John McGahern

Critical Essays

by Raymond Mullen (Volume editor) Adam Bargroff (Volume editor) Jennifer Mullen (Volume editor)
©2013 Edited Collection X, 250 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 56


This volume is a collaborative reassessment of the writing of John McGahern. The contributors provide provocative readings of his major works and also examine some of his lesser-known short stories, essays and unpublished archival materials which have not yet received due critical attention. The book also has a focus on topics and issues in McGahern’s writing that have been overlooked, thus extending the critical discourse on this important Irish author. The contributors to the volume range from emerging voices in Irish literary criticism to established scholars in comparative and postcolonial literature. They share an innovative approach to McGahern’s writings, challenging conventional readings of his fiction.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Communicating with Nature: An Ecosemiotic Reading of Elizabeth’s Umwelt The Barracks
  • Habits and Rituals in The Barracks
  • ‘All real seeing grew into smiling […] all else was death, a refusal, a turning back’: Narrative, Death and Subjectivity in The Barracks
  • The Literary and Empirical Origins of McGahern’s Ecological Consciousness
  • Emergence of the Self: McGahern and Joyce
  • Camus’s Philosophy of Revolt in The Leavetaking and The Pornographer
  • The Caretakers of the Condition of ‘nothing new being possible’: Post-Colonial Landscapes of Peripherality in McGahern’s Amongst Women and Abdelhak Serhane’s Le Soleil des obscurs
  • ‘[L]ike a shoal of fish moving within a net’: King Lear and McGahern’s Family in Amongst Women
  • The Law of the Father: Tyrannical Fathers and Rebellious Sons in McGahern’s Amongst Women and Driss Chraïbi’s Le Passé simple
  • The Fact is a Fiction: Representations of Memory, Place and Modernity in Friel and McGahern’s Short Stories
  • Gossip and Reality: Wondering Who to Believe in McGahern’s Stories
  • This is Mine: Phatic Communion and Textual Space in That They May Face the Rising Sun and Memoir
  • Isolated Fathers: The Powerlessness of Powerful Patriarchs in McGahern’s Works
  • Bibliography
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


The editors would like to express their gratitude to a number of individuals and initiatives for their invaluable support throughout this project: Dr Eamonn Hughes, Professor Brian Caraher and Carmel Beaney in the School of English at Queen’s University Belfast for their supervision and organization; and the Postgraduate-Led Initiative at Queen’s University for sponsoring the conference. The editors gratefully acknowledge the help of Professor Frank Lyons, Director of the Arts and Humanities Research Institute, and Dr Marie Patton of the Research Office at the University of Ulster for providing the financial assistance to bring the manuscript to print. We would also like to sincerely thank Christabel Scaife, Senior Commissioning Editor at Peter Lang, and Dr Eamon Maher, the editor of the Reimagining Ireland series, for their unswerving commitment to this publication. We are indebted to our colleagues who are associated with John McGahern Studies for their constant guidance. Finally, we are thankful for our family and friends, without whom none of this would be worthwhile.

| 1 →



This book contributes to the burgeoning field of John McGahern Studies by offering a collaborative re-assessment of his fiction. Its contributors provide provocative readings of all of McGahern’s major works, also examining his lesser-known short stories, essays and unpublished archival materials which have not yet received due critical attention, or which had not been available for consultation – as was the case for previous monographs and special issues of journals. This volume aims to reignite critical discourse not only by engaging with previously neglected works, but also by examining topics and issues in McGahern’s writing which have been similarly overlooked. To date, the Irish University Review, Études irlandaises, Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, La Licorne, Études britanniques contemporaines and the Journal of the Short Story in English have all published McGahern special issues. However, these texts were published before the release of McGahern’s final novel That They May Face the Rising Sun (with the exception of the IUR special edition), Memoir, Creatures of the Earth­ (McGahern’s last collection of short stories, which included two previously unpublished works) and Love of the World, his collected essays and reviews. Furthermore, the contributors to these previous special issues did not have access to the McGahern Archive at NUI Galway. This volume, therefore, represents a timely intervention in the light of these later publications and the archival material recently made available.

