to his novel The Dark (1965), against which a lot of affronted voices were raised. Some of these voices were choleric and Catholic; others belonged to people who resented being disheartened by McGahern's joyless view. The Dark—a very seedy evocation of adolescent suffering and anxiety—does seem to have been written out of a profound malaise; it's good to note a raising of spirits in subsequent fiction by this author. Not that he is ever exactly ebullient; his strengths instead would seem to lie in a steady approach, an encompassing sense of time passing, and a feeling for things like the everyday ecstasies which typically occur in a room in Rathmines, or near Stephen's Green.

High Ground, in fact, opens with a broken relationship and ends with a flourishing one, a positive note thereby being struck. In between are some instances of dignified behaviour, and some tests of loyalty—the latter concerning country schoolmasters, young and old, and the choices that confront them. In the title story, to take that example, a boy with a new degree is invited to oust the old master whom drink has impaired. He himself was once the master's star pupil. The prospect of sudden advancement is held out to him by an upstart. Out of these few facts, McGahern makes a poised and resonant tale. As for the need to conduct yourself with decorum—it may be especially pressing if you are an unassertive girl, a maidservant, seduced and let down by the local ladykiller. Eddie Mac, in the story of that title, spectacularly abandons, along with his herdsman's post, the woman he has impregnated. This story, like its sequel (“The Conversion of William Kirkwood”) opposes two qualities, Irish wildness and Anglo-Irish mildness. Or, if you like, Irish unease and Anglo-Irish self-possession.

McGahern isn't after anything so crass as local colour, but locality is important, whether it's a Dublin dance-hall he's envisaging or a Georgian country parsonage complete with walled orchard, lawn and garden. In the first of the Dublin stories, a man is left by his girlfriend and goes adrift for a while in the company of some drunkards. There is another story in which we are asked to accept the peculiarity of an intending nun, in her last days of freedom, accompanying a man to a hotel room (to compound the pattern, he's an ex-seminarist). In fact, McGahern doesn't seem to have a wide range of female characters at his disposal; and this one, typically a nurse, is also typical in being clear-headed, guileless, nerveless and unironic.

A common masculine figure in McGahern's work is the warped Irish father: one or two of these get into High Ground, blusterers, grudge-bearers, graceless and glum. They don't loom especially large, however; that's a hell confined to childhood. More agreeable in disposition is the type of old man who ruefully compares himself to Oisin in the wake of the Fenians, the ethnic simile persisting in the face of modern innovations, church bingo, colour television and the like. McGahern, charting social change, notes the disappearance from Irish country roads of bicycles, horses, carts, traps and sidecars. He notes the modernization of the Mass and the advent of the minibus. The newer Irish ways are offered without comment, unless a comment is implicit in McGahern's faintly elegiac tone. He writes, as always, with authority and gravity, and with an instinct for the most appropriate detail.

Further Reading

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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 Lake, though notes that the novel is “underplotted.”

Sutherland, John. “Coming Home.” New York Times Book Review (17 March 2002): 9.

Sutherland discusses McGahern's career as a writer and praises By the Lake as “teasingly precise.”

Additional coverage of McGahern's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17–20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 29, 68; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 14, 231; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 17.

Richard Lloyd (essay date September 1989)

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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 of his equality with Joyce.” Another critic, Peter Prescott, commenting on McGahern's reception in this country, “doubts there is another writer of fiction in English as good as John McGahern who is so little noticed in this country. One would have to poke around even among those who read books for a living to find the few who have read him.”

After the publication of his fourth and latest novel, The Pornographer (1979), McGahern began to receive more notice in the United States as an important literary figure. Nonetheless, even with the more recent critical acclaim, John McGahern is still largely unnoticed in this country, and at the time of this writing, his first three novels are not even available in the United States.

In his first three novels, McGahern presents a dark and bleak view of Irish society and Irish life. The Barracks centers itself on the Reegan family (Sergeant Reegan, his three children from his first wife, and their stepmother Elizabeth), and their futile attempts to find some illumination in their lives to relieve the darkness, or what Thomas Kilroy calls the “withering constriction, the landscape of inhibition.” Elizabeth Reegan, the stepmother and protagonist in the novel, becomes the “suffering, sensitive figure at the center.” She discovers that she has cancer, and faced with impending death she searches for some meaning in her life. McGahern does not, however, allow her to find any answers to her question, and she dies accepting the fact that she cannot know life's mystery. While her problems are central to the novel, her adopted son, Willie, has problems that are central to McGahern's imagination. His attempt to find light in the novel also fails; and as a result, his quest is taken up by the protagonists in later novels, Mahoney in The Dark, Patrick Moran in The Leavetaking, and the nameless narrator in The Pornographer.1

The mother's death from cancer in The Barracks is important to the development of McGahern's second and third novels, The Dark and The Leavetaking. In these novels, McGahern still imagines Ireland as oppressive and dreary, and there is still the “suffering, sensitive figure at the center.” The protagonist in these novels, like Elizabeth in The Barracks, searches for that illuminosity that will relieve the constricting darkness. Yet in these two novels, the protagonist associates that lifting of the darkness with a promise he had made to his dying mother: “One day I'd say Mass for her.”2 The protagonist assumes that if he becomes a priest, as his mother desired, he will be able to fulfill his promise, and by doing so, lift the darkness with the light of Catholicism, the dominant religion of Ireland. However, the protagonist never becomes a priest because he cannot lead a celibate life, and thus, his promise goes unfulfilled. At the end of The Dark, the protagonist, wallowing in self-pity at this shattered dream of priesthood and university life, decides to seek work as a clerk for the Electrical Supply Board (E.S.B.) in Dublin. Feeling that life is nothing more than a direction, that any road is as good as another, McGahern's protagonist finally feels the darkness lifting. McGahern, however, does not leave the reader with the same impression. Mahoney, like Elizabeth in The Barracks, has not fulfilled his dreams: he has not said Mass for his mother, nor has he escaped the “landscape of inhibition.” As Shaun O'Connell points out: “The boy will be paralyzed in the civil service, an Irish purgatory.” At the end of The Dark, then, McGahern's vision is still unresolved.

At the conclusion of The Leavetaking, Patrick Moran, in an effort to rid himself of his guilt-ridden memories of his mother and of his vow, decides to flee Ireland and take refuge in England in the arms of an American woman. While some critics view Patrick's leavetaking as “a lifting of the gloom” McGahern, again, does not leave this reader with that impression. Patrick has not lifted the darkness from Ireland; he simply flees from it. Feeling, as did the younger protagonist in The Dark, that life is nothing more than a direction, a continuing, Patrick has not risen above the Irish aridity and confinement; and while his leavetaking may temporarily lift the shadows from his own life, McGahern, his creator, continues to “imagine Ireland as dark, dank, and dour.”

In his first three novels, then, McGahern articulates the barren spiritual and societal life of Ireland, a land where religious rituals and artifacts have lost their vitality. As a result, its people wither and die questing for the light. They must, it seems either leave Ireland or find a way to live with her.

In his fourth and latest novel, The Pornographer, McGahern's vision becomes more optimistic. Irish society, which had been bleak, dark and constricting in the earlier novels, takes on a brighter, more hopeful hue. In the novel, after a series of compounding events, McGahern's nameless protagonist begins to realize that he has not acted properly in his life, that he has “let the light of imagination almost out.” He realizes that life cannot be a continual series of leavetakings from his problems. Realizing for the first time that one road is not so good as any other, McGahern's protagonist decides to follow one road, a road that leads him back to the Irish countryside—the countryside the protagonists in the earlier novels could not wait to escape. While there, his perception of rural Ireland changes; he realizes that “deep down [he] loves his country no matter how bleeding awful it is.” Thus, he decides to stay, to propose marriage to an Irish Catholic farm girl, and to return to his inherited farm. McGahern's vision, then, comes full circle; his protagonist lifts the darkness from “the landscape of inhibition” with the light of imagination. In his fourth novel, McGahern has resolved the problems announced and developed in the earlier works. In The Pornographer, the protagonist affirms Ireland with all her attendant problems; through “memory becoming imagination,” his perception of rural Ireland changes, and he allows himself a chance at happiness in the Irish countryside.3

In The Pornographer, the protagonist, a former school-teacher, lives in contemporary Dublin where he is a writer of purportless pornography. Attempting to get over the pain of a lost love, he fills his meaningless days by writing about the inexhaustible sexual appetites of Mavis Carmichael and Colonel Grimshaw, by going to the hospital to visit his dying aunt, by visiting his uncle in the rural Irish countryside of his youth, by frequenting local pubs to meet with his publisher, Maloney, and by hoping to satisfy his own sexual appetite.

As the novel opens, the protagonist meets with his uncle to discuss the health of his dying aunt. During their conversation, the uncle asks him if he intends on selling his inherited farm. When the protagonist says no, his uncle responds:

Selling a place like that is like selling your life. You'd never know when you'd want to go back to it. And it'll not move unless you move.

The uncle's comment is important since it is a pre-indication that McGahern's protagonist must finally return to the countryside of his youth if he is to lift the darkness from his meaningless life. After spending the day with his uncle, the protagonist sees his uncle off at the train station. After his uncle's departure, the protagonist reflects on the day, and on his purposeless life:

All day my life has been away, in easy attendance on the lives of others, and I did not relish its burden back, the evening stretching ahead like a long and empty room. It must surely be possible to be out of our life for the whole of our life if we could tell what life is other than this painful becoming of ourselves.

Returning to his apartment, McGahern's protagonist decides to read through his latest batch of pornography.

I read what I had written, to take it up. My characters were not even people. They were athletes. I did not even give them names. Maloney, who was paying me to write, effectively named them. “Above all the imagination requires distance,” he declared. “It can't function close up” … and so Colonel Grimshaw got his name and his young partner … joined him as Mavis Carmichael.

Although mentioned in the context of pornography, Maloney's comment on imagination, like the uncle's comment about the farm, is important in development of McGahern's vision. McGahern's protagonist, having lived away from rural west Ireland, has the needed distance for his imagination to function, and therefore, eventually recreate his past in a different light, a light that will allow him to return to the Irish countryside.4

Putting his writings aside, McGahern's protagonist goes to a pub hoping to satisfy his own sexual appetite. At the pub, he meets a woman, Josephine, and they quickly become lovers. Josephine refuses to use contraceptives because she thinks they are unnatural; the protagonist does not care enough to see that protection of some kind is used; and as a result of their foolishness, she becomes pregnant. Josephine proposes marriage; however, he refuses. He only wants the problem removed, and consequently he asks her to have an abortion. The protagonist's unwillingness to marry, and Josephine's unwillingness to have an abortion leave her with little choice but to go to London to have the baby. Feeling disillusioned by her pregnancy, the protagonist meets with Maloney to discuss his writing and his problem. During their discussion, Maloney reiterates his belief that “memory becoming imagination” functions best at a distance. (Once disillusioned with Ireland, Maloney had left for Paris to become a poet; however, once there he longed to be back home.)

My most frequent vision was that of an enormous tray of roast beef and browned potatoes back in Ireland. … Life is a great teacher if you can extricate yourself for a few moments every few years or so from the middle of its great bog.

Only partly comforted by Maloney's philosophies, McGahern's protagonist searches for some meaning:

We have to go inland, in the solitude that is both pain and joy, and there make our own truth. … All the doctrines that we had learned by heart and could not understand and fretted over became laughingly clear. To find we had to lose: the road away became the road back. …

While Josephine is on the road out, the road to London, his road continues to lead him to the hospital to visit his dying aunt. During these visits he happens to meet Nurse Brady, a dark-haired Irish Catholic farm girl.

I saw the ridiculous white cap pinned to the curly black hair growing thick and close to the skull, her strong legs planted apart, her laugh, its confident affirmation of itself against everything vulnerable and receding and dying.

Disregarding any responsibility to Josephine, the protagonist pursues Nurse Brady, and eventually his frequent meetings with her lead to their making love, a love he associates with “the sweet fragrance of the new hay.” The scent reminds him of the Irish countryside of his youth. The association is important because McGahern's protagonist, “through memory becoming imagination,” now finds the scent sweet, not foul and pungent as in the earlier novels.

An old sweet scent rushed through the taxi window as soon as we passed beyond the hospital, so familiar that I started, and yet could not place or find its name, it so surrounded the summers of my life, lay everywhere round my feet; not woodbine, not mint, not wild rose. … Of course, it was hay.

After further meetings with Nurse Brady, the protagonist realizes that he is beginning to fall in love. However, in what is the first sign of his understanding of how badly he has acted in his life, he tells her it is better to wait on their relationship until he is free of his (now partly realized) responsibility to Josephine. After the baby is born, he goes to London to accept his responsibility to Josephine, but he refuses to accept any responsibility for the baby. McGahern leaves one with the impression that his protagonist's growth into understanding is still, at this juncture, shallow.

As a result of his abandonment of the baby, he is beaten by a friend of Josephine. Although battered and scarred, the beating brings him to a fuller awareness of how badly he has acted in his life. He realizes that life is not simply a continuing, that one road is not so good as any other:

I felt the cold and it was painful to move my lips and my face seemed numb, one eye was closed; and I was extraordinarily happy, the whole night and its lights and sounds passing in an amazing clarity that was yet completely calm, as if a beautiful incision had been made that separated me from the world and still left me at pure ease in its still centre.

Cut, bruised, and yet calm with understanding, he returns home from London only to find that his aunt has died. Going to her funeral takes him on a road back to the Irish countryside of his youth. While there, his uncle shows him his newly bought farmhouse. The protagonist remarks that the house has a “solid hall door looking confidently down the road.” Once again the image of the road has become important to McGahern's protagonist since he now believes that he has finally found his own road to travel. The sound beating he received in London has finally made him realize how badly he has acted, that life cannot be a series of continual leavetakings from his problems. F. C. Molloy comments:

John McGahern is concerned not just with the passing of time but with the influence of time on the memory and the imagination. He presents his [protagonist] as a man coming to terms for the last time with his past life and all the social forces which have made him what he is. The recreation of the past involves imagination as well as memory.5

McGahern's protagonist begins to understand that he must finally stand and accept responsibility for his past actions, and as a consequence, he makes a decision about his life: “I'm going to try and make a go of it.” Reflecting on what his life has been, he sums up his loathesome past:

By not attending, by thinking any one thing was as worth doing as any other, by sleeping with anybody who'd agree I had been the cause of as much pain and confusion and evil as if I had actively set out to do it. I had not attended properly. I had found the energy to choose too painful. Broken in love, I had turned back, let the light of imagination almost out. Now my hands were ice.

McGahern's protagonist realizes that he has not attended properly, that he has lived a life of darkness. Molloy comments that “the concern for memory and how it can lead to an imaginative recreation of the past are uppermost in the character's mind.” He realizes the need to follow not any road, but the road of imagination—the road that leads back to the rural Irish countryside of his youth.

We had to leave the road of reason because we needed to go farther. Not to have a reason is a greater reason still to follow the instinct for the true, to follow it with all the force we have, in all the seeing and the final blindness.

Believing that he has now found the true road for his life, he finds himself feeling that he needs to pray:

What I wanted to say was that I had a fierce need to pray, for myself, Maloney, my uncle, the whole shoot. The prayers could not be answered, but prayers that cannot be answered need to be the more completely said, being their own beginning as well as end.

The novel ends, then, on a triumphant note; the protagonist has decided to return to the Irish countryside of his youth and make a go of it. “Memory becoming imagination” has had a curative effect on McGahern's protagonist; his imagination changed his perception of “the landscape of inhibition.” Instead of finding rural Ireland bleak and constricting, he now finds the Irish countryside “sweet with the fragrance of new hay.” By proposing marriage to an Irish Catholic farm-girl and returning to his inherited farm, McGahern's protagonist affirms Ireland, her religion, and her way of life.

I tried to say something back but couldn't. And in the silence a fragment of another day seemed to linger amid the sweeping wipers and grow … at the beginning of the journey … that had brought each to where we were, in the now and forever.

As the novel closes and the rain starts pouring down on McGahern's protagonist and on his Ireland, one cannot help but feel a baptism is taking place; the darkness that was so prevalent in the earlier novels has been washed clean through “memory becoming imagination.” As Molly said yes to Bloom, McGahern and his protagonist are finally able to say yes to Ireland; they can affirm her with all her attendant problems. The darkness lifts—McGahern's vision is resolved.


  1. The first two protagonists come from the west of Ireland; both are originally from a farm; both lose their mother to cancer when they are young; and both had mothers that wanted them to become a priest. In The Pornographer the connections are not as clear, but the protagonist is still from the west of Ireland; his family owned a farm; his mother is dead, and he is a former teacher.

  2. For a more detailed analysis of McGahern's first three novels and a discussion of the Mass as a possible theme, see ESRS, Fall, 1987.

  3. For a thematic application of “memory becoming imagination” to other literary works, one will want to read Emporia State University Professor John Somer's work in progress.

  4. Since Maloney's comment on imagination is made within the context of pornography, it is interesting to note that the two pornographic love scenes in the novel are identical. McGahern's protagonist does not have the distance required for his imagination to function in his writing.

  5. While Molloy's comments are made in reference to The Leavetaking, they are valid as well for the protagonist in The Pornographer since this paper is focusing on a single protagonist carried throughout the novels.

Works Cited

Kilroy, Thomas. “Tellers of Tales.” Times Literary Supplement, 17 March 1972: 302–3.

McGahern, John. The Barracks. 1963. London: Quartet Books, 1977.

———. The Dark. 1965. London: Panther Books, 1971.

———. The Leavetaking. 1974. London: Quartet Books, 1977.

———. The Pornographer. 1979. England: Penguin Books, 1983.

