The Barracks, by John McGahern


Purchased at

There is always a risk in approaching an author by starting with his best-known work, which is exactly what I did with John McGahern when I read Amongst Women 16 months ago. What if you love it and decide to read all of his work, which is also what happened with me and the Irish author? Having read the fifth of his six novels first, I had worked my way back through two earlier ones (The Leavetaking, his third, and The Dark, number two in order). Eventually you are going to have to read book one and there is every reason to expect that it will have some weaknesses.

The Barracks was published in 1963, more than a quarter of a century before Amongst Women (1990) and I am delighted to report that it is a more than worthwhile work, even if not quite up to the standard of the more famous novel. Indeed, I am quite happy that I read the books in this order — McGahern is one of those authors who returns in almost every book, or least all that I have read so far, to the same themes and explores them from different angles. Yes, he may get more adept and detailed as he goes along, but it is equally rewarding to see the raw emotion, even if it is explored with many rough edges, that is part of the first book.

Consider the central female character, Elizabeth, who married the older widower Reegan and became stepmother to his three children as part of the bargain:

She was nothing to these children. She had hoped when she first came into the house that they would look up to her as a second mother, but they had not. Then in her late thirties, she had believed that she could yet have a child of her own, and that, too, had come to nothing. At least, she thought, these children were not afraid of her, they did not hate her. So she gripped herself together and spoke pleasantly to them: they were soon quiet, laughing together on the shiny leatherette of the sofa, struggling for the torn rug that lay there.

If you know Amongst Women (and it is no spoiler if you don’t), you will know that it too features a second wife, Rose, who also acquired a family when she married — in her case two sons and three daughters. The husbands in both books (Reegan and Moran, respectively) are bitter, abusive, defeated creatures. (Yes, McGahern’s mother died when he was young and he too had a difficult relationship with his father.) Both Elizabeth and Rose lead lives of indescribable loneliness, despite being surrounded by “family” with all its ritual, including the nightly rosary said by the entire family. In this book, Elizabeth’s loneliness is heightened by her discovery of cysts in her breast, adding the fear of cancer to an already perilous existence, again reflecting McGahern’s personal experience.

It is fair to say that the author’s development of Rose in the later book is better, but there is also a lot to say for the emotional bluntness that McGahern portrays in this earlier book. Isolation is often better illustrated with starkness, than it is with nuance and detail.

It is also worth noting that Reegan, the husband and father, contains many of the characteristics that will be more fully developed in the later character, Moran. The barracks of the title of this book are in a police station in the newly independent Ireland. Reegan was active as a leader and commander in the independence movement, but now finds himself sidelined as a minor police sergeant, beset upon by his superior. His life is one of constant frustration and anger at his current station which seems so diminished from what he once was — at age 50, his one hope is trying to accumulate enough money so that he can resign and begin a new life as a farmer. In that sense, he and Moran are different, as Moran has abandoned all hope. But the theme of the warrior whose life is all downhill after the battle has been won is one that is obviously central to the author’s world view. In both cases, McGahern manages to show that apparently random bitterness and anger may have a very valid cause.

Finally, let’s look at the role of the Roman Catholic Church in McGahern’s Ireland. In this novel, it is rarely shown directly (Elizabeth loathes the local priest so only has the most formal, required contact) but it is never, never not looming as part of the picture. Here is what Elizabeth is thinking when she finally does go to the doctor’s office to reveal her cysts and is waiting for her name to be called:

She might have been kneeling in the queue in front of the confessional and her turn to enter into the darkness behind the purple curtain coming closer and closer. You were sure you were ready and prepared and then you weren’t any more when you got close, less and less sure the closer you got. Doubts came, the hunger for time, the fear of anything final — you could never bring all your sins into one moment of confession and pardon, you had lost them, they had escaped, they were being replaced by the new. The nerves began to gnaw at the stomach, whispering that you were inadequate, simply always inadequate. The penny candles guttered in the spikes of their shrine; the silver sanctuary lamp cast down its light of blood, great arum lilies glowed in the white evocation of death on the altar; reverential feet on the flagstones tolled through the coughing and the stillness.


She felt the strain of waiting the same as she moved closer to the moment when the receptionist would call her name. The images echoed no afterworld, there were no vistas of hell and heaven; but the mind and the heart and the stomach reacted as if they were all the one.

In devoting so much space to comparisons, I don’t intend to demean The Barracks in any way. McGahern’s rural Ireland is not a pleasant place; it is a brutally challenging one. I think as he grew older, he began to understand it more thoroughly — which is part of the reason why this first, youthful effort (he was only 29 when The Barracks was published) has so much power to it. The Irish have produced some truly exceptional writers, but like my friend Kimbofo at Reading Matters who introduced me to McGahern (and has reviews of six of his books on her blog) I can’t help but argue that he may be the best.

I’ve got two more novels (and I am saving his last, That They May Face The Rising Sun, for my last), the short stories and, perhaps, his memoir to go. I can promise you will see thoughts on them all here eventually, although McGahern does demand that you leave some space between reads. Whether you read this book before or after Amongst Women it is an exceptional debut novel.

