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Book Review

Amongst Women

22nd March 2021

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Declan Henry

This book, by John McGahern, is a literary gem. Set in the 1960s, the story is about Michael Moran, his wife Rose, daughters Maggie, Shelia and Mona, and sons Luke and Michael. Moran was a former IRA soldier in the War of Independence. Now in his sixties, he is carving out a living as a farmer in County Leitrim. Being a manipulative, authoritarian bully comes easy to Moran’s brutish nature. As well as being critical and opinionated, he is also incredibly set in his ways. He ruled his entire family with an iron rod, although this failed with his eldest son, Luke, who went to England after a violent argument and never returned. His younger son did the same but returned a few years later. Although his wife and daughters stuck by him, they lived in perpetual fear of his moods, rendering them constantly eager to please him but rarely succeeding in their endeavours.

Every night, Moran recited the rosary with his wife and daughters without a hint of irony. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed are thou amongst women……. Someone once remarked that Moran got on better with women because they were less likely to challenge his authority than men, the best example of which were his sons who both stood up to him.

Amongst Women charters Moran’s family life over the course of fifteen years and shows how he controlled and shielded those closest to him from outside interferences in the local community. Indeed, Moran kept everybody in his locality at arm’s length. He did not like intrusion and although he had fought for Ireland’s independence in the war, his bitterness towards ‘New Ireland’ was always full of contempt because he felt he was never properly thanked for the part he played in bringing that about.

It was hard not to feel great sympathy for Moran’s wife and children – it’s a very emotive book – but at the same time it contains beautiful innocence and humour, which captures rural Ireland at the time. Moran’s overbearing personality is never far away and usually any happiness was spoilt the moment it veered towards any family member. Basically his life was full of fear, and since happiness eluded him, he made sure nobody else was going to taste happiness either. And yet despite his brutality, Moran’s wife and daughters loved him dearly. In the closing pages of the book which describe his funeral, we are given a glimpse of how his suppressive character has been passed onto his daughters who start to imitate his domineering personality in their criticism of other family members with mutterings of, ‘Arragh, if Daddy was alive, what would he think about that……. that’s not what Daddy would have wanted……. Daddy would be so mad about that.’ Sadly history sometimes repeats itself. Often those who are bullied become bullies themselves and victims perpetrate the same wrongs that have been done to them. It would appear that Moran left stains on the lives he touched and that his dysfunctional traits would continue to live long after his demise. He was a horrible man, which makes me wonder what happens to people like him to make them turn into sociopaths and be so out of touch with humanity.

©Declan Henry

As a writer, I try to incorporate both sides of humanity into my writing, having learned that life is far from grim and that there is enough kindness, compassion, love and humour to overcome life’s obstacles, regardless of how much misery, abuse, or injustice exists.
Written by Declan Henry

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