Molloy, F. C. “The Novels of John McGahern.” Critique, 19 (1977): 5–27.

O'Connell, Shaun. “Door into the Light: John McGahern's Ireland.” Massachusetts Review, 25 (1984): 255–68.

Prescott, Peter. “Super-Soap.” Review of The Leavetaking, by John McGahern. Times Literary Supplement, 17 Feb. 1975: 90.

Raban, Jonathan. “New Fiction.” Encounter, 44 (1975): 77–79.

Antoinette Quinn (essay date autumn 1989)

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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 perusal of the title-story reveals the ironies of eminence. John McGahern's short fictions are studies in disillusionment and its apathetic aftermath, in alienated authenticity and the sad stoicism of the undeceived.

At first glance his fictional terrain may seem familiarly uncomfortable to readers of James Joyce, Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain. Stories set in dreary, Irish provincial towns and villages or in the bars, dingy interiors and wet streets of Dublin. Unheroic white-collar heroes—teachers, police sergeants, civil servants, translators, failed writers, a priest. However, where his predecessors were actually or avowedly concerned with the representation of Irish life, writing chapters of moral history, diagnosing urban paralysis, forging an uncreated racial conscience, revealing Catholic Ireland to itself in an unflattering looking glass, McGahern's focus is on the ostensibly unrepresentative, on characters estranged from their families, professional milieux, social contexts, on solitaries, celibates, farmers’ sons who have disinherited themselves, dropouts, bachelors who have not summoned enough sustained enthusiasm to marry. Neither self-deluded nor capable of overcoming their limitations, they are condemned characters, trapped in a world from which death is the only exit. Yet McGahern's heroes are neither freaks nor grotesques, denizens of stables, caves, dustbins, sandheaps. They lead lives of covert desperation, usually contriving to conform outwardly to social mores or role-expectations to the extent that their alienation or despair escapes public notice.

When I claim that these low-pulsed, phlegmatic, dispirited heroes may be only ostensibly unrepresentative, it is because their nihilism, their insistent consciousness of the pointlessness and purposelessness of their lives, their obsession with death, seem to me to derive less from Heideggerian existentialism than from a belated post-Christian reflectiveness pursued, for the most part, in the context of a casual, untroubled Irish Catholicism. Accustomed to living sub specie aeternitatis they now ‘get through’ each day in the certain knowledge of ultimate extinction. An idealist sensibility and a contemptus mundi have outlived the religious belief that engendered them. (‘Faith, Hope and Charity,’ in the story of this title, are three hard-up musicians who provide cheap entertainment.) McGahern's undeceived heroes are ill-adjusted to the finite; theirs is the peculiar hopelessness of former Catholics recently deprived of a teleological metaphysic. They are disappointed men, discontented with the quotidian, grudging and aggrieved, haunted by a phantom promise. Their dilemma is ‘what to make of a diminished thing’ and they confront it listlessly or with grim humour. Carpe diem has no place in their philosophy. They endure but seldom enjoy. They are usually unsuccessful in love because distrustful of consolation. Woman offers them only a temporary respite from despair. McGahern's bachelors are celibates in retreat from life, or men who, failing to resolve a dichotomy between the real and the ideal, pursue love with intermittent ardour and waver about marrying. The motherlessness of so many of his characters may help to account for the joylessness of their disaffection; they lack a primal emotional bonding. Expecting little happiness in the here and none in the hereafter these disillusioned anti-heroes devote themselves to developing their defences against present or future disappointment, protecting themselves against passion or commitment and ‘the stupidity of human wishes.’ They disengage from prevailing social and cultural pieties through withdrawal rather than conflict or debate. Their resistance is passive: they simply ‘prefer not to.’ One even chooses a Bartleby as role-model.

McGahern engages the reader's sympathy for his morose heroes by mediating his fictions through a central consciousness or first person narrator. This is a peculiarly appropriate technique for representing the alienated consciousness, defining the hero's own sense of his isolation from his world. McGahern's heroes are often anonymous and are rarely portrayed externally but they are always self-aware and self-analytic. The narrative, presented from their point of view, dwells on the discrepancy between their public personae and their private attitudes or on the philosophical divide between their anguished nihilism and the nonchalant Catholicism conventional in the society. A reflectively disaffected central consciousness is the vehicle for much of the jaundiced humour of these stories. McGahern's heroes are sometimes sardonically amused at their own despondent singularity, sometimes derisively contemptuous of cheerful, successful, but deluded acquaintances. Through the intimacy of the point of view technique the reader is encouraged to compassionate with these malcontents’ strategies for ‘getting through’ life. In many instances we are led to respect their dedicated pursuit of alienated authenticity; their unwaveringly honest confrontation with the misery of their existence; they appear nobly ignoble.

McGahern's short fictions modulate from realism into lyricism. The realist mode enables him to focus on the humdrum drabness and routine banality of his characters’ lives and contexts. It is also secular and finite, firmly excluding transcendental comfort. Realism laced with lyricism is the mode best adapted to the portrayal of disenchantment. McGahern's narrators are at their most lyrical in evoking lost Edens and, more particularly, lost Eves. Failure in love is a recurrent theme; childhood disillusionment is treated only in Nightlines These are timebound stories and their central preoccupation is with representations of human life in time: clockwatching, pastimes, repetition and predictability, recollection or oblivion, the fugitiveness of the present, apprehension as to the future, beginnings and, especially, endings, the mind's capacity to disregard time and place, and chronological time's measured indifference to the human story.

Where postmodernist fiction amazes the reader with its labyrinthine structures of forking paths and teases him out of escapist identification with a dizzying array of narrative choices McGahern employs realism to portray his characters’ indifference to alternatives or to close off their options. Any change of course is pointless or illusory since life is a story in which all plots are unhappy and all narratives conduct towards ultimate closure. In Nightlines the narrator of ‘Hearts of Oak, Bellies of Brass’ attempts to ‘annul all the votes’ in himself through the choice of a brutalizing life on a London building site. A blackly comic story within a story in ‘Wheels,’ which tells of a Sergeant who in attempting to hang himself almost drowned by mistake and roared for help, is regarded by the narrator as an analogue to his own life, a story about having neither the will to live nor the courage to die unpredictably. This narrator's sense of the absurdity of his life's ‘journey to nowhere’ is syntactically conflated with his indifference towards the continuation or cessation of his autobiographical narrative: ‘the repetition of a life in the shape of a story that had as much reason to go on as stop.’ The theme of indecisive passivity, inertia in the face of alternatives, is resumed in the concluding story of Nightlines. A teacher's tale of his exit from the Christian Brothers, which closely approximates to ‘the shape of his own life, is, like the sergeant's failed suicide, an instance of McGahern's technique of deploying anecdote as image. Lacking ‘the resolution to stay or the courage to leave’ he lay in bed until his religious superiors finally made his decision for him. He is afflicted with what he diagnoses as ‘a total paralysis of the will, and a feeling that any one thing in this life is almost as worth doing as any other.’ In the narrative present he manages to survive by escaping from his role into alcoholic anaesthesia every evening. His pupils who appear to choose a clerical career as Christian Brothers are really pressganged into God's service as the story's title, ‘The Recruiting Officer’ implies, their reward, an education they couldn't otherwise afford. To the one who got away these would-be ‘fishers of men’ are really fish who have risen to the bait.

Like Nightlines,Getting Through also concludes with a story which questions voluntary change, ‘Sierra Leone.’ Here the narrator, gazing at the corpse of his apparently unhappily married stepmother, ironically prevaricates on the subject of her now closed alternatives:

Would she have been happier with another? Who knows the person another will find their happiness or unhappiness with? Enough to say that weighed in this scale it makes little difference or all difference.

His ex-girlfriend's departure to Sierra Leone to seek a happy future with her older married lover prompts this underwhelmed reflection on wish-fulfilment:

All things begin in dreams and it must be wonderful to have your mind full of a whole country like Sierra Leone before you go there and risk discovering that it might be your life.

Such a guarded and qualified hypothesis might appear a rhetorical technique for rendering the psychic timidity that inhibits adventure. However, the narrator's dubiety as to the heroine's future happiness in ‘Sierra Leone’ is endorsed through the narrative device of having it conclude a collection which began with a story about a woman who travelled hopefully to fulfil her dream and ended up disillusioned and destroyed.

In this opening story, reflexively entitled ‘The Beginning of an Idea,’ a successful theatre producer abandons her familiar world to pursue a career as a novelist in Spain. Having failed as a writer and been doubly raped she returns feeling like a corpse, icy and coffined. Within the imagery of the story she is also an oyster who has slid out of her protective shell and been devoured. Inspired by Chekhov's story, ‘Oysters,’ and by two sentences she herself had composed on the dead Chekhov's last journey to Moscow in an oyster wagon, she had embarked on a fictional recreation of his life. Through the somewhat irritating device of reiterating her two sentences McGahern traces her course from obsession to writer's block. The fictional ending that had seemed to her a beginning was really only an ending, after all. Her imaginative obsession with Chekhov's final journey culminates ironically in her inarticulate reenactment of it in her own person. Is a heroine who has committed the existentialist crime of attempting to spend her life imagining another's life being punished by final absorption into her own text? Or is McGahern demonstrating that there is no better alternative, that changing one's career or circumstances is pointless? Why bother to live somewhere else ‘when you can be just as badly off at home’?

McGahern's heroes in Getting Through are more cynical about their options than his heroines. A teacher recognizes that winning the girl or the silver cup are among the ‘sorts of impossible things’ and the spurned narrator of ‘Doorways,’ footloose and fancy free on a Sligo morning, knows that his apparent choices are merely ‘all sorts of wonderful impossibilities.’ In ‘Swallows’ where ‘getting through’ is lugubriously translated as ‘killing time,’ a Sergeant and his housekeeper both while away their time unprofitably, he fishing and giving away his catch, she knitting socks mechanically for a few pence. The alternative proposed by the narrative of a visitor is cruelly inapposite, a story about how Paganini overcame his humble circumstances and lived life creatively to the last. For the sergeant, who could once manage a few Irish dance tunes on the fiddle, Paganini's career falls into the category of ‘wonderful impossibilities’ and the visitor's story only serves to arouse his latent discontent with the limitations of small town life. His housekeeper is better off, deaf to alternatives and contentedly absorbed in her limited progress from the heel to the toe of a sock. As one character remarks on the subject of greyhounds:

They say there's only two kinds to have—a proper dud or a champion—the in-between are the very worst.

The tragedy of McGahern's heroes is that they are neither duds, nor champions, but in-between people, intelligent and sensitive enough to savour the full bitterness of their disappointed lives.

McGahern exploits the narrative strategy of the flashforward to convey not choice, but predictability. The Sergeant of ‘Swallows’ can script the evening's conversation in advance. The courting narrator of the comic romance, ‘My Love, My Umbrella,’ foresuffers wet Sunday outings as a married man down to the excruciating detail of the condensation on the windshield as he stares out to sea from his car and quells ‘the quarrels and cries of the bored children in the back seat.’ In ‘Parachutes’ the narrator foresees a young couple's inevitable future on a suburban housing estate:

the child in the feeding chair could be seen already, the next child, and the next, the postman, the milkman, the van with fresh eggs and vegetables from the country, the tired clasp over the back of the hand to show tenderness as real as the lump in the throat, the lawnmowers in summer, the thickening waists. It hardly seemed necessary to live it.

Irish garrulity in McGahern's short fictions is a pragmatic evasion of existential reflection. Marooned together in ‘Strandhill, The Sea’ his holiday-makers swap ‘informations’ all day, every day, ironically escaping from any confrontation with reality through ‘the despotism of fact’:

Conversations always the same: height of the Enfield rifle, summer of the long dresses, miles to the gallon—from morning to the last glows of the cigarettes on the benches at night, always informations, informations about everythings, having come out of darkness now blinking with informations at all the things about them, before the soon when they'll have to leave.

Comic realist summary modulates into discursive moral censure almost imperceptibly here as daytime becomes synchronous with lifetime and departure with death. A recent story, ‘Oldfashioned,’ deploys a similar comic technique of mimetic summary to illustrate the Irish country person's insatiable appetite for ‘news,’ any news, however trivial, from local gossip to minor wonders farther afield.

McGahern's undeceived heroes tend to be more taciturn or reticent than their voluble neighbours. They have perfected a rhetoric of covert disengagement. Cliched politeness, the ‘guaranteed responses’ that impede any genuine conversational exchange, these are their most common forms of self-insulation against empathy or involvement. The narrator of ‘Wheels’ prefers music to ‘talk’ in the office but when compelled to converse colludes in ‘the lies that give us room’ and parries his father's emotional appeals with a hollow semblance of common sense and consolation. He is practised in the art of self-effacing and non-provocative obsequiousness:

As I grow older I use hardly anything other than these formal nothings, a conciliatory waiter bowing backwards out of the room.

The hero of ‘Hearts of Oak, Bellies of Brass’ who is endeavouring to reduce himself from a state of pour-soi to en-soi, learns the minimal language of his fellow—workers on a London building-site. Like the prostitutes who inhabit the condemned houses on the site they trade their times and their bodies for money and the password to acceptance in their society is ‘fukken’:

the repetitious use of fukken with every simple phrase came harsh at first and now a habit, its omission here would cause as much unease as its use where ‘Very kind. Thank you, Mr. Jones’ was demanded.

‘Yes,’ that most positive of responses, with which Joyce had concluded Ulysses, becomes a bored mimicry of assent for McGahern's schoolteacher during the routine annual seaside holiday with his mother:

and I walk by her side on the sand saying, ‘Yes and yes and yes’ …

McGahern's realist art strains towards the condition of vision, seeking out a single image that will define the narrative's central preoccupation and reinforce or transcend the principal character's cheerless brooding. Its central image is often foregrounded in the story's title. The title-image of ‘Wheels,’ the first story in Nightlines, rotates throughout this opening narrative and on into the concluding story, suggesting life's predictable circularities, the pointlessness of its onward motion. The narrator of ‘Wheels,’ whose story begins and ends with a train journey, is obsessed with life's aimlessness, the body's ‘journey to nowhere,’ the cycle of the generations from nurturing to dependency, the equal tedium of progress or regress along life's groove. He is the first of McGahern's cheated characters, embittered by memories of his own youthful optimism, when the wheel seemed to be revolving towards a welcome future. The closure of his narrative is appropriately anticlimactic:

all the vivid sections of the wheel we watched so slowly turn, impatient for the rich whole that never came but that all the preparations promised.

McGahern's ‘wheel’ represents what Hardy allegorized as ‘Time's mindless rote.’ In Nightlines life's meaningless monotony is sometimes suggested through rhyme, rhythm and repetition. Irish school children in their ‘infant prison house’ learn by rote, reciting the nonsense rhyme: Eena, meena, mina moo, capall, asal agus bo. The ‘rise and fall’ of their voices are echoed in the repetitive routines and work shanties of the adult Irish on the London building site of ‘Hearts of Oak, Bellies of Brass’: the rhythmic drive and throw of the shovels, the filling and rise of the hopper and Murphy's chant, ‘shovel or shite; shite or burst.’ The narration of these actions and phrases is itself repeated within the narrative, a simultaneous mimesis and metaphorizing of monotonous recurrence. Mimesis is almost indistinguishable from metaphor in ‘My Love, My Umbrella,’ a comic romance in which love-making is humorously inseparable from the phallic erection of a black umbrella. In ‘Peaches’ a dead shark is deployed as an objective correlative of the effect of writer's block, an intolerable stench of ‘decomposition’ which pollutes his environs. Narrative imagery is deployed excitingly throughout ‘Peaches’ but the story is uncomfortably Hemingwayesque.

In Getting Through, where McGahern is obsessed with death, from the image of Chekhov's coffin in the opening lines to the narrator's stepmother's death in the final story, there is often more disjunction between mimesis and metaphor than in Nightlines. The image of death as a stoat relentlessly stalking his prey is well realized but its integration into the story, ‘A Stoat,’ is too obviously contrived. A bald teacher's continual wearing of a hat to signify timor mortis in ‘All Sorts of Impossible Things’ is naively allegorical. Perhaps the bleakest and most realistically unaccommodating of all McGahern's narrative images in Getting Through occurs in ‘Doorways,’ where the slight realist tale of a failed love-affair proves too insubstantial a context for the powerful title-symbol. The occupants of the doorways, two almost interchangeable figures with two similar-sounding names, Barnaby and Bartleby, pass their days silently in close proximity but apart, each in his separate frame. Doorways, which function as images of entrance, exit and the threshold between, are visual analogues of the volume's title, Getting Through. At one point they are compared to ‘coffins stood on end,’ a terminally punning reminder that life is lived in a context of death. The two isolated Beckettian figures, who scavenge for their food, occupy a minimal amount of space and shelter and live by an unvarying routine, represent human life at its most basic, ‘getting through’ as survival. Barnaby and Bartleby are solipsists who ignore each other and are indifferent to the attentions of passersby. They never communicate in words. Yet to the disappointed narrator of this story they are exemplary human images: in their strict observance of a disciplined aimlessness, their rigid adherence to absurd routines, their isolation and complete disengagement from their context, their passivity, they embody strategies for survival.

A sardonic perspective on human finiteness, on evasion of or confrontation with existential despair, is frequently expressed in narrative terms through ironies of closure. Time is often alluded to in McGahern's finales. ‘The Recruiting Officer’ concludes with its teacher looking forward to an evening's alcoholic anaesthesia before ‘the morning's dislocation.’ ‘A Slip-Up’ finishes with the would-be farmer's public(house) procrastination, a postponement of routine:

trying to put off the time, when he'd have to go up to the counter for their next round.

