The Barracks, by John McGahern

John McGahern, who died in 2006, wrote six novels, and a memoir. He was clearly meticulous about his writing (to quote my father: “There’s no fat in his books”), and his evocation of the quickly-disappearing rural life in Ireland is poignant and at times tragic, without ever ever being quaint. I am not quite up on the critical response to his work, although I am aware of the comments made about him by John Banville, Anne Enright, and other Irish literary giants. His work is powerful, yet his fame is quite local. Everyone in Ireland knows who he is, but he didn’t reach the critical international mass that some of his contemporaries did. Banville said it best:

Amongst Women, which was his masterpiece — if there was any justice at all, it should have won the Booker Prize. It would have given him the international recognition that he didn’t have. The literary world we live in now is so glittery. His novels were so quiet, perhaps they didn’t travel well. But they will.

The thing about his novels (Amongst Women in particular) is that their power works so much on a stealth level that you are almost unaware that a bomb has been detonated in your soul until the book is over. That’s how his books work. His prose is clear, detailed, and his observations of humanity and personality are exquisite. His anger is huge, but again, you have to calm down as a reader to pick up on what he is doing. His books move slowly. You may get lulled into a sense of complacency, and that is a huge mistake. He fell away from his faith, yet unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not throw out the baby with the bathwater. This caused him much controversy for those who like people to be easily classified. Are you for the Church, or against? It’s not that easy with McGahern. There are passages in his books, about family prayers and the ritual of the Mass, that are as beautiful an expression of a spiritual experience as you can get, and yet underneath there is a sense of impotence, and rage … at the possibility that the entire populace of Ireland has been hoodwinked into submission. I think that’s very important to “get” about McGahern. The establishment may love and embrace him now, because he is a literary light, but, true to Irish form, he was hounded in his day for blasphemy and sexual content, and all the rest. In a way, that censorship powers-that-be understood what it is that he was doing, better than those who might have mistaken his books for simple nostalgic pastoral fluff.

The Barracks is McGahern’s first novel, published in 1963 when McGahern was 29 years old. The opening paragraph is deceptively simple. It may appear merely descriptive, but it is not.

Mrs Reegan darned an old woollen sock as the February night came on, her head bent, catching the threads on the needle by the light of the fire, the daylight gone without her noticing. A boy of twelve and two dark-haired girls were close about her at the fire. They’d grown uneasy, in the way children can indoors in the failing light. The bright golds and scarlets of the religious pictures on the walls had faded, their glass glittered now in the sudden flashes of firelight, and as it deepened the dusk turned reddish from the Sacred Heart lamp that burned before the small wickerwork crib of Bethlehem on the mantelpiece. Only the cups and saucers laid ready on the table for their father’s tea were white and brilliant. The wind and rain rattling at the window-panes seemed to grow part of the spell of silence and increasing darkness, the spell of the long darning-needle flashing in the woman’s hand, and it was with a visible strain that the boy managed at last to break their fear of the coming night.

“Is it time to light the lamp yet, Elizabeth?” he asked.

Everything here, the evening ritual, the glowing and fading of the religious pictures on the wall, the awareness of nature outside … all of that will repeat itself in an almost monotonous manner throughout the book, McGahern’s insistence on the sameness of so much of life, the unchanging tenor of our day-to-day. An assumption is made in the first paragraph, the children are obviously “hers’, but then that is shattered by the little boy calling her by her first name. Again, deceptively simple. A world is revealed to us in a short paragraph, McGahern’s genius with language.

