(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 6. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1995)


John McGahern's The Barracks:
an interpenetrative Catholic Novel


Jean-Michel Ganteau (Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3)


In his study of Catholic fiction from the nineteenth century to the present (1), the American critic gene Kellogg concentrates on the form and function of that type of fiction in France, England and America and underscores the recurrence of a certain number of traits. At the heart of his study lies the idea of an opposition between the Catholic community characterised by a whole set of moral options and spiritual values – and the secular environment which surrounds it. In the United States of America and in England, the distinction is easily observable since, as recently as the 1950s, Catholics were acutely conscious of belonging to a coherent and exclusive minority which fostered the prevalence of what has often been called the "ghetto mentality". Kellogg sees the rise of the Catholic novel in the three countries as intricately linked with the fluctuating relationships between the community values upheld by the Catholic novelists and those of the secular environment with which they were generally at strife.

Besides, the author discriminates among three phases in the development of the relationship. From the late nineteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth century, the attitude of the Catholic communities is one of isolation – one is tempted to say "insulation" –, in which community and secular society have no contact whatsoever. This phase is then replaced by one of convergence when the community accepts to be open to the influence of secular society. In the third phase – which Kellogg calls "period of confluence" – the community loses its identity and tends to be gradually assimilated into the secular environment. Kellogg specifies that, in the 1960s, the disappearance of the


1. KELLOGG G., The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence, Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970.




identity is concomitant with the fall of the Catholic novel. In fact, the abrasiveness which characterised earlier Catholic fiction is lost and with it, according to Kellogg, much of the tradition's literary excellence.

Independently of this chronological grouping, Kellogg offers a tripartite typology of Catholic fiction and discriminates among three types of novels, as is made clear in the concluding chapter of his study:

We have found three types of writing produced by the Catholic novelists: separatist writing. whose chief preoccupation was criticism of the non-Catholic environment; assimilative writing based on criticism of the Catholic community and recognition of the attitudes of the surrounding world; and also the writing we have described as representing interpenetration . (2)

 The notion of interpenetration, as is not perfectly explicit in the above quotation, is based on a constant interaction or cross-fertilisation between the Catholic and secular values and is associated with what Kellogg considers the best works of Catholic fiction.

John McGahern's The Barracks was published at the end of the period of convergence when the secular ram began to batter at the walls of the Catholic ghetto and announced, with a certain delay as regards Ireland, the beginning of a period of confluence. It concentrates on a group of Catholic characters, but the religious element does not seem to constitute a central concern for the author at first. In fact the novel's stark realism makes for the description of social and communal practices but not the motions of the heart and soul generally associated with the religious melodrama of conversion, vocation and other such violent emotions. The novel realistically evokes everyday life in a secluded Irish Catholic parish in the late fifties or early sixties and the Hibernian element in the religious passages is conveyed through the strict respect of family prayers, the special references to the Marian cult or to Irish saints or sacred places. Of course Catholicism cannot be considered a minority in Eire, but the traditional conflict is represented through the opposition between the confined atmosphere of the parish and the wider secular world of post-war London where Elizabeth Reegan worked as a nurse and met Halliday, the desperate atheist. McGahern sets those two clusters of values fighting in what, at first sight, may be seen as a sharp criticism of the community.

Besides, McGahern is known for his assimilative positions, witness the contents of his second novel, The Dark (3), in which the structure of the Bildungsroman is used to express the


2. KELLOGG, p. 224.
3. McGAHERN J., The Dark, London: Faber and Faber, 1965.



revolt of a poor young Irishman against his father and religious background (4). The novel retraces the evolution of young Mahoney away from the priesthood and clearly reverses some of the main topoi of Catholic fiction, namely those of vocation and conversion. In The Dark, it is the discovery of incipient sexual drives which threatens the authoritarian structure of the family and community. It is telling that these should be endangered by the sin of the flesh traditionally considered the sin in Catholic fiction. Community values are also given a rough ride in The Dark since the hypocrisy of the clergy is systematically underscored through an exposition of what could be called the "actuarial" side of religious practices (5). McGahern also disparages the authoritarian structure of the Irish Catholic family as a repressive institution designed to reproduce the crippling influence of the Church on the individual and such practices and feelings as confession or an inescapable eschatological consciousness are systematically satirised. The first readers of The Dark and the censors were obviously sensitive to the assimilative impulse which informs the novel since it was banned in Ireland immediately after its publication (6).

