John McGahern: The Dark

Every now and then you come across an author who makes you stop and think, here is someone who will keep me company for a long time to come. I thought this a couple of years ago when I read John McGahern’s Amongst Women. A tremendous book, it made me read around his other work, from which I learned that Amongst Women was, apparently, his best by some way. A perverse form of logic made me interpret this as meaning that his other books were not worth reading, and could only lead to disappointment. I’m glad I finally saw round that.

John McGahern: The Dark

The Dark (1965) was McGahern’s second novel and, true to the title, it’s as black as you like, at least to begin with. As a reader, I’m rarely much interested in praise that a book is ‘page-turning’, but I really do defy anyone to read the first page of The Dark and not want to rush on.

“Say what you said because I know.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“Out with it I tell you.”

“I don’t know I said anything.”

“F-U-C-K is what you said, isn’t it? That profane and ugly word. Now do you think you can bluff your way out of it?”

“I didn’t mean, it just came out.”

“The filth that’s in your head came out, you mean. And I’m going to teach you a lesson for once. You’d think there’d be some respect for your dead mother left in the house. And trying to sing dumb – as if butter wouldn’t melt. But I’ll teach you.”

He took the heavy leather strap he used for sharpening his razor from its nail on the side of the press.

Yes, we’re in ‘miserable bloody Ireland’ territory, a place well explored in literature, but rarely so compellingly as in McGahern’s fiction. Here he gives us a young man trying to work out his future – to join his father’s farm, or seek a vocation in the priesthood, or even go to England. All this is not entirely his decision as he lives, like his sisters, under the dead hand of Mahoney, a great literary monster-father (“God, O God, such a misfortunate crowd of ignoramuses to be saddled with” – but “don’t you know I love you no matter what happens?”). The son gets a scholarship (“there wasn’t much rejoicing”) which gives Mahoney the opportunity to adopt his best stance: the bully-as-victim or, as we might now say, passive-aggressive.

“Take it if you want and don’t take it if you don’t want. It’s your decision. I won’t have you blaming me for the rest of your life that the one chance you did get that I stood in your way. Do what you want to do.”

He knew Mahoney wanted him to stay from school and work in the fields.

“I’ll take it,” he said in spite of what he knew.

“Take it so and may it choke you but I’ll not have you saying in after years that I kept you from it.”

There is something of a problem here too, however, for the reader as well as the character. Did McGahern really need to tell us twice that the son knows Mahoney wants him to stay and work in the fields? For a short book, with admirably brisk movement through its story, there is a lot of detail which the reader could probably work out unaided. There is also an odd switching between first, third and even second person in the narrative for no obvious reason (the story is always from the son’s viewpoint).

At the same time his willingness to speak directly does McGahern credit when tackling the book’s obvious themes, of how the weight of Catholic guilt can sink a fledgling life, and of great directness in the boy’s sexual development (regular scenes of masturbation are depicted in detail and with what can only be described as relish). I can guess that The Dark would have been controversial in Ireland when first published.

Perhaps the book’s greatest weakness, however, is that Mahoney, by far the most interesting character, disappears for half its length. The son’s struggles alone, and life with a priest, while engaging, are not quite enough to sustain the same level of interest. Perhaps McGahern recognised this, because with Amongst Women he would return to a Mahoney-like figure – this time called Moran – who would remain centre stage for the entire book.

All this makes me sound rather lukewarm toward The Dark, which is not entirely fair. It’s a short read, and I gobbled it up hungrily. Despite its unevenness and the curious choices in the narrative, it’s compelling, assured and affecting. “But why had things to happen as they did,” wonders the son early on, “why could there not be some happiness, it’d be as easy.” But who needs happiness, when glumness can be so invigorating?


  1. Well I don’t know how much dark Irish I can take but this sounds a bit interesting. What was Amongst Women about? I might need to check that one as well.

  2. While you are contemplating Candy’s question, John, here is another. You wondered at the end of your review of Park’s book whether a reader needed to know Ireland to appreciate it. I’ve looked at Amongst Women (although not The Dark) a number of times an always put it back: Did I really need another exploration of the Irish question and what would I learn from it? Toibin’s endorsement does cause me to wonder; every description of the book that I read says that I don’t.