‘Where do we go from here?,’ asks the newly widowed father as ‘Sierra Leone’ draws to its close. ‘Not anyhow to Sierra Leone,’ is his son's mental response, though aloud he contrives a soothing form of noncommittal procrastination:

I suppose we might as well try and stay put for a time … that is, until things settle a bit, and we can find our feet, and think.

When the dying priest in ‘The Wine Breath’ conjures up an alternative narrative to his own concluding autobiography he imagines a young man who feels himself ‘immersed in time without end,’ thereby permitting McGahern the terminal irony of ending his story with the phrase ‘without end.’ ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ closes with the opening bars of a tune and the start of a discourse, enabling the author to end on the word ‘began.’ The topic that launches the final disgruntled discourse is young people's early sexual initiation:

Earlier and earlier they seem to start at it these days …

‘Gold Watch’ from High Ground, a narrative meditation on human life in time, is in many respects the quintessential McGahern story. It is the most ambitious and among the most achieved of his short fictions, a story whose mimetic and metaphoric concerns are intricately interrelated. Here he returns to one of his most obsessive themes, the failed father/son relationship, first announced in ‘Wheels,’ the opening story of Nightlines. The concomitant theme of disinheritance is also reintroduced through the titular gold watch, a family heirloom which for the narrator son symbolizes a compensatory alternative to the family farm he has rejected. This wary, defensive narrator is one of McGahern's few successful heroes: he has a rewarding career, marries the golden girl, acquires the coveted gold watch and seems assured of a gilded future. Refusing public acknowledgement of the familial and patriarchal symbolism of the gold watch and always self-righteous in his dealings with his father, he buys a literal replacement for the family heirloom, a modern watch, expensive, ugly and, of course, ‘duty-free.’ This the father sets about destroying to signify the severance of their relationship, when all else fails steeping it in a barrel of crop spray. Since the son's rejection of the family farm is the origin of their poisonous quarrel the corrosion of the substitute watch with form chemicals is symbolically appropriate. The conclusion of the narrative universalizes the watch image, making it symbolize chronological time. All the temporal tropes on which the story draws—seasonal cycles, the progression from childhood to parenthood, the procession of the generations—and its final religious or Romantic expectation of revelation, ‘some word or truth,’ are undermined by the realist recognition that chronological time is merely successive. An anti-epiphanic epiphany! ‘Gold Watch’ is the work of a meticulous, old-fashioned craftsman, every cog precisely positioned in relation to its balance wheel and mainspring. McGahern is here consciously telling the time. The narrative ends by separating the gold watch as artifact from the concept of chronological time. It concludes with the phrase ‘time that did not have to run to any conclusion.’ Time is mindless, purposeless and interminable; narrators and narratives both seek a meaningful progression and terminate.

For my part I shall conclude by discussing my favourite story from High Ground, ‘Parachutes.’ Like so many of McGahern's stories this is an anti-romance, but one that does not strain to achieve universality. McGahern's narrative strategy in ‘Parachutes’ is to begin with an unhappy ending and to end with a happy beginning. Such reversal of chronology in a love story enables him to achieve an anticlimactic structure. This is the story of a fall from ‘a pure dream of Paradise’ to unendurable ‘hell’ in the real world, hell being a city much like Dublin. The objective correlatives of empirical reality are for the first person narrator a dishevelled lilac bush, blue railings, three milk bottles with silver caps, granite steps, the phenomena that surround him in the clear, disillusioned perspective of the morning after his fall. The dramatis personae of this real world are the Mulveys, a shiftless, bickering, Bohemian couple and their friend, Eamonn Kelly, impoverished acquaintances whom he plies with drink, purchasing their company to stave off the tortures of solitude. The Mulveys are impatiently awaiting a payment cheque from an editor, Halloran, and the externalized narrative of their expectancy and suspense ironically counterpoints the internalized narrative which encompasses it, a story of aftermath punctuated with, and ultimately overwhelmed by, retrospection. Irritated by Halloran's delay in paying them the Mulveys break open the suitcase he had left with them as surety and disclose his secret sexual perversity but they fail to probe the narrator's secret sexual suffering. A ‘move in the right direction’ in the realist dimension of the story, a cash advance from Halloran, serves as the prelude to a contrary narrative movement from realism into dream, imagery and rhythmic lyricism.

Narrative focus shifts from the pub interior outdoors, to reveal a vision of fragile beauty hovering briefly by the portals of the disenchanted, ordinary world:

The state was so close to dreaming that I stared in disbelief when I saw the first thistledown, its thin, pale parachute drifting so slowly across the open doorway that it seemed to move more in water than in air. A second came soon after the first had crossed out of sight, moving in the same unhurried way. A third. A fourth. There were three of the delicate parachutes moving together at the same dreamlike pace across the doorway.

The Mulveys speculate on the squalid origins of this transitory, gossamer beauty, an ironic counterpointing of sordid realism and metaphoric imagining which serves the narrative function of providing a solid, empirical basis for, while also deferring, the story's final flight into symbolic lyricism. Ultimately, the wafting thistledowns are associated through imaginative choreography with the dance that started the narrator on his love-affair, the take-off from realism into dream:

‘Do you like waltzes?’ were the first words she spoke as we began to dance.

She did not speak again. As we kept turning to the music, we moved through the circle where the glass dome was still letting in daylight, and kept on after we'd passed the last of the pillars hung with the wire baskets of flowers, out beyond the draped curtains, until we seemed to be turning in nothing but air beneath the sky, a sky that was neither agate nor blue, just the anonymous sky of any and every day above our lives as we set out.

In this, the concluding paragraph of his story, the narrator twirls his partner rhythmically, phrase by phrase, into an aerial dance, floating them into their future together. A story which opens with the parting of the ways, with the woman's entreaty to stay behind and not leave with her, concludes with the start of their shared journey, an apparently open ending structurally blocked by the narrative technique of beginning with closure.

The title-image, overtly assigned a metaphoric role only in the final section, is a pervasive symbolic presence throughout the story. It is the imagistic correlative of its anticlimactic structure, a visual analogue to the narrative of a fall from heaven. Notions of risky adventure, of brief, unsustainable flight, of the inevitability of a return to earth, are implicit in McGahern's choice of the parachute metaphor. The title-image also serves as a visual comment on the narrative's intersecting plots since the reader is made aware that the narrator was exploited by the woman as a saving support in her depressed descent from the dizzy heights of her previous love-affair just as he, in turn, clings to the frail support of the Mulvey's company in his own emotional downward dive. Other allusions within the text subtly recall the title-image. The narrator wishes for a radar screen on which to plot the movements of his departed lover; Claire Mulvey says that her frequent rows with her husband help to ‘clear the air.’

McGahern's brief meditation, ‘The Image,’ (The Honest Ulsterman, December 1968) reveals the poetics underlying his aesthetic achievement in ‘Parachutes.’ For him, ‘the image’ is inseparable from ‘the rhythm and the vision’:

The vision, that still and private universe which each of us possess but which others cannot see, is brought to life in rhythm, and by rhythm I think of the dynamic quality of the vision, its instinctive, its individual movements …

Characteristically, he associates art and ‘the image’ with transitoriness and failure, and, in particular, with the failure of love, again anticipating ‘Parachutes.’ The image is a ‘grave … of dead passions and their days’ and ‘the need of permanence’ creates ‘the need for shape or form.’ ‘Parachutes,’ a fiction in which suspense is subordinate to suspension and realism is subverted by the precarious magic of a doomed lyricism, seems to me the finest justification of McGahern's disenchanted art.

High ground, for this anti-romantic writer, is less a place to aspire towards than to descend or fall from. Despite its title, however, there are some signs in this last volume that he is contemplating the move to a different fictional terrain, a middle ground between the nadir of despair and the unattainable or unsustainable altitudes of ecstasy. In the concluding story, ‘Bank Holiday,’ he is in a rare holiday mood. Even Dublin's climate has improved: ‘the rain, the constant weather of this city,’ gives way to ‘unusual weather, hot for weeks.’ The hero, who in late middle age is given a third time lucky chance of finding happiness, recognizes the importance of celebrating life's ordinary, everyday drama rather than judging by criteria of aspiration and failed achievement. Patrick Kavanagh, for all his personal rebarbativeness, is this hero's exemplary poet. ‘To realize sympathetically the natural process of living’ would now seem to be the older, mellower McGahern's fictional aim. High Ground appears to conclude with the traditional romantic promise of happiness ever after, but disenchantment dies hard. McGahern cannot succumb entirely to fairy tale convention, so love and good fortune are still somewhat qualified by inertia and hypothesis:

They were so tired and happy that it was as if they were already in possession of endless quantities of time and money.

Lindsay Duguid (review date 18 May 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1180

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 we are accustomed to adopting a long perspective on the crumbling houses and the overgrown fields, a bleak landscape infused with memory and melancholy.

John McGahern could wring melancholy from a stone. His novels and short stories focus on the emptiness of provincial life remote from the centre; he excels at evoking the dull pains of sexual repression and the oppressiveness of fixed differences caused by family and church. He is a very quiet writer, whose delicacy and humour and fastidiousness of style have, perhaps, led to his having been somewhat overlooked in England, though he is much admired in Europe. Like other Irish writers before him he has found fame in France, and like other Irish writers he has seen his books (The Leavetaking, 1975, and, in particular, The Pornographer, 1979, which dramatizes the gap between the old ways and the new by contrasting its writer-hero's easy sexual fictions with his complex and unsatisfactory dealings with real women) banned in his own country. Amongst Women, his first full-length novel for several years, reworks many of the themes of his earlier books. Rich yet spare, it is at once a portrait of a particular era and a survey of a nation's past and future.

Amongst Women is specifically located in the rural West of Ireland: a litany of towns—Longford, Roscommon, Strandhill, Enniskillen—is recited as a gateway to the Moran home, Great Meadow, a fine stone house, but not a “great house.” The setting has a gentle pastoral feel. Most of the events take place within walking distance of farm and village, among hedgerows thick with flowers and white dusty lanes which have a green space for the milk churns. The village is firm in its traditions, the wren-boys make their rounds from house to house for a Christmas wassail, dances and concerts are local, people watch from their doorways and daughters are expected to stay at home and look after their parents. There is the weight of disapproval and even ridicule to be braved when Rose Brady, a woman in her late thirties, walks alone to the post office out of too obvious an interest in the widower, Moran. A still smaller circle is formed by the family itself, which gathers nightly to say the rosary in the kitchen where all the dramas are enacted. Moran, the patriarch, is a pillar of the old order, a soldier who fought with the IRA, a poignantly stiff, puritanical man who finds it difficult to accept presents, cannot work machinery and who holds everyone in thrall with his sudden bursts of charm and temper. When he enters the room a nervous silence and deadness falls on his three daughters, Maggie, Mona and Sheila, who are forever laying tables and making tea. The two sons have the family rows and are off to building-sites in England; the girls return, placate, cajole, move with the times and are there to bury Moran at the end.

The novel is episodic in structure, in the way of any family legend. There is the story of McQuaid, Moran's old companion in arms, who visits the house once a year to observe “Monaghan Day,” a ritual of whiskey and reminiscence which in time comes to lose its savour. The stealthy wooing of Moran by Rose, their wedding, the growing up of the girls and the rebellion of Michael all slide easily into one another (there are no chapter divisions), and encompass a number of repeated events such as family Christmases, trips to the sea, haymaking, waiting for exam results, and outbursts of violence and grief. These things, Rose soothingly reiterates, happen in any family. McGahern views the family history retrospectively, beginning with and returning to the death of Moran, from time to time showing how the outside world intrudes and changes life. The girls, who have the skills and the subtleties, get jobs, marry disappointing men (one turns up in the village in a shiny Teddyboy jacket, another cannot work in the fields) and as the family circle widens it weakens. Time is slow in the house, rituals are performed with due solemnity, sealed with gestures, handshakes, kisses, turnings away; but in London and Dublin, important matters such as weddings and family discussions in hotels and restaurants are rushed and skimped so that Moran laments: “It was like grasping water to think how quickly the years had passed.”

There is no son who will carry on with the farm; the collapse of the old order along with the old man is a rural tragedy, its timelessness emphasized by the simplicity of McGahern's telling. (He recounts shifts of emphasis with dry concision, using a more lyrical style for descriptions of the countryside, sexual awakening and domestic custom.) Moran was “neither rich nor poor but his hatred and fear of poverty was as fierce as his fear of illness which meant that he would never be poor but that he and all around him would live as if they were paupers”; his absurd complaint, “God, O God did you ever see such people … never any heed, no care for anybody else,” and his daughter's “When Daddy's nice he's just great. He's like no other person,” are straightforward summings up which seem to cover depths of feeling. The clumsy yet terrible fight between Moran and his son and the sad account of the bank manager's lack of respect towards Rose and Moran (talking on the telephone to someone else, his cup of coffee with a fig roll balanced on the saucer on the desk between them) have, despite their specificity, an almost symbolic weight. In the same way, for all its Irishness—the saying of the rosary, the great meals of fried food and tea and soda bread and jam—Amongst Women addresses universal themes. When Moran talks of the political past: “What did we get for it? A country, if you'd believe them. Some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen. More than half my own family work in England. What was it all for? The whole thing was a cod”), his bitterness seems partly a continuation of Yeats's “Romantic Ireland's dead and gone.” Watching what becomes of the Morans of Great Meadow, we seem to be witnessing not just a local saga but the collapse of a civilization, and to be re-enacting the process by which the old ways eternally give place to the new.

Hilma Wolitzer (review date 2 September 1990)

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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 affectionate relationship with his siblings, he keeps his father at a geographically and emotionally safe distance. The three daughters, Maggie, Sheila and Mona; their younger brother, Michael; and their stepmother, Rose, all remain prisoners, in one way or another, of Moran's erratic will. One by one, they forfeit their own ambitions and desires to satisfy his unreasonable expectations of them.

It is McGahern's significant accomplishment that we can read this heartbreaking story of compromised lives with sympathy for everyone, especially the tormenting, tormented Moran. While he easily manipulates the others, it is the elusive Luke he mourns for, in spite of his disparaging references to “that gentleman,” “your man” and “his lordship.” By not using his absent son's name, he avoids naming and acknowledging his own grief.

There are other notable absences in Amongst Women. We do not learn, for instance, anything of Moran's early life, and hardly any mention is made of his first wife, the mother of his bullied children. But it is somehow understood that, like the war, her death and his own childhood helped to shape his bitter, narcissistic character: “Families were what mattered, more particularly that larger version of himself—his family; and while seated in the same scheming fury he saw each individual member slipping away out of his reach. Yes, they would eventually all go. He would be alone. That he could not stand.”

The children themselves are torn by their conflicting impulses of filial love, rebellious urges and their ungratified craving for acceptance and approval.

So Sheila gives up her plans to become a doctor, Luke stands in for the truant Moran at Maggie's London wedding, Michael runs away and then reluctantly returns and beautiful Mona remains a faithful daughter by never marrying.

As for Rose, she “didn't care where she went or what she saw as long as [Moran] was pleased and she was with him. Now most of her pleasure and all of her pain flowed through him. …”

And Moran is not completely without charm. Between his violent mood swings, there are flashes of benign humor; his fondness for Rose and his children is palpable even under the pious sarcasm, the ongoing diatribe of complaint. The family grasps at any positive sign from their patriarch. Mona says, “No matter what they say, Daddy can be wonderful.” And Sheila eagerly concurs. “When Daddy's nice he's just great. He's like no other person.” But Luke concludes it's their female submissiveness that makes them so tolerant, that only women could live with Moran. Young Michael eventually falls into that passive category, too.

A few days before his death, Moran stands wearily in the burgeoning spring growth of his meadow and has a belated epiphany. “To die was never to look on all this again. It would live in other's eyes but not in his. He had never realized when he was in the midst of confident life what an amazing glory he was part of.”

Despite his professed religious faith, he is not moved to depart this splendor with peaceful resignation or with an outburst of generosity toward his long-suffering survivors: In the ritual of evening prayer, Moran has always begun with “Thou, oh Lord, wilt open my lips.” On his death bed, he orders his distraught family to pray, but while they kneel around him, weeping and intoning those same opening words, he harshly whispers his final earthly command to them: “Shut up!”

In a particularly stunning scene, the family is laboring on a blisteringly hot day to clear Moran's meadow, when Sheila and her new husband slip away together. “Everyone in the field except Moran saw them kiss by the copper beech and then go arm in arm towards the house. No one spoke in the intense uneasiness, but they were forced to follow them in their minds into the house, how they must be shedding clothes, going naked towards one another … as the forks sent a rustle through the drying hay.”

John McGahern is a wonderful writer, and in Amongst Women his spare but luminous prose evokes a severely repressed life and the aching passion that lies beneath its stony surface.

Michael Harris (review date 9 September 1990)

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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.

John McGahern (The Dark,The Pornographer) writes with ease and economy of an Ireland hardly disturbed by such modern intrusions as cars, chain saws and TV. Grudges and rituals live on—hatred of the Black and Tans, the evening reading of the Rosary, hay mowing, barn dances, contempt for the politicians who have somehow transmuted blood and sacrifice into business as usual: “some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen.”

Amongst Women is likely to puzzle the American reader at first, because McGahern, moving omnisciently among his characters and from one event to the next without chapter breaks, seems to pass up so many opportunities for emotional intensity. An American writer would treat Moran's neurosis as a problem, trace it to its wartime roots, force the old man to resolve it before he dies, or at least identify with the children struggling against it. McGahern does none of this. He is interested less in individuals than in the family, less in drama than in patterns of human relationships that can be seen only with a certain detachment, like druidical lines viewed from the air.

