John McGahern
John McGahern; drawing by David Levine

This is a novel about a private and particular world, which the reader enters as an eavesdropper. The writing is so calm that it seems the text is listening to itself. Its accent is a dying fall and its only tricks are tricks of the light. It is set in rural Ireland, in a country of mist, cloud, and water. The daily events of the lakeside are the swans and dark cygnets gliding by, the rippling of perch beneath the surface of the water, the movement of the breeze through the leaves of the alders. The air is scented, wild strawberries glow in the banks, and the heron rises silently from the reeds. The dead are under the feet of the living, and it is their presence—the repressed, repressing generations—that makes the people whisper.

John McGahern is as attentive to their low voices as to the nuances of the shifting light. By the lake are the ruins of an ancient monastery—in traditional Irish poetry, an object of contemplation as fruitful and somber as Gray’s country churchyard; through the whole text, the spirit of the Irish language moves within English, like a ghost within a sheet.

Yet the tenor of the book is profoundly anti-nostalgic. In his novels and stories, McGahern has never provided Ireland with comfortable images of itself. The good old days, in this district, are days that never were. This is Leitrim, where the author lives, a country of many lakes, of deserted cottages on mountain slopes, and of small farmers; it is a poor and depopulated country, its western border formed by the River Shannon. McGahern tells the story of the lake dwellers through a whole year, from summer to summer. The time, roughly speaking, is the present day, though contemporary events seem as distant as the “bad old bitter crowd” in the north. Though Ireland is a country of creeping suburbanization, this place is still so remote that the people by the lake have no telephones till near the end of the story.

Extremes of poverty and ignorance have given way to modern prosperity, yet it is a place where a “seventh son of a seventh son” still does good business as a healer. Most people have several trades as well as a little land, and inequalities of wealth are not confused with social distinctions. There are few Protestants and they “have to keep their heads low.” Religious conformity keeps everyone comfortable. The older people don’t like going away—they come back exhausted from a holiday or a visit to relatives, and Dublin is an alien place to them. “Abroad” is where your grown, thriving children go during the summer holidays; one character, his wife mocks, doesn’t know Italy from Mullingar. There is a sense of a dying community, soon to become a “green wilderness.” It seems to be the last of the particular places, its character burning off like morning mist on a summer day.

Are the people by the lake happy? The evidence of McGahern’s previous fiction suggests the question wouldn’t have much meaning for them. Getting Through (the title of one of his short-story collections) is the best they can hope for. Born in Leitrim in 1934, the son of a police officer, McGahern took the bright boy’s route to University College in Dublin, and went on to become a teacher. His first novel, The Barracks, was published in 1963, and reflects something of his own upbringing. It is the story of a policeman’s wife, confined to the police barracks of the title as she dies slowly of cancer, consumed by the corrosive drip of her own thoughts. Elizabeth Reegan has no regrets, because she is too tired for them, and too tired to make any protest against what her life has become: the chopping of cabbage and the washing of dishes for her stepfamily and her restless, distant husband: the oppressive round of conversational interchange, the rain dripping into the silence when the interchange stops. For a first novel, it is a performance of an awesome grim confidence.

Two years later McGahern published The Dark. Its early pages contain a raw account of the physical and sexual abuse of the young boy at the center of the narrative. Desperate to escape his home and his domineering father, the boy manages to negotiate the formidable obstacles of the examination system. He wins a scholarship, but his academic success is not enough to win him a new life. At university in Galway, he finds the violent transactions of family life have so scarred him that he cannot respond to a change of circumstances, and he settles for a safe government job that will not stretch his talents or nerves. His sister, meanwhile, has become a domestic drudge in the family of a “respectable” shopkeeper in a nearby town, but has to flee back to her father’s house because she can’t fight off her boss’s wandering hands.


The Dark is a harsh portrait of family violence and clerical hypocrisy, and of the cozy collusion between the Church and the kind of Catholic family able to fill the Sunday collection boxes. The novel was banned by the Censorship Board, and in 1966 McGahern was refused renewal of his contract as teacher. He left Ireland for some four years, and then in the 1970s published The Leavetaking and The Pornographer. Meanwhile he refined his craft as a short-story writer—he has published three collections—and added to his gallery of characters, who are men and women beset by lifelong perplexity. It is the struggle to escape rural poverty that shapes (and deforms) many of them. Their own efforts are not enough; they believe you have to have influence, and connections, “the pull,” if you are to escape the land. In The Dark the father tells his struggling son, “It’s not what you want to be, it’s what you’ll be let be.” He prophesies his son’s fate: “He’ll wear out his bones on the few acres round this house and be buried at the end of the road.”

