John McGahern’s The Dark and the Formative Spaces of Irish Gender

Author: Michael E. Beebe (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)

The physical organization of modern society relies upon the delineation and mediation of spaces into distinct places. We recognize the spatial boundaries between places by the ways in which they permit or deny access or entry. The institutional discernment of one person or another’s access to a given place is a function of an individual’s relative privilege within a given socio-political and bureaucratic framework. The power of our institutions can be visibly imposed via the cordoning off of privileged places; this is made apparent with regularity in an era of identification cards and security clearances, compulsory searches and ever-encroaching surveillance in both the public and private realms. It is assumed that power is enacted, at least partly, in its ability to control physical spaces, to tell members of the populace where their bodies and capacities of conscious perception can and cannot be. The rise of the modern nation-state as the principle global apparatus of government served to bestow constituent populations with the civil rights of citizenship and military defense. The state also became necessarily invested in the drawing of borders that describe the limits of the physical territories within which particular political and cultural codes prevail, and that also describe the semi-sovereignties of private and public property so essential to liberal economics. In this manner, the state became the primary actor in dividing the space of its sovereignty into a multitude of places.


The geography of everyday life is shaped by the ways in which spaces are subjected to power. Spaces become places when they are endowed with human meaning that we must acknowledge in our daily movements, whether passively or actively. Yi-Fu Tuan, whose work has been foundational to place studies, writes that “if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place.”[1] The maps of everyday human activities reveal repetitive patterns of movement that are, in most cases, restricted by and reflective of individual’s relative privilege within various institutions. Human movement through space is nonetheless controlled and shaped by landscapes and built environments whose power is altered by the context of place. As Tim Cresswell remarks, “looking at the world as a set of places in some way separate from one another is both an act of defining what exists (ontology) and a particular way of seeing and knowing the world (epistemology and metaphysics).”[2] Cresswell implies the effectively endless nesting of places within places, of place as a network of irreducibly complex subjectivities.


Yet, there is a common tendency to think of the private home as a sanctuary, a place that is privileged in its respite from the overt manifestations of power and ideology. Likewise, the family unit is often considered a private institution, whose internal policies and practices are strictly the concern of the immediate family group. Parents are permitted to determine the nature and ideology of their household, so popular thinking would hold, and that ideological freedom is sanctioned and defended by the modern liberal state apparatus. Of course, a critical inspection quickly reveals that both state ideology and social norms are inherent in determining the structure and nature of household ideologies. Lucy R. Lippard, whose work on place delves deeply into the experiential locus of home-as-place, notes that the content of the homeplace is most often “conformity disguised as self-expression.”[3] Home and family only remain bastions of self-determination within certain state-approved configurations—for instance, the heteronormative and biologically reproductive two-parent nuclear family household, a hegemonic assumption so deeply ingrained into Western consciousness that its basic machinery remained largely unquestioned at the legislative level prior to the early twenty-first century. We know that this particular configuration does not sufficiently describe the conditions of lived experience for a massive cross-section of any human population, yet it is a structure that has long been privileged—often at the expense of households and families that do not fit such a description. Lippard writes that questioning the arrangements of the home (in both the material and social senses of arrangement) provides “ways to understand how human occupants are part of the environment and where we fit in personally. Research into social desire can set off a chain of personal reminiscences and ramifications, including lines and circles of thought about the interlinking of histories, unacknowledged class systems, racial, gender, and cultural divisions, and common grounds.”[4] And, as I have already intimated, no social or legal construct is more central to the notion of home, and its demographic correlative, the household, than marriage.


The institution of marriage, which has traditionally been central to defining the state-sanctioned family unit, has only received serious revision to its overtly exclusionary heteronormativity within the past decade. The action of the state in permitting specific familial structures to survive and flourish is an intervention upon the physically and culturally reproductive processes that affirm and stabilize state power. The legal constructs that enable the state to define families through the institutions of marriage, adoption, fosterage and other non-biological configurations of individuals into recognized families reinforce Louis Althusser’s premise that the family is itself what he could call an “ideological state apparatus.” Althusser mentions in his footnotes to “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” that not only is the family an apparatus of state ideology, but it also has other “functions”, including its role in the reproduction of labor power and its production of a consumer base.[5] Althusser further articulates the ideological role, and constructedness, of the family unit in the ideological “interpellation” of the individual subject—the ideological and cultural socialization processes of raising a child. He asserts that “before its birth, the child is always-already a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific familial ideological configuration in which it is ‘expected’ once it has been conceived. I hardly need add that this familial ideological configuration is, in its uniqueness, highly structured, and that it is in this implacable and more or less ‘pathological’ (presupposing that any meaning can be assigned to that term) structure that the former subject-to-be will have to ‘find’ ‘its’ place, i.e. ‘become’ the sexual subject (boy or girl) which it already is in advance.”[6] Althusser’s words conjure another significant, complex function that the family unit—not only the nuclear family, but the entire constellation of persons who make up a familial set—performs as an apparatus of ideology: the familial household is the fundamental place of gendering children.