The material used by John McGahern in his books is the material from his own life. He was an observer, of harsh truths and also of beauty. Of the meaningless of religion, but also its comfort. Of the loneliness of men (the loneliness of women, too, but mainly men), and how embarrassed they can be when faced with the problems of women, but also of the patriarchal system itself: All of family life revolves around the man. For good or ill. It is unfair to both sides. This is used to devastating effect in McGahern’s masterpiece (I concur with Banville), Amongst Women, which if you haven’t read, all I can say is: it is one of the great Irish novels of the 20th century. It is heart-stopping. The father in that book will live on in my mind for all time. He pops into my head every now and then. I’ll meet someone and think, “That’s just like Michael Moran.” He’s a type, sure, the disgruntled old Revolutionary, but my God, what McGahern is able to reveal in his portrait of Michael Moran. Here is one of the posts I have written about Amongst Women. In The Barracks, McGahern draws on his own experience, growing up in the barracks of Cootehall. He gets the rhythms of that life: the patrols of the police, the waiting families, living in the barracks in an almost communal existence, the struggle to make ends meet, the boring rituals of bureacracy – all seen here in a light of dread and doom, through the eyes of “Mrs Reegan”, who knows she is sick, she has felt cysts in her breasts, and she doesn’t know what to do about it. It throws the rest of her life into horrible relief. He writes from the female point of view with great compassion and understanding.

Elizabeth was a nurse in London in the post-war years, so she actually has had a taste of freedom, unlike many of her contemporary girlfriends. She lived alone, she had a formative love affair with a troubled doctor named Michael Halliday, and when that didn’t work out, she returned to her home town in the west of Ireland, where she met Reegan, a widower with three children, a member of the Garda, with a certain charm. He pursues her, and she marries him. She loves him, but you get the sense that it doesn’t matter. Love had been burned out of her by heartbreak before Reegan ever came along. She does not have children of her own, and maintains a slightly formal and anxious relationship with her stepchildren. Her days pass in monotony, but when the book opens, she already has a feeling that something is wrong. She is rundown. Thoughts of death start to dog her. And what will that mean? The book, really, is about life: what is life? Can anyone ever see it, whole? Can anyone point to it and say, “There. That is my life.” Elizabeth isn’t sure, but she is haunted by the meaninglessness of her own, that it has amounted to nothing. McGahern gives us this in small details, but what I love about him is that he, a young writer, is unafraid of saying what he means, of going for the big gesture. This is a ruminative book. Elizabeth does her household chores, and thinks about things. We follow her thought process. He gives it to us in blunt terms. When you feel that death is close, there is no more time for euphemism, for politeness and vagueness.

In spite of her effort to stay calm she rose in a panic. She looked at the mantelpiece and clotheshorse and sideboard and doors and windows. She was alone in this great barrack kitchen. She could scream and it’d only bring Casey hurrying up to see what had happened: and all she could tell him was that nothing had happened, nothing at all, she had only become frightened, frightened of nothing. Reegan was at court, the children were at school, she was in the kitchen, and did all these things mean anything?

She had believed she could live for days in happiness here in the small acts of love, she needing them, and they in need of her. She’d more than enough of London that time, no desire left for anything there, no place she wanted to go to after she’d finish in the theater or wards, the people she wanted to talk to grown fewer and fewer, her work repetitive and menial and boring – and had she married Reegan because she had been simply sick of living at the time and forced to create some illusion of happiness about him so that she might be able to go on? She’d no child of her own now. She’d achieved no intimacy with Reegan. He was growing more and more restless. He, too, was sick, sick of authority and the police, sick of obeying them, threatening to break up this life of theirs in the barracks, but did it matter so much now? Did it matter where they went, whether one thing happened more than another? It seemed to matter less and less. An hour ago she’d been on the brink of collapse and if she finally collapsed did anything matter?

She should never have sat down, she told herself: she should have kept on her feet, working, her mind fixed on the small jobs she could master. A simple trap this half-hour of peace and quiet was, she’d have had more peace if she’d kept busy to the point of physical breaking-strain. She couldn’t ever hope to get any ordered vision on her life. Things were changing, going out of her control, grinding remorselessly forward with every passing moment.