“Together they were one world and could take on the world,” the daughters think of the feeling that binds them even after Moran is dead and some of them have moved to England. “Deprived of this sense they were nothing, scattered, individual things. … They would never let it go.”

John Banville (review date 6 December 1990)

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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 policeman, and was raised in County Roscommon, near the border with Northern Ireland. After college he took up work as a teacher in Dublin. His first novel, The Barracks, was published in 1963. Two years later his second novel, The Dark, was banned by the Irish Censorship Board, and McGahern was dismissed from his job without official explanation; the word is that the then archbishop of Dublin, a poisonous person called McQuaid, engineered his dismissal, not only because of the banning, but because the author had been married in a registry office and not in a church, and to a foreigner, at that.

Knowledge of these unsavory matters will contribute nothing to an appreciation of McGahern's art, but may help non-Irish readers to understand something of the country in which Amongst Women is set. McGahern is remarkably free of bitterness toward those who banned his work and drove him from his job and out of Ireland, and regards the affair with some amusement.1 He has taught abroad, in Britain and at Colgate University in the US, and lives now with his second wife on a farm in County Leitrim, not far from where he was brought up. Amongst Women is his fifth novel, and was on the short list for this year's Booker Prize; he has also written some of the finest short stories to have come out of modern Ireland.

McGahern works within a narrow compass. The bulk, and perhaps the best, of his writing is set in rural Ireland, among small farmers, village policemen, teachers; even when he moves to the city it is countryfolk he writes about, those who live in digs and dingy flats and go “home” for the weekends; Dublin has many such, on building sites, in factories, in government offices. McGahern understands these people, their loves and longings, their hatreds, their fierce loyalties, and captures in his work the harsh poetry of their lives. He neither romanticizes nor simplifies; his is an immensely subtle and sophisticated art.

While Brian Moore and Ian McEwan are out to tell a story—something which they do with very great skill—McGahern has no plot to speak of; except the “plot” of life itself. Amongst Women is remarkable in that in a very brief span, and without the faintest trace of strain, it manages to portray a particular world. At the center of the book is Michael Moran, patriarch of Great Meadow, a proud, dominating man whose life, as the action opens, is drawing to a close. Around him, lesser stars, move his wife and his three grown daughters and, at a farther remove, his sons, one of them estranged, the other a rebel in the making.

His women need Moran far more than he needs them:

On the tides of Dublin or London they were hardly more than specks of froth but together they were the aristocratic Morans of Great Meadow, a completed world.

The portraits of the three daughters are superb. Through these pages they grow from schoolgirls to married women, never wavering in their fierce love for their tyrannical father; at the end, when he is dead, a kind of metamorphosis has taken place: “Now, as they left him under the yew, it was as if each of them in their different ways had become Daddy.”

In his youth in the 1920s Moran had been a gunman in the IRA, fighting against the British for independence. He has no illusions about those days of glory:

Don't let anybody fool you. It was a bad business. We didn't shoot at women and children like the Tans [British soldiers] but we were a bunch of killers. … Don't let them pull the wool over your eyes. The war was the cold, the wet, standing to your neck in a drain for a whole night with bloodhounds on your trail, not knowing how you could manage the next step toward the end of a long march. That was the war: not when the band played and a bloody politician stepped forward to put flowers on the ground.

“What did we get for it? A country, if you'd believe them. Some of our own johnnies in the top jobs instead of a few Englishmen. More than half of my own family work in England. What was it all for? The whole thing was a cod.”

The most telling, and most chilling, sentence in the book is this, spoken by Moran when he is reminiscing with an old comrade about the war: “The closest I ever got to any man was when I had him in the sights of the rifle and I never missed.” (Note how effective is the suppression of the comma we might have expected after “rifle”; McGahern is a master of prose rhythm.) It is a mark of this writer's extraordinary skill as a novelist that we can understand the women's regard for such a man—indeed, that we can at times share it. Moran may be a monster, but he is a monster with principles.

The time frame of the novel is cunningly constructed. We begin and end with Moran's dying; in between, we range back over the life of the family not in flashbacks—McGahern would never be guilty of anything so ordinary as a flashback—but a series of chronological shifts which merge and separate with such fluid grace that we have the impression that we are not engaged with words on a page, but rather experiencing life itself: that we are not reading, but living. This sense of the organic, of things growing and flowering and fading, is what marks Amongst Women as work of a high art.

Of Moran's first wife, the mother of his children, we are told nothing. In this omission, McGahern has taken a large risk, but it pays off, for, far from damaging the book, it somehow lends it a dark weight; this nameless woman's absence inhabits the air of the novel like an old grief or an old hurt buried too deep to be spoken of. Moran's silences are more eloquent than words. The section near the start of the book in which he woos Rose, his second wife, is a masterpiece of artistic reticence. Rose is drawn with the most delicate of strokes:

She was in her late thirties, lean and strong, too neat and plain of feature ever to have been beautiful but her large grey eyes were intelligent and full of wilfulness and energy.

The giveaway here is her age; in a rural community, a woman in her late thirties is hopelessly beyond marriageable age. Rose, however, has seen something of the world—she has lived in Glasgow—and anyway Moran likes to do things that will spite the people among whom he lives. “He saw with bitter lucidity that he would marry Rose Brady now. As with so many things, no sooner had he taken the idea to himself than he began to resent it passionately.”

McGahern is utterly unsentimental in his portrayal of his people, yet he allows them their dignity and their sense of themselves and of their place in the world. The relationship between Moran and his estranged son Luke is sketched in a few lines scattered through the book—Luke makes the most fleeting of appearances—yet the struggle between them is elemental, fraught with anger and thwarted love. Moran if he loves anyone loves Luke, yet he will not bend, and the son will not bend.

Meanwhile the second son, Michael, is going to the bad. While still in his teens he learns the pleasures of drink and, more importantly, of the flesh. He takes up with, or is taken up by, Nell Morahan, a young local woman home on holiday from New York:

She was twenty-two and home for a few months with money of her own. … She was as far from ugliness as she was from beauty and she was young and strong and spirited. Michael Moran was only fifteen but he had good looks and sexual charm. All through her childhood she felt that farms like the Morans’ had a richness and greenness in spite of her father's tired assertions to the contrary.

The affair between Michael and Nell Morahan is described with much honesty and tenderness. When it is over, Michael and his father quarrel, the quarrel turns violent, and the boy runs away; the connection is never explicitly made, but we perceive behind Moran's blusterings the fear that he has lost another son. Now all that is left to him is his women, whom he loves yet despises.

It was like grasping water to think how quickly the years had passed here. They were nearly gone. It was in the nature of things and yet it brought a sense of betrayal and anger, of never having understood anything much. Instead of using the fields, he sometimes felt as if the fields had used him. Soon they would be used by someone else in his place. It was unlikely to be either of his sons. He tried to imagine someone running the place after he was gone and could not. He continued walking the fields like a man trying to see.

Rarely nowadays does one come upon a novel that one senses will outlast one's own time. Amongst Women, despite the quietness of its tone and the limits deliberately imposed upon it by the author, is an example of the novelist's art at its finest, a work the heart of which beats to the rhythm of the world and of life itself. It will endure.


  1. See Banned in Ireland: Censorship and the Irish Writer, edited by Julia Carlson (University of Georgia Press, 1990), a volume of essays and interviews with John McGahern and Brian Moore, among others.

Eamonn Wall (review date spring 1991)

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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 experience to depths that had remained unexplored since the death of Joyce. Both McGahern and Moore, in these new works, consider themes that have been present in earlier novels, though through slightly different lenses this time, and the results, in both cases, are remarkable.

Amongst Women, like The Barracks (1963) and The Dark (1965), is concerned with patriarchal dominance. Here, the husband and father, Moran, though he is often cruel to his children and to his second wife, Rose, stands at the center of their lives. The novel begins with Moran near death, and from here weaves its way backwards into Moran's (and his family's) past. Amongst Women is a kind of critical elegy, both for Moran himself and for the revolutionary generation that he was a part of. It is McGahern's best novel to date because here he has managed to extend the psychological landscape to include not just Moran's story, but also the stories of the lives of the other members of his family. One senses as one reads this work that it is complete—that McGahern has distilled from these lives all that is interesting and important. This is surely one of the great works of Irish fiction.

Brian Moore's Lies of Silence is, like his previous novel The Color of Blood, a political thriller which ends with the execution of the hero. The Color of Blood took place in Eastern Europe, in an unnamed country, but Lies of Silence is definitely set in Belfast. The hero of this work is Michael Dillon, a young hotel manager who, on the eve of leaving his wife, is taken captive, along with her, and forced to drive his car, laden with explosives, to his place of work. Inside the hotel, the Reverend Alun Pottinger, a dead ringer for the Reverend Ian Paisley, is about to deliver a speech to a group of visiting Canadian unionists. If the bomb explodes, the guests will be killed. If Dillon informs the police, the IRA will kill his wife.

From the start, Lies of Silence is a compelling thriller that will rivet you to your seat till you find out what happens to Dillon. It is also, however, much more than a brilliant thriller. It is a love story that affirms, as Moore's fiction has always done, the superiority of love to political activism, and which shows that love is impossible to sustain in Northern Ireland. Here, Moore is also more directly politically engaged than he has even been before, in a novel that is a shout for the end to the carnage in Northern Ireland. Lies of Silence is an impressive and an original work.

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

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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 impossibilities in sight. The real difficulty was that the day was fast falling into its own night.’ In between, nothing happens (the girl doesn't want the narrator ‘the way some people cannot eat shellfish or certain meats’), albeit the opening sentence is, not wholly unexpectedly, borne out.

A sentence in McGahern's most recent novel, Amongst Women (1990), is similar; it concerns Moran, the farmer, on the occasion of his second wedding: ‘During the entire day he felt a violent, dissatisfied feeling that his whole life was taking place in front of his eyes without anything at all taking place.’ The lives McGahern customarily describes are narrow—by the standards of fiction, narrow in the extreme; what discontent is felt is far from divine; thoughts of what might have been, though painful, are not trusted far and hence not unduly wept over. These stories might be termed tragedies, but inaccurately, since whatever expectations arise and collapse are small and contained by a sense of impossibility closely akin to stoical resignation. ‘If everything was right, we'd appreciate nothing.’ But we read on in fear, not of any vulgar, stock sexuality or physical violence, but in fear of further unhappiness. We hope for small mercies for McGahern's characters.

He is something of a Samuel Beckett writing in relative longhand, less emblematically and, I would say, more humanly. One of his ostensibly more enterprising characters, who has escaped to work in the oilfields of Saudi Arabia, comes home on leave with habitual expectations, with the intention of standing rounds of drinks and distributing presents; after a few days the excitement dims into a recognition of ‘the poor fact that it is not generally light but shadow that we cast.’ The great event of his leave turns out to be organising an uncle's funeral: one of those pieties which, someone in another story says, ‘are sometimes substitutes for life in this country—or life itself.’

Sexual passion is extramarital and short-lived, or for young fellows feeling their oats, in whom repression largely accounts for its fierceness. Otherwise love—or some sort of drive that serves in its place—means marriage and children, wanted or not: ‘an old con trick of nature’ which, one man reflects, never fails. (Although the widower who advertises in the papers for companionship ‘view marriage,’ and meets a decent gentle soul, slings his hook when he finds she has a dicky heart.) The narrator of McGahern's novel of 1979, The Pornographer, ponders that when he had loved, it was uncertainty that gave an edge, the ‘immanence of No that raised the love to fever’; when Yes is spoken love prepares to fly out of the window. This truistic view is much reiterated by the narrator of Proust's novel, whose experience has it that painful anxiety alone keeps love in existence: ‘We love only what we do not wholly possess’; a state of affairs which, looked at with eyes less jaundiced, ought to ensure love a reasonable lease of life. And the editor in The Pornographer touches coarsely on a Proustian theme when he proposes, with a rueful glance at the sexual athletics displayed in the fiction he prints, that one reason for art's supremacy is ‘just because of the very limitations of life.’ (Such philosophical generalisations are in keeping with the characters who utter them: to wit, never stunningly original, lofty or amplified.) In McGahern's ‘Sierra Leone’—a deceptively exotic title—a character muses that the rich dream of life he enjoyed during the Cuban crisis, ‘the last quiet evening of the world before it was all consumed by fire,’ had dissolved the next morning when the world was safe again. There is a close parallel in Proust's La Prisonnière: as a man prepares to fight a duel, life suddenly acquires a higher value in his eyes, there are pleasures to enjoy, important work to do. He escapes without a scratch, and at once finds the same old obstacles standing between himself and life's pleasures and labours.

Little though there is to be said for a solitary life, family life seems harder to endure; it is something to be run away from, often into another form of family life: which admittedly can be richer or easier at times, as Moran's daughters in Amongst Women testify. One of the grimmest trials suffered by those of McGahern's people who have broken away is ‘going home.’ Moran's daughters, who do love their father, that unstable mixture of tyranny and charm, brave it collectively; his son Luke firmly refuses to go home. ‘Unfortunately the best part of these visits is always the leaving,’ says a young woman in one of the stories, a law graduate working in Dublin: ‘After a while away you're lured into thinking that the next time will somehow be different, but it never is.’ Parents expect you to live in their present, your past: a bullying no more acceptable in being to some extent superfluous, for you've never altogether broken free. But the children, no longer children, still go home; even the obdurate Luke, safe in London, at least meets his father half-way, at the wedding in Dublin of one of his sisters; family ties, begrudged loyalties, must be another of nature's old con tricks.

Another writer McGahern brings to mind is the poet Patrick Kavanagh. McGahern's story ‘Bank Holiday,’ despite its curious but endearing earnestness (‘I find myself falling increasingly into an unattractive puzzlement,’ the chief character says, ‘mulling over that old, useless chestnut, What is life?’), is a notably happy one, even—given the prevalently low temperature—heart-warming. All the same, Kavanagh's lines in ‘One Wet Summer,’ ‘As it is I praise the rain / For washing out the bank holiday with its moral risks,’ does chime with much in McGahern's world. It was noted of Moran that ‘Anything easy and pleasant aroused deep suspicion.’ The succeeding lines in Kavanagh's poem admit, ‘It is not a nice attitude but it is conditioned by circumstances / And by a childhood perverted by Christian moralists.’ It's hard to be sure, in McGahern, whether religion is a burden or a blessing. Probably both; the Lord takes away with one hand and gives with the other. If those pieties were abandoned, what would replace them? The woman's question in Kavanagh's The Great Hunger—‘Who bent the coin of my destiny / That it stuck in the slot?’—echoes throughout the stories, and while there are partial or contributory answers, there is no convincing one. Bent coins are just another old con trick, which no one is grandiose or presumptuous or priestly enough to refer to original sin. One visionary gleam is manifest, to a glum, listless priest: the evening light on snow, renewed (Proustianly again) thirty years later by another evening's watery light falling on white chips of sawn beechwood. The priest would rather have his dead mother back. The priesthood attracted him not for any spiritual exaltation it might bring but as ‘a way of vanquishing death and avoiding birth.’ Possibly—the prose is so tentative or indeterminate here—the image of light and his thoughts of his mother leave traces of reconcilement and a muted joy.

If we are to speak in such terms it is sex, rather, that is the opium of the people, of the male section; though not a very potent drug. Sex and work, or work instead of sex. In ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ it is observed of two men that they slave away all year as labourers in England in order to squander their earnings during one summer month back in Ireland. ‘As men obsessed with the idea that all knowledge lies within a woman's body, but having entered it find themselves as ignorant as before, they are driven towards all women again and again, in childish hope that somehow the next time they will find the root of all knowledge, and the equally childish desire for revenge since it cannot be found.’ McGahern's women are customarily and distinctly the superior sex, more direct, more simply affectionate, open and resilient, actually made of sterner stuff and yet more sensitive to others; and certainly free from any obsession with ideas about where knowledge is to be found. They stand up to the men as bravely as they may, bowing before the storm but not breaking, while the men bluster, bemoan, strike out, or sulk.

It is not that they are shallow, nor that they are sweetened or sentimentalised; they know the depths, they are more modest in assessing the attainable heights and nimbler in rising to them. Rose, Moran's second (and barely deserved) wife, receives an oddly phrased but powerful tribute: her ‘tact was so masterful that she resembled certain people who are so deeply read that they can play with all ideas without ever listing books.’ The story ‘A Ballad’ begins squalidly enough, and then a forced marriage turns into a successful one, another tribute to a patient, strong-minded woman. Elsewhere a nurse spends a night, one night only, with a young man, then announces that she is about to enter an Order, the Medical Missionaries. Enlightened though he is, a teacher of Latin and History, this startles him: surely an incongruous preparation for her new life? She argues that women have been known to spend the night before marriage with another man: ‘We were free. That's the way it fell.’ Now she is not free, and he still is. He has no beliefs, only preferences—for decency, affection, pleasure, good steak; she believes in one thing.

