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John McGahern: Amongst Women

Michael Moran was active in the Irish Republican Army during the 1920s/1930s and killed quite a few English soldiers. In one particular incident, he and his men killed an English colonel and several of their men, when the colonel was arriving at a local station. But that was a long time ago. He is now a widower, with five children. His eldest and youngest are both boys. Luke, the eldest, has left the family home in Ireland and now lives in London. He clearly clashed with his father and refuses to come back, despite persuasion from his brother and sisters, though he does meet his father at his sister’s wedding in Dublin. The youngest brother also clashes with his father and when threatened with corporal punishment leaves the family home and he too goes off to London. As the title explains, Moran seems to be better with women but, even then, he does it as much by his stern ways, of which his daughters are frightened, though they do remain loyal and devoted to him.

There are three girls. Maggie is the oldest. She is the one who initially runs the household after their mother’s death. She too goes off to London (though with her father’s blessing) to become a nurse and marries a man who is more or less tolerated by his father-in-law. The other two girls go off to Dublin to work. Sheila, the oldest and smartest, had wanted to go to university and had even won a scholarship but her father refused to assist in any way and she reluctantly became a civil servant in Dublin. She marries Sean and they have three children in quick succession. Mona, the prettiest, remains single. There is a fourth woman – Rose. Rose is a single woman who has been working in Glasgow but returns home to look after her sick father and then is slow in returning to Glasgow, after her father dies. She meets Moran at the post office (where they go every day to collect their mail) and they start talking and, eventually, marry. Rose takes her place in the household, looking after the children and adapting to her husband’s whims.

Ultimately, the book is about Moran. He is gruff, demanding, religious and a hard-working farmer. He expects obedience and loyalty and he expects things to be done his way and his daughters and wife usually conform. However, beneath that gruff exterior, there is a sort of heart. He misses Luke and even tries to make some feeble attempt at reconciliation. When he does put Rose down on a couple of occasions, he makes a half-hearted attempt at an apology. He even takes her out for the day, an unprecedented gesture for him. And, however gruff he may be, his wife and daughters are devoted to him. McGahern’s skill is in creating this complex man, with a past that clearly has an effect on him, with a strong religious conviction, devoted to family, both the concept and the individuals, who just cannot quite break loose from that hidebound, traditional old-fashioned way. Of the women, it is Rose, apparently submissive but with a mind of her own, that is the most interesting character but McGahern makes all three sisters individuals, each with her own slightly different way of behaving. It was written more than ten years since his previous one and it will be more than ten years till his next one appears but all have been well worth the wait.

Publishing history

First published in 1990 by Faber & Faber