I am tired of people spouting the “Show, don’t tell” mantra as though it is an Undisputed Truth To Be Utilized At All Times, and it is my feeling that that mantra is really only good advice for beginning writers who are trying to figure out their craft. If you already know your damn craft, then you can TELL me all you want. Tell, tell, tell. “Show, don’t tell” becomes, in the face of McGahern, or Banville, or Byatt, or Annie Proulx, or any of the other magnificent current writers today, amateur hour. The Barracks shows, but it also tells. It tells everything. Elizabeth doesn’t know how she got to this point. And the panic of knowing she is sick muddies up her thought process. Even more disturbingly, she wonders at her grasping at life, her fear of death, because what here is there to be lived for? Lest I make it sound that Elizabeth is a droopy depressive, she is not. She is a productive woman, anxious about being a good stepmother, and concerned about her husband, whose rage at his superior officer in the Garda is starting to impact their lives. She is involved in her family life. She has moments of peace. Sickness brings life into sharp relief. This is one of the truths of the human condition. You think you are miserable. And perhaps you actually are. Perhaps the life you are living is not the one you hoped for, or not the one that most would suit you. But when death approaches, a strange and keening beauty comes through everything, and it usually comes through the senses: sunlight, leaves, sensoral pleasures, good food, routine. How beautiful and precious these things look when it seems that you will soon be gone from all of it. (The lesson in the piercing last scene of Our Town.)

Reegan, a man who dreams of owning his own turf farm, buckles under the authority of the Garda. It becomes an obsession, especially his relationship with his superior, Quirke. In familiar McGahern territory, Reegan is a man old enough to remember the fights of Ireland in the 1920s. He remembers the beginning of Home Rule, and the heady days of suddenly forming a police force, out of the ragtag bag of former revolutionaries.

The pun was a favourite that never grew worn, always bringing back to them the six months they spent training in the Depot when they were nineteen and twenty, in the first days of the Irish Free State.

The British had withdrawn. The Capital was in a fever of excitement and change. New classes were forming, blacksmiths and clerks filling the highest offices in the turn of an hour. Some who had worried how their next loaf or day might come were attending ceremonial functions. There was a brand new tricolour to wave high; a language of their own to learn; new anthems of faith-and-fatherland to beat on the drum of the multitude; but most of all, unseen and savage behind these floral screens, was the struggle for the numbered seats of power.

These police recruits walking the Phoenix Park in the evenings, or on the lighted trams that went down past Phibsboro’ to the music halls, what were their dreams? They knew that lightning promotion could come to the favoured. They saw the young girls stand to watch them from the pavements as they marched to Mass on Sunday mornings.

But now, 30 years later, close to getting his pension, he too wonders: Is this all there is? But because he is a man, and in his culture at that time (and perhaps now) it was unacceptable for him to have doubts, to veer from the path, to ask for more, to even question. So he is in a state of baffled rage. This is a man who seethes at the perceived injustice of his life. Entire suppers are taken up with him regaling the family with his latest run-in with Quirke, and the story always features Reegan saying something rude and cutting, and then glorying in the discomfiture of Quirke. Don’t we all know someone like that? And isn’t that behavior we recognize in ourselves as well? The storyteller, whose only reason for telling stories is to show how he got the better of the other guy. It’s tiresome behavior, especially if you live at close range to it, but Elizabeth, nervous around her husband’s moods, isn’t sure how to handle it. She tries to talk him down, and he resents this. He wants back-up. She is nervous that he is jeopardizing his position. But McGahern writes about all of this with such a good eye. Reegan’s rollicking mocking tone is captured perfectly, and also the way he repeats the same story, over and over, to Elizabeth, to his co-workers, and the story grows in the telling:

Reegan began to recount the clash; and it had become more extravagant, more comic and vicious since the first telling. When he finished he shouted, “That shuk him, believe me! That’s what tuk the wind outa his sails!” and as he shouted he tried to catch Casey’s face unaware, trying to read his mind.

“Bejay, Sergeant, but he’ll have it in for us from this on. He’ll do nothing but wait his chance. You can sit on that for certain comfort. As sure as there’s a foot on a duck, Sergeant!”

“But what do I care? Why should I care about the bastard?” Reegan groaned back.