The iterative processes of gendering, defined as an individual’s identity construction floating freely from the biological category of sex, is what Judith Butler describes as “the cultural meaning that the sexed body assumes.”[7] This necessarily complicates the operation of gendering that Althusser implies, for while Althusser seems to accurately critique the “familial ideological configuration,” his claim about the “always-already” subject being formed into a gender identity tied to a biological birth sex “which it already is in advance” reads rather achronistically today.[8] Butler and her generation of gender theorists cracked open such previous understandings of gender and gendering to expose pathways of identity-making that are more fluid than conventionally imagined. While the premise of the family as an ideological state apparatus still very much holds true, the localized means by which ideology is transmitted from legislative and juridical power structures to parents to children must be read with a nuanced awareness of gendering and its multivalent understanding of identity formation; gendering is highly specific, and the “cultural meaning” of an individual’s gender is always context-dependent. In other words, gender is a discovered home “place” amidst an infinitude of cultural spaces. And it is the more literal family home, the place of domesticity, that is first tasked with instilling an individual’s basic conceptualization of gender (not solely, but first), making the construct of “home” a nexus of ideology, self-identity and cultural belonging.


For a final point of theoretical comparison, Pierre Bourdieu’s writings on the action of the state apparatus—most importantly in the way that ruling bodies seek to maintain consistency in relational and institutional language in order to preserve hegemonies—help to formulate a biopolitical theory of power’s relationship to gender and gendering.[9] Bourdieu, a sociologist who incorporated the study of linguistics into his philosophies of power, has written extensively on the social and political control projected through the linguistic stabilization of gender binaries and family structure in the social order. In his essay “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field,” Bourdieu articulates his own theory of the family as a work of institutional control. Bourdieu writes that the family, as a seemingly “natural” social category, is very much a product of habitus, the categorical structures of social life acquired through experience.[10] Furthermore, Bourdieu contends that the family is a social categorization that, in conjunction with the male-female gender binary, is fundamental to the stability of the social order, providing the underlying model for all social institutions.[11] The structure and appearance of the family appears self-evident, but that self-evident quality is in fact an orthodoxy that, when codified in the language of the state (or the modern state’s predecessor, the Church) contributes to the unification of culture and the privileging of a dominant, “legitimate” cultural hegemony.[12] Bourdieu’s theory of cultural unification relies on linguistic analogies, arguing that as dominant forms rise within a culture, others fall into “particularity”: a national tongue makes a patois or marginal dialect of competing linguistic forms.[13] This same theory can be applied to other types of cultural formations; in this case, the nuclear family as an organizing unit of the population, one which is premised on an assumption of stable male-female heterosexual gendering and sexuality. While state-sanctioned national culture does unite populations, Bourdieu insists that the manufacture of homogenizing norms “fosters both the monopolization of the universal by the few and the dispossession of all others, who are, in a way, mutilated in their humanity.”[14] Therefore, what Bourdieu brings to this discussion of place, home and gender is a specific way of thinking about the centrality of maintaining and “naturalizing” prescriptive, simplistic binary gender constructions in the cultural coding project of hegemonic power.


Bourdieu calls our attention to the notion that non-conformity within this gender structure provides grounds for intervention and disenfranchisement. With regards to the traditional Western social order, he is correct. As various state postures on gender and the arrangement of the household continue to liberalize, communities of people whose fundamental humanity was once alienated are more fully reconciled with a statist vision of national life. Nonetheless, history and literature remember those who were victims of binary thinking and the past’s damaging ideologies of the gendered home. In the particular context of modern Ireland, the author John McGahern stands as a formidable and unflinching critic of the social oppression that defined the politics of the country’s midcentury period. My critique in the following pages explores the specific ways that McGahern engaged with and resisted the constitutional codification of Irish gender in public life and, most crucially, within the walls of the Irish home. As a response to the Fianna Fáil administration’s interventionist stance on the gendering of all aspects of Irish life, McGahern—who lived through the Fianna Fáil years as a young child—became one of the most sophisticated literary voices decrying the illusion and failure of midcentury Ireland’s strict cultural morality. This essay positions his 1965 novel The Dark as an exemplar of the personal disenfranchisement suffered by Irish people as a consequence of the explicit, highly normative ideologies of gender that the Irish Free State imprinted directly into the Irish family.

The familial arrangements acknowledged by the modern liberal state to describe the sanctioned family unit in Western societies have changed radically since the second half of the twentieth century, and most apparently in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Non-traditional families, initially including mixed-race marriages and, most recently, partnerships and marriages across an inclusive gender spectrum, have gradually gained substantial rights and protections under the law. Strikingly, Ireland joined this sweeping culture-war victory with the passing of the Thirty-Fourth Amendment to the Irish Constitution by way of public referendum in May of 2015—the first Western nation to do so by public referendum, rather than by a judicial order. More than a few commentators took notice of the surprising wave of public support for same-sex marriage in one of the West’s most ardently Catholic liberal democracies. It felt like a sea change in Irish civic consciousness had finally arrived, and the departure from the Church’s position was a declared point of emphasis for many Irish (and American) editorialists.

As a result of the referendum, the Irish state is now compelled to present a new stance on the configuration of the Irish family and the gendering of Irish identities. Beginning in 2015, the government of the Republic of Ireland has officially adopted a more inclusive view of Irish gender and, in legitimating Irish queerness, has necessarily added to the recognized categories of what it means to be culturally Irish. This inclusive expansion of Irishness will echo in the citizenry that it may now engender by way of this institutional reformation; a more fully enfranchised spectrum of Irish familyhood and home is now something different, something more broadly defined, than it once was. But this milestone moment is also a reminder of the struggles of those victimized by the power of hegemonic categorization, and the institutional failures that Irish people have been forced to endure.