The occasional lyrical passages that have been noted in McGahern, seemingly extraneous, as if he is going to turn poetic on us, are transient and more often than not add to the melancholy, the sense of loss. The woman whose hip-bones ‘gave promise of a rich seedbed’ remains a virgin, technically. A barman watches his wife's face, ‘beautiful in its concentration, reflecting each move or noise she made as clearly as water will the drifting clouds,’ only to make sure she won't spot him helping himself to the whiskey. While there is nothing in the stories, or elsewhere in the novels, as broadly comic as the moment in The Pornographer when the porn-fictional Colonel asks the boatman if he fancies an aphrodisiac, and the boatman replies, ‘To tell you the truth, I never sooner one drink more than another,’ there is a scattering of quiet jokes, or ambiguous ones. Such as the second-hand tractor described as ‘not fit to pull you out of bed.’ Or the schoolboys from the Christian Brothers walking out in threes because there is less risk of buggery than if they walked in pairs. (These are boys who cross themselves before jumping into the sea.) More elaborately, and wryly, the retired man in ‘A Slip-Up’ waits for his wife as usual outside Tesco's in London, but this time she has forgotten him, and he stands there for hours, in his fantasy back in Ireland on the farm they gave up, working there, getting on with what had been his real life. And, a simpler brand of humour, the trendy young priest mentioned in passing in ‘Oldfashioned,’ who instructs his congregation that God wants them to want children, a bungalow, a car, and colour television; he plays the guitar in hotels, and to show how little the Roman collar means to him, he pulls it off and drops it into the soup: when fished out, it is found to be plastic and made in Japan.

Rarely can anyone have depicted a small and constricted world in such detail and with such unfussy cogency, a world moreover which is at once remote, for many readers, and yet strangely familiar. Familiar at any rate to people of my generation, of a time before expectations were formally established as a right presumably given by a non-existent God. Interconnections abound. Mahoney, the hated and loved father of The Dark (1965), looks like a preliminary sketch for Moran of Amongst Women. The same or very similar characters recur. ‘Sierra Leone’ has a step mother called Rose, a querulous father, and an inconvenient visit home. ‘Gold Watch’ features a tyrannical father, another stepmother Rose, a son going home for the summer, another tense confrontation. In ‘Wheels’ a son visits his alienated father and his uneasy stepmother, Rose. One might wonder whether McGahern didn't have himself in mind when he told in that first-rate story ‘Oldfashioned,’ how the Garda's son went on to make a series of television documentaries about ‘the darker aspects of Irish life,’ which some viewers thought a serious and valuable exposé while others considered them ‘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.’

The short story is exactly the right form for McGahern's ‘documentaries’: the assiduous reader is surprisingly unaffected by the sameness, the overlapping of theme, feeling and figures, the pinched circumscription, the almost dogged, almost perverse embracing of disenchantment, the quiet desolation. In fact—much to the reader's, or this reader's, disbelief—one story gives an appetite for the next. There must be some truth in what someone says in The Barracks, his first and most purely tragic novel: ‘All real lives are profoundly different and profoundly the same.’ To which, in the corrective tone characteristic of the author, the speaker adds: ‘Sweet Jesus, profoundly is an awful balls of a word, isn't it?’

Lesley Glaister (review date 17 October 1992)

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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 repetition, and in most of these stories McGahern anatomises failure to connect in a variety of different relationships. The inability of fathers to express love for and need of their sons is a recurring theme, as are fractured love affairs. In several stories the main character is disappointed in love—a woman briefly held is lost through an unwitting, barely understood mistake or failure. In the tenderly erotic ‘My Love, My Umbrella,’ the slipping away of love is precipitated by an exchange of anecdotes which irritate both partners; in ‘Parachutes’ the man is insufficiently impressed by his girlfriend's sister's house and is subsequently rejected. In ‘Along the Edges’ love fails simply through bad timing: ‘There had been that moment too that might have been grasped, and had not, and love had died.’

It is the moment that is crucial in McGahern's stories. Repeatedly experience, sensation and possibility are crystallised in moments of sudden clarity, some of which have the quality almost of epiphany. An adolescent overhears his father discussing his future with an uncle:

In the darkness of the lavatory between the boxes of crawling worms before we set the night lines for the eels, I knew my youth had ended.

In ‘The Wine Breath’ the flash of sunlight on white wood shavings causes an old man to embrace the reality of his own mortality.

The central consciousness of almost all the stories is male. The tender and perceptive quality of the narrative as it catalogues many aspects of male experience adds up to a rare affirmation of masculinity. There are descriptions of the naive and sometimes brutal awakening of sexuality; the experience of being a son, a lover, a husband, a worker, an old man. It is the stories where the main character fails somehow to make a desired connection and where there is thus a sense of yearning—sometimes reverberating through imagery, sometimes explicitly stated—that are the most powerful and fully realised.

‘Bank Holiday’ is exceptional in that a happy end is signalled for the love affair, and somehow this is less convincing, lacks that yearning dimension and limps to a curious and uncharacteristically flat, unrhythmic final sentence:

They were so tired and happy that it was as if they were already in possession of endless quantities of time and money.

McGahern wastes no words. His spare, terse and sometimes elliptical prose seduces with its lyricism, shocks with its electric dialogue, jolts sometimes with unexpected humour. His evocation of the simplest and most homely things brim with poetry and love:

She put the plate before him, fried eggs and bacon, a yellow well of butter in the middle of the creamed potato.

Unexpected perspectives add a dimension of dignity and wisdom to the humblest of subjects: here, a flash of consciousness during a fight between two navvies on a building site:

He took the shovel that leaned against the mixer, and drove at Jocko, the dull thud of the blade on cloth and flesh or bone, buttocks that someone must have bathed once, carried in her arms.

Moments of tenderness and connection are rare for McGahern but precious. The best of the stories express yearning for the simplest and most hard-to-come-by commodities: love and acceptance. As one character remarks:

The most difficult things always seem to lie closest to us, to lie around our feet.

William O'Rourke (review date 14 February 1993)

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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 Ireland and in this country as well.

There are a number of crucial differences between the stories of McGahern and those of the more lionized Trevor. The subjects of Trevor's stories (especially those with Irish locales) are largely genteel, steeped in nostalgic disaffection and somewhat cosmopolitan, whereas McGahern writes about an Irish society so limited, so confining and claustrophobic, that the idea one could be nostalgic about it is a pipe dream. Indeed, Anthony Burgess once praised McGahern's work by claiming that no one else had so well caught “the peculiar hopelessness of contemporary Ireland.”

In the states, McGahern's stories are less well-known than his novels, especially Amongst Women (1990) and The Pornographer (1979). As the latter title may indicate, McGahern has had his run-ins with his mother country; his second novel, The Dark (1965), was banned in Ireland, and as a result he was fired from a teaching post at a Catholic school. That did not deter the author or empty his work of its sexual and religious subject matter. Reading the 34 stories here collected makes one understand why the tide of emigration from Ireland doesn't ebb.

McGahern's best stories are his longest—“Doorways,” “Oldfashioned,” “The Country Funeral,” “The Conversion of William Kirkwood”—and together they make up about a fourth of the volume. Amassing a lot of close detail of Irish life, family connections and village-life interactions, they find him working more in the blunt sociological vein of D. H. Lawrence than in the well-honed lyrical mode of James Joyce.

A good many of McGahern's earlier, shorter stories are about men alone and men about to be alone. Read singly they are effective; read together their repetitions become too apparent. Yet because this male experience of solitude and disconnectedness is so prevalent in McGahern's world, he has developed quite a sharp sensitivity to it. This passage is from “Along the Edges”:

Sensing her hard separateness in their separate footsteps as they walked toward her home in the sleeping suburbs, he began to feel that by now there should be more between them than this sensual ease. Till now, for him, the luxury of this ease had been perfect. … Yet it could not go on for ever. There comes a point in all living things when they must change or die, and maybe they had passed that point already without knowing. He had already lost her while longing to draw closer.

Father/son and mother/son relationships in McGahern's stories are daunting. In “Sierra Leone” a father wishes to sign over his farm to his son, in order to disinherit the woman he married after the death of his first wife:

‘Are you saying to me for the last time that you won't take it?’ And when I wouldn't answer he said with great bitterness, ‘I should have known. You don't even have respect for your own blood,’ and muttering, walked away towards the cattle gathered between the stone wall and the first of the walnut trees. Once or twice he moved as if he might turn back, but he did not. We did not speak any common language.

Most of McGahern's stories render the same verdict. And just as sons have no common language to speak with fathers and have given up all attempts to get on with them, they never are able to detach from their mothers, or the memory of them.

In “The Wine Breath,” a priest contemplates his own death now that his mother has died: “But when he looked at the room about him he could hardly believe it was so empty and dead and dry, the empty chair where she should be sewing, the oaken table with the scattered books, the clock on the mantel. … It was as good a day as any, if there ever was a good day to go.”

McGahern's tales are utterly convincing, poignant and moving, and the writing is unflinching and spare, but I would not recommend reading more than a handful at one sitting. They are bitter pills, and you do not want to swallow too many at once, filled as they are with the potentially toxic knowledge, expressed in “The Country Funeral,” of “the poor fact that it is not generally light but shadow that we cast.”

The protagonist of Colm Toibin's second novel, The Heather Blazing, shares an emotional makeup with many of McGahern's male figures. Cold and reserved, Eamon Redmond is detached from his two children and remote to his wife. A judge on Ireland's High Court, he is committed to the law but barely cognizant of its human applications and devoid of most of the tools of self-examination.

Redmond recalls one afternoon with his wife, Carmel—a memory that comes to him after her death—when he tried to explain his detachment to her:

‘You know [she says], when either of your parents are mentioned you become strange. … I feel there's a sort of pain in you, I feel it even now that I've mentioned your father and mother.’

‘My mother died when I was a baby.’

‘How do you feel about that?’

He was silent, sipped his wine, then he looked out of the window and back to Carmel who was still watching him.

‘She is just someone who wasn't there.’

‘And your father?’

‘We managed together, I suppose. It must have been hard for him.’

‘And for you?’

‘It's hard to talk about it. It made me very self-sufficient. I can look after myself.’

Again, he was silent, and stood up to remove the dishes from the table. When he came back he sat down on the sofa beside her.

‘I never learned to need anything from anybody. I suppose that's true. … I have never asked anyone for anything. I think I feel that if I did I would be turned down.’

Toibin is a younger writer (he was born in 1955 and his first novel, The South, appeared in 1991), and he eschews the seemingly more autobiographical material employed by McGahern and his generation. Toibin has a plain style, and the simplicity is reinforced by the novel's repeating structure—the last day of a year's session of High Court is the starting point for every leap forward in time (three years’ worth), whereas the rest of the story is recounted through flashbacks. Brief scenes from the judge's entire life are relived, and through them we view bits and pieces of post-World War II Irish history, seen from the perspective of solid supporters of Prime Minister Eamon de Valera.

Unlike McGahern, Toibin deals almost exclusively with well-educated people, but they too have immense difficulty finding a “common language” and largely have given up attempts to get on with anyone near them. The novel's title comes from a revolutionary song—“A rebel hand set the heather blazing / And brought the neighbours from far and near.” Reading this very undemonstrative and elliptical novel of character, one can assume there is irony at work in that choice of title. In The Heather Blazing one finds not the blaze but the barely smoking ashes produced by the Republic of Ireland's current smoldering history.

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

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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 documentary film maker who is the central character of one of John McGahern's stories [in The Collected Stories]: it is also, whether consciously or unconsciously on the author's part, an accurate account of popular and critical attitudes toward McGahern's own work. Throughout his career, beginning thirty years ago with his novel The Barracks, one of his best, to Amongst Women, which was nominated for a Booker Prize in 1990 and brought him the broad recognition that should have been his from the start, he has also produced a steady stream of short stories. These he has now collected into a single, substantial volume, adding two new tales, one of them surely a masterpiece.

McGahern is, at fifty-eight, one of the last Irish writers to have suffered directly at the hands of a Church-dominated state. In 1965 his novel The Dark was banned by the Irish Censorship Board for its sexually explicit language—essentially, the use of a few four-letter words—and as a result he was dismissed from his job as a teacher in a Dublin school. For the next decade or so he lived and worked abroad, returning in the 1970s to Ireland, where he now lives on a small farm in County Leitrim, in the northern part of the Republic near where he was born, one of the poorest and most mournfully beautiful parts of the country.

It is this muted little corner of the world that provides the setting for McGahern's most convincing fictions; the best of his novels and the best of his stories are set there, on the fringes of Gloria Bog, with the Iron Mountains in the distance and the River Shannon flowing past on its long journey south. He writes of the lives of small farmers, agricultural technicians (there is in this volume a wonderful, grotesquely funny story about a drunken group of artificial inseminators attending a formal dance), country schoolteachers, priests. Yet McGahern is not a fond pastoral writer casting a sentimental eye over a nest of simple folk; his is a dark, relentless vision: he is far closer to Samuel Beckett and James Joyce than to Frank O'Connor or Sean O'Faolain. Here is the embittered spurned lover of “Parachutes”:

I came to a quiet side street where I sat on the steps of one of the houses. There were five steps up to each house. The stone was granite. Many of the iron railings were painted blue. Across the street was a dishevelled lilao bush. They'd taught us to notice such things when young. They said it was the world.

Earlier in the same story, the narrator describes a grim luncheon at his girlfriend's newly married sister's house.

It was as if we were looking down a long institutional corridor; the child in the feeding chair could be seen already, the next child, and the next, the postman, the milkman, the van with fresh eggs and vegetables from the country, the tired clasp over the back of the hand to show tenderness as real as the lump in the throat, the lawn-mowers in summer, the thickening waists. It hardly seemed necessary to live it.

No dates are attached to the stories; the convention is unnecessary here. McGahern is one of those rare artists (Philip Larkin is another) who do not “develop.” His style and his vision seem to have been already formed when he started to write. An early story such as “Strandhill, The Sea,” from his first collection, Nightlines (1970), has the same decorous authority, sly humor, and oddly stilted grace as the final, extended tale here, “The Country Funeral,” written after Amongst Women.

A characteristic of McGahern's work, criticized by some reviewers over the years, is that it is set in no clearly identifiable period. The emotional atmosphere of his novels and stories is an unending 1950s, even when internal evidence indicates a later decade. He seems to operate within a Proustian conception of time: the work is set in a stylized childhood landscape through which the adult narrator wanders as in a vivid dream, and just as in A la recherche du temps perdu we never quite know what Marcel's age is at any stage of the action, so in McGahern's fiction we cannot say exactly what period of the past forty years we are in.

This floating quality can be very effective in the stories with a rural setting, but in those that take place in Dublin, or Spain, or Finland, it sometimes creates an undermining sense of dislocation, a fuzziness around the edges which detracts from the force of the narrative. In one story, however, “Oldfashioned,” he performs a small miracle of chronology; the story should not work, but it does. It begins with a marvelous portrait of a kindly Protestant couple who “take up” the son of the local police sergeant and offer to arrange a career for him in the British army. The plan is thwarted by the intransigence of the father, a former Republican guerrilla fighter. Any other writer would have stopped there and been satisfied with a small, well-wrought vignette of Irish life. McGahern, however, extends the story over another few pages, drifting with deceptive ease through three decades of change and disillusion, until the sergeant's son, now a film maker, returns home (or “home”) to shoot a program called My Own Place.

The camera panned slowly away from the narrator to the house, and continued along the railings that had long lost their second whiteness, whirring steadily in the silence as it took in only what was in front of it, despite the cunning hand of the cameraman: lingering on the bright rain of cherries on the tramped grass beneath the trees, the flaked white paint of the paddock railing, the Iron Mountains smoky and blue as they stretched into the North against the rim of the sky.

In its quiet force and melancholy acknowledgment of what life will and will not offer, this story can stand beside the best of Chekhov or Turgenev.

McGahern avoids stylistic showiness, a weakness of many Irish writers past and present, eschewing the florid metaphor and the stately cadence in favor of a plain, in places awkward, direct prose. He sticks with confidence and tenacity to a handful of themes and situations: life's opportunities lost, love sought and rarely found, the evanescence of passion, moments of glimpsed beauty, the bitter passions that hold families together and apart.

This last is a constant in all his work. The oedipal urge is especially strong, and surfaces in story after story. Behind almost everything McGahern has written stands the lowering figure of the father, who achieved his most convincing and powerful incarnation in the character of Moran, the monstrous, iron-willed, much-loved, and much-feared old IRA man who dominated the novel Amongst Women. In the stories he appears most memorably and most chillingly as the old farmer in “Gold Watch,” who regards kindness as a sign of weakness and whose son's marriage “might even make him happy for a time if he could call it my betrayal.”

Read in sequence as they are arranged here, the stories follow what seems an autobiographical trajectory; yet if they are recounting the story of a life they do so in the only legitimate way, by a heightened detachment. The best of these tales manage a magical blend of the specific and the general, and the result looks eerily like life itself, not in the drab sense of social realism, but in the distillation of moments of stillness and insight that are like those moments, rare and precious, when we seem to ourselves most acutely and receptively alive. When he makes an occasional lurch into clumsy philosophizing (“But all of life turns away from its own eventual hopelessness, leaving insomnia and night to lovers and the dying”), what in a lesser writer would be no more than a wrong note sounds like a whole chord gone out of tune. Such discordances are the more startling for being so rare.

This collection of half a life's work in the short-story form would be a very considerable achievement even without the addition of the two new stories. “The Creamery Manager” and “The Country Funeral”; with them the book mysteriously takes on a shape and a unity that transform it from a mere collection into a satisfying whole. In the “Country Funeral,” which runs to more than thirty pages and is the longest story in the book, as well as the most recent, he achieves a further refinement of the spareness that is the hallmark of his talent. The tensions and barely contained extremes of anger and sorrow that will modulate throughout the story are introduced with a sureness of touch in the opening paragraphs.

After Fonsie Ryan called his brother he sat in his wheelchair and waited with growing impatience for him to appear on the small stairs and then, as soon as Philly came down and sat at the table, Fonsie moved his wheelchair to the far wall to wait for him to finish. This silent pressure exasperated Philly as he ate.

“Did Mother get up yet?” he asked abruptly.

“She didn't feel like getting up. She went back to sleep after I brought her tea.”

