The negative perspective on rurality from prose/poetry of John McGahern and Patrick Kavanagh is selective, personalised and should be analysed accordingly?

A critical analysis by John O’Malley.


When one poses the question and reflects on contributions by individuals or groups which enlighten rural dwellers, there are many cultural norms that must be embraced. Is it the fiction from rural past which in reality may be the release of the facts in that format, or the repressive release ofunacceptable impulses or memories which were kept hidden from awareness’ (Freud’s theory)?

A critical look will be taken at the values in rurality that were enshrined at the time of the contributions of Patrick Kavanagh and the majority of John McGahern’s work. The question will be addressed based on an expansive evaluation of their contribution and reasons will be advanced why their work portrays a select negativity and educates accordingly.

Rural Ireland had a wealth of talent that delivered a poetic response to events in rurality during the time of Patrick Kavanagh and John McGahern.   At this time in Ireland rural values were clearly defined by the Catholic Church and the family.  For the minority that did not comply there was a severe penalty, being ostracized.  Divorce was taboo, and the few unlucky ones that were inflicted with disease incurred by excessive alcohol consumption, who frequented the public liquor bars were known as the ‘village bums’, unmarried mothers were publicly castigated (experience).   The author is mature enough to recall the local Catholic curate pulling the unfortunates from the liquor bar in the local village and using his ‘boot up the rear end’ to divert them to their homes over fifty years ago.  At this time the village caste was defined by the presence and contribution to the church.  During weekly mass all contributions were read aloud from the pulpit, the contributors that commenced with ‘three pounds’ and to those at the end – ‘and the following gave two and sixpence’.  Alas, at this time there would be no tolerance of people like Patrick Kavanagh and John McGahern, that did not adhere to these core rural values.

The writings of Patrick Kavanagh and John McGahern are of relevance as they (like many others) have captured a period in time that reflected on the naivety and ignorance that was abound in both urban and rural Ireland, however this was a small part of the poverty of that era.  Their writings were depressive, ‘John McGahern’s depiction of love and despair in repressive rural Ireland’ (Clarity, J.F., 2006) and his initial acclaimed ‘fictional writings of abuse and pain were in effect autobiographical’ (Blaisdell, B., 2006), based on his own (perceived?) abusive childhood (corporal punishment was legal at that time?).

Patrick Kavanagh, unlike many successful writers, chose the field (fulltime) not for monetary gain, but because of ‘his love for poetry’.  He had many reasons to bear a grudge against the ‘church’ and politics most notably the actions of the local curate in banishing his grandmother who was a teacher in the local primary school.  This act was carried out because she was the bearer of a child, an illegitimate son, Patrick’s father.  In the political world his wife was a niece of Kevin Barry, who was executed during the war of independence.

But was he really a rural man at heart?  ‘The trouble with me is that many of the most exciting periods of my life have been spent far from Inniskeen: in London, Paris, Rome and New York. This place of my youth was hardly ever home to me, except for a few years between the late twenties and early thirties’ (‘The Writers’, 1966).

So, what do their writings say about being rural? When one is part of rurality it is sometimes easy to recount and dismiss the poverty from the past, without evaluation.  For example in rural Ireland there was the clearly visible poverty, poor clothing and accommodation, but there was also the enrichment/togetherness of the family and residents which in many cases derived from the much criticised Catholic Church.  Patrick Kavanagh, from the not too distant past gave us a (selective) insight to rural settings that are enshrined in his writings.  The two selected poems commence with a dreary beginnings – ‘My black hills never seen the sun rising’ and also includes ‘hungry hills’, ‘must be poor’; ‘O stony grey soil of Monaghan’ including ‘fed me on swinish food’, ‘bungled my bank of youth’ and ‘dead loves that were born for me’.  This was a mentally impoverished man that required literary company and ‘walked to Dublin to achieve that aim’ (‘The Writers’, 1996).  He also acknowledged that that home in Monaghan was not really home,   ‘For many a good-looking year I wrought hard at ‘versing’ but I would say that, as a poet, I was born in or about nineteen-fifty-five, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal.’

John McGahern’s writings are by in large based on his own experiences, ‘The Dark’, ‘Amongst Women’ and  ‘All Will Be Well’ are all about himself ‘the hard done by kid’.  Whereas in reality he would be classified in rural Ireland at that time as one born with ‘a silver spoon in his mouth’.  This was a time in Ireland when the caste system was at its foremost meaning that John McGahern is likely to have had little if any interaction with 99% of his classmates.  Policemen’s/teacher’s family were not allowed (by their parents) to interact with their classmates and were generally detached from the reality of the rural community.  In his writing he excludes all the good things in rurality and his focus is on, a minority, the usual conflicts of relationship ‘with father’.

Contrast this with a writer like William Wordsworth who could create such an uplifting experience for a reader about one tiny element of the countryside – daffodils, written in 1804. ‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (Wordsworth, W.).  This said, ‘No one should be discouraged from reading “All Will Be Well,” but any reader should plan to stop at the moment of the mother’s death — what comes after that is the usual story of a clever boy from the provinces getting on in school, becoming a teacher, learning to write, the scandals, the divorce, the return to Ireland after years away’ (McGonigle T. 2006).

Both writers have captured a part of Irish life. John McGahern the potential ‘spoiled child with a chip on his shoulder’ (John McGahern referred to his father as the ‘spoiled child’?),  so he writes about a selective personal family problem of which only one side is available (where is his father’s)?  Patrick Kavanagh’s brilliant writing is of immense benefit to the literary world, primarily because he was a poet ‘purely for the love of it’ and did not ‘use’ the family ‘tree’ to achieve his success. The contribution of their writings about being rural is of no real benefit, as it was selective and merely highlighted a very narrow minority view.  Just because their rural experience was not fulfilling does not mean that was the norm.

However, their work is included in the school syllabus and their world acclaimed writing technique has/will assist students that wish to follow the poetic avenue. One wonders, would they have received the same acclaim if they wrote about the positives of community education, initiated primarily by the ‘visiting houses’ in rural Ireland?

The writings of John McGahern and Patrick Kavanagh were assessed by evaluating their poems and memoirs.  Research was also carried out in relation to their early evolution.  Based on the available material, John McGahern used his family circumstances to promote himself, of course this was also achieved by several others, for example Hugh Leonard (‘Da’) and Frank McCourt (‘Angela’s Ashes’). Those that had the experience of rural life in that era will be aware that people who ‘used’ the family were treated with disdain in rural Ireland.  Patrick Kavanagh although lauded for his writings, which are of interest to the literary world, it must be considered that these were written by a man who publically acknowledged that rurality was not for him.

The research demonstrates that their work was selective and minor and does not give an insight to the broad togetherness that existed at their time in rural Ireland, which encompassed music, song and inclusiveness.  Their work is miniscule in relation to community education and would be a serious indictment on the vast majority of rural residents, past, present and future if their writing is accepted as the true face of rurality.

“…A critic should have an attitude, a bias. There is no writer more liable to deceive, and perhaps none more biased, than one who gives the impression of being impartial…”   (P. Kavanagh)?

‘The openness of the 21st century seems far more comfortable than all of the secrecy and hypocrisy of the 1950s’ (author and thousands of others)?


I would like to thank one of Ireland’s foremost adult educators Michael Kenny ( NUI Maynooth) for allowing me a poetic licence to address this task.


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