27 Responses to “The Barracks, by John McGahern”

  1. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, this is one of my favourite of John McGahern’s books, and I’m going to issue a small challenge in the spirit of those you offer me on my blog from time to time (hope you’re enjoying the paragraphs!)
    This book moved me beyond words and sometimes I would really love to know how how a book has made you feel… what sort of mood it creates within… if and why you will remember it…
    I know that may well go against every tenet that you hold true about book reviewing (and you know how much I enjoy reading what you write here) but this book, above all the books I can think of, demands an emotional response too, I can’t believe it didn’t elicit one in you and I’d love to know more about that sometimes if you were prepared to share it.


  2. Lisa Hill Says:

    Kim was kind enough to give me a copy of this wonderful book when we met up in London in September, and I read it while we were away. I think you’ve written a great review, Kevin, and I’m hooked on this author too – but like you, I’m spacing reading the rest of his novels, to maximise the impact.


  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    dgr: I think it is a fair observation that I don’t often react emotionally as a reader, especially to books I like — although that in no way means I don’t have feelings about them. I probably react emotionally more often to books that I don’t like (see my review of The Finkler Question and I was so angered by Beatrice and Virgil that I didn’t even review it), but I am pretty sure that isn’t what you mean.

    This book — and review — probably provides as good an example as possible to explore how I respond. One of the reasons that I made the comparisons with Amongst Women in this review is that I did engage more in a feeling sense with that novel than this one, although I appreciate both. Moran is such a despicable character that he makes life miserable not only for himself but for everybody around him. I was touched by the way McGahern showed the bonding between Rose and her stepchildren to create the most effective “protected” space that they could despite their desperate circumstances. And (as I said in my review) I was even more touched by the way the author showed that it was Moran’s IRA experience (where he was a “hero”), followed by subsequent humiliation, that produced this incredibly cruel behavior. I know many reviewers find him without merit at all — I felt considerable sympathy for him, deplorable as his current behavior was.

    The Barracks engaged me in a different way. I would say that the dominant feelings it brought forward were “isolation and loneliness”, rather than that cruel brutality and the price it extracted from everyone involved (including Moran, in my reading). I certainly would expect that I probably would have reacted with more feeling towards Elizabeth than I did were I female — but that is just a supposition.

    McGahern certainly writes books that are about feeling (although he does it in a pretty detached, almost icy, kind of way). For me, the impressive result is more a “portrayal” of feeling and emotion than something which arouses that reaction in me as a reader, if that makes any sense at all.


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lisa: Sorry, I was writing my reply to dgr’s comment when yours arrived. Kim is doing a very good job of spreading the McGahern word around the world — and he deserves it. And further to my reply above, one of the reasons that I need to space out my reading of his books is the intensity of the feelings that he portrays.


  5. Guy Savage Says:

    For some reason Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife came to mind when I read the review.

    It’s delightful to stumble upon an author you love (mid or end-career) but then you face that ‘where do I go next dilemma?’

    This author’s name has come up before. Since this is his first, I think I’ll start here. I checked and YES Amongst Women was made into a television mini-series.


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I don’t remember The Doctor’s Wife very well, so I can’t comment on that. And we do own the Amongst Women DVD — bought it after I read the novel. I’d say they did a very good job, although it is important to note that some of the best aspects of the book just can’t be moved to television.


  7. Guy Savage Says:

    Sadly that’s often the way isn’t it (book to film) but once in a while I hit the jackpot.

    I see a memoir but you’re not much into those, are you?


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: I am not, although this might be one where I will make an exception after I read the final two novels and the short stories. I prefer to let the books stand on their own (and then let my own imagination run its course).


  9. Guy Savage Says:

    That country, that era….I bet the memoirs are good.


  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    That’s the reason why I may make an exception on my memoir reading for McGahern. As I said in the review, all four novels that I have read so far are different views of the “same lump of coal” (“”diamond”, if you prefer a more positive image) that was the Irish life that he experienced. And those who have read the memoirs certainly have found them up to the standard of his fictional work. At my current pace of reading, I do have a year or two before I have to make a decision.


  11. Guy Savage Says:

    I see the Barracks is OOP. Used copies start at Amazon for 1c. I think I’ll splurge.


  12. Mary Gilbert Says:

    This novel was recommended by Deirdre Madden another fine Irish writer in a Sunday magazine. I read it and found it a wonderful novel but extremely sad. It stayed in my mind for months afterwards. His style of writing is extraordinarily beautiful without being at all flashy or self conscious. He’s especially good at describing the texture of everyday life where deep emotions and mundane daily tasks coexist.


  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: A world where “deep emotions and mundane daily tasks coexist”. That’s as good a description of McGahern’s fiction as I could imagine. I agree with your assessment and, if you haven’t read any of his other novels, think that you find them equally powerful, when you are in the right kind of reading mood.


  14. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I had thought I’d read some McGahern, but it’s becoming clear to me I haven’t and it was a false memory. Odd.

    Anyway, that first quote Kevin, spectacular. It may be out of print, and it may be misery in Ireland which I hate as a rule, but I’ll take a note anyway. When a book’s this well written it doesn’t matter if it takes a bit more effort to find it or if the subject doesn’t otherwise appeal.


