In praise of older books: The Dark by John McGahern (1965)

McGahern should have been praised for exposing the criminal world under our noses

John McGahern: sacked when he should have been celebrated. Photograph: Frank Miller

John McGahern: sacked when he should have been celebrated. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

It was banned when it was published. All copies seized. Considered obscene. And the judgment was right. It is obscene. Obscene to read of the cruelty inflicted on the son of Mahoney.

A clever son, living on a small farm with his father and younger sisters. “His mother had... left him to this. Day of sunshine he’d picked wild strawberries for her on the railway she was dying.” His father is terrifying. “He took the leather strap he used for sharpening the razor from its nail on the side of the press.” His sister, Joan, is also a victim. “He swung her by the hair. Her feet left the ground... Strands of her black hair were tangled in his fingers.”

But “the worst was to have to sleep with him the nights he wanted love”. The temptation is to avert one’s eyes, look away from the pain; a pain that is repeated again and again in this excoriating book. The priest, Fr Gerald, comes to his bed to question him about sin. “He had broken down your life to the dirt... his body hot against yours, his arm about your shoulders.” And Joan’s employer, the draper, Ryan: “he put his hand right up my dress... Once he got me in the bathroom and it was horrible.”

The wonder is that the response to The Dark was to ban it, not to shout from the rooftops, “This is the Ireland we have created, the Ireland we inflict upon our children.” Instead of firing McGahern, a national-school teacher, why wasn’t he praised, thanked for shining a bright light on the criminal world under our noses?

A university scholarship awaits the boy. But the damage has been done. His spirit has been crushed the way his father crushes fleas, “cracked utterly out of life”. He will go to work for the ESB, “the University... the shambles of a dream”. We hope he will find happiness. We fear that he won’t.

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