The 2015 Irish marriage referendum is all the more striking because it stands in contrast to the explicit and rigid ways that the Irish government imposed narrow conceptions of gender roles on the population in previous generations. The state’s power of prescriptive gendering was most prominently established in the Irish Constitution of 1937 (Bunreacht na hÉireann), penned in near entirety by Éamon de Valera. The 1937 Constitution replaced the 1922 Constitution, which was written after the establishment of new Irish legislature following the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The 1937 constitution is widely viewed as a reactionary piece of legislation which projected the overt social agenda of the de Valera administration, and which paved the way for Ireland’s mid-twentieth century withdrawal from Western Europe’s main theatres of power while asserting Irish exceptionalism rooted in Catholic morality. The 1922 Constitution had intentionally avoided a sectarian bias in its language, as noted by J.J. Lee, a celebrated critic of de Valera’s oratory and rhetorical tactics.[15] By way of contrast, de Valera’s 1937 Constitution was a calculated “chipping away” of the 1922 document that described a privileged relationship between the State and the Catholic Church, and outlined in broad, conflationary terms Irish people’s loyalty to Nation and State and foregrounded an “ideal-type image of the Irish family as a loving haven of selfless accord.”[16]


The 1937 Constitution of the Irish Free State in no uncertain terms assumes and privileges the heterosexual two-parent household as the ideological extension of the paternal state. Article 41 of that constitution reads:


41.1.1. The State recognises the Family as the natural primary and fundamental unit group of Society, and as a moral institution possessing inalienable and imprescriptible rights…

41.2.1. In particular, the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.

41.2.2. The State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.[17]


The emphases placed on the role and function of the mother, and the preservation of traditional (unnamed, but implicitly reproductive and domestic) “duties in the home” (41.2.2) are crucial features of the above passage. Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, in her notable book Ireland’s Others (2001), contemplates whether de Valera positioned Irish mothers in this way as a response to his own “dubious legitimacy and lack of a two-parent household.”[18] This type of personal overcompensation was well within the scope of de Valera’s paternal vision for Ireland. But any personal longing for the affirmation of the two-parent household on de Valera’s part is overshadowed, in this case, by the concrete way that the 1937 Constitution names the function and spatial fixity of place for Irish mothers who were confined within the home and bereft of personal economic agency, lest the messy work of capitalism interfere with the biopolitical needs of the state. Through its sanctimonious language regarding the necessity of the woman in the home, the Free State government demonstrates its reliance on the traditional family structure for cultural reproduction, and therefore political stability. Lippard comments on the ways that domestic space, coded as the place of femininity, has long borne a bevy of idealizing clichés: “‘home sweet home,’ ‘a house is not a home’ […] and of course, a more telling pair—‘a woman’s place is in the home,’ and ‘a man’s home is his castle.’”[19] These normative idealizations, echoed in de Valera’s writing, serve to anaesthetize women (and men) to the prescriptive confinements of sexist ideology. But the home is not perceived in the same way from the inside as from without, as Lippard attests, noting that “gender affects our experience of the four walls we return to as well as our experience of the ‘outside world,’ defined by mobility or lack thereof, as well as by boundaries—which originally meant places bound together rather than lines of separation.”[20] The confinement of women in Irish society had other particular political meanings as well. Clair Wills notes that the conservative shift of the 1937 Constitution also reflected a rejection of the “secular materialism” of Britain and the United States as a morality judgment that better positioned Ireland to make the case for neutrality during World War II.[21] It just so happened that the attempt to banish women from public life was considered the most convenient strategy for reducing the impulses of sexual temptation, in theory chastening the morals of Irish men.


The 1937 Constitution offers a rhetorical exaltation of the role of mothers in Irish society, but it should be critiqued for what it is: institutional sexism that occludes women from participation in economic life in favor of birthing and raising children through an overt gendering of domestic space and duty. The duty of childbirth for “the common good” (41.2.1) is imagined as so completely encompassing of a woman’s life that its demands bar her from individual agency or even a sense of self, outside of her role within the state’s process of ideological reproduction. And, in agreement with Bourdieu’s theory, the state treats this arrangement as “natural” (41.1.1), overlooking the role and influence of the state on the very cultural formations that it describes, and bestowing upon the heterosexual two-parent household the symbolic profit of normality.[22]


The constant in the 1937 Constitution’s description of Irish society and family life is the utter certainty with which de Valera attributes coded gender and socioeconomics onto Irish places both private and public. This was not the only time that de Valera would preach fixity and determinism in the arrangement of the Irish home. “On Language and the Irish Nation,” de Valera’s radio address to the nation on St. Patrick’s Day, 1943, is a text that further articulated the spatial quality of Irish gendering and place. Popularly referred to as “The Ireland That We Dreamed Of” for a memorable turn of phrase (one which notably grants de Valera a monopoly on the nation’s dreams), the speech is commonly critiqued for its simplistic, folksy depiction of virtuous rural society. Its opening lines follow:


The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit—a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.[23]