Philly let his level stare rest on his brother but all Fonsie did was to move his wheelchair a few inches out from the wall and then, in the same leaning rocking movement, let it the same few inches back, his huge hands all the time gripping the wheels. With his large head and trunk, he sometimes looked like a circus dwarf. The legless trousers were sewn up below the hips.

With the force and surface simplicity of a folk ballad the story recounts a trip to the country—yet again, Gloria Bog and environs—by three brothers to attend the funeral of their Uncle Peter, their mother's brother, in whose forbidding house on the edge of the bog they had spent the summers of their youth: “They were coming into country that they knew. They had suffered here.” The characters of the brothers are sketched with skill and cunning, and the portrait of rural life and its enduring ceremonials of birth and death has great emotional power. As Uncle Peter's wake begins:

Maggie Cullen made sandwiches with the ham and turkey and tomatoes and sliced loaves. Her daughter-in-law cut the sandwiches into small squares and handed them around on a large oval plate with blue flowers around the rim. Tea was made in a big kettle. There were not many glasses in the house but few had to drink wine or whiskey from cups. Those that drank beer or stout refused all offers of cup or glass and drank from the bottles. Some who smoked had a curious, studious habit of dropping their cigarette butts carefully down the narrow necks of the bottles. Some held up the bottles like children to listen to the smouldering ash hiss in the beer dregs. By morning, butts could be seen floating in the bottoms of several of the bottles like trapped wasps.

With honesty and directness, John McGahern has fashioned a world as unmistakable as Beckett's or Proust's or Faulkner's. In stories such as “The Country Funeral” he shows an unsentimental respect for the people whom he has made his subject. He has held to hard-won truths and made a great thing out of simple components. Patrick Kavanagh, a poet whom McGahern admires, might be speaking for both of them when he says in his poem “Innocence”:

They said
That I was bounded by the whitethorn hedges
Of the little farm and did not know the world.
But I knew that love's doorway to life
Is the same doorway everywhere. …
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges. …

Adam Thorpe too stays close to a small place, in his case Ulverton, a fictional village on the Wessex Downs of England. Thorpe, who was born in 1956, was already known as a poet before he published this, his first novel, which was highly praised when it appeared in Britain last year. It is a big, dense work which moves from 1650 to 1988 in twelve sections varying greatly in style and content. The first episode tells of the return to Ulverton of one of Cromwell's soldiers back from the Irish campaign. The narrator is a shepherd who first spies the ragged trooper in the cold of dawn:

He appeared on the hill at first light. The scarp was dark against a greening sky and there was the bump of the barrow and then the figure, and it shocked. I thought perhaps the warrior buried there had stood up again to haunt us. I thought this as I blew out the lanterns one by one around the pen. The sheep jostled and I was glad of their bells.

Gabby Cobbold, away at the wars for five years, had been presumed dead by everyone in the village, including his wife, Anne, who by now is remarried. He has come to reclaim his old life, bringing gold rings taken in plunder from the sacked towns of Wexford and Drogheda. No sooner does he arrive than he disappears again, along with his valuables, done away with, apparently, by his wife and her new husband. The narrator is the only other to have witnessed Gabby's return, and he makes a tacit bargain with Anne by which she will trade sexual favors in return for his silence. It is a comfortable arrangement.

And this went on, oh, for years, until I couldn't see the bedwine plumes in her hair no longer before I blew them off. Then she sickened and died one winter. Sometimes she would whisper the name of Gabby in my ear. And I an old man!

She was the last witch I ever knew.

I was a little mad, probably.

That's the story

It is a very stark and powerful opening, with occasional glints of gruesome humor. Thorpe's style is rich, tough, inventive: a poet's prose, but with no trace of that clinging gauze that some poets spread over their fiction. Perhaps taking his inspiration from the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in Joyce's Ulysses, Thorpe progresses through his twelve historical episodes with a style appropriate to each: “1689: Friends” is in the form of a sermon by one of the English divines (“You shalt see how deep to the heart hath this poison entered, my children, when this true history is wound up”). The episode “1712: Improvements” is written as a sort of husbandman's calendar (“I have spent this day constructing a dry hedge for the protection of my young trees that I am to plant about my top field”), “1743: Leeward” is in epistolary form, and is followed by a courtroom testimony, a series of captions to photographic plates, a memoir, a diary, and, in the closing section, “1988: Here,” a documentary film script.

The method works, with surprising lightness and smoothness, though some sections are by no means easy reading; here is the opening of “1887: Stitches”:

gate ope now maunt lope about in Gore patch wi’ they crusty bullocks yeeeeeeeeeow bloody pigsticken them old hooks jus yowlin out for grease haaf rust look yaa that old Stiff all pinch an screw all pinch an bloody screw aye shut he fast now hup ramshackles old bugger see med do with a stoop spikin onto post wi’ that hang yaa a deal more years nor Hoppetty have a-had boy eh …

However, even such a seemingly impenetrable thicket of dialect becomes easier the farther one penetrates into it. Thorpe's odd and occasionally broad strokes of humor are a help. “1803: Rise” is an account of an elaborate practical joke recalled by an old-timer (“Heh heh”) in a pub as he touches a visiting stranger for free beer.

An he says, all quiet, but wi’ a mouth as big as a saw-pit:

“Dang un.”

Then he comes to it, like, as though he be on a sudden doushed in cold water, an gets down on his knees, an claps his two hands into one, an makes a gugglin noise out o’ his throat, an coughs, an starin upperds he says:

“Lord, dost thou forgive me?”

Aye. An we were quiet as the grave. I tells thee. Sir.

The slyest and most cleverly and darkly humorous chapter is “1775: Dissection,” done as a series of letters from a grief-stricken Ulverton mother to her ne'er-do-well son away in London who is to be hanged for thieving. Poor Mrs. Shail, dying of cancer, dictates the letters through the barely literate “john Pounds tailer” who, unknown to the mother, adds his own increasingly baleful postscripts:

P.S. I hev not red to hur al you rote God forgif thee thy tung asll soon bee lillin oute al rite … by God wen thee bee slicd upp & throne too the doggs I ool be in heaven al rite with thy mamy soein a fine net in & oute wen thee bee danglin wotch thy cokk it don go upp itt shll al rite but thee ooll be pissin thy sole in too the dust you hev yr jus regard i hev mine al rite

john Pounds tailer

yr mam think this bee a praier soitt bee

The final letter, however, written through the agency of “Mr John Bate our Curate,” rejoices at the son's pardon and imminent return to Ulverton. “Mr. Pounds trembled with Shock as if he had seen a Ghost. This is the power of Prayer.”

Thorpe weaves the sections together with great skill and greater restraint, avoiding the determinism that might tempt a lesser writer. The threads that run from one historical period to the next in the end form a subtle and convincing pattern in the narrative. The single failure in the book is, I think, the final section, a “post production script” of the film documentary “Clive's Seasons,” one of a series called “A Year in the Life.” It is heavy-handed and gimmicky, and takes nearly eighty pages to say not much more than John McGahern did in the single paragraph from the story “Oldfashioned” I have quoted from earlier. Thorpe himself makes an appearance in the script, which has a rather feeble “green” message.

It is a pity this section is so weak, since what has gone before is truly original and moving. At the end, the murdered soldier Gabby Cobbold reappears, closing the circle of the book with a satisfying rattle of bones, and we see the significance of a remark in the opening paragraph nearly four hundred pages earlier: “I thought perhaps the warrior buried there had stood up again to haunt us.” Ulverton is one of the finest novels to have come out of England in a long time.

Michael L. Storey (review date winter 1994)

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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 stories—34 in this collection—appear to play a supporting role.

Mary Lavin once remarked that her two novels should probably have been broken up into short stories. McGahern's stories often look like chapters of potential novels. Some are linked to each other by character and plot. “Wheels” and “Gold Watch” share the same characters and related situations. “The Conversion of William Kirkwood” picks up some of the principal characters of “Eddie Mac” 15 years later. The introduction of peripheral characters and incidents in some stories, the lack of resolution in others, the tendency to sweep over long periods of time, and the strong resemblance among protagonists of different stories—all suggest a novelist restraining his expansive powers within the confines of the short story.

McGahern favors a first-person narrator, usually a young, educated Irishman from a rural background, most often a teacher, sometimes a former seminarian, always disaffected and searching for a stable relationship that will bring meaning to his life. Most often he seeks it through a love affair or through reconciliation with his father.

The love stories—“My Love, My Umbrella,” “Doorways,” “Along the Edges,” “Like All Other Men,” “Sierra Leone,” and “Bank Holiday,” to name some—almost always end unsatisfactorily for the protagonist. The affairs often begin by happenstance, become intense quickly, and then end abruptly. Only “Bank Holiday” ends on a promising note, with the protagonist and his American lover planning to meet in New York at Christmas. Most end on a bitter or ironic note, such as “Like All Other Men,” in which, after a brief, intense affair, the woman tells the protagonist, a former seminarian, that she will soon be entering a religious order.

The father-son stories are also bleak and depict the father, usually a farmer or a policeman, as mean-spirited and heartless. In “Korea” the father attempts to persuade the son into emigrating to America. Later the son overhears the father telling a cattle-dealer, in an excited voice, that the Morans received monthly payments when their sons, having emigrated to America, were conscripted in the US Army—and $10,000 when one son was killed in Korea. In “Oldfashioned” the father at first encourages but then thwarts the son's efforts to rise in the world through his relationship with an English couple. In “Wheels” and “Gold Watch” the son, now grown and successful, attempts to reconcile his conflicts with the father, but the father will not have it. In the latter story, the father throws the gold watch, an expensive gift from the son, into a tar barrel of potato spray.

One of McGahern's finest stories is entitled “All Sorts of Impossible Things,” a phrase that, with some variation, recurs in several stories and captures the sense of both the dreams and the despair of his characters. Mostly they dream of happy lives, escape from the narrow confines of rural existence, good relationships with family, friends, and lovers, and some sense of meaning. For the most part, these remain “impossible things.”

The collection ends with McGahern's finest story, “The Country Funeral.” Three brothers, at odds with each other and themselves, travel from Dublin to Gloria bog for the funeral of their Uncle Peter, their mother's brother whom they haven't seen in 20 years. They do so reluctantly and only for the sake of their mother, who is too frail to travel. They go full of bitterness and cynicism, born out of their memories of the uncle and their view of rural Irish. As children they had spent summers on their uncle's farm, and they remember his niggardliness and resentment of their presence. They are certain that his neighbors share their view of Peter and that, in fact, the neighbors will exhibit the same mean-spirited qualities that they attribute to Peter. Not so. The brothers discover that Peter's nearest neighbors, the Cullens, have a genuine fondness and respect for the deceased farmer. Further, that view is shared by everyone whom the brothers encounter in the village, and it is confirmed by the large numbers that turn out for the wake and church service. The whole experience has a profound effect on the brothers, especially Philly, who decides to buy Peter's farm and settle there. The story ends with the brothers beginning to reconcile their differences. It is a beautiful story, one that single-handedly lifts the tone of the collection and leaves the reader beginning to imagine all sorts of impossible things.

Elizabeth Shannon (review date 14 January 1994)

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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. His early promise is fulfilled. He has become one of Ireland's great contemporary writers. No one writes about the emotional starvation of the Irish with more chilling clarity, and no one describes the beauty of the country more poetically.

The language is sparse and justifies each word [in The Collected Stories]. In one of these stories, the character admires the manner in which his brother stated the business of an uncle just-died to the family lawyer: “As he spoke, Philly marveled at his brother. Even if it meant saving his own life he'd never have been able to put the business so neatly without sidetracking or leaving something out.” Mr. McGahern could have been describing his own stylistic skill.

Bleakness and despair are the underside of the Irish character. They appear as a litany in the early stories of this collection. The failures of relationships are chronicled with spare and taut language. Lives are ruined or made unbearable by long-held and well-nurtured grudges. Undisciplined emotions spew out bitter, vindictive accusations. Robust ambition is stifled by old cynicism. Youth and hope wither with boredom and drink. But just when the reader is about to abandon all hope along with McGahern's characters, the humor, black and ironic, jumps out to shake a fist defiantly at the gloom. In “High Ground,” a bright young scholar, mourning the failure and subsequent alcoholism of a revered teacher, stops outside the pub one evening and overhears the teacher, in his cups, describing to his fellow drinkers just why, exactly, that particular village has produced such extraordinary intelligent men:

“If you had to pick one thing, Master, what would you put those brains down to?”

“Well, the people with the brains mostly stayed here. They had no choice … so that the brains was passed on to the next generation. Then there's the trees. There's the water. And we're very high up here. We're practically at the source of the Shannon. If I had to pick one thing more than another, I'd put it down to that. I'd attribute it to the high ground.”

And against the hopelessness there is always the nurturing land: the radiance of a sunset over bogs, the simple, satisfying pleasure of haymaking on a summer day, the power and majesty of the sea. Ireland's landscape creates a stage of awesome beauty that gives a stoic dignity to the sometimes cruel and forlorn drama played out in its midst.

School teachers, country policemen, civil servants roam through McGahern's stories. He knows them well. In “Strandhill, The Sea,” Mr. Ryan, a teacher, is held accountable for all knowledge until he is counseled by Ingolsby, a retired lecturer of English. “Never feel you have to know anything because you happen to teach. Never let them bully you with their assumptions of what you should be. Say you don't know, that it can be discovered in books if they're interested. It's only pretending to know something that's embarrassing.”

There is humanity and compassion in Casey, the policeman who has to arrest a creamery manager for embezzlement. He invites the disgraced manager to share his fireside on his first night in jail, and is sympathetic to his condition: “You'd think it was God Almighty we were offending. What's an old creamery anyhow? It'll still go on taking in milk, turning our butter. No. Only in law is it anything at all.”

The women in the stories, as in most of McGahern's works, are often victims or heroines. Their tragic exits, either by choice or by death, cause pain and suffering. The men whose lives they touch need them and want them, but they are watchful and wary of being hurt, of being left alone again. Their wariness creates silence, leaves the crucial words unsaid, hidden, like jewels locked away in a bank vault. The owner knows they are there, but the pleasure of their luster is forgone.

The stories in this collection become happier as they progress, as if the author has become more optimistic. You know that things will turn out all right for the couple in “Bank Holiday”; they will marry and make each other happy. The brother in “The Country Funeral” will leave the oil fields of Saudi and return to his family roots in Sligo and will be content there.

But lest things become too good and endings become too cheerful, we are brought up short by William Kirkwood, the impoverished Anglo-Irish landowner-turned-Catholic who finds middle-aged happiness with a good and sensible neighbor, Mary Kennedy. Ah, we sigh. Things are going to work out for them … until Mary tells William with chilling finality about the old, loyal Kirkwood servant: “Annie May will have to be given notice.” And William was left wondering whether “there was any way his marriage could take place without bringing suffering on two people who had been a great part of his life, who had done nothing themselves to deserve being driven out into a world they were hardly prepared for.”

These are wonderful stories. Read them with the same clear eye of Mr. McGahern.

Lori Rogers (essay date 1998)

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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 sexual life the pornographic aspects of men's exploitation of women's domesticity, while in the latter Jordan's female protagonist tries to educate her young son to avoid exploiting female performance by entering into a discursive, active relationship with it. Both The Pornographer and The Miracle focus on the need for men to acknowledge the performativity and, consequentially, the political shaping of the most intimate and domestic roles—lover, husband, wife, mother, father. These texts disallow the exploitation of women by men by invalidating the usual excuses for such male self-centeredness: that the male characters are old, set in their ways, basically decent, gruff yet kind-hearted, and so on. In devaluing these characteristics, each author is powerfully devaluating definitions of traditional Irish manhood and establishing a new, positive evaluation of Irish womanhood.

In The Miracle, yet another motherless family is seen through the experience of a young boy.1 Living with his “widowed” father Sam, Jimmy “James” Coleman spends his days with his friend Rose, making up fantasy pasts and futures for the tourists and locals they see on the beaches at Bray. Jimmy's main conflict with his father is over music; Sam is a saxophonist who plays with the local big band in Bray, and his greatest desire is that his son follow in his footsteps. Jimmy, however, though interested in music, resists, determined vaguely to forge an existence separate from his father's.

In both The Miracle and “Night in Tunisia,” the Jordan short story it is based on, that individuation comes through contact with a forbidden woman: the local girl-gone-wrong in “Night in Tunisia”; and Renee Baker, an American actress starring in the Dublin production of “Destry Rides Again,” in The Miracle, Jordan's switch to a mother-figure for the movie is interesting, offering two diametrically-opposed recuperations to Jimmy and his father where the story offered the father nothing but the bitter realization of old age. Alcoholic Sam, knowing the identity of Renee Baker (she is the long-gone wife whom he has told Jimmy is dead), resents her reappearance in his life, as he has made a career of living in the past and her presence reminds him that he has no life at present. Jimmy, on the other hand, sees Renee as his ticket-of-leave from his position of child-caretaker in his father's boozy household; namely, because a sexual relationship with Renee will transform him into a man. As in The Past, both men need the female performance to give their lives both a future and a meaning. But the desired performance, of course, varies greatly between father—carefully-preserved memory—and son—sexual adventure/initiation.

Both father and son, then, struggle with what they perceive to be their male essence. Sam's music is his essence, and he cannot do anything else but continue to play the old songs of his youth, though the demand for his big-band music is dwindling in the face of rock-and-roll. On one level, Sam's attachment to the music of the thirties and forties has to do with preserving his legacy; he wants to pass the torch by having Jimmy accompany him with his band at the dance-hall, where he can be introduced and publicly acknowledged as Sam's son, a chip off the old block. But on another level, Sam's desperate refusal to move into the musical present is based on his refusal to let go of his Family Era—when his wife was with him.