This is a country where, as an old drunken schoolmaster says in the story “High Ground,” there are men digging ditches who might have been philosophers, only for want of opportunity. But however intelligent they are, these people believe they don’t deserve much, and are reticent and timid in the face of the chances that do come their way. The brightest of them have been warned strenuously against intellectual pride. They have never learned to inhabit their own lives; vaguely compromised by the choices they have made, they have sinned mostly by omission, failed to make relationships or never tried them, failed to reach out of their own self-absorbed uncertainties to grasp at some chance that might be passing. The young man in The Dark thinks of entering the priesthood—if he can force himself to say he has a vocation, the Church will offer him status, but he dreads the lifelong loneliness of celibacy. Religion is a habit and a duty; it preserves the social order. For some it is a protection against deeper thought. McGahern’s people suffer from that old Catholic malady, accidie—emotional paralysis, spiritual sloth. They live most powerfully in anticipation and in memory. Experience is constantly giving them the slip; what they get is usually much less—for better or worse—than they anticipate.

The scholar gone wrong, the failed seminarian, the writer afraid of his material; these are disappointed men. They are joined in McGahern’s fiction by the gunman disarmed: men like Reegan in The Barracks and Moran in the 1990 novel Amongst Women. These men fought for a free and independent Ireland and do not feel well rewarded; baffled, they feel that something has been stolen from them, filched from under their noses. They have the imperious nature of those who were men when they were only boys, and the restlessness of warriors in a waste of peace. They are formidable patriarchs; their houses and families, farms and parishes are their new battleground. The most meaningful things in their lives have happened already when McGahern takes up their story.

This is also true of the characters in By the Lake. Many histories are digested into this simply constructed and gently paced book. It is a portrait of a community rather than a family, and most of its inhabitants are elderly, with the struggle of their lives behind them. Their task now is to come to terms with their memories and to find a place in a modern Ireland where “with people living longer there’s a whole new class who are neither in the world or the graveyard.” At the center of the story are the Ruttledges, who have spent many years in London before buying twenty acres and settling by the lake. Their farm doesn’t support them wholly and they still take freelance work from the London advertising agency that used to employ them. Kate is an Anglo-American, but Ruttledge is a native of the place. His uncle, “the Shah,” is a local businessman, the wealthiest man in those parts. Ruttledge himself had a good education. Opportunities have opened out for him, yet he has not been at ease with them. There is nothing wrong with his London life, nothing he could pinpoint, but “it’s not my country and I never feel it’s real or that my life there is real.” And nowadays the flow from Ireland isn’t all one way; exiles can return. Yet how do they fit in?


Ruttledge is an outsider by virtue of his professional status and his years away. His ambivalent status seems to hold him in a posture of diffidence. He is considerate and a good neighbor, well liked, sometimes condescended to in a friendly way. His neighbor Jamesie Murphy urges him to attend mass, because that’s how you find out what’s going on in the neighborhood. To Ruttledge’s protestation of unbelief, he says, “None of us believes and we go.” But Ruttledge will not return to the Church, or settle for any shortcuts in human affairs. Cautious and guarded, it is he who holds the moral center of the story, with his belief that “happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped; it should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed, if it ever comes at all.”

Jamesie and his wife Mary have not spent a night away from the lake since the wedding of their son seventeen years ago. Their son has prospered and lives in Dublin, and they accept without resentment that they have little part in his world. Jamesie’s main characteristic is his appetite for news. The neighbors say that a strange bird flying across the lake is enough to put him on the alert. “I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world,” he says. Jamesie has a brother, Johnny, who comes from England to visit him every year. His return gives a shape to the summer, like the annual rebirth of some small pagan god. His brother and sister-in-law whitewash and paint the house, air the unused bedroom, pick flowers to stand in the open window; as Jamesie sets off for the station to bring the exile home, Mary stands by with the sirloin, ready to sear it in the pan. Twenty years before, Johnny went to Dagenham to work on Ford’s assembly line. Ireland’s recent economic boom may have ended forever her colonial status as supplier of cheap labor to English factories and building sites. But an older generation of McGahern’s characters accepted emigration and the depersonalization that followed, in a country where you were always a Paddy or a Mick, and the butt of jokes or outbursts of blue-collar rage.