This idealization aestheticizes the constitutional description of mid-twentieth century Irish life. The joy and utter contentment that de Valera dreams of is positioned as growing out of an inviolable moral rectitude—a “right living” in accordance with the desires of God. The relationship of this idealized Irish society to capital, and capitalism, is minimized by de Valera’s de-emphasis on material wealth and insistence on the satisfaction of “frugal comfort,” a comfort induced by piety and cultural self-sufficiency. On one hand, this reads as a romantic glossing-over of Irish national life, but it is also an assurance of the totality and completeness of Ireland for its people. This is an idea not to be forgotten in the years immediately preceding the clash of industrial powers in World War II, and Ireland’s neutrality amid that chaos. And, as in the 1937 Constitution, de Valera’s rhetoric continues to fix the places of cultural production. The homestead, whose four walls delineate belonging for the family unit, is set in the countryside. The fields and villages are oddly conflated and yet divided in their functions: de Valera codes “industry,” understood as economic production, as exclusively the domain of men, but intertwined with that space are also performances of youth and play. The adjectives applied to the “sturdy children” and “athletic youth” lend them an aspect of livestock under de Valera’s gaze, and the presence of “laughing” adolescent maidens in the scene moves it closer to a roiling, if wholesome, rut. De Valera’s rhetorical strategy, therefore, creates parallel references to cultural production in both economic and biological modes. This is followed by the description of the homestead, where the fireside within is prescribed as the place of the elderly, seemingly a kind of separate gender whose distinguishing physical characteristic is their biological unsexing and whose cultural function is memory. Grown women, and mothers in particular, are given no place here beyond the home.


John McGahern’s second novel The Dark, published in 1965, is a text that fearlessly critiques de Valera’s vision of Ireland on the very terms discussed thus far in this essay: place, home, family structure, gendering and the damage wrought by power’s narrow definitions of humanity. A product of 1940s Ireland, McGahern writes back against the certainty and fixity of Irish gendering and the fanciful idealism of the Irish home uttered so forcefully in the language of the post-1937 Irish Free State. McGahern was born in Dublin in 1934 but was initially raised in rural Co. Leitrim; his mother died of cancer in 1944, after which McGahern and his six younger siblings were raised by his father, a police sergeant, in Cootehall, Roscommon. The Dark presents a raw portrayal of Irish adolescence and early adulthood in the nineteen-forties, an explicit account of the protagonist’s sullenly endured degradations at the hands of his father, an unemployed, alcoholic widower. Patrick Crotty categorizes The Dark as a “literature of protest” in his 2005 essay, which traces the plight of children across McGahern’s oeuvre using the term to describe the protagonist’s experience of oppressions both localized and systemic.[24] The conditions of the Mahoney family in the novel are symptomatic of what Lee termed the period of Irish “malaise,” when the Second World War raged on the continent and neutral Ireland was left to wallow in a stalled domestic economy and widespread rural poverty.[25] Many critics, including Joe Cleary, point out that Lee’s description of the period risks falling into a caricature of Ireland’s “sulkily puritanical retreat from the world” rather than a problematic modernization effort. Cleary nevertheless acknowledges that the Free State’s official policy during this time was to “build up domestic industry behind a protective wall of tariff barriers designed to encourage import-substitution, to stimulate indigenous economic self-sufficiency, and to reduce an inherited dependence on British markets […] But by the end of the 1940s, economic stagnation, continued dependence on Britain, and very high levels of emigration all seemed to confirm the ignominious failure of the particular modernization project.”[26] This failure was made all the more starkly visible by the magnitude of its stakes and its rhetorical linkage, in de Valera’s utterances, to an ideal of Irish moral virtue and happiness.


The Dark is a book that tells the story of a family fated to endure alienation due to its failure to cohere with the State’s construction of home. The two-parent gender binary, described by Bourdieu as so foundational to the cultural vocabulary of social configuration, is notably absent in the novel’s shattered, desperate single-parent household. The Dark is filled with episodes of emotional, physical and sexual abuses by the family’s widower father as Young Mahoney, McGahern’s semi-autobiographical protagonist, staggers from a broken home toward an arrested adulthood. Being dispossessed of a mother, and therefore alienated from the core of Irish domestic space, the family struggles to comply with an institutional conformity that it cannot meet. James Cahalan, who has written an analysis of representations of men and women in modern Irish fiction, says of The Dark that the protagonist is heaped with the double burdens of “not only his abusive father, but also the loss of his mother […] This young boy is obsessed enough with the loss of his mother to make his earliest conscious ambition the priesthood, so he can say a Mass for her.”[27] The boy’s obsessive internalization of that loss, however, is far from the only crisis caused by his mother’s absence.


Affects of societal malady and personal isolation pervade McGahern’s writing in The Dark, staunchly refuting the mythos of rural Ireland as a place secure in its cultural virtue and its ascendant historical narrative of progress. Many of the protagonist’s experiences in The Dark, such as growing up in a motherless household, pursuing and ultimately abandoning a vocation to the priesthood, and entering the university system were drawn directly from McGahern’s own life. It is a novel filled with ideas about what modern Ireland is supposed to be, what the state and Church are supposed to provide for the nation, and the paralysis of modern progress in the face of inescapable traumas. Kim McMullen refers to the literature of Ireland’s mid-century decades as reflective of a time fraught with “residual social pathologies, borne by economic, cultural, and social isolation, emotional austerity, and sexual repression that attended Ireland’s emergence as an independent nation.”[28] These barely-repressed neuroses, laid bare in McGahern’s unflinching prose, were the result of systemic tragedies in Irish life, so many of them the result of the lethal blend of economic disenfranchisement and borderline-fascistic state ideology that was mistakenly reductive in its characterization of Irish identity.


