Themes in McGahern’s That They May Face The Rising Sun have never been more relevant

Novelist John McGahern admired those in rural Ireland who were “above all, rooted in their own lives”. And yet, those roots are being disturbed, through extreme weather, globalisation and population pressures

As a book reviewer, Hilary Mantel was captivated by John McGahern’s final novel That They May Face the Rising Sun, published in 2002: “This is a novel about a private and particular world, which the reader enters as an eavesdropper. The writing is so calm that it seems the text is listening to itself . . . its only tricks are tricks of the light.”

British novelist Russell Celyn Jones seemed less enthused: “John McGahern’s big-hearted, old-fashioned pastoral novel incorporates several deaths and entrances of men, women and livestock in rural Ireland and ends more or less where it begins, after one year’s farming cycle.”

More critics, however, shared the assessment of Seamus Deane, that the novel has “an amplitude and serenity rarely achieved in fiction”.

As always with McGahern, the calmness and cycles were deliberate and painstakingly crafted. He maintained, through the novel’s “outsider,” Kate Ruttledge, that “the past and the present are all the same in the mind. They are just pictures”. The novel seems a monument to McGahern’s expressed belief that “the best of life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the precious life is everything”.


But that life can also make for a mesmeric film, as evidenced by director Pat Collins’s skilful adaptation of the book that is released today. The book and film leave us with much to ponder about the significance, pace and status of rural Ireland and how it has changed in the last 50 years.

The characters represent many of the social and class factors relevant to 20th century rural Ireland; orphans who ended up as unpaid agricultural labourers, skilled handymen, prosperous patriarchs, community rituals around grief and celebration, the sustainability of farming and the interdependence between humans, nature and animals. All are closely observed: “a strange bird couldn’t cross the field without Jamesie knowing,” the same Jamesie who declares “I may not have travelled far but I know the whole world”.

The character Johnny Murphy represents dislocated emigrants. Reflecting on his portrayal of Murphy in the film, and Murphy’s uneasy visits home from London, actor Seán McGinley last week spoke of how emigration in some ways was treated “like a sin . . . for which you are never forgiven. You can be welcomed home, but you’re never really at home again”.

The book and film should not necessarily encourage nostalgia for a vanished era, but prompt contemporary interrogation of what constitutes rural living now, and the updated challenges and strains it faces along with the possibilities for the continuity of a decent, noble way of life.

McGahern, as a small-scale farmer in Leitrim, was aware of the stresses generated by changing methods and markets. In 2000, he wrote a short piece under the title “Rural Ireland’s Passing” and as he privately told a correspondent, he had “hit some nerve. I’ve never had so many letters or calls”.

It was written against a backdrop of protests and pickets outside meat factories due to declining prices for farmers’ produce. The piece noted the rhythms and contours of farm life and the defining event of the year: the sale of cattle: “they were the real old gold or the frail defences against the outside winds that blew”, but by then it had become an industry, and a living could not be made from a small farm.

The number of small farms in Ireland declined from 72,830 in 1991 to 52,300 in 2013. By 2015, 88 per cent of small farm households were in receipt of an off-farm income source. By 2019, just over three in ten people in Ireland (31.4 per cent) lived in a rural area. Remote or “peripheral” areas in the midlands and west have endured population loss while in parallel, other rural areas, especially those near cities, have experienced population expansion.

The death of rural Ireland has been declared frequently in recent years, a contention generating new political movements. Those advocating firm climate change action have become scapegoats for critics who believe they alone are “standing up for rural Ireland.”

Their claims seem to echo the questions Cork writer Daniel Corkery asked almost a century ago, prompted by his presence at a hurling match in Thurles with 30,000 in attendance. Who explored the lives of these people “in a natural way” he wondered? Who spoke for them? The Leitrim equivalents were to be valued, McGahern later suggested, because they were “above all, rooted in their own lives”.

And yet, roots are being disturbed, through extreme weather, globalisation and population pressures. Political capital can be made from this, but it will be of little constructive value if it does not recognise that we now have new cycles and definitions of sustainability and changes that are anything but imperceptible. These require an updated engagement with the themes, lights and shadows that McGahern excavated so masterfully.