If there is a shortlist of abusive, bullying fictional fathers, Moran deserves to be on it. He has a first name in John McGahern’s Amongst Women but, since the author rarely uses it, neither will I. As for the abusive, bullying part, McGahern wastes little time, opening the novel with:
As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children and houses of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.
Moran was not always this way. As a youth, he was quite the ladies’ man and a superb dancer to boot. He led a column with some distinction during the Irish war of independence; it was only when the Republic was established that he began an inexorable retreat from the real world, eventually limiting himself to a notion of “family” where he could practise his bullying behavior on his second wife and the children borne by his first. In that opening section, the three daughters are planning a reprise of “Monaghan Day” to cheer him up — the author uses it to set the story of Moran’s final withdrawal from the non-family world.
Monaghan Day came each end-of-February after the fair in nearby Mohill. McQuaid, one of Moran’s subordinates during the war, now a successful cattle dealer, would show up for remembering, story-telling and whiskey drinking. As this later re-enactment unfolds, Moran remembers:
“For people like McQuaid and myself the war was the best part of our lives. Things were never so simple and clear again. I think we never rightly got the hang of it afterwards. It was better if it had never happened. Tired now. You were all great girls to travel such distances to see one sick old man.”
McQuaid actually did get the hang of it as we discover when McGahern flashes back to the last Monaghan Day that Moran and McQuaid shared. It will give the only clues the author will provide to what has produced this abusive creature:
His (Moran’s) fascination with McQuaid’s mastery of his own world was boyish. He had never been able to deal with the outside. All his dealings had been with himself and that larger self of family which had been thrown together by marriage or accident: he had never been able to go out from his shell of self.
While the IRA “won” the war and the Republic was established, it represents no victory to Moran. In his view, many of the men who fought got nothing — the Republic has been taken over by a version of traitors to the point that he even rejects taking up the IRA pension for which he is eligible. He goads McQuaid, his last friend, to the point where the latter concludes:
As on all the other Monaghan Days stretching far back he had come intending to stay the night. Tonight a growing irritation at Moran’s compulsion to dominate, to have everything on his own terms or not at all, had hardened into a sudden decision to overturn the years and quit the house at once. As soon as Moran saw McQuaid on his feet again he knew the evening, all the evenings, were about to be broken up and he withdrew back into himself. He would neither plead with him to stay nor help him with his leaving.
Moran’s withdrawal from the outside world is complete (and all of this takes place by page 21 of a 184-page book). He is left with clinging to the “self” of family, the only place where he can exercise his dominant, abusive behavior. Even here, there are problems — his eldest son has already fled to England and refuses contact; his youngest son is showing similar signs of rebellion as he matures. Only his second wife, Rose, and his three daughters are willing to bend to his will. The bulk of the book is the story of the hell that this creates.
Moran is capable of at least occasionally being a decent person with his three daughters, although he uses that talent almost capriciously to continue his domination. With his sons, that side of him never shows — as though it was a talent he never bothered to learn. He has a host of controlling devices (including his leading of the decades of the Rosary each evening) and he devotes his life to exploiting them.
Given my recent reading, it was hard not to compare Amongst Women to two other books: Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Patrick Lane’s Red Dog, Red Dog. All three involve explorations of how controlling fathers use an idea of “family” to effect their children, negatively. In each case, the male offspring rebel, the females submit (in Lane’s case, the three daughters are virtually killed off by their parents before the age of six months). Robinson uses this framework to suggest the need for a discovery of soul (which I found least satisfying of the three). Lane explores whether the current generation can overcome a pattern of generations of family misery. McGahern examines the outcome when the driving force is simply selfish behavior by the father.
Despite his horrible behavior, I felt some sympathy for Moran. I had some questions about taking on this book because of the promo — “Moran is an old Republican whose life was forever transformed by his days of glory as a guerrilla leader in the War of Indepence” — and a feeling that I had read as much as I wanted to about the fallout from the Troubles. That is definitely not the case; in fact, McGahern’s 1991 novel has a very significant message for those of us who live in North America and the United Kingdom in 2009.
In all wars, some ordinary men (and now women) do extraordinary things. The problem is that when the war ends, the world demands that they be ordinary again — and they don’t know how to do that. Too often that plays out with maltreatment of those closest to them. A number of fiction works explored that phenomenon following both World Wars; some of us are old enough to have seen personal experiences from the Vietnam War. Part of what makes Amongst Women so poignant and heart-breaking is that the seeds for similar stories are being sewn in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
Amongst Women is not a perfect book — why Rose ever married Moran is perhaps a question better left unasked. Whatever its weaknesses might be, however, the thoughtful reader will find it to be one that lives on in memory.