By Chase Murray, Sunny Chen and Jay Shadday
Uncovering a boy’s difficult journey from adolescence into adulthood.
Who: John McGahern
What: The Dark
Why: “Unholy” and “obscene”
Stories of tough times create a sense of sympathy and leave a lump in the throat; John McGahern knew exactly how to tap into that sense when writing a story. McGahern (1934-2006), one of the most famous 20th century Irish novelists and short-story writers, is well-known for his depictions of Irish people and culture. Heralded by some as “the greatest living Irish novelist” before his death in 2006, McGahern became famous for his detailed dissections of Irish life and his ability to translate human emotion into words (McKay). In addition to his writing, McGahern worked as a primary schoolteacher while taking evening courses at University College Dublin. His first novel, The Barracks, told the story of a terminally-ill woman who is in a toxic marriage. This book started the common theme of despair found in many of McGahern works, all of which aim to accurately represent Irish life.
His second novel, The Dark, stirred serious controversy. McGahern uses a “number of distinctive stylistic techniques in telling its story of an Irish boy’s struggle to free himself of his tyrannical father’s grip” while trying to reconcile with him and make crucial decisions about his own education and future (Devine). The Dark takes place over an extended period of time, which allows the reader to witness the boy grow and take on challenges in his life McGahern takes advantage of this extended time frame with his use of shifting narrative points and the pairing of characters and events, “add[ing] exceptional depth to the novel” (Devine). Divided into four main parts, almost like a timeline, the novel describes in detail the series of events that happen at each stage of the boy’s life. Although this plot may seem conventional, The Dark is complex and unique in its representation of rural Irish life.
The novel opens with a harsh picture of the father, Mahoney, punishing his son, the main protagonist. Although there is no bloodshed or even physical pain, McGahern conveys immense emotion and suspense in the scene, playing on the emotions of the readers in response to the thought of a boy being beaten. This intense scene sets a precedent for the rest of the novel, which contains emotional bouts that some may find traumatizing.
‘Don’t move and shut that shouting,’ and when he was reasonably still except for the shivering and weeping, the leather came for the third time exactly as before. He didn’t know anything or what he was doing or where the room was when the leather exploded on the black armrest where his ear was. (9-10)
This scene sets the stage as the boy struggles to free himself and his siblings from his father’s physical and emotional abuse. The second section is set in the town where the boy relocates after he stands up to his father. One of the main plot points of the novel is explained in this section, which concentrates on the boy’s decision on whether or not to become a priest. Although living with his cousin, Father Gerald, who is a priest, the boy eventually decides to return home. The third section focuses on the boy’s education and his struggle to succeed in his school examination. Much of this section is devoted to describing his school day routine and his studies for the exit exam. This section climaxes during a scene where he receives his results and finds out that he “walked away with first place” (McGahern). The fourth and final scene describes his university adventures in Galway, where he struggles to decide what to study, while still questioning whether or not to become a priest. He ultimately decides to leave university and take a civil service post. The last chapter goes back to deal with his relationship with his father and chronicles their last night together before the boy leaves for Dublin. During this night, they reconcile.
Throughout the novel, McGahern depicts scenes that were disturbing to its first Irish readers, including extreme intimidation, oppression, violence, and more importantly, the suggestion that the father is sexually abusing his son. At first, this relationship is unclear. However, as the story goes on, the nature of their relationship is revealed. In one chapter, for instance, the boy receives a scholarship, and the father reacts passive-aggressively, as he has done throughout the novel, telling the boy to “take it if you want and don’t take it if you don’t want. It’s your decision. I won’t have you blaming me for the rest of your life that the one chance you did get that I stood in your way. Do what you want to do” (McGahern). The father’s statements convey his mental unrest and how he can’t be happy for his own son. Although there is some sense of a resolution in this book—a bit of forgiveness is shown toward the end—the final result of the boy’s turmoil is that he develops into an unconfident adult.
In its time, this novel was one of the first to reach into the dark recesses of modern Ireland and to describe horrid and jaw-dropping scenes. Eamon Maher offers insight on how The Dark affected not only Ireland but writing worldwide and the publishing community as a whole. In a personal interview , when asked about the main reason of the censorship of the novel, Maher asserts that the book’s most controversial feature was undoubtedly the scene where McGahern writes about the father’s interaction with his child, describing the “rhythmic massaging of his stomach and genetalia, bringing both to orgasm.” Another scene that brought forth controversy was the main character’s conversation with his cousin, when his cousin got into bed with him in the middle of the night and proceeded “to ask him intimate questions about his problems with masturbation.” There were also indications in the novel that Father Gerald and Mahoney had been “grooming” the young man for further sexual abuse, with some scenes have them lying in bed together (Maher). The fact that some of the events that occurred in the novel were explicit combined with the time period’s general consensus that “any publication that was seen as a danger to public morality was banned,” The Dark was an obvious target for controversy (Maher).