  3. Oooh, I keep wondering which McGahern to read next: The Dark or The Barracks? The Barracks or The Dark? Or maybe That They May Face The Rising Sun?

    I think I need to lie down and have a drink.

  4. You’ll find that dark father figure pops up in all his books. Having read his memoir it’s clear that this fictional character is based on his real father, a guard-turned-farmer, whom he spent all of his life trying to understand. I know everyone assumes fiction is often semi-autobiographical, but in McGahern’s case it seems to be true.

    In real life his mother died of breast cancer at a young age, and in all his books you’ll find the mother figure has usually died, too. His first book, The Barracks, is pretty much about the loss of his mother – it’s a first-person narrative told from the perspective of a woman dying of breast cancer. It is an absolutely heart-breaking read, but one that firmly established him as my all-time favourite author. I seem to compare everyone to him now, a terrible habit I must break!

    I found The Dark slightly oppressive when I read it; it’s by far the darkest one in his back catalogue.

    The only one I haven’t read is The Pornographer, only because I don’t want to be in the position where I no longer have a McGahern to read!

  5. Thanks for the comments all – kimbofo, I knew I could rely on you as our leading McGahern fancier! Thanks for the background – I had sort of guessed that Memoir might well reveal a Mahoney/Moran-type figure in his father.

    Kevin and Candy: what is Amongst Women about? – a very good question, deserving of full consideration… Sadly as I read it two years ago and didn’t write a review (on the very good grounds that I was on honeymoon at the time), I can’t be terribly specific. But – Kevin – although Moran was a former IRA man, I don’t believe that this is a book which is about the Irish question, except insofar as it informs the character of Moran. I really do think that not to read even one McGahern means you’d be missing out. You would get through Amongst Women in a day anyway.

    Sam, I must admit I did start That They May Face the Rising Sun (a fact which I’d forgotten until you mentioned the book) and found it very slow going. Enjoyable in a way, but frustrating too. Will go back to it, but not until I’ve read more McGahern.

  6. Michael Moran is an Old Irish Republican whose life was transformed by his days of glory as a guerrilla leader in the Irish War of Independence.

    That’s the publisher description line on chapters-indigo for Amngst Women so you can see where my impression is coming from — I certainly think I’ve read about or watched plays about a character like this quite often before. In fact, just finished Molly Fox’s Birthday where one of them is the deceased brother of one of the three principal characters.Then again, I also trust your judgment over the people who write blurbs for publishers. I’ll put it on my next order and you are on the hook.

  7. You won’t regret it Kevin – or at least if you do, then so will I! Incidentally, prepare for dismay later this week when I write about a book which really is all about the Irish question.

  8. I won’t be dismayed in the least. If I decide not to read the book, I am certain that your review will provided me with all of the information I would have got should I have read it. And I don’t even know what the book is yet.

  9. Is Amongst Women a short read as well, John? Not sure this one’s for me, but if the better novel is quite short it could be number 3 for me to take on holiday at the end of the month.

  10. I read Amongst Women a while back and don’t have a huge memory of it other than I liked it, and it didn’t have much to do with the IRA. I hope you like it, Kevin.

  11. Amongst Woman is NOT about the IRA or the Irish question. It’s about a grumpy old man, a passive-aggressive type, who pisses off all his family. It’s about his children coming to terms with the fact he’s dying. If anything it’s about a generation of men who were emotionally starved and could not relate to their offspring.

  12. I’ve got LA Diaries by James Brown (but I’ve already started it and might finish it before I go). I’ve also got Be The Best Best Man, to help me prepare for a speech, and another one, a classic, but have forgot the name of. I’ll get back to you when I get home and check. I wouldn’t mind something quite dark and miserable, the third book I’m writing is like this and it’s nice to be reading and writing dark stuff together.