McGahern delineates a generation in simple evocative prose. In Reegan is the history of mid-20th century Ireland. I think it’s difficult to write as well as McGahern does, but his writing is not flowery or attention-getting, so it flies under the radar, how effective it is what he is doing:

All his people had farmed small holdings or gone to America and if he had followed in their feet he’d have spent his life with spade and shovel on the farm he had grown up on or he’d have left it to his brother and gone out to an uncle in Boston. But he’d been born into a generation wild with ideals: they’d free Ireland, they’d be a nation once again: he was fighting with a flying column in the hills when he was little more than a boy, he donned the uniform of the Garda Siochana and swore to preserve the peace of the Irish Free State when it was declared in 1920, getting petty promotion immediately because he’d won officer’s rank in the fighting, but there he stayed – to watch the Civil War and the years that followed in silent disgust, remaining on because he saw nothing else worth doing. Marriage and children had tethered him in this village, and the children remembered the bitterness of his laugh the day he threw them his medal with the coloured ribbon for their play. He was obeying officers younger than himself, he who had been in charge of ambushes before he was twenty.

That movement in his youth had changed his life. He didn’t know where he might be now or how he might be making a living but for those years, but he felt he could not have fared much worse, no matter what other way it had turned out. But he’d change it yet, he thought passionately. All he wanted was money. If he had enough money he could kick the job into their teeth and go. He’d almost enough scraped together for that as it was but now Elizabeth was ill. He should have gone when he was still single; but he’d not give up – he’d clear out to blazes yet, every year he had made money out of turf and this year he rented more turf banks than ever, starting to strip them the day after he had the potatoes and early cabbage planted. He’d go free yet out into some life of his own: or he’d learn why. He was growing old and he had never been his own boss.

Elizabeth’s illness changes everything, as illness does. She is sent to Dublin for an operation. She has a tough recovery. When she comes home, it is hard for her to regain her place in the family. She does not share her fears of death with her husband. She does not feel that it is her right to ask for anything. She does her best to feel grateful. Her memories of her blazing love affair with the drunk troubled doctor in London start pushing to the forefront. This man hurt her. He was a jaded man, and he found something to be hope for through her. He loved her innocence, her simple pleasure in things like going out to dinner, reading a book. Elizabeth, inexperienced, mistook this for something that could last, for Love itself. McGahern is like a surgeon. He is precise. His creation of character is clear, complex. Yet as her illness progresses, Elizabeth’s focus goes more and more inward, to herself, life itself, what was her life, what will it have added up to?

I had a hard time reading this book. It is only 230 pages long, but I found myself not wanting to go back to it. It called up my own memories, of death and loss, and watching someone descend (or transcend) into another state of being, a preparatory state, where what you are doing is closing up shop, getting your things in order, so that you can then pass on. McGahern describes that transformation. Elizabeth worries about her life adding up to nothing. McGahern’s characters are often true believers, they are Catholics, they perform the rituals, it is in their lives, woven into it. He does not write about them with condescension. He does not talk down to believers. But he is ruthless with his questioning. You can try to escape, but the best way to escape would be to put down the book and not pick it up again, because he is not going to let you off the hook. Elizabeth loves the Mass, and loves the nightly rosary, but she has a hard time praying, and finds her mind wandering. She wonders about prayer. What is it for? She had a run-in with the local priest, who wanted her to join the Legion of Mary, a local women’s Catholic organization, and she refused to join, telling him, “I don’t like organizations.” So how can one be a Catholic and still maintain that you “don’t like organizations”? Speaking as a similar Catholic, McGahern gets that journey exactly right. His religious writing is quite beautiful, hypnotic almost, and there are long contemplative sections in the book, where Elizabeth sits alone in the pew, or fingers her rosary beads, and thinks about what she is actually doing. What is her faith? Where is the comfort? Where are the answers, Goddammit?

Elizabeth’s beads were a Franciscan brown, their own pale mother-of-pearl with silver crosses that they’d been given for their First Communion.

They blessed themselves together and he began:

Thou, O Lord, will open my lips“,

And my tongue shall announce Thy praise,” they responded.

They droned into the Apostles’ Creed. Then Our Fathers and Hail Marys and Glory be to the Fathers were repeated over and over in their relentless monotony, without urge or passion, no call of love or answer, the voices simply murmuring away in a habit or death, their minds not on what they said, but blank or wandering or dreaming over their own lives.