Johnny’s life in England has been solitary and monotonous, spent latterly in a small furnished room rented out by a Mr. Singh, who accepts “no marrieds, no women, no coloureds,” though Kate Ruttledge points out in some exasperation that Mr. Singh must be “coloured” himself. English boardinghouses used to put up signs saying “No Coloureds, No Irish,” and McGahern questions how far tolerance has increased. There was once a “pufter” living at Mr. Singh’s house, Johnny reports, but he made the mistake of trying to get friendly with one of the Irish building workers and was “taken away in an ambulance.” When Johnny loses his job at Ford he finds a new one as a janitor for his thriving Indian landlord. In the course of the story he thinks of returning to Ireland. But he is gently rebuffed by his relations; the place that can support Johnny’s memory can no longer support his presence. For Johnny was one of the few not forced to emigrate. He had work, but went to England after a girl who later turned her back on him. In an act of violent severance still mourned in the neighborhood, he shot his two gun dogs, Oscar and Bran. Jamesie says, “He might as well have tied a stone round his neck and rowed out into the middle of the lake.”

It is not Johnny but Bill Evans, a broken laboring man, who is the figure of most pathos in the story. To watch him eat a bowl of potatoes or smoke a cigarette is to witness the greed born of deprivation. The details of his early life would be erased, if his will could do it; the people by the lake can fill in the gaps, because it is the familiar story of an unwanted, orphaned, or outcast child, inducted early into hard labor, spending his life in a sort of semi-slavery on the land. By contrast, the lakeside’s villain is John Quinn, a handsome man in late middle age, powerful, charming, and universally distrusted. Quinn gives an account of his marital fortunes to Ruttledge: “The first poor woman died under me after bringing eight children into the world…. The second round of the course was not a success…. What God intended men and women to do she had no taste for.” When the story begins he is looking for a live-in woman to replace his second wife, who has run away. He attempted to soothe her nerves one day, he claims, by rowing her out onto the lake, but the woman took fright and suspected that he was going to drown her.

The story of Quinn’s first marriage is part of the community’s mythology, a tale which still creates the kind of shudder that passes over people when a taboo is broken. Jamesie tells the Ruttledges how John Quinn drove his young bride back from the church to her parents’ farmyard, at a pace which almost scattered the wedding guests and the waiting musicians. After a brief exchange of words he led the girl to a spot where “the grass…turns red” by the lakeshore:

They stood for a while in full view. Though the yard had turned quiet as a church what they were saying couldn’t be heard. They were too far off. John Quinn put the blanket he had brought down on the rock. Margaret looked as if she was trying to break away but he could have held her with one hand. It was over before anybody rightly knew. He lifted the blue dress up over her head and put her down on the blanket. The screech she let out would put your heart crossways. John Quinn stood between her and the house while he was fixing his trousers and belt. He must have been afraid she’d try to break back on her own but she just lay there on the ground. In the end he had to lift her and straighten her dress and carry her in his arms. The mother and father stood there like a pair of ghosts. Not a word was spoken.

The wedding party dispersed with the food uneaten, not a note played, the musicians refusing their fee. Having wheedled his way into a happy family, taking possession in this brutal manner, Quinn established his own authority in the house over the girl’s parents. He violated paradise, reducing a prosperous little farm, with its beehives and “apple trees pruned into shapes like bowls or cups,” into a quotidian domain of cabbages and turnips, their glum rows flanking a tin-roofed house stripped of its thatch.

There are two things that are shocking about John Quinn. One is his graphic enactment of his desires, in a place where men are in thrall to women and shy of them. The other is his intrusive, demanding style of speech, his habit of blatant self-promotion. The manners of the people in general are gentle, placatory; they speak “a language that hadn’t any simple way of saying no.” The Ireland they grew up in was not a place where contradiction or questioning was encouraged. Inner constraint was quite as effective as interdictions from the Censorship Board and the pulpit. To say nothing is safest, and speech must be disarmed by a ritual quality; so conversation proceeds by repetition, like Jamesie’s frequent reassurance to Kate Ruttledge that “you nearly have to be born into a place to know what’s going on and what to do.”

Inference is superior to direct statement and avoidance to confrontation; two men, squared up to fight, suddenly begin to sing. To hold back information is to have power, and there is a “silence and listening…more useful than speech.” One of the book’s strongest characters is also the most reserved and polite: Jimmy Joe McKiernan is a bar owner, auctioneer, and a chief in the provisional IRA, and Ruttledge’s one conversation with him finds him a man of civil, considered ruthlessness. His role and direction in life is plain, but his conversation does nothing to provoke.

McGahern concentrates on the proprieties and courtesies that obtain between the characters, leaving the reader to guess at what is unspoken. They are tireless in watching each other, and he is tireless in watching them. In his early books, his method was different; he was inclined to draw the moral and point the tale. He knew so much about his characters’ inner lives that one felt he was their “spiritual accountant,” like Father Purdon in Joyce’s story “Grace.” In his last two novels, he has effaced not only authorial comment, but his characters’ inner lives. Yet they don’t seem unaccountable, either to writer or reader. McGahern shows what they do, and makes their actions speak. He seems to be saying, what you see is what you get; but you have to know how to look.

