When reading Amongst Women (1990), it occurred to me how different a character the family patriarch Moran would have been in the hands of a less skilled novelist than John McGahern. Moran is an authoritarian. He is suspicious and defensive around the men his daughters choose as husbands. His oppressive temper is cited by his sons as their reasons for leaving the household and his daughters and wife indulge him throughout his life as if he were their child, negotiating his explosive temper in order to maintain some semblance of order in the household.
One can imagine this hypothetical unskilled novelist holding Moran up as a punching bag or an easy target for irony, particularly at one point towards the end of the novel when he initiates the family tradition of saying the rosary together. (The rosary tradition is generally more of an opportunity for Moran to showcase his authority than it is to demonstrate his faith, when Moran’s prospective son-in-law Mark says that he has no beads, Moran tersely informs him that: ‘You have fingers.’) At this stage in the text, his eldest son Luke refuses to engage with him. Moran and his wife Rose are watching their domestic ‘nest’ becoming empty as Moran’s daughters get married one by one and re-locate to such far flung locations as London or Dublin. However, he still believes: “the family that prays together stays together.” Even in moments such as these, when his oft-cited aphorisms are totally at odds from the reality of his life, McGahern does not encourage the reader to laugh at or judge Moran in a simplistic way.
There is a telling passage during which the family are gathering hay together in the meadow. One of Moran’s daughters, Sheila and her husband Sean eventually tire of the labour, and their attention turns to more important matters. Namely, each other: “Sheila and her husband were crossing the fence on the edge of the field before they were noticed leaving. They walked hand in hand.” Their behaviour becomes a matter of some scandal for the rest of the family and the tension mounts in the following scene in which the sisters trade snide comments about Sheila. However, this hostility does not build to boiling point, or culminate in a dramatic argument. Instead, time moves on, and Rose finds herself circumspect. Her reflection that the house will be quiet again now that everyone has left tacitly expresses a wish for such contact, no matter the potential for such unpleasantness, is preferable to being alone.
This is the core of what Amongst Women has to say about family and belonging, to the point where there a degree of truth to what Moran has to say, regardless of the fact that it is essentially a shibboleth. While Luke and Michael cannot endure living under his yoke, the trauma of their departures ultimately fades. It encourages Moran to reflect and reach beyond his familiar range of emotion to express himself in a semi-apologetic letter to his estranged son.
It is clear from the poignantly written last line that the family will ‘stay together,’ that it will survive Moran’s demise as it survived Sheila and Sean’s dalliance above, as it survived all the other crises that have assailed it in the course of this unforgettable novel.