Maher states that 1960’s Ireland would find it hard “to read about masturbation or sexual abuse.” When the novel was released, the Catholic Church held a very strong presence in Ireland and presided over much of the community and its activities. The Church did not want the rest of the world to see its reputation tarnished. Maher explains that during this time, “any publication that was seen as a danger to public morality was banned.” He notes that McGahern’s decision to publish this book during really “reveals his integrity as a writer,” staying true to the topics that were as grim as they were real. For McGahern, the stakes for publishing The Dark “couldn’t have been higher” (Maher). While he daringly “exposes the underbelly of hidden Ireland,” he suffered the consequences and was fired from his job as a primary school teacher at St John the Baptist’s National School in Clontarf, Dublin (Maher). Since the Catholic Church controlled the school system at that time, Maher states that there “was really no way he could have hoped to remain employed,” especially after writing a book as intense and controversial as The Dark. After losing his job, McGahern was “unable to write for some time” (Maher). Maher believes that this situation affected him immensely, and that he quit trying to publish works because “he felt sorry for his family members, who were tainted by their association” with him.
While The Dark was and still is widely acclaimed, its taboo depictions drew the attention of the Irish Censorship Board. On 5 May 1965, 260 copies of The Dark arrived in Dublin, intended for distribution throughout the city. However, these copies were immediately seized and sent to the Censorship of Publications Board for examination. Despite some high-profile writers and journalists “deeming The Dark to be ‘an advancement’, a ‘remarkable novel’, and ‘the best novel to come out of Ireland for many years,’” on May 10, The Irish Times published news that John McGahern’s sophomore novel had been censored in the Republic of Ireland (Nolan 263). There was much public outcry about this action, and in McGahern’s opinion, “there was a kind of didactic judgemental violence that [he] link[ed] with a censorship mentality” (McGahern 98). Others called the censorship “a clear indication of the narrow, puritanical, and boorish mentality which still prevails in bureaucratic circles’ at a time when ‘our small, childish little parochial traits should have given way to a more mature and enlightened way of thinking’” (Nolan 264).
After the Censorship Board banned McGahern’s, McGahern was dismissed from his job and the “Irish National Teachers’ Organization, of which McGahern was a member, refused to come to his defence” (McGahern 96). Yet there was another reason for his quick dismissal. In Paris that summer, McGahern met a “Finnish theatre director named Annikki Laaksi whom he married late in 1964” (Nolan 262). The fact that he married a foreign, protestant, divorcee contributed greatly to his negative public image and consequently encouraged his dismissal from his position as a primary school teacher at a Catholic school.
Throughout 1967 and 1968, there was still public outcry about the controversial banning of McGahern’s novel. To try to limit the duration of the prohibition, “Brian Lenihan resubmitted his censorship reform proposals,” and the act was passed in 1967 (Nolan 274). However, it was not until late 1970 that the case of The Dark was to be resolved, “with Mr P. Dollard, representative of Granada Publishing, announcing that the novel was ‘under review’ by the Censorship of Publications Board and was expected to be on sale in Ireland shortly” (Nolan 275).
With the primary advocate of the censoring of his book being the Catholic Church, “McGahern might have been excused for harbouring a grudge against the Church” (Maher). However, McGahern held no animosity. He repeatedly commended and appreciated his Catholic upbringing for providing him with “the sense of our origins beyond the bounds of sense, an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all women and men underneath the sun of heaven” (Maher). When asked later about “what he felt about the banning of his book in Ireland, ‘it was unfortunate,’ he said.
It has nothing to do with writing. It has to do with publishing. Any sort of written work is a private activity of the imagination. Being banned creates all sorts of confusion. A writer writes his work. He submits it through a publisher to the public. His only responsibility is to make the formal gesture of presenting a private world. The public are totally free to accept it or reject it. That’s not the writer’s business. (Qtd in Kennedy)
Perhaps one of the greatest outcomes from the McGahern controversy is described best through the words of John McGahern himself: “Truth came in versions and was seldom simple and never simple-minded…My belief is that literary censorship is nearly always foolish, since, invariably, it succeeds in attracting attention to what it seeks to suppress” (McGahern 96). Nonetheless, throughout all of McGahern’s novels and essays, his “mischievous sense of humour, the capacity to appreciate the attitudes that take root in certain communities” were evident in his language and his emotional portrayal of his characters (Maher). While some may suggest that the banning of The Dark was foolish and childish, Maher argues that we can still learn much McGahern’s outlook on life and art by reading from “the pen of one of Ireland’s greatest exponents of the novel and short story genres.”
To see more of McGahern’s thoughts about his own work, visit this coversation with John McGahern.
Devine, Paul. “Style and Structure in John McGahern’s The Dark.” Studies in Contemporary Fiction 21.1 (1979): 49-58. Web. 08 Sept. 2016.
Kennedy, Joe. “McGahern, the Banned Book and the Censored Interview.” Independent.ie. Independent News and Midea, 20 Feb. 2015. Web. 09 Nov. 2016.
Maher, Eamon. “Assessing a Literary Legacy: The Case of John McGahern.” Irish Studies Review 18.4 (2010): 453-57. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.
McGahern, John. “Censorship.” Love of the World: Essays (2009): 96-98. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.
McGahern, John. The Dark. New York: Knopf, 1966. Print.
McKay, Mary-Jay. “Where Literature Is Legend.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 10 Mar. 2010. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.
Nolan, Val. “‘If It Was Just Th’oul Book . . . ’: A History of the McGahern Banning Controversy.” Irish Studies Review 19.3 (2011): 261-79. Web. 08 Nov. 2016.
Keywords and Search Terms
John McGahern, The Dark, Book Censorship, Irish Censorship, Ireland, Literary Censorship