McGahern’s depiction of the disrupted, broken Irish home provides a rich opportunity to interrogate the role of the state in the marginalization of nontraditional family structures and processes of gendering. The 1937 Constitution of the Irish Free State delineated the structure and purpose of the Irish home through the “duties” which the nuclear family performs in service of the state. As pointed out earlier, those duties are organized around the role of the mother within the home. The family depicted in The Dark is notably absent of a mother, mirroring McGahern’s own motherless adolescence. This visible lack leads to the despair, confusion and failure of the Mahoney household. The failures of the elder Mahoney are not necessarily due to his incompetence in the absence of a maternal counterpart, but rather because his awareness and internalization of the hegemonic mother-father household binary of state ideology marginalizes his single-parent status to the point of neurotic self-destruction. Furthermore, McGahern consciously uses the physical spaces of the home to illustrate its destabilized gender arrangement: the father inflicts abuse through a spatial placing of his son that unconsciously attempts to re-gender the boy in accordance with heterosexual two-parent norms and restore femininity to the domestic space. McGahern directly problematizes the rigid gender binary imposed by the Irish Free State and statist claims of a healthy Irish childhood under the influence of Fianna Fáil’s cultural nationalism by unveiling the devastating consequences of normative gendering in the Irish home. The dysfunctional, motherless household of The Dark suffers precisely because McGahern’s characters have no relief from the prescriptive ideology of power.


The opening of The Dark immediately establishes the violence occurring within the narrator’s childhood home. The first four chapters of the novel are accounts of explosive episodes between Young Mahoney and his father. By dominating the home through terror, spite and unpredictable aggression, Mahoney inflicts tremendous psychic damage upon his children. From the perspective of the narrator, the reader can see that the structure of the family and the glaring maternal absence forces a confusion of roles and a re-gendering of the household. Both father and child’s symbolic understanding that the family is broken is informed by their paradigmatic senses of home and the centrality of the role of the mother within the Irish home.[29] McGahern’s narrative technique embeds potentially contested sites of meaning within the assumed cultural and personal realities of the novel, and his narrator relates events for the reader that are narrated without moral judgment or retrospective critique despite their frequently nightmarish qualities. Rather than providing reflection or perspective for his readers, McGahern transcribes the consciousness of the young narrator whose experiences exist in a recollected present, without any temporal delay that would contextualize the abusive events of childhood in regard to the formation of an adult psyche.[30] This lack of divide between present and past is due to the narrator’s traumatization, which forces him to emotionally dwell within the traumatic past without relief. The home, as the site of Young Mahoney’s traumas, amplifies his suffering, as the intimacy of the home place adds a particular intensity to memories formed there.[31] In response, the brutally blunt depictions of a dysfunctional home life in The Dark are flatly normalized, yet highly revealing of the complex, unconventional gender roles in the household.


In the novel’s opening scene, Mahoney reprimands the boy for swearing with intimidation and physical abuse, but the act of punishment is carried out through a fluid re-gendering of both the characters and the spaces of the house. As Mahoney marches the boy upstairs for a belting, he redirects the boy’s course:


“No, not in there,” when [the boy] turned for the room where they both slept together. “Into the girls’ room.”[32]


The mention that father and son sleep together in a shared room—in a shared bed, we come to find out—suggests on the surface the practical reality of an impoverished household with many people under one roof. But by phrasing it so, indicating that the two “sleep together,” McGahern immediately places the boy into the multiple positions of son and partner/spouse in relation to Mahoney. The disciplinary action takes place in the “girls’ room,” a space gendered differently from the marital bedroom, where Mahoney can place the boy for disciplinary subjugation. The room Mahoney shares with the boy is simultaneously the masculine and adult, marital space; the bedroom of the boy’s sisters is feminine and juvenile. By moving the boy into the girls’ room, Mahoney emphasizes the relative inequality of power between parent and child and genders that relationship even further by placing Young Mahoney in the role of a girl rather than a boy. To complicate things even further, this spatial gendering must simultaneously break from the spousal relationship suggested by their shared bedroom. McGahern imbues the description of the belt-whipping that follows with frightening sexual rage, as Mahoney orders the boy to strip naked with psychopathic insistence:


“Off with your jersey. Quick. We can’t stand here all day,” a white froth showed on his lips…[Mahoney] didn’t lift a hand, as if the stripping compelled by his will alone gave him pleasure…“Into that chair with you. On your mouth and nose. I’ll give your arse something it won’t forget in a hurry.”[33]


This compulsory and humiliating performance needs to be “witnessed” by the sisters in order to establish the threat of Mahoney’s dominant violence, but I also read it as a means of illustrating his control over the gender and sexual roles of the family members within the home. The punishment is intentionally presented by McGahern as a sexually confusing episode, its disciplinary violence couched in the language and mannerisms of rape. The reader understands that the boy is being set up for a spanking, but the choice of terms and the physical positioning of the boy—in the “girls’ room,” stripped naked, face planted into the chair to fully expose him from behind—is unquestionably charged with a menacing sexuality that raise the stakes of the episode. The father’s objectifying gaze is also a demonstration of the active gendering taking place in this scene as he looms over the boy, deriving “pleasure” from the spectacle of the forced stripping. Every line of the text in this passage reads as a terrifying double entendre, meant to convey the children’s genuine terror in the face of their father’s rage, but also to unnerve the reader through the boy’s implicit understanding that this is no mere punishment, but the pantomime of a sexual assault fantasy, a lashing out of the father’s impotent and misguided masculinity.