Yet until a late stage in the novel we feel he is holding something back. We want to know how this small place connects to Ireland’s history. Who hid in these woods? Who was hunted through these fields? At last Jamesie tells Ruttledge of what he saw when he was a boy; how he continued planting potatoes with his father while the British paramilitaries ambushed a company of republican volunteers, tracking the survivors with bloodhounds and shooting them dead: while the massacre went on the man and boy continued their labor, ignored by the combatants as if they were standing stones, or some part of the natural world. Revenge was swift, and fell on a blameless small farmer of the district: “They shot him because somebody had to be made to pay and poor Sinclair was a Protestant and the nearest to hand.” The whole sorry business is now commemorated in the district with a monument and an annual march at Easter.

How old is Jamesie, if he remembers this event, which surely took place around 1920? The reader revises upward his estimate of Jamesie’s age, or slips the action back a few years; but it hardly seems to matter. It is in the nature of memory to be faulty. Jamesie remarks, “The dead can be turned into anything.” At the end of the book Ruttledge gets his own chance to shape how the dead are remembered: Johnny dies suddenly, and Ruttledge lays him out, being qualified by dint of the job as a hospital porter he took to pay his way when he was a student. There is a grim humor in these pages, but the book’s final note is elegiac: the dead man placed in the grave “with his head in the west…so that when he wakes he may face the rising sun.”

In McGahern’s work spiritual insight has to be earned, worked toward, achieved through experience; it’s not going to be handed to you like the communion wafer. His characters hope for insight, and it is delivered in the fugitive moment. In The Pornographer, when the main character holds the beautiful young nurse in his arms, he reflects, “This body was the shelter of the self. Like all walls and shelters it would break and age and let the enemy in. But holding it now was like holding glory, and having held it once was to hold it—no matter how broken and conquered—in glory still….” This insight is what is called grace; it is all McGahern allows his characters; perhaps it is all they need.

Even in the present novel—about aging men and women whose individual quirks have become marked—he never condescends to his characters or treats them as “eccentrics.” In the past he has written without compromise, he has set out to shock; in this book he writes with a tender propriety and reticence. He is respectfully curious about the lives of people for whom ordinary things are not easily gained. The nurse in The Pornographer wanted “to have my own husband and child and home and garden and saucepans and pets”; with these humble ambitions, she could be one of the lakeside people, looking back over a life of hazard and hard work and forward to the qualified benefits of an internationalized and prosperous country where pieties have broken down and strangers order your affairs. The poor laborer Bill Evans is taken to town, given new clothes and a place in a housing scheme; he feels no nostalgia. John Quinn gets his comeuppance from his third wife, who proves to be no sacrificial virgin. And in one of the book’s more surprising scenes, Jamesie sits gazing at television, tuned into an English game show called Blind Date, mesmerized by the sexual swagger of the participants and their vulgar raucous manners. The days of the lifelong bachelor in his untended cabin have drawn to a close. We are in the era of people who know what they want, name it, and demand it.

It may be, at first sight, difficult to see much in common between McGahern’s Catholic Ireland and the Ireland of Elizabeth Bowen, whose “Big House” novels charted the decay of the Protestant gentry. But both authors describe conservative and rural societies on the brink of destabilization, and if you take thought you find that these Irelands are recognizably the same place. In Bowen’s Court, her family memoir, Elizabeth Bowen writes that

though one can be callous in Ireland one cannot be wholly opaque or material. An unearthly disturbance works in the spirit; reason can never reconcile one to life; nothing allays the wants one cannot explain. In whatever direction, the spirit is always steadily moving, or rather steadily being carried as though the country were a ship. The light, the light-consumed distances, that air of intense existence about the empty country… the great part played in society by the dead and by the idea of death and, above all, the recurring futilities of hope all work for eternal against temporal things.

This passage seems to catch, inadvertently, the essence of both McGahern’s intentions and his methods. His art is shadowy and sly, his effects slow to take hold. He is a perfectionist, who discards most of what he writes. His novel The Leavetaking he rewrote entirely, and republished ten years after its first appearance; he says of the earlier version, published in 1974, that “the work lacked that distance, that inner formality or calm, that all writing, no matter what it is attempting, must possess.” By the Lake has the sense of grave integrity that is his aim. By virtue of its simplicity the novel accretes power. By its close, the barrier between exile and home, between the living and the dead, seems to become translucent. The generations blur. A person’s story may be greater than he is, and last much longer. We are made of memories and we persist as long as our story is worth repeating. “People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead.”

This Issue

May 23, 2002