The assimilative vein is also present in McGahern's first novel which evinces an obvious distrust of the clergy and the values that they attempt to peddle. Similarly, The Barracks seems to question the fundamentals of Catholicism in so far as Elizabeth Reegan does not only seem to rebel against the surface manifestations of her religion, but also against the nature of faith by questioning, through Halliday's influence, the existence of God and traditional concepts of the afterlife. In other words, she doubts the validity of the


4. An obvious parallel may be drawn between The Dark and another famous Irish assimilative Bildungsroman –or, rather Künstleroman, since it deals with the development both of an individual and an artistic vocation –, namely James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In this text, the individual is also seen to move away from his own community the better to affirm his own identity. The discovery of the disruptive power of sex equally constitutes the main weapon against traditional religious values and attitudes. JOYCE J., A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, London: Grafton Books, 1977 (1916)
5. Broadly speaking, this consists in sacrificing this life so as the better to prepare the afterlife. Praying, being virtuous and joining the priesthood thus become a warranty, even an insurance, against a seat in the Kingdom of Heaven, as is made clear in the speech of a recruiting. priest: "My dear boys, you are on the threshold of life, a life that'll end in death. Then the Judgment. All the joys and pleasures of life you yearn for now will just have been a passing bauble then. If you clutch at these now will they avail you anything in the important moment in life, moment of death? On the other hand, if you give your life to God, and surely the priesthood is the gift outright, you can say you kept nothing back. As your whole life was in God, so will your life be in death, and in the hereafter." McGAHERN, Dark, p. 126-7.
6. For more detail about this episode in the author's life, see his interview with Julia Carson in CARSON J., ed., Banned in IreIand: Censorship and the Irish Writer, London: Routledge, 1990, p. 53-67.



the traditional metaphysical framework claimed by the Catholic Church. Still, despite the welter of assimilative evidence, The Barracks seems to go well beyond the scope of mere revolt and upholds, in its own devious way, a certain number of traditional separatist values which are made to triumph in the end, as this essay will try to show. After dealing with the assimilative vein in the novel, we shall try to prove that the character of Elizabeth Reegan is used as a device to promote traditional communal values on a moral level (sacrifice), but also on a spiritual level (acceptation and faith) in a novel which evokes the interpenetration of two antagonistic worlds.

Elizabeth Reegan is characterised by her difference and isolation in the Reegan household. She has borne no heir to the paterfamilias and occupies a marginal position in the family, as the attitude of the boy Willie makes clear from the outset. Likewise, she appears as some sort of an outsider in the small world of the barracks where she is respected by her neighbours without completely belonging to their universe and sharing their concerns. This self-imposed exclusion is also noticeable on the level of the wider community represented by the parish. Elizabeth tends to keep herself to herself and to avoid any form of contact other than perfunctory social intercourse with other parishioners. She even refuses to take part in the social life of the parish by declining to join the local branch of the Legion of Mary. She is clearly presented as a displaced person, and her alienation transforms her into a prisoner.

McGahern presents the reader with a contemporary avatar of Joycean paralysis. All characters, and Elizabeth foremost among them, are trapped in the world of home and the parish where nothing exceptional ever happens to relieve them of the burden of living. Their movements and opinions can hardly evade detection in the secluded atmosphere of the village. Home does not offer much latitude either, since Elizabeth has to put up with the constant demands of the children and husband, as she comes to realise at the beginning of the novel: "her initiation was over, her passion had spent itself, this world on which she'd used every charm to act accepted in was falling in ashes into her hands. She was shackled, a thieving animal held at last in this one field" (7). The hopelessness of the situation of the hosts of the barracks is also regularly emphasised through references to the inescapability of the imprisonment. Such reflections as "It seemed that nothing could ever change" (B 60) recur to underscore the plight of the characters in this fallen world.


7. McGAHERN, The Barracks, London: Faber and Faber, 1963, p. 51. Emphasis ours. in the following quotations from the novel, the title will be abridged into B and followed by the page number.