The contributors to this volume range from emerging voices in Irish literary criticism to established scholars in comparative and postcolonial literature. They share an innovative approach to McGahern’s writings, challenging conventional readings of his fiction. Joe Cleary has identified an underlying issue with earlier critical approaches to McGahern. A feature of the social realist approach was to look out and away from the ← 1 | 2 → fiction to history, society and its pre-existing ideological discourses. For Cleary, ‘McGahern the socially engaged investigator of the secrets and lies of Irish rural life and McGahern the detached philosophical existentialist do not cohere in any satisfying way’. Importantly, the author’s admirers and detractors have been insufficient in resolving or even acknowledging this dilemma.1 Of course, it is true that McGahern’s fiction engages with socio-historical themes and he undoubtedly helped to change the way Irish society viewed itself. However, the productive tension between ‘the detached philosophical existentialist’ and the social realist can be accounted for by examining what might be tentatively called his phenomenological intuition, his particular ‘way of seeing’.2 The contributors to this volume address this problematic by considering McGahern’s works through a prism of approaches, ranging from ecological and ecosemiotic readings to examinations of his existential and philological preoccupations.

The majority of the chapters are harvested from the ‘Way of Seeing: Fifty Years of McGahern in Print’ conference, which was held at Queen’s University Belfast in March 2013. McGahern’s links to Belfast might not be immediately obvious to his general readers; however, the author’s only published correspondence is a short collection of exchanges with the Belfast novelist and teacher, Michael McLaverty.3 McLaverty was an important influence on McGahern. In his first ‘fan-letter’ in 1959, McGahern makes a risky opening gambit by comparing McLaverty’s novel The Choice to Balzac’s Le Médecin de campagne, ‘a novel I never liked’, concluding: ‘Your books ← 2 | 3 → have given me a better appreciation of life as well as their own pleasure’.4 Many of us share this sentiment in reading McGahern’s works. In 1963, the same year that The Barracks was published, McGahern wrote to McLaverty to say that he would be visiting Belfast on a school outing and proposed that the two authors might meet. McLaverty, who was then headmaster of St. Thomas’s Secondary School in Ballymurphy, responded positively:

There’s a chap on the staff I’d like you to meet. He has a first class hons in English and though that may suggest to you that he hobbles through literature on borrowed crutches it’s not so in this case. He is creative and endowed with taste and discernment and has read and reread passages in your book with unstaled admiration for its style and quiet power. In September he leaves us and goes on to the training college as a lecturer in English.5

The ‘chap on the staff’ was of course Seamus Heaney, who would later say that McGahern could see the panic in his eyes when they were first introduced at McLaverty’s school. This was not because Heaney was overwhelmed by being in the presence of McGahern, but because Heaney was still a young teacher, recently appointed, and the arrival of McLaverty, the headmaster, put him into a state of high anxiety.6 This was an important meeting for the two writers, who were to remain friends and kindred spirits. Indeed, they shared a similar philosophical and artistic outlook. They were both engaged in what McGahern called a ‘constant experiment’ with the themes of memory, time, reinvention and retrieval – the ‘perpetuum mobile’ of Heaney’s poem ‘Wheels within Wheels’. The writers were engaged in a phenomenological exercise of retrieving the self while simultaneously ‘achieving a new self’.7 For Heaney, this was present in the rhythm and timbre of McGahern’s prose: ‘the real “end” of McGahern’s “social realism” ← 3 | 4 → [was] to get in close to an inner space of feeling’.8 Heaney said that he felt close to McGahern ‘not because of the rural background and subject matter but because of his register, his distinctive rhythm. The undertone is important, the melancholy of his music. Cadence was as important to his sentences as content, maybe more important’.9