The threat of consummation is ultimately revealed to be a bluff, as Mahoney slaps the arm of the leather chair loudly with his belt but leaves the boy untouched. Yet, the final image of Mahoney from the episode is his warning to the children of the beating that will follow their next transgression, before turning “to the naked boy before he left the room, his face still red and heated, the leather hanging dead in his hand.”[34] The phallic quality of the hanging leather belt, Mahoney’s flushed face and his disdainful glare confirm the aggressive violation that has occurred. Young Mahoney’s sister, Mona, remains perplexed as to the true nature of the encounter, asking, “Did he hit you at all?”[35] The boy cannot face this query: “The words opened such a floodgate that he had to hurry out of the room with the last of his clothes in his hands.”[36]


Mona’s question forces a realization on the part of Young Mahoney, a reckoning with the violence he has just suffered. The attempt to face that trauma produces an overwhelmed response, but also a shifting of the narrative pronoun from the first- to third-person (I/my to he/his). Stanley van der Ziel has suggested that McGahern created this formal shift to allow “an insecure consciousness continuously to regard the self from all possible directions,” a move that mirrors the destabilized personal identities and gender roles within the household.[37] McGahern repeats this oscillation of narrative perspective throughout the novel, a device that indicates the narrator’s dissociation from his own lived reality as a response to repeated traumas. Van der Ziel’s 2016 tome, John McGahern and the Imagination of Tradition, offers further critical articulation on McGahern’s narrative style; van der Ziel writes that McGahern’s manipulation of realist convention relies upon an artful awareness of narrative technique in the tradition of Chekov’s “suggestion of reality,” or Joyce’s “cracked looking-glass.”[38] The particular examples of narrative shifts in The Dark are instances where McGahern calls direct attention to the potency of literary technique to highlight the difference between the characters’ supposed reality and the author’s transformative representation of that reality.[39] Furthermore, the first- to third-person narrative shift that occurs when Mona offers her sympathetic question to Young Mahoney suddenly denies the reader the continuation of Young Mahoney’s interior monologue. This accompanies a rupture of the loaded, subjective recollection of the abusive episode that has slowly, horrifically built over the novel’s preceding pages; the reader is now cut off from the narrator’s knowledge of and perspective on the encounter as Young Mahoney flees the room. Perhaps more importantly, McGahern’s narrative break subtly signals a non-linear approach to storytelling, disrupting The Dark’s bildungsroman-style narrative progression and foreshadowing the repetitive, systemic failures of growth, maturity and economic progress that occur throughout the entirety of the novel.


In the third chapter of The Dark, scenes of sexual abuse escalate from mere implication to open explication. The chapter describes an incident between Mahoney and his son that, again, positions the two characters in multiple simultaneous genders. The events take place, again, in the “marital” space of the novel: the shared bed. The sexual, rather than practical aspects of this sleeping arrangement are established in the opening line of the chapter: “The worst was to have to sleep with him on the nights he wanted love.”[40] Young Mahoney projects an affect of dread of his father’s presence, fearing both the actions that take place at night and the consequences of resistance. The pattern of the elder Mahoney’s sexual abuse moves the boy through a progression of gendered positionings, the product of Mahoney’s redirecting their conversations so as to rationalize or ignore the more awful truths of their reality.


Mahoney’s initial address clearly mimics a form of benign bedside chatter. After ensuring that the boy is awake—Mahoney lights a match to rouse the boy, who has only been pretending to sleep—the father engages his son in the terms of a long-married couple:


“We haven’t had a word for ages together. People need an outing now and again. You’d like a day out, wouldn’t you? We could go to town together. We could have tea in the Royal Hotel. It’d be a change. It’d take us out of ourselves.”[41]


Mahoney is probing for soft spots in his son’s resolute facade, acknowledging the tense nature of their relationship but bribing him for affection with the promise of what sounds like a date. The last two sentences of the passage, indicating the need for “change” and the chance to get “out of ourselves” again reflects the mutable nature of their relative identities. Particularly, the need for the characters to each get out of themselves suggests Mahoney’s self-awareness that his presentation of self within the home is a construction, but that it is also bound to the ideological coding of the home place. The language of the passage implies the possibility for the formation of different selves in a public space, and holds out hope for some happier version of themselves to emerge through a change in setting. Furthermore, Mahoney’s mention of a need for an “outing” speaks to the outward suppression of their tumultuous gendering and the need to reclaim and publicly perform the self. Read this way, Mahoney’s attempt at gentleness belies the damage wrought through the repression of the uncertainties of his own gender identity. He is a monster, but the fault for his condition does not solely lie with him.


