Feeling a little under the weather, Reader Leader Maggie recommends one of her favourite comfort reads for this week, The Barracks by John McGahern.
I have noticed that if I’m a bit low or ill, as I have been recently, I tend to go to my Irish or Scottish writers, well both accents are ones I heard from my original home in Glasgow. I have often loved finding out authors who are not so well known or available in English bookshops, such as Neil M. Gunn, Nan Shepherd, Patrick Kavanagh.
My recent bad cough and fever led me to a book I’d picked up in Oxfam a few weeks before, The Barracks by John McGahern (1963). I remember thinking at the time, ‘Oh it may be a bit grim, and anyway I’ve read his final book Memoir, so it is could be a condensed version of that, and I don’t really have time for it’. I still bought it as I had loved his writing and his sensitive, but at times critical yet loving depiction of his part of Ireland, Leitrim, where my own mother hailed from too.
Stuck in bed recently was the ideal place to give it a go, it may even cheer me up! I was soon engrossed in this family who live in the Barracks, the headquarters of the Garda, the Irish Police Force, in a small village in the 1950’s. Reegan is the sergeant, a bombastic, complicated man, a stickler for routine and cleanliness particularly concerning his work duties. A widower with 3 children of school age, he is now married to Elizabeth. She is a woman, now in her early 40’s, of the same village, but has been a nurse in London, and had a lover there too. He was an older doctor who we soon realise from her internal musings suffered from depression and is now dead.
“She had loved Halliday and had counted no cost. She could feel again her excitement bringing him back the first real books she been ever given and crying, “but they’re real! they’re not stories even. They’re about my life.” …..
“….All real lives are profoundly different and profoundly the same. Sweet Jesus, Elizabeth, profoundly is an awful balls of a word, isn’t it? But there’s very few either real books or people. They’re few and far between,” he ended savagely.’ – John McGahern, The Barracks
Meanwhile she is using up her strength to carry out the household chores and care of the children, ‘Mrs Reegan darned an old woollen sock as the February night came on, her head bent, catching the threads on the needle by the light of the fire, the daylight gone without her noticing.’ She finally goes to the doctor and is diagnosed with breast cancer. We hear of Elizabeth’s steadfastness and courage, but also her concern for her husband and the children who will lose another woman from their lives.
McGahern‘s portrayal of rural Ireland can be funny, sad, beautiful, and as I lay in my own sick bed I felt enriched by his characters and their surroundings. I even felt some of the fondness for Reegan that Elizabeth seems to take with her to the grave.