Much of this deplored stability is due to the presence of vehicles of narrow authority within the community and household. It is telling that Reegan, the head of the family, should be the representative of law and order in the village. It is similarly eloquent that his only direct interference with the lives of the parishioners should be motivated on grounds of sexual morality. On Christmas Eve, Mullins and Reegan give vent to their moral indignation when they discover a drunkard micturating in public against the churchyard wall. Mullins is crabbed by a fit of puritanical propriety and laments the possibility of young. girls going to midnight Mass being imposed such a sight. Throughout the episode, the act of indecent exposure is clearly presented as an onslaught against the strictest tenets of sexual morality, as the references to the churchyard and the Mass-going crowd make clear (B 177-79). Even if most of the moral indignation is voiced by Mullins, Reegan hovers approvingly in the background and endorses the whole intervention as the ultimate representative of moral authority: "A mad surge of strength rose in Reegan, desire to break the whole mess up into its first chaos: there was no order, only the police force" (B 179). This public display of righteousness echoes similar episodes which take place at home as when, towards the end of the first chapter, Reegan can no longer suppress his anger at his subordinates' banter about the size of Christ: " 'But were you listening to that rubbish? – Jesus Christ and Kelly, the Boy from Killann. . . . If you listened long enough to everything said around here you'd soon hear the Devil himself talkin'.' " (B 31). Through such passages, McGahern builds a picture of moral orthodoxy which transforms Reegan into the representative of strict morality. Even though he rebels against the authority of his superior in the police force, he does not falter in exerting his power, both legal and moral.

This is corroborated in the various scenes of familial devotions in which the head of the household is seen to lead his wife and children in the saying of the evening prayers. He always decides about the moments when the Rosary should be said, and even guides the intentions of the other members of the household as is made clear in the scene when he cryptically dedicates the Rosary to a special purpose (B 73). The praying and its attendant ritual of spreading the newspaper on the floor, kneeling and peering abstractedly into the mirror is a way of strengthening. the family ties and asserting the sacred authority of the head of the family. The hierarchical structure of the institution is thus mirrored in that of the domestic unit. In the saying of the Rosary are commingled the respect for the paterfamilias and the Catholic Church. Authority begins at home (8). This unflinching allegiance to the teachings of the Church crops up throughout the novel, and this with particular explicitness


8. For more detail about the relationship between the Rosary and the establishment of moral authority through the father, see Antoinette Quinn's analysis of Amongst Women. QUINN A., "A Prayer for my Daughter: Patriarchy in Amongst Women," The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 17. 1, July 1991, p. 79-90.


in a passage where Reegan, playing with the children, jocularly declares: " 'We might as well have been learnin' our facts and figures and come out in every other way just as God sent us in – as lone, as we learned how to bow the knee and kiss the ring. If we had to learn how to do that we were right bejaseus!' " (B 18). Moral authority and religious obedience are what matters. Reegan enforces them as a policeman and a paterfamilias.

That type of authority, associated with the influence of a strict religious upbringing rarely fails to convert itself into repression and fosters a characteristic self-consciousness in the individual. Besides teaching each member of the household what his or her place and role is, this permanent attitude of self-examination leads to the ascendancy of scruples which invade the consciousness of the protagonist. Elizabeth Reegan and most of the characters in the novel thus fall a prey to a crushing Jansenism in the widest sense of the word. Elizabeth is a constant victim of the fear of nakedness and exposure, whether it be literal or metaphorical. She is typically ashamed of her body in Dr. Ryan's consulting room and in the hospital ward, and this shame is but a clue to her fear of emotional nakedness and revelation which prevent her from getting integrated into the community of men, thus promoting her isolation. She refuses to disclose her innermost thoughts to Reegan, and both five together alone except for short moments of togetherness during their sexual congress. She similarly suppresses her feelings in front of the children, barring a few emotional outbursts when she has reached the end of her tether. She typically backs from her sympathy for Mullins when he discloses his own frustrations during the blackcurrant-picking scene (B 149). Though her consciousness has been awakened through Halliday's influence, her self-consciousness is the obvious inheritance of an education where the expression of individual emotions and drives is considered potentially subversive. Self-restraint is the watchword in a community where all feelings and inclinations should be channelled into obedience, prayer and fear of God.