As the boy listens to this soothsaying in silent rage, he rejects the entire attempt at peacemaking rhetoric out of hand. In an internal monologue, he remains focused on the betrayals of abuse that have been repeatedly committed against him:


All this talk and struggle to get to terms or understanding that’d last for no more than the sleep of this night. It was always changed by the morning: shame and embarrassment and loathing, the dirty rags of intimacy.[42]


Young Mahoney reacts to his father’s advance with a self-reminder that those words are but a gentle seduction, a moral hypocrisy uttered to mask the coming atrocities. The temporary nature of his father’s gentleness is recognized as a cruel rhetorical strategy, the “struggle” to define their relationship and their own selves an intractable, interminable process of failed meaning-making. The boy understands his helpless position as his father’s sex object. When Mahoney eases himself into bed, a physical encounter is initiated with the same gradual tone, the father encroaching inexorably upon his son, while rhetorically alternating the boy’s positioning between the roles of sex partner and child: “‘And you do love your father?’ ‘I do.’ ‘You’ll give your father a kiss so?’”[43] Mahoney manipulates the boy to affirm feelings of paternal love in order to advance his fulfillment of sexual lust. Even as the molestation plays out through caresses along the boy’s back, thighs and belly, with Mahoney reaching orgasm, the paternal language continues as he rhythmically murmurs: “Your father loves you.”[44] As this happens, the boy is frozen with disgust. Reflexively, he reminds himself that “it was better not to think or care, and the hands—the rhythmic words—were a kind of pleasure if thought and loathing could be shut out.”[45] While the notion may be shocking to the reader, McGahern acknowledges a tension between loathing and pleasure that exists in these encounters, a reciprocation of the father’s weakness that is utter taboo. The Dark deals in such taboos; the boy is a victim, but he is not fully innocent.


Once the encounter ends, Mahoney and son are left to fend off the bothersome fleas that cohabit the bed. Hurriedly moving on from the recognition of the trauma he has just suffered, Young Mahoney fixes his attention on his father’s hunt for the fleas, each leaving a red speck of blood as it is crushed between Mahoney’s thumbnails. “Your blood and mine,” Mahoney says to the boy. “Those bastards feeding all the night on our blood…Just think of it—those bastards feeding all the night on your blood and mine.”[46] Mahoney’s repetition of the phrases “feeding all the night” and “your blood and mine” eerily echoes his rhythmic speech during the preceding sexual transgressions. But Mahoney also takes delight in snuffing out the life of each flea, vengefully returning the drops of his blood and his son’s stolen blood back to the filthy bed sheets that they share. Each red speck of their blood, mixed together in the bodies of the biting pests, stains the sheets, marking again and again the wretchedness of their shared space.


After crushing the fleas, Mahoney urges the boy to “try and get some sleep like a good man.”[47] This last rhetorical move by Mahoney finally repositions the narrator as an emerging peer of his own father, a fellow man—but one whose gendering and knowledge of adult masculinity has been socialized through Mahoney. As Young Mahoney matures over the course of the novel, the dysfunctional gendering that he has suffered at the hands of his father appears as a manifestation of his memory of abuse, his traumatized uncertainness of self, and his deep distrust of other men. This is due not only to the distorted relationship between Young Mahoney and his father but, as Siobhán Holland comments, by Young Mahoney’s own persistent awareness that his identity will be subsumed by the inescapable patriarchal social matrix that formed him.[48] It should be added that his father is also a victim of that same patriarchal system of meaning-making. The ideological base of mid-century Ireland was so keyed to produce culturally conservative gendering that its resultant superstructure had no way to make coherent sense of non-traditional households. McGahern expresses this by speaking to his own experience, but this same theory could be applied to any Irish family that broke from the two-parent heteronormative binary.


Ireland was not so much made up of twenty-six or thirty-two counties, McGahern famously remarked in a 1990 Irish Times interview with Fintan O’Toole, but rather thousands of little “independent republics” called families.[49] This quotation from the author suggests, on its face, a degree of autonomy and sacrosanct isolation afforded to the Irish family from the culture wars of the modern nation. But at the same time, McGahern also gestures towards the central, privileged, and deeply interlaced political role of the family within the wider national framework of Irish society. Critical theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and Louis Althusser, whose ideas I discussed in the opening to this essay, have written at length on the notion of family and home as a political apparatus within the modern nation-state, but the realization and reckoning of critical theory in the form of lived experience requires texts like The Dark to fully communicate the human dimension and the outcomes of ideology. The above episodes from The Dark have shown how patriarchal ideology, and prescriptive expectations of gender roles, can permeate and distort the ideological apparatus of the Irish family and the Irish home, particularly, as I have demonstrated, as the formative place of gender and cultural identity. The violence of the gendering that unfolds between Young Mahoney and his father exemplifies the potential fallacy of the Irish home as an essentially “moral” institution, in the words of the 1937 Constitution. It is possible to see McGahern’s depiction of this family as suffering from lack of a mother to stabilize the roles of the household, and it is certainly not the intent of this paper to discredit the importance of the mother within the home and family. I am also not suggesting that all two-parent households would be immune to the sort of ills that plague the family of The Dark, nor that all single-parent households suffer such a fate. Rather, it is my contention that McGahern’s novel provides an example of a painful reality that muddies the idealized image of the Irish home, an image that the state sought to use as the basis of the national moral character. The pervading message of the novel is one of misguided institutional patriarchy trickling down from the de Valera administration being performed by imperfect individuals. The Dark demonstrates the disoriented, self-immolating response of Irish masculinity when faced with marginalized, “othered” status within the ideological and moral framework of the nation-state.