In 1965, McGahern took part in a live television show in Belfast, not long after his second novel, The Dark, had been placed on the register of banned books by the Irish Censorship Board. He was invited to attack the theocratic regime in the Republic of Ireland and the Catholic Church but said he could no more attack the Church than he could his own life.10 Although McGahern stated that he did not believe or belong to the Church, he also acknowledged it as one of the most important influences on his life.11 McGahern spoke often of the value he placed in the liturgy and symbolism of the Catholic Church as his ‘first book’.12 The apparent paradox that stemmed from McGahern’s refusal to play the game was too much for some members of the Belfast audience. A loyalist stood up and said to huge applause: ‘Here is a man whose book has been banned by the Papist government in the South, has been sacked by the Archbishop of Dublin, and he comes up here to Belfast and praises the Roman Catholic Church. Moscow couldn’t do a better job of brainwashing’.13 McGahern took great pleasure in recounting this tale and, even in Northern Ireland’s darkest hour, he could appreciate the black humour often to be found during the Troubles. Amongst the Niall Walsh papers in the Hardiman Library at NUI Galway, there is a letter in which McGahern retells a story he had heard involving Heaney:

← 4 | 5 →

Seamus was eating his breakfast when his next door neighbour burst in:

‘You were on the wireless this evening, in “What the Papers Say”’, she said in great excitement.

‘What did they say?’ he said, expecting something nice had been said about his latest collection of poetry.

‘That you’re on the UDA death list.’14

At which point, as McGahern tells it, Heaney nearly choked on his egg. Much to the future Nobel Laureate’s relief, he later found that his neighbour had misheard the news report and it was in fact former chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, Seamus Twomey, who had been targeted by the UDA. Thankfully, the audience which gathered in Belfast in March 2013 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Barracks was more forgiving to McGahern. Though invited, Seamus Heaney was unable to attend the conference, but with characteristic generosity and fastidiousness, he replied to wish the organizers every success in a letter that included the telling line: ‘I recognize John for the master he was’.15 Sadly, Heaney passed away that August and the editors would like to dedicate this volume to his memory.

It was the aim of a conference taking McGahern’s masterly ‘way of seeing’ as its subject to generate original insights into all aspects of his oeuvre. Following other notable gatherings, such as a conference at the University of Swansea and the International McGahern Seminar in Leitrim, the organizers of the Belfast conference believe that its proceedings have achieved this aim. The volume examines McGahern’s works chronologically.

In the opening chapter, Antonella Trombatore offers an ecosemiotic reading of McGahern’s first published novel, The Barracks. Trombatore uses Winfried Nöth’s definition of ecosemiotics as a theoretical framework for investigating what she calls Elizabeth Reegan’s umwelt, her subjective way of perceiving and interpreting the surrounding world through her verbal and nonverbal interactions. Despite Elizabeth’s increasing claustrophobia and physical confinement, she is nevertheless able to attain a sense of ← 5 | 6 → harmony with the natural landscape. Trombatore argues that while this union is essentially anthropocentric and achieved only in the protagonist’s mind, it still manages to convey egalitarian ways of communicating with her surrounding environment. As McGahern’s narrative unfolds, Elizabeth progressively receives and decodes nature’s messages by abandoning verbal speech in favour of empathically nonverbal, sign-based communication. Drawing on aspects of ecocriticism and ecosemiotics, Trombatore analyses the Irish landscape as it is seen through Elizabeth’s subjective point of view, illustrating how she comes to accept human life – and death – as an integral part of nature.

In the second chapter, Maggie Pernot-Deschamps examines McGahern’s use of habit and ritual in The Barracks. She outlines how the reader is made aware of the presence of religion in McGahern’s fictional world, arguing that there are two approaches to Catholicism evident in The Barracks. Taking her cue from McGahern’s description of rural Irish people living ‘sensible pagan lives’, Pernot-Deschamps employs the etymological origins of both ‘pagan’ and ‘sensible’ to show that there are, similarly, two types of ‘sensible pagans’ in the novel – outwardly very much the same and yet profoundly different at heart.16 Bridget English’s chapter draws on theories of narrative and subjectivity and the theme of ritual in The Barracks. English alludes to the existentialist traits of The Barracks, suggesting that the prospect of death endows Elizabeth with a heightened sense of the natural beauty of the world, as well as an altered conception of herself. Elizabeth’s final awareness of life’s brevity is the only way to cope with the physical and emotional suffering that accompanies death. At the same time, English posits that, as it focusses on the communal rituals, the ending of the novel implies something far different, emphasizing the role of narrative in both preserving cultural norms as well as challenging them through alternate ways of seeing the world.