Under such circumstances, the alienated individual gives vent to his or her anger against the symbols of authority that people the world of the novel under the guise of the clergy. A pungent vein of anticlericalism runs through the novel and is voiced by all major characters but Sergeant Reegan. The narrow power of institutional religion is almost unanimously resented, as Casey makes clear in a disparaging comment: " 'The nearer the church, the farther from God' " (B 174). Elizabeth's distrust of institutions is also unambiguously put forward in her dealings with the parish priest, when she recalls refusing to join the Legion of Mary. She admits to disliking organisations, to which the infuriated priest retorts: " 'So, my dear woman, you dislike the Catholic Church: it happens to  be an organisation, you know, that's founded on Divine Truth' " (B 163). Moreover, Elizabeth's dealings with priests are clearly antagonistic, witness her meeting with the chaplain at the



hospital and her reaction when she is administered the sacrament of Extreme Unction. She refuses to place her trust in the priest and rejects his power and authority denying the value of the sacrament in typically assimilative fashion: "She flinched as she was touched by the wet wool. The organs of sense, through which sin had entered the soul, were being anointed; and she wanted to declare in the face of the Latin words that sense of truth and justice and beauty and all things else had entered that way too" (B 216). Her evocation of the recurrent priestly ministrations is unequivocally dismissive and verges on revolt, as the following words make clear: "It was hard enough to accept the reality of her situation; but it was surely the last and hardest thing to accept its interpretations from knaves and fools and being compelled to live as in strait-jackets" (B 219). The allusion to the strait-jackets paves the way for the denunciation of the institution as "intolerant lunacy" (B 219). The Catholic Church and its representatives do not help Elizabeth Reegan in her quest for ultimate truth and transcendence. Quite on the contrary, the institution is presented as an instrument of falsification.

The traditional transformation of the evangelic message of love into one of fear is similarly exposed. The hosts of the barracks have been brought up in the fear of God, which McGahern suggests through an analogy between priest and doctor. Elizabeth's first visit to Dr. Ryan's surgery is compared to her calls at the local church on confession days. Confession is usually used in assimilative novels as the instrument through which the clergy assert their authority and instil the fear of hell, and the medical analogy, brings more grist to the mill of satire. The helplessness of the patient who suspects that he or she suffers from a terminal illness echoes that of the sinner. In both cases the intimation of mortality and strong eschatological considerations are intricately linked to crush the will of the individual and submit him or her to a higher authority. Fear and shame, two of the most typical attributes of Jansenism are used to evoke man's fallen nature and his absence of freedom: "It was her body's sickness and not her soul's she was confessing now but as always there was the irrational fear and shame" (B 8 1). Fear of God is clearly seen to be imposed as a sham substitute for divine love.

Another falsification endorsed by the Church is that which sociologists of Catholicism call "ordinary" or "customary" religion (9). This degradation of official practices is generally linked with the exposition of superstitious attitudes in assimilative fiction, but McGahern


9. Michael P. Hornsby-Smith gives the following definition of this phenomenon: "The concept of 'customary' religion, which is derived from official religion without being under its control and subject to processes of trivialisation, conventionality, apathy, convenience and self-interest, HORNSBY-SMITH M.P., Roman Catholic Beliefs in England. Customary Catholicism and Transformations of Religious Authority, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 21.



chooses to underline the prevalence of habit which ruins religious life and destroys meaning. The prayer scenes and episodes when Elizabeth enters the Church systematically evoke the prevalence of customary religion. Elizabeth cannot keep her mind focused on the words of the prayers, and neither can Reegan nor the children:

Then Our Fathers and Hail Marys and Glory be to the Fathers were repeated over and over in their relentless monotony, without urge or passion, no call of love or answer, the voices simply murmuring away in a habit or death, their minds not on what they said, but blank or wandering or dreaming over their own lives. (B 33)

 Typically, it is during one such session that Elizabeth feels her breasts and the reader is informed that she has developed cysts which will bring about her death. The impression that the reader is left with is one of empty ritual completely cut off from the reality of spiritual life. Praying has become but a perfunctory token of faith devoid of authenticity or meaning, a mere way of imposing an empty structure on the community the better to guide and dominate it. The exposition of religion as an empty framework obviously culminates in the satiric scene of the funeral where religious and social practices are inextricably mixed to denounce the hypocrisy of the community. Instead of living in accordance with their religion, the parishioners put up a show. The notion of role is thus systematically underlined and played off against that of authenticity and meaning.