The transmission of marginalization from one generation to the next, in the multiple ways it occurs in The Dark, is the product of what Stanley van der Ziel calls the book’s epiphanic moment: “that life can be a linking of repetitive failures.”[50] It is, then, Young Mahoney’s own final and repetitive failure when, at the novel’s end, he meekly submits to his now-aged father, returning home to him after withdrawing first from a vocation, then from the university, now with the intent to work for the Electric Supply Board. The early nightmares of the book are dredged up again, but defanged by Mahoney’s age; he has become a comfort to his son, a familiar and steady presence: “I wouldn’t have been brought up any other way or by any other father,” Young Mahoney tells him, and in that acquiescence to the patriarchy he once sought to escape, the reader knows that the young man’s defeat is total. Writing on McGahern’s relationship to high modernist styles in the sixth chapter of John McGahern and the Imagination of Tradition, van der Ziel argues that McGahern’s complex situatedness between modernist and realist form enables the author to simultaneously abandon “realism’s faith in the ideal of linear narrative” and reject the complete literary “circularity” of Joyce and Proust.[51] Van der Ziel’s description also seems an apt metaphor for the processes of meaning-making and identity formation that McGahern undertakes in The Dark. Young Mahoney’s narrative development is certainly not linear, as the reader never sees him find a sense of self that exists apart from his father, nor achieve a fully adult sense of place and belonging in Irish society. Yet, while the novel’s final scene is one of reconciliation, it is devoid of any affect of completion, satisfaction, or narrative wholeness: Young Mahoney’s reunion with his father affects only sorrow and disgust. Thwarted by the failed patriarchy of the little “independent republic” of his own family, Young Mahoney stands as a startling rejoinder to romantic simplifications of midcentury Irish identity formation, cultural values and historical narrativity.


[1] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 6.

[2] Tim Cresswell, Place: a short introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 15.

[3] Lucy R. Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: New Press, 1997), 30.

[4] Ibid., 25.

[5] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Essays on Ideology (London: Verso, 1984), 17.

[6] Ibid., 50.

[7] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 9.

[8] Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” 50.

[9] Pierre Bourdieu, Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[10] Bourdieu, Practical Reason, 67.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 46.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 46-7. In addition to Bourdieu, Antonio Gramsci has also problematized the notion that any government actually could be ethically representative of a “morally unitary social organism,” although Gramsci is speaking specifically in terms of class divisions; such an occurrence would require, in Gramsci’s words, that “all mankind will be bourgeoisie.” From Antonio Gramsci, “State and Civil Society,” in Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 258-259

[15] J.J. Lee, Ireland 1912-1985: Politics and Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 77.

[16] Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, 207.

[17] Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland), Articles 41.1.1 through 41.2.2.

[18] Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Ireland’s Others: Ethnicity and Gender in Irish Literature and Popular Culture (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 215.

[19] Lippard, 27-28.

[20] Ibid., 28.

[21] Clair Wills, That Neutral Island: A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2007), 24-25.

[22] Bourdieu, Practical Reason, 69.

[23] Éamon de Valera, “On Language and the Irish Nation,” Speech, Raidió Éireann, 17 March 1943.

[24] Patrick Crotty, “All Toppers: Children in the Fiction of John McGahern,” Irish University Review 35, no. 1 (2005): 42.

[25] Lee, Ireland 1912-1985, 281. Lee actually titles his chapter on the entire period from 1945-1958 “Malaise,” in which he chronicles the political debates of the era and de Valera’s struggles to advance his political ideology against a tide of resistance.

[26] Joe Cleary, Outrageous Fortune: Capital and Culture in Ireland (Dublin: Field Day Publications, 2006), 204-205.

[27] James M. Cahalan, Double Vision: Women and Men in Modern and Contemporary Irish Fiction (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 121.

[28] Kim McMullen, “New Ireland/Hidden Ireland: Reading Recent Irish Fiction,” The Kenyon Review 26, no. 2 (2004): 127-128.

[29] Crotty, “‘All Toppers,’” 43.

[30] Stanley Van der Ziel, “‘All This Talk and Struggle’: John McGahern’s The Dark,” Irish University Review 35, no. 1 (2005): 104.

[31] Cresswell, Place, 24.

[32] John McGahern, The Dark (New York: Penguin, 1965), 8.

[33] Ibid., 8-9.

[34] McGahern, The Dark, 10.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Van der Ziel, “‘All This Talk and Struggle,’” 112.

[38] Stanley van der Ziel, John McGahern and the Imagination of Tradition (Cork: Cork University Press, 2016), 131-132.

[39] Ibid., 142.

[40] McGahern, The Dark, 17.

[41] Ibid., 19.

[42] Ibid., 19.

[43] Ibid., 20.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., 23.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Siobhán Holland, “Marvellous Fathers in McGahern’s Fiction,” The Yearbook of English Studies 35, no. 1 (2005): 187.

[49] Fintan O’Toole, “The Family as an Independent Republic,” Irish Times, October 13, 1990.

[50] Van der Ziel, “‘All This Talk and Struggle,’” 114.

[51] Van der Ziel, John McGahern and the Imagination of Tradition, 205-209.