  15. bookermt Says:

    Simply one of the very best Irish writers of all time for me. Amongst Women was unlucky to be up against Possession for the Booker or I’m certain it would have won.


  16. Trevor Says:

    I need to start reading McGahern. The bookstores around me only have his collection of short stories, which I hear are excellent, but I’d like to start with a novel or two first. Perhaps next year I can go through his work better. Or 2012.


  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max, Trevor: He is only out of print in the US — a quick scan of the Book Depository shows that most, if not all, volumes are available from them. One of the “male” themes that he explores which particularly interests me is the frustration and anger felt by post-war soldiers who discover they are no longer as important as they were in the “battle”. America has been through that once already in my lifetime and will be going through it again — this will be Canada’s first experience since WWII. As you can probably figure out from DGR’s comment, the life of the women these poor souls then pick on is even more disturbing. I think there are some comparisons (but not many) with the Berger book that Max just reviewed. And those quotes I used came practically at random — you could open the book at any page and pick out a similar one, the power of the writing just never slows. McGahern wrote the introduction for the NYRB edition of Stoner — he was a perfect choice and I think that reference provides an additional incentive to readers who know the John Williams’ book.

    bookermt: I agree with you that McGahern was very unlucky in that Booker year (and I remain a major fan of Possession, even if I think Byatt has wandered with her recent work). His books are not long but every sentence has power — as Mary noted the tasks might be mundane but the emotions are very powerful. Like Max, I am wary of Irish misery fiction (and John Self and Kimbofo had to chide me into starting McGahern for just that reason) but his novels are on a whole different plane from most.


  18. leroyhunter Says:

    Great review Kevin, teasing out both the book and the linkages it forms with the rest of McGahern’s work. He was a master and is sadly missed, I can’t think of a single contemporary Irish writer who doesn’t look wan by comparison.

    It’s worth noting that the hostility and ostracism that greeted him in Ireland when he publisehd this became as formative of his later work as the primal relationships he describes here.

    Mary: that’s a perfect summary of his style and the effect his work has.

    I’ve said it before here but That They May Face the Rising Sun is in my personal pantheon as one of the greatest novels I’ve read. And to repeat myself further, the Memoir is another masterpiece, a must-read. Waverers, get reading McGahern!


  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I was expecting to hear from you, as I was aware of your very high opinion of both Rising Sun and the memoirs — actually, you are the reason I am saving Rising Sun for last and am willing to contemplate the memoirs (a genre that Guy knows I don’t normally like).

    A few years back, I was fortunate enough to see an Abbey Theatre production of Juno and the Paycock at the Donmar Warehouse in London — a couple of dozen exceptional Irish actors performing in a house that seats about 200, so being in the audience was like being a silent member of the cast. It deals with many of the same issues that are in McGahern’s toolbox and remains in my list of top five drama productions that I wish I could see again. It was the first time that I realized that it is Irish women who keep that world going, while the men all go off and kill each other (that is meant to be shallow and glib, but I hope you get what I mean). That’s another one of the themes that is constantly present in McGahern (like the Church) without ever being directly stated.


  20. Trevor Says:

    All you had to do was mention him in the same breath as John Williams (even though I remembered he’d written that introduction to Stoner).


  21. leroyhunter Says:

    I saw a similarly impressive performance of Juno featuring the late Donal McCann years ago Kevin, I think it was a Gate production rather then an Abbey one but it similarly deeply impressed me. And the link you describe is definitely there: the men portrayed are violent, unreliable and life (especially the family) has to flow around their eruptions. O’Casey, I believe, makes the further point that all the bluster and all the agony caused serve only a great tradition of futility and disappointment. Meanwhile, the mothers and wives pick up the pieces, mourn and raise the next generation of “heroes”.


  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Like offering candy to a baby……

    Leroy: That is my memory as well. The biggest difference, as I recall it, is that in Juno the women eventually screw up their courage to at least state their real and moral case — McGahern’s women are denied that.


  23. kimbofo Says:

    Now I’ve just got to get you to read Jennifer Johnston and my mission will be complete. Hehehe. 😉

    But seriously, I think this is a great review. As you know I read this one four years ago and I *still* think about it. I think the impact of the book was strengthened by reading Memoir immediately after. It’s only when you read Memoir that you realise The Barracks cuts very close to the bone.

    And I second leroy’s championing of That They May Face the Rising Sun as one of *the* best books ever written. Nothing happens — and everything happens — all in the space of a few hundred pages.

    PS> This comment comes to you from the UAE. Sadly, I can’t access any Typepad blogs (Typepad is banned, apparently), including my own, but wordpress ones are fine.


  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Well I am glad the UAE does not ban wordpress blogs — I can tell you that yours is doing just fine. I owe you a lot for introducing me to McGahern (and to John Self for pointing me at your advocacy). And admit, without shame, that I will be trying Jennifer Johnston.


  25. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Just saw this, as I may have mentioned before I saw that same Donmar Warehouse production of Juno and the Paycock Kevin. A brilliant evening of theatre.


  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I am sure it was more than 10 years ago, but I still vividly remember that production.


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