Elizabeth’s fingers slipped heedlessly along the brown beads. No one noticed that she’d said eleven Hail Marys in her decade. She had tried once or twice to shake herself to attention and had lapsed back again.

It’s a brutal passage.

The everyday rhythms of their lives are meant to lull them into a state of peace. This is the goal. Elizabeth yearns to get lost in domestic concerns, she yearns to be the kind of person who can just be. I think this is a very universal yearning, especially for people who are cursed with self-awareness: You wonder, Do other people think about the meaning of their lives? Do other people try to get a complete vision of what their life actually is? Elizabeth had hoped that marrying Reegan, and taking on the raising of his children, would give her an anchor, a purpose. And indeed, on some level, it did.

She woke, the gaze that had been directed inwards in rich dream she turned outwards, to wake on the surface of observance, observing Reegan. He too could be excited by September but his September was not hers. Money in the bank, smashing Quirke and going free out of the police to start a new life – that was his September. Starting a new life at fifty, declaring thirty years a stupid waste, and beginning again, at fifty; it had something of greatness, it made rubbish out of the passage of time, it pissed at futility, it took no cognizance of death. It was the spirit of life declaring itself in defiance of everything, and it sent a thrill of excitement to the marrow of her bones, but she wasn’t able to rise and affirm it with her own life. She was excited, she marvelled, but she couldn’t understand. How do his mind and body work that he is able to be so; how is he able to go so violently on and on and on? She watched his face, the lines of its years and deaths and grey streaks in his hair, the large hands streaked with veins, and the uniform with silver buttons and badges and the three silver stripes on the sleeve that so many had worn and were wearing and would wear, and she wanted to break down and cry. She had loved him, still loved him, and would love him till she died, but how was she to tell him so? She hadn’t the beauty and attraction left that can turn the simplest gestures of a young girl into meaning, and she’d no words or her words were not his words. She knew nothing about him, just things she’d observed and what were they; as she’d observed things about herself and still knew nothing, but all grew into the one desire to love and to cause no living thing pain.

The Barracks is a powerful and solid first novel, McGahern’s confidence in himself apparent in how he handles character, conversation, pastoral descriptions, philosophical and religious convictions, personal observations … and giving the reader a living, breathing sense of what life is like in the barracks. You start to get into the rhythm of it very early on. The doors slamming upstairs, the person coming up the lane, the newspaper on the table, the gatherings after work, the family dinners in the day room … It is a spare life on the outside of it and in its surface details. But on the inside reverberates the universal human condition. We live knowing that one day we will die. How does this knowledge impact our time here on earth? Is it only when death is imminent that we can truly understand the meaning of life, the contours of our own lives, and who we are?

Not too shabby for a writer not yet 30.

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17 Responses to The Barracks, by John McGahern

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  2. Emily says:

    “There’s no fat in his books.”

    I love that description. There’s something precise and vague at the same time, but it just makes me want to read them. I adore your dad.

  3. Therese says:

    I bought a book of McGahern’s short stories a few years ago in Dublin Airport and that’s where it started for me. I had no idea, just flipping through a few pages, of the power of what was in those pages. And then I sat down with the book. You’re so right — it’s all stealth — you just follow him, and follow him, and the next thing you know — yup. Soul explosion. McGahern’s detonated so many of those bombs in my soul that I’m still pulling out the shrapnel.

    And totally know what you mean about his characters staying alive well after you finish his books. I STILL think of Moran from Amongst Women going to that damn post office every single day and it just makes my heart hurt.

  4. sheila says:

    Emily – It’s amazing to see a writer who is so good but whose prose works on you in such subtle unobtrusive ways. No fat, indeed. Dad loved you too. He loved your comments here. :)

  5. sheila says:

    Therese – Me too, in re: Michael Moran. The trick of the book is that you think you’re reading one thing (their daily lives, how they relate) – but it becomes a deep resonant freakin’ GONG of love and pain that stays with you … well, for me, it has stayed with me ever since I read the book. He is one of the most heartbreaking conflicting characters I have ever met. I KNOW that man. And I know what it is to love such a man – and even though he is strong and the head of the family, the general female vibe is an awareness of his fragility – a fragility that he must never know they see. But they PROTECT him from it. It’s poignant, it’s awful … God, it’s good.