In accordance with the basic principles of assimilative fiction, The Barracks presents the reader with a particularly negative picture of the community. The novel is saturated in dysphoric touches which even contaminate the descriptions of the religious paraphernalia that is part and parcel of the décor of the Reegans' kitchen. The "technolocical discourse" (10) used by the realist text to evoke metonymically the characters' milieu becomes pervaded with dysphoric connotations and the novel begins and ends on descriptive passages where the religious pictures are seen to "glitter" menacingly in the fading evening light, while the Sacred Heart lamp is elsewhere shown to radiate a ghastly" glow (B 72, 184). Despite her efforts to escape from her domestic prison, Elizabeth is held fast in the morass of communal religious values which do not seem to provide her with any form of help in her quest for meaning and transcendence.


10. This phrase is a translation of Philippe Hamon's "discours technologique," an expression designed to evoke the way in which the realist text manages to heighten the illusion of reality by resorting to a specific semantic field evocative of the characters' sphere of social activity. In the case of Catholic fiction, this is often transformed into a sphere of communal activity. HAMON Ph., "Un Discours contraint," Littérature et réalité, éd. Roland Barthes et al., Paris: éditions du Seuil, 1982, p. 146-7.



One of Elizabeth's spontaneous reactions to her imprisonment is a movement of rebellion against the family. Being trammelled in domesticity, she is regularly shown to react against both the children and Reegan. She occasionally loses her temper when she is over-tired and rebukes the children or has them castigated by her husband. She similarly vents her frustration against the latter when he does not pay enough attention to her plight. Those surface manifestations are echoed in her desire to preserve some measure of independence from the tyranny of home by keeping letters and books from her former love, Halliday, safely locked away in a trunk. The subversive function of this dissembling is symbolised in her need to keep money against the possibility of escaping from the family should the need arise. Those details signal her need for independence and partial commitment to the household, but they are counterbalanced by deeper motives.

In fact the novel presents the reader with a conflict between two opposite systems of values embodied by Reegan and Elizabeth, the former standing for egoism, and the latter for altruism. Reegan's selfishness crops up regularly, as is made clear through his dealings with Superintendent Quirke. His social frustration has come to obsess him, and he will clash with Quirke in full accordance with his own impulses, without considering the consequences on his dependants, whether they be his subordinates or the members of his household. One direct effect of his frustration is his obsession with making money so as to leave the police force. The summer months spent in the bog saving turf underline the manic nature of his selfishness since he grows blind to the needs of his family: "Reegan saw nothing. All he saw was turf saved and the money that'd give him the freedom he craved" (B 126). His adoration of the filthy lucre flings him into paroxysms of materialism and selfishness. He thus reaches the point when he loses all sympathy for his dependants and deplores his wife's plight on purely personal grounds: "Elizabeth could not die, he told himself; it was impossible that two could die; it would be ludicrous" (B 47). Typically, she dies thinking of her absent husband and children. Like most of the doomed characters of The Barracks, Reegan tries to fill the vacuum in his life through action but does this through purely selfish motives.

Reegan's attitude is sharply contrasted with that of Elizabeth who, though she occasionally loses her temper and dreams of independence, tries to relieve the unbearable emptiness of her existence by actin. for others. Despite her keen sense of isolation and need for retrenchment, she cannot resist her impulse to help others. She is torn between conflicting urges but chooses not to evade her responsibilities. She is shown to be motivated by a spirit of perpetual sacrifice. For instance, she comes out of her self-conscious retreat to oil the wheels of communication in the dangerous talks of the policemen in the kitchen, she spares Willie and her husband's feelings by agreeing to go to the marriage of a cousin, she compromises her purely sensual pleasure, during the blackcurrant-picking scene, by