Again, the woman of the house is crucially necessary to the male's ability to function, to fulfill his essential needs. When his wife left him with the infant Jimmy, she certainly left Sam's performance of life hanging while she did something else; since she left, Sam hasn't tried very hard to perform as parent for Jimmy, as he relegated that to Renee. Since he has been on his own, Sam has only performed for himself, constantly reaffirming his public self-image, which comes from being the spot-lit soloist in the band. Sam has willed his personal life's performance to stop, taking refuge in music, pulling the curtain on any progression of his interests or abilities away from those in his past. He is like the elephant Rose describes at the circus, who remembers so much the weight of the memories crushes the life out of him. The essence of that remembered past is defined by its music, and by the other band members, with whom Sam drinks late into each night, talking about the old days and forgetting briefly about the new, which are defined in part by Jimmy's disdain for his father's lifestyle.

In this way, Sam is different from Moran, who experiences only brief, unconnected realizations of the fact that his role as Father of the House is indeed a role like any other, dependent upon an appreciative audience and cooperative co-stars within the family and the village. Moran's realizations are so negative that the final one, on his deathbed, helps to end his life. For Sam, however, each day is characterized by the same realization of loss over and over; each nightly performance with his band (a surrogate family/audience) is a reminder of the failure of his performance of Family Man and Husband from which the only escape is drunkenness. But while Sam is actually playing, he briefly regains power over his own literal performance and becomes a Musician whose work is appreciated. Sam's saxophone is for him as Moran's farm is to Moran—the one physical proof of his existence and dedication which will outlive him and thus grant him a measure of immortality.

Jimmy is the unappreciative if loving audience for Sam's retrospective monologues and drunken spiels; like the children in Amongst Women, Jimmy is forced to support his father's withdrawal from society, but unlike them (except perhaps for Luke Moran), Jimmy is not in awe of his father. He makes him breakfast, cleans him up, cleans up after him, helps stagger him home, and in general tries to ignore the wifely nature of his caretaking duties to his father. When, in the course of trying to get Sam to leave the bar and return home Jimmy pushes him off balance and Sam falls to the ground, Sam demands an apology in the name of the institution of fatherhood. Jimmy sees fatherhood itself as the gross abuse—Sam's inferior performance of that essential role has soured him on the influence of parents. When his friend Rose's father tells him he blames Jimmy's disgraceful character on Sam, Jimmy agrees. Jimmy also has an audience he depends upon—Rose, with whom he spends his days making up fictional lives and desires for the prosaic people of Bray.

Rose and Jimmy enter the story walking along the boardwalk at Bray, making up a story for an elderly couple—she will acknowledge him as he passes behind her, and they will fall in love. She doesn't turn, but Rose narrates a longing to. Jimmy describes a lonely man in a chip shop as fascinating in his very drabness. They write these choice lines down in Rose's notebook, and continue to speak in the clichés and considered language of fiction, letting the demands of romantic storytelling be their guidelines for expressing emotion and motives—both their own, and those of others. In this way they foreshorten their own agency within their strictly literary “performances.” Romantic love is a completely literary performance, and it satisfies their need for diversion, not for giving of themselves. Jimmy and Rose are not yet engaged in performing the roles of the passionate lovers they mouth through their fictions—more than friends, less than lovers, in a strange state of suspended animation, as Rose sees it.

Jimmy is aware of the constructed, staged nature of sexual being, which he sees as a variety of behaviors—Don Juanism, blustering, pining, secretly surveilling, passionately declaring need. Rose, for her part, is toying with the same role-playing, but unlike Jimmy she recognizes that bringing their wordplay into actual performance is inevitable, that acting out, again, is but a metaphor for performance. She decides to take it upon herself to shape a violent clunk named Jonner who has come to town with the circus into a desirable lover while she goes back and forth between performing her pragmatic, non-romantic self and performing a conventionally-desirable and desiring young woman. Rose is aware of the dangers the entrance into performance entails, reminding Jimmy of the need to be kind to one's creations. Jimmy's indifference to her experimental initiation into performance indicates his lack of understanding of it and his refusal to abandon “himself” for a performance of himself.

Renee's enters this world much like an experienced performer who could serve as Rose's mentor.2 She is Sam's deserter wife, traveling each day on the train from Dublin to Bray to recapture some of her past life there. She is aware of Sam's and Jimmy's presence in Bray, but, treating them more as the characters of her imagination than as real people she might encounter, Renee hazards her daily journey and risks abusing them by her sudden return. Jordan does not make clear her reasons for fleeing her roles of wife and mother, but her fond memories of, yet firm reluctance to face, Sam intimate that she is happier having her performances recognized as such; the burden of performing the “natural” (mother and wife) as a matter of course is too great. Constantly reiterating herself as an actress, she strives to avoid any appeals to essence—thus her refusal to meet with Sam, or to reveal her maternity to Jimmy. She accepts performing in “Destry,” but not in the family. This way, her only burden is to an audience which understands that she is not and cannot be who she seems to be. On-stage, a bad performance can be forgotten by its emendation the next night; in the home, bad performance haunts from year to year and manifests itself in a failing family. Thus Renee's tentative willingness to let Jimmy involve himself in her life leaves her sorry for allowing it, for he immediately tries to engage her in the one performance she cannot share with him, and the irony is that Renee is forced to act out the role of Mother fifteen years after she successfully let that curtain drop.

But the consequences of trying to reprise, if briefly, that role of mother are made apparent when Sam goes to Renee to ask her not to tell Jimmy who she is. The setting is telling: Sam interrupts her during rehearsals in Dublin. Previously, she has apologized to the stage manager for being late, and his angry reply that they're all getting used to it makes clear first that her performance is key to the show, to creating its ‘reality,’ and then that she is negligent in her duty to perform, to give the other performers their raison d'être. In this way, she is a distinct, if less mystical, echo of Rene O'Shaugnessy in The Past; the actress who sustains all those around her through her life-giving performance. All the time Renee and Sam are speaking, the performers are seen in the background, out of focus, waiting on Renee to return so they can continue their act. They are dependent on her, she's the star; without her, they are distant, and unfocused, like her family. In their family roles, Renee as the mother is the star to her family, while Sam the father plays a one-man show to himself alone. In fact, Renee refers to both Sam and Jimmy in separate instances as her “public,” which indeed they once were, albeit not the most enthusiastic.

While they are arguing over whether she should reveal her identity to Jimmy, the scene cuts to Jimmy above and beyond them, in the balcony, watching; now Renee becomes fuzzy and indistinct while Jimmy is thrown into sharp focus. When Jimmy visits her afterward in her dressing room, Renee is seated at her lighted makeup mirror, wearing her stage makeup, which heightens her identity as a performer; it is like Jimmy is talking to a star rather than a person. When Jimmy confronts her, she tries to remove Sam to his performance self, The Musician, as well, by stating that Sam was just a musician and that she has known a lot of musicians in her time.

Sam and Jimmy, her family, are the show she walked out on before its run was over, and as a result the show folded; Renee tries to blur the sharpness of her regret by distancing the players. Jordan signals this checkmate and Renee's lack of any easy way out of the return to this threesome—herself, Sam and Jimmy—by holding a long shot on the sign over the stage of “Destry” that says “Welcome to Bottleneck.”

Renee knows she should look no further into Jimmy's life, because indeed she does not know him or his father any longer, but she, like Jimmy, cannot help herself. Her grip on her role of mother is loosening as she toys with actually being his mother again. When Jimmy tries to kiss her in the Hall of Mirrors in the funhouse where they take refuge in a storm, Renee sees Sam standing at the door. When Jimmy asks her what's wrong, Renee responds by saying she has to go to rehearsal. Renee tries to remind herself that Jimmy's secret should remain so, if only because she is not willing to go back into rehearsals for the role of Sam's wife and Jimmy's mother.

Jimmy has decided he must make love to Renee to uncover the secret he still believes is hers. This corresponds to Rose's determination to “humanize” Jonner the elephant trainer by “giving herself to him,” enduring his blundering attentions for the sake of his redemption. Will it hurt? Yes, but she hopes to gain Jonner's humanity through her sacrifice. Jimmy is uncertain whether he wants to go through the pain of becoming human, but steels himself to it. Again, it is the woman's act of giving which humanizes the man; it is painful but necessary to her task of endowing the male with a performance of manhood.

Jimmy invites Renee home, and she goes with him, looking around the old house as though within a dream. He tries to kiss her again, then tries to take off her blouse (reclaiming his once rightful, now forbidden, place at his mother's breast) and when she resists, he throws her out. Jimmy storms back to the kitchen and finds Renee's purse. He dumps it out onto the floor, and finds a picture of his parents, Renee in sunglasses, laughing. When Sam arrives, later, enough time has passed for Jimmy to have made up his story, which is that he actually knew all along that Renee was his mother, but couldn't help trying to possess her. When Sam tells Jimmy he just didn't have the nerve to tell him the truth about Renee, Jimmy responds by saying that if Sam had told him who Renee was everything would have been different.

Looking ahead to The Crying Game, there is an echo here of Fergus reproaching Dil for not telling him “who she was,” and falling back on the idea that things would have been different if he had known—that he would not have fallen in love with her.3 More importantly, Jimmy has taken refuge in the literary potential of his “story,” translating his shock into the more appealing idea that, through dramatic foreshadowing, he knew all along, but was driven by fate to fulfill his Greek-tragic destiny. He has gotten into this habit in part from his association with Rose, whom, as he says earlier, will always give reasons for things, giving everything a history and a linear beginning-middle-end structure and the comfort such structure entails. But, more tellingly, his fiction is an attempt to perform an alternative reality, to enable himself to cope with his new understanding of his own identity. But he is unable to give himself this gift of performance, because he is unused to recognizing alternative selves as anything but fictions on paper. So he turns to Renee, making her tell the story of how she was performing onstage when she met Sam, how they endured a stormy relationship, how she left to save herself by creating a public identity. Renee knew Sam must have made up some story to explain her absence, but that she felt she had truly died when she found out Jimmy thought she was dead.

Or, when she realized her part had been definitively written out of Jimmy's life. Performance is life; for Renee, Jimmy represents a remainder of her past performance of wife and mother in Bray, and if he does not acknowledge that, by acknowledging her, then Renee loses some of her own life performance. This is why she seeks Jimmy out, especially after he first rejects her. It is not that Renee is dependent on the men she gives performance to, but that she must have her performance credited; for Sam to have erased her from Jimmy's life is to deny what she has given to both of them—a part of herself. This is what she feels Jimmy has a right to know—that although she did not perform traditional motherhood, she is still able to contribute to his development and sense of self. Again, in this way she is much like the disappeared yet powerful Rene of The Past. But Renee Baker has to fight to have her performance, her enablement of her son, her audiences, and her fellow-performers, recognized and valued. Unlike Una, Renee unmakes her husband when she realizes he will never acknowledge her acting ability (acting again as Jordan's metaphor for performance). And unlike Renee O'Shaughnessy, Renee Baker will not let her performance be skewed toward a holy triangle of men in which she is reduced to passive spirit.

Jimmy falls asleep in a church after his interview with Renee, and when he wakes in the morning, he finds himself watched over by an elephant; circus animals run about freely as he walks to find Rose, who is standing still as animal tumult runs around her. She has stolen Jonner's keys while copulating and freed all the circus animals. Rose had claimed earlier that her aim was higher than Jimmy's, since he desired sex and she desired to free the animals. Rose can thus supply even animals with the opportunity to fulfill their essential natures, and Jimmy honors her achievement as they walk together. Rose relates her sex story as a scene from a novel, and the film closes on their good-natured argument about whether her hair was spread on the hay like a fan (Jimmy) or a seashell (Rose). Finally Jimmy must concede that it is Rose's hair, to describe as she will.

This concession is important, in that it reaffirms first that life is a constructed performance, and as susceptible to literary form and drama as any book because it is iterated in the same way by actual people that it is by books. Each person's partner(s) demand(s) an iteration of romantic or domestic behaviors that are supplied to the last detail by social norms. However, it also reaffirms that each person is in control of both the details of their performance and the interpretation of those details, as well as larger events. While the plot is affected by outside forces which cannot be averted or dictated to, each life can be made and remade endlessly by those writing/living it. Jimmy's journey into adulthood goes from seeing fiction as completely removed from “real life,” and trying to throw over that fictional existence for “real” experience (during which time he sees less of Rose), to incorporating the two concepts of “real” and “constructed,” thus dethroning the drive for essence.

Jimmy's renewed closeness to Rose indicates that his continued involvement with “female” performance, uncertainty, constant rewriting and change will prevent him from continuing his effort to replicate or regain his lost relationship with his mother. Jimmy is allowed to rewrite his mother, not into his past, as someone dead to him, but into his present, as someone who supplied him with an understanding of performance and the real power of fictions. Unlike the narrator of The Past, Jimmy is able to accept the performance his mother gives him, and Renee is not lost in the mists of impersonal history, but permeates the possibilities of Jimmy's future. Sam, hopelessly moored in a past as fictional as any of Jimmy's and Rose's stories, refuses to allow Renee's performance to enable his own future, since he needs her to remain with him, constantly reaffirming his “essence” (music/musician) through her performance (singer). When Renee leaves the stage, Sam draws the curtain, even on Jimmy to a certain extent, and the divide between father and son is definite. This time, the lost mother reclaims her son.

Ireland wanking is Ireland free.

The Pornographer

Michael O'Shaughnessy, James Vance, Old Mahoney, Moran and Sam Coleman are all given confidence and social importance by their roles as fathers. All five men strive to erase the original necessity of women to their current roles, reducing their wives to props, most of whom have long faded from memory. Rather than recognize their own function as props in others’ lives (usually their own fathers’) before their enablement, these men focus on rewriting their histories to show how they were always true to a self they always knew.

As if to illustrate the performative nature of male essence, in 1979, McGahern, hitherto praised for depicting the traditional rural Irish lifestyle so desperately enthroned in modern Ireland, published The Pornographer. There was immediate critical outcry against its vulgarity in Ireland, and immediate critical wonder at its currency in England and America.4 Nominally the story of a young man who writes hack soft-core for a living who finally finds true love after a series of uncaring, shallow relationships by marrying a woman from the country and going to settle on his parents’ farm, The Pornographer produces exactly the opposite story, a backlash against the enforced patriarchal nature of domesticity of Irish society.

The Pornographer's unnamed male protagonist defies women to shape his life or offer him a role in their own performance. An orphan, he has left his family, which consists of his aunt and uncle, to go to Dublin where he lives and works alone in his barren apartment. Though his parent's farmhouse still waits for him, kept righteously in the family by his aunt and uncle despite the many offers they receive for it, the protagonist refuses to visit the country. His aunt is terminally ill with cancer, and is hospitalized frequently in Dublin. His uncle goes down to see her, and so the protagonist is kept in closer contact with his relatives’ guileless lifestyle than he would like; although he loves his aunt and uncle, he cannot but see them as snares set up by the domestic world. He feels guilty about his unwillingness to see his aunt, and is fearful of his uncle's tentative attempts to reclaim him for the farm. He has begun an affair with an unnamed older woman in which he is casual on commitment yet insistent on sexual relations, and sees this indeterminacy as a bid for freedom.5 His older lover is a sheltered woman, a virgin when they meet, who tries to uphold the same liberated lifestyle as the protagonist but cannot. She lives in a boarding house and is anxious for a family of her own. She is also a travel writer, for a magazine called Waterways, and here McGahern points up the social textuality of their relationship by allowing both the protagonist and his lover to write stories from both ends of the social spectrum that intertwine and comment on each other.

The protagonist writes a regular series about the sexual adventures of Mavis and Colonel Grimshaw for his publisher Maloney. We read the different episodes of this text several times, which follow a predictable pattern in different exotic locales. It is low-end pornography, replete with phrases like “iron-hard rod,” “I want to see that gorgeous soft mound on high,” and “Harder, hurt me, do anything you want with me, I'm crazy for it” (McGahern 1979, 23). When he is done, the writer comments: “I am tired and flushed as I get up from the typewriter. Nothing ever holds together unless it is mixed with some of one's own blood. I am not able to read what I've written. Will others be inflamed by the reading, if there is flesh to inflame, as I was by the poor writing? Is my flush the flesh of others, are my words to be their worlds?” (Ibid., 24).

His lover's writing is not built for shock, yet she is just as invested in the world she creates for her readers, since they might really live in it if they go on the boat trips she writes about. She takes the protagonist on one of her trips, an evaluation of a pleasure cruise on the Shannon, and he tells her, “I was thinking how well you work. That you make notes, write everything down. It's not that usual. You'd be surprised how many try to get by on that old amateurish flair” (89). It is one of the very few moments in which both parties are equal to each other, brought together in mutual craftsworkship. Shortly after the trip, she discovers she is pregnant and wants to be married; just after this, the protagonist, reeling with shock and denial toward the product of his sexual “freedom,” writes up a pornographic account of their trip on the Shannon with Mavis and the Colonel taking their roles. The protagonist uses whole sets of dialogue from both the actual trip and his lover's story, interspersing it with sex and then, importantly, commenting on it with sex:

‘Have you ever gone in for the girls, Michael?’ the Colonel slapped [the boat's keeper] on the knee.

‘Not in any serious way … it's all right for the rich. But my generation, seeing the hardship our parents had to go through, decided to stay clear. Maybe we were as well off. Anyhow we hadn't the worry.’

‘No wonder the country is in such a poor state … An old boy like that, drinking all round the country, laughing at women, boasting he'd escaped—escaped from what?’