    Have you read his memoir? I haven’t read it – my dad said it was great. I’m sure it’s fascinating.

  6. Therese says:

    Haven’t read the memoir but yeah, definitely curious. What’s the name of it?

  7. sheila says:

    It’s called All Will Be Well. I have it, just haven’t read it yet. Very curious – especially about his literary controversies and how he lost his job because of them.

  8. Hey Sheila,

    Thanks so much for this write-up – you’ve given me another few items for my book store wish lists. I really liked this bit:

    “You think you are miserable. And perhaps you actually are. Perhaps the life you are living is not the one you hoped for, or not the one that most would suit you. But when death approaches, a strange and keening beauty comes through everything, and it usually comes through the senses: sunlight, leaves, sensoral pleasures, good food, routine.”

    Simple, insightful, and true.

  9. Ursula says:

    John McGaherns” Memoirs “is for me one of the finest books I have ever read. I am now reading all of his novels and short stories and what a treat it is. I did read McGahern when I was younger and always loved his writing but it is even more enjoyable now – age and wisdom is such a wonderful thing. !

    I spent many a summer with my uncle and cousins on a farm in Lough Gowna (mentioned in his memoirs as the place that his father came from) and my uncles name was also John McGahern. Yes I think there is a connection but unfortunately most of my relatives including my mother May McGahern have passed on.

  10. sheila says:

    Donald – I’m a bit bummed that McGahern didn’t write more, but I think he was so meticulous and his books were always so personal, that those were the books he had in him, know what I mean? He wrote what he WANTED and NEEDED to write. Have you read much McGahern?

    I still have a couple to go to read his entire body of work – but Amongst Women is one of the best books I’ve ever read. A slim book, not huge (his books are not long) – but boy is there truth in that book. Wow!!

  11. sheila says:

    Ursula – I love your comment, thank you! How cool to have a family connection to him!

    I think you’re onto something when you say reading the books when you are a bit older is a different experience. Even here, with The Barracks, as a young writer, he is dealing with the essence of life and death – heady deep stuff. I can’t wait to read his memoir. My father loved it.

  12. Peter says:

    Sheila, The Barracks is a great book. I love Memoir as well. It’s got a real Proustian feel to it. That They May Face the Rising Sun is another one well worth reading. I recently reread The Dark.
    By the way, I enjoyed reading Patrick Kavanagh’s “Having Confessed”. It’s a favourite Kavanagh poem. I’m very fond of his poetry.

  13. sheila says:

    Peter – I adored That They May Face the Rising Sun (it’s called By the Lake in the States, which I can’t stand, and refer to it in my head as the far superior title That They May Face the Rising Sun). The Pornographer is good too!

    Oh man, I love Patrick Kavanagh, too!

  14. Peter says:

    I agree with you about the US title By The Lake. It’s a terribly bland title. Yes, I’m very fond of The Pornographer. It’s been a long time since I read it.
    I know several people who won’t read McGahern saying they find him too depressing. I think McGahern is a very honest writer.

    Have you read Nuala O’Faolain? She is another very truthful chronicler of her own experience.

    By the way, are you on Facebook?


  15. sheila says:

    Depressing? I guess I can see that -but I would say he doesn’t pull any punches. I think “depressing” is too mild a word. I would say that, at least with Amongst Women, it approaches the grandly tragic. And he’s a master at it.

    I love O’Faolain’s work!

  16. Ursula says:

    I l ove Nuala O’Faolains books and again my favourite is her memoir” Are you somebody”? It is so beautifully written and painfully honest. Sad that John McGahern and Nuala O’Faolain are on longer with us . Yet we can enjoy their writings and be grateful for that.

    ps Shelia- I loved your piece on the Barracks – well done !

  17. sheila says:

    Thanks, Ursula!

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