responding to Mullins' rantings, etc. She similarly sacrifices her own comfort and pleasure to the benefit of the family in the most trivial acts of domestic life: "Her dread of the cold and her weariness were gone in a flash: she was out of bed and dressed and moving through the dark to the door without being conscious that she'd managed to rise" (B 41). Her illness is used to emphasise her virtuous behaviour since, as she grows increasing y debilitated by cancer, she does not falter in fighting the tyranny of her self. Despite the doctors' warning, she will sacrifice her health to her family: "they told her to take things easy. She'd have to be careful, they said; but she paid no attention, how could she stay with them in this barracks and not be occupied" (B 160). The sacrifice of her health and her death crucified in the pain and loneliness of the sick room are but symbolic extensions of her altruism. That this quality is largely tinged with religious meaning makes little doubt when one considers the various passages where the protagonist is shown to behave in accordance with truly Christian requirements. The qualities of pity (towards Mrs Casey), charity (towards the creamery manager), together with the many episodes in which she profligately dispenses her responsibility towards others tend to build the portrait of a woman behaving according to the strictest principles of Christian virtue. This separatist streak is over-determined by her obsession with material filth and her condemnation of money as disruptive of familial harmony. Interestingly, the books and letters linked with the memories of Halliday do not seem to constitute any menace against the household. It is quite telling that money, associated with the worst sins in the Christian tradition (did Judas not betray Christ for "thirty silver pieces" (11)?), should represent egoism and run contrary to the ideal of responsibility and sacrifice which Elizabeth hankers for. To Elizabeth Reegan, money is associated with egoism and sinfulness. Greed has largely contributed to her failure and fall: "Was this why it had failed? she pondered. She had not given herself fully, she had always been essentially free" (B 104). Through greed, Elizabeth has betrayed those who love her, thus re-enacting an old sin. By promoting self-interest money diverts the individual from the basic duty of Christian life, namely responsibility and its exacerbated form of sacrifice. The condemnation of greed and treason, together with the exaltation of such virtues as charity, responsibility and sacrifice seem to associate The Barracks with the tradition of separatist fiction.

Yet, acting for the benefit of others is not enough, as Elizabeth soon discovers, and the external polarisation between egoism and altruism finds itself duplicated in an internal conflict. Elizabeth is torn between two antagonistic urges. Her progress is submitted to a necessity to shake off her wish for abandonment in favour of a harrowing self-consciousness


11. Matthew 26. 15.



that warrants her responsibility towards others. She is unwilling to let her consciousness work at a low ebb, refuses to let herself go and systematically practises self-restraint, as two passages make clear. She typically rejects the power of sensuous abandonment when she smells Mrs Casey's vase of roses and immediately starts analysing her reaction to the situation before abandoning the bunch of flowers altogether to return to her duties as wife and mother. The same conflict is at work throughout the blackcurrant-picking episode where she allows herself some instants of peace ("She was able to lose herself in the slow picking . . .[B 145]) before her  thoughts lead her back to the memory of a painful episode, that of the jailing of the creamery manager ("She shivered now in the day. Why had she to remember? . . . Why had she to think . . ." [B 146]). Elizabeth cannot escape her over-consciousness. She is both unable and unwilling to pluck the day and thus chooses the way of the narrow gate. She is allowed no repose and doomed to keep a harrowing solitary vigil, like Christ in Gethsemane, while Reegan and the people around her keep slumbering on or annihilating their consciousness in action.

It is tempting to see an analogy between Elizabeth's calvary and the Passion of Christ. As has already been emphasised, she carries the responsibility of her world on her shoulders and is willing to sacrifice her pleasure and repose to the benefit of those whom she loves. She patently wears herself out by working for them, but also by being systematically conscious of their needs and frustrations. She sacrifices her happiness and life for their sake. Some elements in the narrative of the last weeks in her life are obviously designed to evoke a parallel with Christ's way to Calvary, as the narrator specifies when dealing with the devotions of Holy Week: "Christ on the road to Calvary, she on the same road; both in sorrow and in ecstasy (B 194) In this respect, it is not surprising that she should be shown to suffer three heart-attacks (that she should fall three times) before being crucified on her sick bed (B 170, 195). The protagonist of The Barracks represents a paradigm of Christian virtues such is pity, charity, responsibility and sacrifice. Despite her assimilative rejection of certain aspects of the community she is fundamentally the inheritor of the heroes and heroines of traditional separatist Catholic fiction. She does not hesitate to sacrifice her life in favour of those whom she loves, even if the world from which she departs, together with its dwellers, is not redeemed at the end of the novel.

