No 429 The Barracks by John McGahern #readingirelandmonth21

I read John McGahern’s Amongst Women back in 2019 and deemed it ‘a compelling masterpiece’. That The Barracks is a masterpiece as well, suggests that McGahern is one of the best writers that Ireland has ever produced.

When McGahern was 10 years old, his mother died from breast cancer and he and his siblings moved into the Garda barracks in Cootehall, Co Roscommon, to live with their father, Frank, who served as sergeant there. He used this piece of autobiography as the seed for The Barracks, an astonishingly accomplished debut, written while he was still working as a primary school teacher in Dublin.

The Barracks is a heartbreaking story of a middle-aged woman called Elizabeth Regan who discovers early in the narrative that she has cancer. In spite of her illness, she still has to look after her husband, a discontented Garda sergeant and the three children from his first marriage. 

Elizabeth was a nurse in London in the post-war years, and her time there has given her a moral consciousness and intelligence shared by few in her village. She has lived alone. In flashbacks we are told of her formative yet doomed love affair with a troubled doctor which has changed her outlook on life. On her return to Ireland she has met and married Regan, and it appears she loves him, but it is the love of a woman who knows that love alone is not enough.

It is this consciousness, this acute understanding of her situation which gives the novel its power. Elizabeth has chosen a life of routine and domesticity, perhaps as a rebound from her heady yet unpredictable life in London. She has embraced the daily chores and the small moments of comfort and pleasure she now gets from life, but as her illness progresses and Regan’s unhappiness with his job grows, she is beginning to question the choices she has made in life.

Her woman’s day had no need of change. They were full and too busy, wanting nothing but to be loved. There was the shrill alarm clock at eight in the barracks morning and the raking of the ashes over the living coals close to midnight: between these two instants, as between tides, came the retreating nights of renewal and the chores of the days on which her strength was spent again…and as no one noticed them they were never praised.

Illness as brought Elizabeth’s life into sharp relief. She finds herself thinking more and more about her lover in London, now long dead and the question he used to ask her over and over: “What the hell is all this living and dying about anyway?”. In a sense, the whole novel is an attempt to answer this existential dilemma.

What is remarkable about The Barracks is the ability of a writer as young as McGahern to so fully and authentically enter mind and body of a middle-aged woman. He examines her moments of joy and despair with a visceral force, exploring how her fear of death and disintegration slowly gives way to an acceptance of life and an acknowledgement of its beauty.

Her routines take on an elegiac grace and she finds meaning and worth in daily tasks.

It was a mere meal no longer with table and tablecloth and delf and food, it was that perfectly, but it was above and beyond and besides the wondrous act of their reality.

McGahern celebrates and elevates the wondrous fact of our reality through this moving study of family life. Very little happens, but all of human nature is here because he writes so intimately about the minutiae of daily life and the landscape within which it is lived.

John McGahern

There is an elemental and painterly quality to the way McGahern writes about the landscape, creating a feeling of immediacy and putting the reader right there with his characters.

The ice had to be broken on the barrels each morning. It was so beautiful when she let up the blinds first thing that, ‘Jesus Christ’, softly was all she was able to articulate as she looked out and up the river to the woods across the lake, black with the leaves fallen except the red rust of the beech trees, the withered reeds standing pale and sharp as bamboo rods at the edge of the water…the high branches of a sycamore a pure white line through the air.

While reading The Barracks I felt a bit like Elizabeth when she pulled up that blind, struck on each page by the unsentimental beauty captured by McGahern. It is, at times, just breathtaking in its understanding of human thought and emotion. It is a sad and a tragic book, yet it is also filled with compassion, delicacy and integrity.

In some ways The Barracks is a quintessentially Irish novel, concerned with lives connected to the land, to religion and to routine. The women are quiet and hard-working, the men taciturn and forbearing, yet in the way the novel handles questions of loneliness, illness and the acceptance of death, it is both timeless and universal.

The Barracks is a beautiful book, tracing the power and pain that comes from self-awareness, the beauty of the everyday and the indomitable nature of the human heart to love and to fight on, against all odds.

We all know that we are going to die, the question that McGahern asks here, is when are we going to start living?

Masterpiece is a strong word, but, without doubt, The Barracks is just that.


Irish Literature The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

27 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Thank you for your detailed review. I agree with your words. McGahern is truly brilliant. From the description of the everyday movements in life to the momentous occasions of humanity – love, sadness, death, disappointment, – he puts them in words and sentences that are truly admirable.


  2. I rarely differ with your reviews….but this time I will.
    The Barracks was not what I expected.
    It did not rise to the level of McGahern’s excellence IMO
    …it can happen.
    I would recommend “All Will Be Well: A Memoir”
    I was swept away by this book by J. McGahern’s #breathtaking!
    PS: I”m working hard these next few weeks to catch-up with this
    challenge. Life got in the was….my cat died.
    But I’m up an running now and will offer as many Irish books as I can


  3. Agreed. I read this book in 2005 and I immediately went into Waterstones and bought all his other novels and his memoir. A few years later I went on a pilgrimage to McGahern country, saw the barracks at Cootehall, sat on a seat dedicated to him in Ballinamoore, visited his mother’s grave and stayed in the hotel that has a library named after him. Yes, I’m a bit obsessive. But that book is such a heartbreaking love letter to his own mother that it’s hard not to be affected by it. If you haven’t read his memoir, please do: you will see how he mined his life for his fiction and it will break your heart even more.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I did read ‘The Barracks’ a long time ago. Contrary to many readers, I frequently find the first novel of a writer, the one that got him or her published, is among their best if not their best.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A beautiful write-up of a stunning book and writer, I found it difficult to pick up other books after I’d read my first McGahern. I very much sympathize with kimbofo’s feelings about leaving one so she doesn’t any more to read.


  6. If anyone has run out of McGahern, McGahern mentioned that Michael McLaverty is a good writer. I have read some of his short stories and his novels and they are very good. There is an interview that I enjoyed listening to:

    Also another interview that is worth watching for some recommendations by McGahern himself:

    Liked by 1 person

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