(158, 159–160)

Suddenly the licentious Colonel sounds like an Irish moralist, and the crude boatsman voices the opinions of the liberal left. The Colonel trusses Michael up and Mavis rapes him; they leave him sleeping it off and Mavis says, “He'll think he was dreaming. Doesn't the whole country look as if it's wetdreaming its life away. He'll want to be no exception. He's a prime example of your true, conforming citizen” (161). This mighty didactic pornography is the voice of the female lover whispering doubts into the protagonist's mind; he realizes the emptiness of his random promiscuity. Yet he also realizes the equal emptiness of obeying form and convention without emotional commitment. His “sleazy” writing ends up as a comment on her wholesome, natural picture of life on the Shannon, seemingly so easy to obtain yet based in the purity and unreality of another, fictional world.

The female lover's role is a complex one: while, despite her brave foray into unmarried sex, she does not seek an enabling resistance to the status quo; her insistence on marriage and homemaking are the spurs to the male protagonist's first realizations that he is as mired in emotion-deadening inaction as his lover is trapped in emotion-deadening conformity. He is “plagued by images” of the pre-planned domestic life waiting for him: “There was a semidetached house … raspberry canes that needed cutting back … the narrow kitchen … the back garden, the formica-topped breakfast table, the radio, the clock, the whirring fridge … proudly, stretching towards the line and beaming benediction on the whole setup, she'd hang out her brand-washed flags as good as any” (103). The female lover's offer of traditional life is negative, but then again it's not so negative as the male lover's offer of the even more traditional ultimatum that she abort the baby or get out of his life. The female lover's insistence on marriage is primarily an insistence on involving the male lover in the consequences of their mutual action; she forces him to acknowledge his own double-standard. She cannot break out of the cycle of safe conformity which, to her in her understandably panicked state as a low-income, middle-aged, unwed, suddenly-pregnant Irish woman, offers her her only chance to make good her losses. This will be up to the nurse, the male protagonist's second lover, whom I shall return to later. For now, the importance of the first female lover is her shattering of the male lover's complacence. She offers no enabling resistive performance, but she prepares him for the lifesaving resistance which the nurse will later offer him.

Maloney, the protagonist's boss at the pornographic press, tells him repeatedly that he cannot get away with not marrying the woman, as this would be an escape from just punishment of his sins. The sins in questions are unlawful intercourse, possible abortion, and deserting the in-utero family he has helped to create. To Maloney, mimicking society's spokesmen, the protagonist's knowledge of his lover's pregnancy is equal to assuming responsibility for having a family: “You've sullied the Shannon and you're still out there laughing, back at square one, ready to start all over again. You need a lecture, all right. You need several lectures” (163). Later, when the pregnant lover leaves for London, Maloney tells the protagonist, “‘You're our true Renaissance man, a true sophist. Inflaming people and fathering children which you later disown. Let me tell you this … we're not letting you off the hook. You've lowered the moral average all around. And you're making us all feel good’” (249–250). Maloney's good-natured yet real resentment of the protagonist's “escape” from marriage springs in part from the fact that Maloney himself was married because he got his lover pregnant.

Although he is tempted to take the safe route by such social pressures, as well as by his lover's tenderness toward him, the male protagonist cannot finally commit to marriage simply because of the social security it offers. Though he would like to have love and even a family, he cannot just walk into a performance tailor-made and impatiently held out by the state. The protagonist's final refusal to share the performance of home and hearth his lover desires causes her to at last go to London, where she will have the baby without him at the home of an expatriate Irish family, the Kavanaghs.

Even as the expecting lover's letters implore him to visit her and claim his child, and report the ire of the Kavanaghs toward his unnatural behavior, the protagonist meets another woman, an unnamed nurse from the hospital where his aunt is being treated for her incurable cancer. On their first date, the nurse asks him if he would like to be married, and to his startled return of the question answers, “Of course I would. To have my own husband and child and house and garden and saucepans and pets. All that.” She adds that she would not marry “a boring man” (174). The protagonist is wary, hearing her name exactly the material incentives for marriage that he despises. But he finds that she is different; she is not a virgin, she uses birth control, and she will not confuse sex with love.

The nurse's responsible, consciously political resistance to the very powerful coercion of the Irish state to remain chaste and to marry and stop working contributes to the protagonist's growing realization that his promiscuity was really not much of a resistance at all. In fact, he was playing into the hands of the status quo first by keeping sex outside marriage risky for women (he did not use contraception), and then by blaming and ostracizing the woman because of her pregnancy. The sexual responsibility shown by the nurse reflects badly on the protagonist's essentializing of sex as a universal, apolitical need which must be gratified. In fact, the protagonist is forced to realize that, scandalous occupation aside, he has actually been approximating the essential Irish farmer in his sexual rutting and his objectification of women.

After a few dates with the nurse, the protagonist sees his former lover in London, who still offers him marriage. He comes back frightened off women and the commitment they represent, and avoids the nurse, who confronts him with his irresponsibility—not in the usual way, emphasizing his social duty to marry her, but on the level of emotional integrity. He made a promise to be honest to her and she demands he keep it, not because it is his role in society to prop her up, but because he is an adult who ought to keep the promises he makes. In fact, the nurse engages the protagonist in his first adult relationship, helping him make the crucial break from the cyclical fate of marrying because he can do nothing else (evidenced by Michael and James in The Past). He agrees to fulfill his promise and his integrity and tells her about the woman in London who is having his baby. Her objective reaction to his situation forces him to see it through to the end, and also signals the beginning of his ability to feel real emotions other than fear and guilt—namely, tenderness and a longing for the nurse which is not purely sexual. Her refusal to allow the protagonist to slip into his old role of casual lover, he-who-feels-nothing, enables her to protect the independence of her own identity-performance in the relationship and challenges him to reconsider the validity of his own.

In a sense, he is dependent upon the affection of the women he is with to give him something to reject—he sees their “unwanted” love as a concrete example of the social forces pushing them together. Now he cannot reject the “other.” If the new relationship fails, he will have only himself to blame. In this spirit, he goes to London one last time when the baby is born, refuses to marry his ex-lover and is beaten up by Mr. Kavanagh. On his return to Ireland, he finds that his aunt has died. The first event closes his feelings of responsibility toward his ex-lover, the second allows him to feel grief where grief is called for.

This emotionalism spurs him to new awareness of the beauty of domestic materials when they function as tools in a happy relationship. When he goes into his uncle's home before his aunt's funeral, he sees domesticity in quite a new light:

It was a big slated nineteenth-century farmhouse, five front windows and a solid hall door looking confidently down on the road … It was very warm in the kitchen, and the first thing he did was to shake down the Stanley and pile in more coal. Blue and whit mugs hung from hooks on the deal dresser, and an oilcloth in blue and white squares covered the big deal table. Wedding and baptismal photos, even one ordination group, hung with the religious pictures around the tall walls. I found it very lovely.


His uncle offers him the farmhouse again, and now the protagonist decides to take it. When he tells Maloney he is going to quit his job, marry his new lover, and move into his family's house in the country, he states that “There comes a time when you either run amok completely or try to make a go of it … I'm going to try to make a go of it” (250–251). Ironically, he has realized that his former Don Juanism was as programmatic as marriage itself, with its ages-old rules and demands. Ireland wanking is not necessarily Ireland free. He has decided to pursue a real relationship with the nurse, whom he plans to marry. The nurse's refusal to provide a purely sexual identity for the protagonist forces him first to admit to his lack of purpose, almost a lack of personhood, and then to create his own role in the world of adult relationships. He will be a father and a husband, but these roles will be self-fashioned, and not completely dependent upon a woman's ability to keep fueling his own sense of who he is.

He first realizes this when he is visiting his aunt for the last time: “And the dark-haired girl [the nurse], and the woman with child in London, the dying woman I was standing beside … what of them? The answer was in the vulgarity of the question. What of yourself?” (203). The protagonist discovers what none of McGahern's male characters before him has understood, that to be satisfying, one's identity must offer something to the performances around it which help to define it—his performance of husband and father and lover must give as much to the female's domestic performances as it take from it. This reciprocal relationship allows for the shaking off of adolescent preoccupations with parents and the domesticity they represent, as well as an eliding of the stagnance of state-prescribed domesticity.


Karlheinz Schwartz's comment from his article “John McGahern's Point of View” is not made on critical reactions to McGahern's texts—it describes the pornographer's lifestyle—but it serves to define their general nature (Schwartz 1984, 108). I will focus perforce on reaction to McGahern's novels, as contemporary critical reception of The Miracle was overwhelmingly limited to plot-retellings and movie blurbs, and later critics of Jordan's works have been equally disinclined to make substantial comment on the text of the movie. Therefore, I am limited to examining critical responses to McGahern.

Those who admired The Pornographer did so on the basis of either deprecating Irish ignorance and prudery or applauding happy escapes from domesticity, while those who disliked the book based their dislike on the negativity of McGahern's “vision.”6 Shaun O'Connell's article “Door Into the Light: John McGahern's Ireland” and Michael J. Toolan's “John McGahern: The Historian and the Pornographer” are two examples of negative reaction; despite the fact that O'Connell likes the novels.

As O'Connell reads The Pornographer, he makes constant reference to “the moist valleys of Roscommon,” intimately and immediately associating Ireland with the first female lover, both as fundamentally pornographic women who problematize male action: “Josephine [see note] comes to represent something deeply, darkly Irish to her 30-year-old lover … John Updike was right to note ‘the hero's deadly coldness, and Josephine's credible, vital humanity,’ but he misses some of her threat … she comes to stand for Irish conformity” (O'Connell 1984, 265).

Irish conformity, of course, being the prudishly domestic—in accordance with the “national character.” The protagonist's conformity to the promiscuity which demands “the refusal of emotional commitment [leading] to entropy” is not a factor in O'Connell's reading, which relies upon a dichotomy between good women and bad (Prescott 1979, 108). Josephine, the first lover, is a bad woman because she threatens her man with a conformity rooted deep in her Irish “nature.” The nurse, however, is a good woman, for “the glory that the pornographer holds in the nurse's body is the promise of renewal through love and sex” (O'Connell 1984, 267).

Again, female enablement is female virtue, and while O'Connell notes this enablement he does not unpack its consequences, namely the possibility of new male and female performances of domesticity made possible by male adaptation of female resistance performances. Instead, women are only positive forces when subjugating themselves to traditional men and goals, and O'Connell continues to locate regressive tendencies of chaos and failure in feminized, pornographic, modern Ireland: “Failed reporter, failed lover, cynic, dandy, aesthete, Maloney's mutability embodies modern Ireland's openness” (Ibid., 266). Thus O'Connell reduces the plot to that of canny man resisting evil woman until right woman comes along, and his reading amounts to a negation at best and an overlooking at worst of what power it is that “right” woman possesses which can rescue a man from himself.

Toolan's negative reading of The Pornographer is based on his rejection of what he sees as McGahern's failure to live up to his commitment to “the healing and transcendent power of love,” apparently promised by the “happy” ending of McGahern's earlier novel The Leavetaking, the story of marriage based on reciprocal need for parent-figure spouses (Toolan 1981, 30). Toolan sums up those arguments when he asks why, “in opposition to the bright, vital … optimism of The Leavetaking … of the possibility of liberation from an imprisoning past, McGahern will compulsively return to a dark, bleak world of narrow expectations and stunted hopes … in which frustrated impulses are not only accepted, but actually structure and shape the lives of the protagonists” (my italics—Ibid., 40). Toolan resists exactly the definition of performance, the idea that formal iteration of social norms dictates what actions and resistances can/will be made by those whose pasts, presents, and futures are iterated within/by those norms. Insisting instead on the humanist tradition of self-determination by unified individuals, Toolan cannot understand why McGahern “undertakes a willful perversion of his fictional [sic] gifts … to damningly evoke the sterility and perversion, the deadliness and bestiality, of the lives of the characters in the fiction” (40–41). In assigning sterility, perversion, deadliness and bestiality only to “characters in the fiction,” Toolan rejects the same application of fiction to actual life. Thus the idea that human lives are as much the products of state tinkering as fictional lives are the products of authorial tinkering is “inhuman”—and the shaping influence of modern nationalism, underlined by performative resistance, is elided.

It is important that marriage is still validated by McGahern's texts—in The Pornographer as well as in Amongst Women and the other texts that will be discussed below. Because the institution is strongly associated with negative traditions of oppressed women and unselfconscious men does not necessarily mean that it must be abandoned, but that it must be revolutionized. While Jordan will move away from traditional marital relations in the works studied below, McGahern will keep his characters working within it. However, Jordan will continue to focus on parent-child relationships, even outside of a traditional story line, as we shall see in the discussion of The Dream of a Beast below. This reflects the individual differences between the authors as well as a political difference; for while Jordan finds himself hampered by traditional structures, both literally (the novel) and figuratively (heterosexual courtship and marriage narratives), because they are shaped by traditional representations of gender roles, McGahern finds the traditional channels of representation offering a more and more compelling way into the subtext of surface normality. In Jordan, male characters seeking relief from abnormality in their lives by turning to relationships with women are duly surprised when those relationships overturn all the usual definitions of normal. In McGahern, this realization is not always so strong, but it is there, not only for the men who seek traditional relationships but for the women who think they can provide them.


  1. The screenplay of The Miracle is currently unavailable in the US; I would have quoted from the movie directly but as Miramax, which holds copyright on The Miracle, has strict policies banning the use of the text without authorial consent, I have had to rely on paraphrase of the dialogue.

  2. Jordan seems to use these two names to represent stereotypes of Irish and non-Irish. The name “Rene(e)” is repeated from The Past, where is it described as not Irish-sounding (50–51); so also the exotic American Renee shares the name. “Jimmy” is the typically “Irish” name, used by Fergus when he wants to blend in as a “Pat,” and by Jimmy Coleman when he is not trying to impress Renee with his maturity (when he uses “James”).

  3. Neil Jordan. 1993. The Crying Game. In The Neil Jordan Reader. New York: Routledge, 237–238.

  4. See John Naughton (1979), Peter Prescott (1979), and Karlheinz Schwartz (1984) for reactions which focus on the currentness of the plot. See Tom Paulin (1980), Shaun O'Connell (1984), and Toolan (1981) for negative reactions to the subject matter.

  5. In the earliest edition of The Pornographer, the lover is given the name Josephine. I am using the more definitive later edition, in which the namelessness of all the main characters is uniform and pertinent. Later critics cited in this chapter sometimes refer to the lover by this name.

  6. Naughton (1979), Prescott (1979), O'Neill (1979) and Mano (1980) all give the book positive reviews, and, with the exception of O'Neill, matter-of-factly revile what they are content to see as “typical” Irish backwardness as they do so.

Hugo Barnacle (review date 14 January 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727

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 let it put him off.

The nearest railway station is Dromod, so we soon know we're somewhere in the middle of County Leitrim. It takes a little longer to work out that we're also somewhere in the past. Nobody's on the phone. The men all wear dark suits on Sundays. Old bachelors abound. The farm up the hill actually has a bonded labourer, Bill, one of those “orphans” raised by the religious orders and simply indentured to farmers according to a custom that Joe says “wasn't a million miles from the slave trade.”

Well, there might still be rural pockets like that and, after all, Bill is elderly. But then “the Shah” leaves Joe, his nephew, a box for safekeeping while he's on holiday. The banknotes inside it come to £43,000. “You could buy a house and land with this,” says Joe. Not nowadays, you couldn't.

The Ruttledges' closest neighbour, Jamesie, can remember the Black and Tans ambushing an IRA squad in the bog across the lake, yet he isn't ancient, even though he is a grandfather. Joe can remember wartime, when the trains burnt such low-grade coal that the passengers had to get out and walk up the hills because the engines got puffed out, yet Joe is barely middle-aged. Eventually, a reference to the Enniskillen bombing pins the time frame down to the late 1980s.

This gives an elegiac slant to the portrayal of characters who are deeply set in their ways. Jamesie's bachelor brother Johnnie, who works at Ford in Dagenham and visits every summer, is practically an anachronism. Soon, not only will Ford be downsizing, but the English will be heading to Ireland for work, instead of the other way round. As for Bill, the unpaid serf, his type is “almost as extinct as the corncrake,” and towards the end he is found a place in a nice new sheltered housing development.

Joe himself is a harbinger of change, one of the educated types who are beginning to migrate home in numbers. He and Kate can afford to run the farm only because he still does freelance copywriting. (In practice, he, Jamesie and the others would be doing well out of subsidies and the notorious “red-diesel culture”: selling their tax-free red-tinted EU fuel for illegal profit. But that would spoil the prelapsarian atmosphere, and McGahem, perhaps wisely, doesn't go into it.)

The Shah, meanwhile, is thinking of retiring. He would quite like to sell the business to his sole employee, Frank. But Joe has to act as go-between. This is because, it emerges, the Shah and Frank “don't talk.” Ever. They haven't spoken in the 20 years and more they've been working together. The most Joe has known them to do is, if absolutely necessary, to utter “statements that were intended to be overheard, sometimes with their backs turned or delivered sideways but never face to face.”

Joe finds that the two men hold each other in great respect, and that there is no grudge on either side. McGahern does not attempt to explain, but merely lets us deduce that people can be somewhat reserved in these parts—when they aren't gossiping to the four winds, that is. Jamesie's love of “news” is widely condemned and widely shared. Everybody knows that Jimmy Joe McKiernan the undertaker is also the IRA's chief of staff. The bank has to refer Frank's loan request to Longford so that he feels safe from prying ears. The marital hopes of the shifty widower John Quinn keep the population entertained for months.

With McGahern's calm, chaste prose style and judicious humour at work, the novel never quite tips over into self-parody, despite the odd try-hard stab at timeless significance. It should give great satisfaction.


McGahern, John


McGahern, John (Vol. 5)