 The opposition between Reegan and Elizabeth also emerges under the guise of a tension between social and existential revolt. In fact, Reegan is only concerned with acting, that is taunting Quirke and working on the bog, while Elizabeth is overpowered by an urge to understand. The domestic scenes evoking the couple's dealings while Reegan is confined within the kitchen are explicit in this respect. Whether he has to put up with rainy weather or



the compulsory rest of Christmas day, Reegan is utterly unable not to act. Idleness maddens him by disclosing to him the emptiness of his life and preventing him from enjoying the day. As Elizabeth remarks, he shies away from the responsibility of metaphysical considerations: "He'd have none of the big questions: What do you think of life or the relationships between people or any other things that have no real answers? He trusted all that to the priests as he trusted a sick body to the doctors (B 64) Conversely, Elizabeth does not trust such questions to the priests, and is characterised by her incessant wonderings. She ceaselessly tries to find a meaning in her life and comes up with no satisfying answer till the last chapters of a novel which tackles the problem of doubt and faith.

The reason why Elizabeth is haunted by a permanent over-consciousness lies in her inability to make sense of her own life in particular and human existence in General. McGahern's characters inhabit a world in which traditional metaphysical systems seem to have fallen to pieces. The old Catholic framework which provided supernatural reassurance for the believer and warranted the existence of an afterlife (whether it be in heaven, hell or purgatory) has manifestly fallen to pieces for the protagonist of The Barracks. Unlike her unreflecting neighbours the comfort of orthodoxy is certainly denied her:

 Though [traditional religion had never much to do with their lives, except the observances they had to keep: if they kept these their afterlife was surely provided for as toil and marriage and care and a little luck would provide for the one here on earth. Everything was laid out for certain, no one needed to ask questions, and there was nothing to offer to anyone who stumbled outside its magic circle. (B 123)

 She is not guided by any certainty and the only vestige from the faith of her childhood is a strong eschatological consciousness rendered all the more acute by her illness and the sense of her impending death. Elizabeth is first presented as an unbeliever, as the narrator hammers home throughout the novel. She has been deeply influenced by Hallyday's profession of nihilism and atheism and whenever she takes stock of her situation she finds herself facing a terrifying absence of meaning in her existence: "Moments, when she'd suddenly grow conscious that she must be only sitting here and waiting, she'd be seized with terror that it would all end like this, a mere interruption of these banalities and nothing more" (B 111). Now, absence of meaning and absence of belief are regularly equated, as the following passage makes clear:

What was her life? Was she ready to cry halt and leave? Had it achieved anything or been given any meaning? She was no more ready to die now than she had been twenty



years ago. There was the after-life, hell and heaven and purgatory between. Jesus Christ on the right hand of God, but her childhood and adolescence over they had never lived as flesh in her mind, except when she dreamed. She had naïvely trusted that she'd been given some sign or confirmation before the end, or that she'd discover something, something she knew not what, some miracle of revelation perhaps, but she had been given nothing and had discovered nothing. She was as blind as she had ever been.(B 85)

Yet, this disconsolate acknowledgement is certainly not hopeless in that Elizabeth never denies the existence of a God or a higher principle, but is content with specifying that she deplores being unable to get in touch with it. She certainly does not resist belief, but simply hankers after belief. One of her rare categorical assertions concerns the impossibility of understanding anything while going through life on earth, which does not mean that she rejects the idea of the afterlife, as the following words imply: "the desperate satisfaction of knowing for certain that there is nothing that can be really known here and now" (12) (B 62). Under its assimilative guise, the novel does not deny the existence of God. Quite on the contrary, it stages the development of a need for transcendence, a quest for belief.

The first symptoms of faith appear in the hospital scene when Elizabeth regains consciousness after her operation. Despite her earlier declarations concerning, the uselessness of both faith and money to assuage pain, she resorts to spontaneous prayer and calls upon God to alleviate her unbearable torments. The passage is typical of separatist literature in that it resorts to the topos of the pact with God which Elizabeth voices in a traditional way: "'O God, if you relieve me of this pain I'll serve you with the rest of my life,' she turned desperately to the last of all resorts." (B 122) Despite a certain number of relapses, she is subsequently drawn towards the acceptance of faith. She grows resigned to the impalpable substance of religious belief and ponders on the close relationship between faith and doubt: "It seemed as a person grew older that the unknowable reality, God, was the only thin. you could believe or disbelieve in with safety, it met you with imponderable silence and could never be reduced to the nothingness of certain knowledge" (B 177). It is during the Stations of the Cross, in Holy Week, that she begins to grasp a meaning in her life through the traditional devotions: "She saw her own life declared in them and made known, the unendurable pettiness and degradation of her own fallings raised to meaning in Christ's passion (B 194) This first inkling develops into the revelation of acceptance in the climactic epiphany which Elizabeth experiences a few days before dying. She comes to the


