Amongst Women by John McGahern

Irish writer John McGahern (1934 – 2006)

And so continues my love-affair with Irish fiction.

“John McGahern is the Irish novelist everyone should read”, says Colm Tóibín and, considered by some as, arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett. I’m a little bashful to then admit this is the first McGahern work I have read; it won’t be my last.

McGahern’s work has universally been praised. I often think to myself when I hear or read comments about ‘good writing’; so that is good writing, yes, I can see that, but what makes it good?

Recently, I was contacted by a British writer who wanted me to review her recently finished novel. I assume she had come across this very blog where she obtained my contact details. If I agreed to her request she would send me her eBook free of charge. I did; she did. She had created a publishing house in order to publish and promote her work which I thought was very entrepreneurial of her. I began reading with rosy expectation. It began with a Prologue which I read. I read it again. I then wrote to her to apologise but I was not the reader she was searching for and that I would not be reading the rest. I was polite and blamed myself for my lack of understanding and appreciation.

I had just began reading Amongst Women (1991) and hurried back to it.

What makes writing good is an economy of language: clear and apt sentences of time and place; plain words, character-building skills via close writing1 with evocative dialogue; and the necessary understanding of the importance of the narrative voice. Oh, and a deep understanding and interest in human nature. Of course, grammar and syntax are also important but secondarily so.

John McGahern’s Amongst Women is an example of good writing.

Out of the many false starts her life had made she felt they were witnessing this pure beginning that she would seize and make true. No longer, exposed and vulnerable, would she have to chase and harry after happiness.

You could not successfully trim even one word, nor would you need to add another.

Michael Moran, based largely on McGahern’s own father, is an aging Irish farmer from the north west. He has five children: three daughters, Mona, Shiela, and Maggie – and two sons, the estranged eldest, Luke, and the youngest, Michael, still at school. This is a story about a strict father confident in his position as the head of the house and a God-fearing Catholic. The latter underpins and authorises the former. He is a tyrant, grumpy one minute, then playful, then grumpy again. His women both love and fear him. Words of love and understanding are rare. As a widower he marries a woman, Rose, visiting from Scotland. She succumbed to his handsomeness and learns to tolerate his moods. She, in fact, becomes like another daughter. Moran among his four women.

Irish Catholic rural life, and its decline, at a time of great change, women’s emancipation, the authority of the Church, and the practical considerations church-goers have to make to get on with their lives; these are the themes expertly depicted. There is no narrative curve, no climax, just the rhythms of family life; a McGahern specialty. It is his most famous and best loved work.

Amongst Women was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won The Irish Times/Aer Lingus Literary Award (1991). It was adapted for television in 1998 and won Best Television Drama at the Irish Film and Television Awards.

All the episodes of the television series can be found on YouTube. Simply search for Amongst Women.

Here is an interview with John McGahern presented by The Howard Poetry and Literary Society of Columbia Maryland, USA in 1993.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

  1. Close writing (or free indirect discourse) describes a special type of third-person narration that slips in and out of characters’ consciousness. In other words, characters’ thoughts, feelings, and words are filtered through the third-person narrator into the narrative style. The opening few lines of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) by James Joyce is a grand and famous example of close writing.

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry pic
Irish writer, Sebastian Barry.

Some years ago at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival I was intrigued and entertained by a British writer called Jill Dawson who had the audience at her session in the palm of her hand, so I checked out one of her volumes in the festival bookshop. I place a lot of importance and insight into a book by its first page. It wasn’t long, still on page one, that I heard a faint gasp from my own mouth and a thunk as I put the book back immediately. Both actions were involuntary. I was alarmed; not by the content but by my reaction to the content: she was writing in the first person as a man. I was not aware that I held this prejudice. Since then I have tried several times to write as a woman; I mean, in a first person (and third person) female voice with mixed success. So, when it was clear that Barry’s first person narrator was a woman I did not act as before but thought it was time I faced my prejudice, although weakened since by my own efforts, and continued reading.

The narrative is, in fact, in two voices: one the old woman, Roseanne Clear, the dominant voice, and the other, Dr Grene, the psychiatrist who tends to her at the Roscommon mental hospital, St Malarky’s, where Roseanne has been living for as long as anyone can remember. Roseanne Clear is very old, maybe even a hundred.

I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in my niche like a songless robin – no, like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids.

She writes out her life on “unwanted paper” and stashes it under a loose floorboard; not unusual as the building is falling apart. Barry gives her language that is poetic, articulate, melancholy, and wise but seemingly uneducated at times: “no more”, although this could be her Irish-ness peeking through. Yet she is in a mental hospital. This is usually a theatrical device, a character being one thing to the other characters, and someone else to the audience; a form of dramatic irony.  This is reinforced by conversations she has with Dr Grene where she gives simple answers or sometimes no answer at all, while telling the reader her reasons.

Her aim is to try and remember why she is where she is and whether memory, about a husband, then a non-husband, abandonment, expulsion, and a child, has any relation to reality. Is memory trustworthy?

Her story is one of Ireland: beginning with political unrest and genteel poverty as the daughter of a Presbyterian gravedigger in Sligo, western Ireland in the 1940s. Almost half of the book is devoted to her memory of her childhood with a father she adored, and you will too – even when be is reduced to work as a rat-catcher –  but with a mother who is as distant and silent as a housemaid, which she resembles. Dr Grene has a similar wife, blank, distracted, lonely and you wonder at times whose memory is the more reliable.

The themes here are literary-Irish through and through: the slap-dash care, easy-bitterness, and bloody-mindedness of family; the down-right intractability of a mean-spirited Church hiding behind the skirts of a dour and silent god; secrets of paternity; the hyper-critical branding based on any sexuality that isn’t church-condoned, but done in the dark, and never mentioned; and the dis-empowerment, subordination, and denigration of women.  It’s a very long way from the Ireland of today with its diminished religiosity, liberalism, and political leadership by an openly gay young man whose paternity is from India. However, as long as there are Irish writers who were damaged, but survived, their Irish past, as holocaust survivors survived theirs, there will be books like this.

The writing is luscious, and sometimes you need to re-read aloud a line, a paragraph, just to wallow in the words, to delight in the feel of them in your mouth; and since we read for pleasure – like we listen to music – there’s no need to engage the memory, this is a book for reading again.

The Secret Scripture was short-listed for the Man-Booker, won the Jame Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Costa Award in 2008; which Barry won again in 2016 for Days Without End.

You can find the book in various formats, including audio book and audio CD, here.

The film version, directed and co-written by Jim Sheridan with Johnny Ferguson, was made in 2016 starring Rooney Mara (the love interest to Cate Blanchett’s title-character in Carol, from 2015) as young Rose, Vanessa Redgrave as old Rose, and Eric Bana as Dr Grene; it was released in the USA in October.  It will be in cinemas in Australia from December 7, 2017.