Michael Moran, the patriarch at the heart of this novel, is a depressing misanthropic monster. He abuses his children, terrorises his wife, and attempts (ultimately unsuccessfully) to control every aspect of their lives, all the while ensuring that his interests and comforts are catered for:
“Anything easy and pleasant aroused deep suspicion and people enjoying themselves were usually less inclined to pay attention to others” (61) (others here being Moran himself.)
When Moran dies at the end of the novel his family finally experience a sense of relief from his omnipresent oppression. This relief is possibly a false dawn, as his influence continues to linger:
“as they left him under the yew, it was as if each of them in their different ways had become Daddy.”
The novel is set in rural Ireland in the 1950’s or 60’s. The exact date is not specified, but can be inferred from the changes in society affecting Ireland, as well as the ages of the characters in relation to some of the historic events mentioned, specifically the Irish war of independence. The Moran family in addition to Michael, the father, includes his three daughters, two sons, and their stepmother. We are never told about their mother, who is never referred to or hinted at. Given the veneration by Irish Catholics for the role of mothers in the family, this is surprising.
The novel opens with Moran being cared for by his daughters, who have put their busy lives in Dublin and London on hold. To cheer him up, a thankless task if ever there was one, they decide to recreate ‘Monaghan Day’, a family celebration when Moran’s friend McQuaid used to visit and they would reminisce about the war. Without McQuaid to participate there seems little point in this, and it is really just an excuse for the narrator to tell us in flashback some of Moran’s back story. We are told that he fought as an officer in the Irish Republican Army, and in the Irish Civil War that followed (we are not told on which side Moran fought in the Civil War, but can infer that he was a loyalist). Moran is bitter about the direction Ireland has taken post-independence, and petulantly refuses his soldier’s pension. The main narrative focus of the novel is the teenage years and early twenties of the children, as they grow up and leave home. Moran’s violent outbursts towards his family and his control freakery, often exercised through obsessive repetitions of prayers, gradually drive them all away, although they all, except Luke the eldest, regularly return thereafter to the family home. They are pathetically grateful for any acts or signs of tenderness from their father.
This is all well done – the portrait of an abusive, dysfunctional Irish family is convincing. But is it enjoyable? Hardly. It tells us little we do not already know about this society, which even when this novel was written was fading into the past. It was a time of widespread and institutionalised physical and sexual abuse, unpredictable violence, and the tyranny of men over women. McGahern seems ambivalent about this period, and about his central character, perhaps from a sense of nostalgia about his own past. While well written the novel contains too much repetition for my taste – endless scenes of family prayers and haymaking – and much of the heavy-handed symbolism was sign-posted clumsily. It came as more of a relief than anything else when Moran was finally laid to rest.