In her chapter, Paula McDonald charts the literary and empirical origins of what she calls McGahern’s ‘ecological consciousness’. Recent criticism tends to focus on the more explicit ecocritical aspects of McGahern’s later ← 6 | 7 → works; however, McDonald locates the origins of McGahern’s ecological consciousness in his first novel. Here, Elizabeth is devoid of any fixed cultural or religious identity and, consequently, the accompanying reassurance this may bring. McDonald reads Elizabeth’s battle with cancer and eventual death as allegorical representations of the ecological destruction of nature. She proposes that, in the early 1960s, McGahern was cognisant of the fact that rural industrialization would irrevocably alter the ecosystem in a way that is significantly more aggressive than the moderate use of resources by local communities. McDonald contextualizes this ecological awareness within emergent environmental discourse. The power of McGahern’s artistic imagination partly lies in its correlation of, and interplay between, human and natural dramas.

Critics such as Denis Sampson, Stanley van der Ziel and Jürgen Kamm have recognized the similarities between James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and McGahern’s The Dark, often in their shared formative and experimental aspects. In his chapter, Brendan Thomas Mitchell offers fresh insights into how these novels reflect the psychological and personal frustrations of both Joyce and McGahern, emphasizing how each author records the development of an individual personality or ‘emerging self’ at a critical moment in Irish literature and society. Mitchell considers parallels between the experiences of the principal characters in each novel and the authors themselves, drawing on memories of and reactions to Catholicism and adolescent experience. The novels may be seen as semi-autobiographical, relying on an underlying conflict between the artist and his community. Mitchell also explores how Joyce and McGahern share a similar preoccupation with the role of the artist in society. He points to notable contrasts: Joyce feels he must distance himself from his community through exile and cunning, whereas McGahern views art as necessary for expressing one’s own individual self or identity at home.

McGahern’s experimental impulse is perhaps more obvious in later works that, as his career progressed, were not always successful or satisfactory, as evidenced by his rewriting of The Leavetaking and his heavily-edited short stories. Existentialist literature and philosophy were pervasive throughout Europe, and from The Barracks to The Pornographer and the second edition of The Leavetaking, their influence on McGahern’s literary ← 7 | 8 → experiments is evident.17 David Coad insists that there is very little to be gained from mentioning existential concerns in a study of McGahern, an ‘unphilosophical’ writer who has expressed an ‘unintellectual’ interest in existentialist authors such as Camus.18 Yet many critics, most notably Denis Sampson, Eamon Maher, Raymond Mullen and Stanley van der Ziel, have expressed the importance of Camus as an influence on McGahern. Coad cites from Patrick Gordon’s interview, in which McGahern states: ‘I like [Camus’s] travel writing very much […] I wouldn’t read Camus for his ideas’ – a remark not unlike Beckett’s declaration to an unfortunate French interviewer that he did not read philosophy. It is important to locate such statements within their context. The interview was conducted in 1984, the year in which The Leavetaking, a novel focussing ‘upon the search of the individual for meaning in life’, was reissued following extensive rewriting.19 As McGahern notes in the preface:


X, 250
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (April)
literary criticism postcolonial literature fiction
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. X, 250 pp.

Biographical notes

Raymond Mullen (Volume editor) Adam Bargroff (Volume editor) Jennifer Mullen (Volume editor)

Raymond Mullen is a tutor and part-time lecturer in the School of English at Queen’s University Belfast, where he completed a doctorate on the influence of Camus and Proust on John McGahern’s fiction. Adam Bargroff holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast. He has forthcoming publications in English Language Notes and as a contributor to the edited volume Masculinity in Crisis. Jennifer Mullen is a lecturer in French at the University of Ulster. Her monograph Remembering the (Post)Colonial Self: Memory and Identity in the Novels of Assia Djebar was published in 2008.


Title: John McGahern