Friday, October 24, 2008

Amongst the Irish

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”' As we all know, that's the first line of Anna Karenina. But I wonder...did Tolstoy know any Irish families? The Irish seem produce a very specific type of dysfunctional family. It's not hard to find a common threads of misery in families described by Frank McCourt, Roddy Doyle, Edna O'Brien and even Irish-American Eugene O'Neill. Here are the broad strokes: the father is an angry embittered bully; the wives and daughters are cowering doormats; the sons either escape to England or are crushed by the weight of their father's cruelty.

So why did I decide to read an Irish author? That's the other side of the coin – the Irish are wonderful writers. Their contribution to world literature is disproportionate to their small island's population. Joyce, Beckett, Wilde, Shaw – the list is long and distinguished. But I had never heard of John McGahern until a friend recommended him. Like many of his predecessors McGahern had his problems with his native country. His book The Dark was banned there because of its frank depiction of sex and of abuse by the clergy, and as a result he lost his teaching position.

McGahern's best known book, which was nominated for the Booker prize in 1990 (Possession by A.S. Byatt won), is Amongst Women. The tyrant father is widower Michael Moran, who fought heroically for the IRA during the Irish War for Independence, and seems to have been nursing a grudge ever since (“Anything easy and pleasant aroused deep suspicion”).. He has retreated to his small farm of Great Meadow in rural Ireland near Sligo, where he raises his five children, disgusted with the “crowd of small-minded gangsters “ who now run the country. As the story opens the eldest son Luke has already left for England to escape his father's brutality, and the remaining four survive by learning to read his moods and keep their heads down - “all they had ever been able to do in the face of violence was to bend to it.”

Moran marries again, to the much younger Rose, and she provides a buffer between the children and their father's anger, even as she endures his malevolence without complaint. I mean, the woman is a saint. We follow the lives of the remaining four children as they leave home and make their own lives in London and Dublin. The youngest son challenges his father's power and thus escapes his domination. But the three daughters retain a fierce tribal loyalty to their father. They make frequent return visits to Great Meadow, sometimes trailing boyfriends, spouses and children who all fall short in Moran's estimation. What draws them back? The beauty of the rural landscape certainly appeals to them. But more than that, their isolated childhood under the sway of a bullying father seems to have created among them a sort of secret society even more powerful than their Catholicism. The father is eventually overwhelmed and diminished by the sheer persistence of his daughters' devotion.

Catholic readers will no doubt recognize that the title refers not just to the females in the household but to the words of Hail Mary, recited nightly as part of the mandatory Rosary that Moran leads. His women are complex – strong and weak, stubborn and bending – always drawn to a man they love and fear. McGahern has created a fierce angry patriarch – an Irish King Lear whose kingdom is his obstinant spirit. Even as I gritted my teeth with annoyance at this pig-headed jerk, I admired McGahern's ability to create a living, breathing universe with his spare prose.

No comments:

Post a Comment