  13. And I’ve got A Spy in the House of Love by Anais Nin. Looks quite a naughty little number and is 120 pages long, so fits the bill nicely. I’m still undecided on your other recommend john, the Blue Fox, I think it’s called. Just not sure it’s my type of book. Possibly too much thinking required for a builder from the Toon 🙂

  14. Hm, maybe so Gary – not because you’re a builder, but because I enjoyed The Blue Fox but couldn’t really think of anything to say about it (which is why I didn’t review it here).

    Oh, here’s a short book you’ll love: Ben Rice’s Pobby and Dingan. Guaranteed smash hit.

  15. John (and kimbofo and Colette): I read Amongst Women yesterday and it was every bit as good as the three of you suggested — thanks for putting me on to it or, more accurately, overcoming the prejudices that badly written jacket copy had spawned. Truly an interesting book and also an intriguing contrast to the Marilynne Robinson books and discussion going on elsewhere in this blog. I might try to draw some parallels when I do my review.

  16. Glad to have been co-instrumental in your epiphany, Kevin. I look forward to reading your thoughts and in particular the connections or otherwise you make with Robinson.

  17. Like John, the reasons behind the continual shifts in point-of-view between first and second and third were a bit of a mystery to me. I think I decided it was meant to reflect the confusions in the boy’s mind, particularly his conflictions between sex and state religion, duty and desire. However, I didn’t find the switches in point-of-view jarring or disturbing; they were masterfully – perhaps too masterfully – handled.

    It’s also pretty funny, blackly so. Mahoney’s passive-aggressive persona is sent up wonderfully on occassion, especially when his kids mimic him behind his back.

    Beautifully written – lyrical yet tight – and painfully honest. I loved it.

  18. Yes, you’re reminding me of everything I liked about it Sam. The Barracks for me next, I think. I like your interpretation of the changes in POV – certainly it would seem churlish not to give McGahern the benefit of the doubt, as he’s so clearly in control of his material.

  19. It’s going to be Th Barracks next for me as well.

    If anyone wants to see McGahern read then click on ‘video clip’ at the foot of the page on the below link. It’s a reading from Amongst Women. He’s a very powerful reader. His voice, in this clip at least, carries a great sense of loss for a certain kind of rural Ireland that I found myself being very moved by (and I’m not even Irish – though often I wish I was).

  20. I’ve just read `The Barracks’ which was recommended by Deirdre Madden another Irish writer I really rate, in a brief article in a Sunday magazine. I love his writing. Not an awful lot happens but the rich descriptions and the sense of the texture of daily ordinary life are wonderfully conveyed. Small town Ireland and the petty jealousies at a police station is at the heart of this novel but it’s also about a woman coming to terms with serious illness. Beautiful but very sad. I’m going to try all his novels including `The Dark’ but I’ll eke them out I think because there aren’t that many of them and because I’m not always in the mood for melancholy. I suspect a good laugh is something that MacGahern doesn’t offer.

  21. John, you wrote: ”I can guess that The Dark would have been controversial in Ireland when first published.”

    John Mc Gahern was a schoolteacher in Dublin when he wrote The Dark, he was sacked after publication and was forced to emmigrate to England to work on building sites etc.

  22. I thought his removal from the Irish education system was due to the fact he married (1972) in a registry office rather than the expected church wedding that was almost mandatory at the time. Also ‘The Dark’ was in fact banned in Ireland upon its publication in 1965. Good review and discussion nonetheless!

  23. No idea if you’re still discussing McGahern. Your piece about The Dark really struck a chord with my experience of reading a later novel of his, The Leavetaking which is about a young teacher waiting to be fired from his job because he married – I think – a woman who was divorced – can’t quite remember. There are shifts of narration that are frustrating, there’s an important character who is convenient and implausible, it doesn’t quite work as a structure and yet I loved it and think it’s so worth reading. I think so much of my reading experience is like this (and not just me of course!) and it’s difficult to write about. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rachel. Is The Leavetaking the one that McGahern rewrote after publication? I haven’t read it, but I wonder if that is something to do with the structural flaws you identify.

      1. Yes it is. He rewrote the second part when it was being translated and there’s an interesting note at the beginning about this. Yes I think it has something to do with it, though looking this morning at part 2 it’s almost as if he starts the whole novel again.

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