12. Emphasis mine.




conclusion that she should not pay too much importance to the meaning of life on earth since it is but a stage. She thus reverses the perspective which had been hers up to that stage the better to ponder on the mystery that surrounds human life. By accepting the inescapability of the sense of mystery, she reaches the state where she surrenders to the idea of a higher order, and this declaration of blind trust in God constitutes her profession of faith:

 All the futility of her life in this barracks came at last to rest on this sense of mystery. It gave the hours idled away in boredom or remorse as much validity as a blaze of passion, all was under its eternal sway. She felt for a moment pure, without Guilt. . . . She accepted its absolute sway over her life. (B 211)

 In the humility of the acknowledgement of human limits, in accepting to surrender to the mystery of life, Elizabeth resolves at a stroke the problems of meaning and faith that are reconciled in the praise of God. Even if she rejects the last ministrations of the priest in a Genuinely assimilative passage, the novel culminates in the epiphany where acceptance is obviously presented as an avatar of in extremis conversion, one of the most recurrent topoi of separatist fiction. By accepting that the answer to human problems is not to be found in this life, but in the life to come Elizabeth, once again, fulfils the part of the traditional heroine of separatist fiction. She is clearly designed as an avatar of the character of the converted agnostic, a device favoured by such authors as Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh to emphasise the irresistible power of God's Grace." Despite its gloomy outlook on life, McGahern's The Barracks ends on a note of hope since, in typically separatist fashion, it emphasises the degeneracy of this world to make the Kingdom of Heaven more appealing. The suffering characters do not revolt against God, they rather attempt to make a pact with Him.

The Barracks is built on a series of oppositions between authority and revolt, egoiosm and altruism, action and thinking, doubt and acceptance, etc. These conflicting pairs allow the author to let an assimilative vein run throughout the text. Elizabeth thus rejects the surface manifestations of her religion and opposes the crushing power of the institution. The realistic treatment is particularly suited to the observation of social and communal rituals and hypocrisy but, paradoxically, this does not constitute the core of the religious message.

As has been lengthily made clear, the assimilative impulse is only superficially directed at the Catholic community. Even if it cannot be overlooked it seems to be


13.  See for instance the character of Maurice Bendrix in Graham Greene, The End of the Affair, London: Heinemann, 1951; and that of Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited , Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962 (1945).



subordinated to essentially separatist elements as far as both morality and faith are concerned. This in itself is a characteristic of inter-penetrative fiction. The novel hinges around the protagonist's central quest for meaning, transcendence and faith. Elizabeth's quest is motivated by three distinct impulses. She clearly wants to escape from the frustrating and pedestrian limits of communal authority. She also fights to break away from the tyranny of self and live for her neighbours. She finally attempts to transcend human limits and the constriction of human life, which she achieves in a climactic epiphany.

In accordance with the principles of traditional separatist Catholic fiction, The Barracks teaches the reader that truth, love and happiness are not to be found in this our fallen world, but in the afterlife. The edifying purpose cannot be overlooked in a novel which postulates the existence of a higher order. The symbol of the wheel, central to McGahern's fiction and echoed in the epanaleptic structure of the novel, is not meant to leave the reader with an impression of hopelessness. It is directly challenged by the straight upward movement of the Ascension evoked by the policemen after Elizabeth's funeral: "I think the Ascension is the important thing" (B 225). The intimation is that imprisonment and paralysis only affect this life and that the promise of the afterlife is still valid.

Under the guise of its factual and pedestrian realism, The Barracks essentially addresses itself to spiritual and metaphysical problems. This it does by establishing, through the disconsolate dealings of trapped individuals, a higher perspective. Even if the tortured characters of McGahern's world are bound to remain ignorant of whatever transcends and surrounds human life, they come to situate their own doomed existence within a wider perspective, as Roger Garfitt suggests:

McGahern is not a metaphysical writer as such. He is essentially a realist, with a shrewd understanding, of what living in an apparently peaceable but deprived environment can do to the people: but his realism is all the more effective because it takes its place within a central, metaphysical concern, and because that concern creates a perspective. (14))

 It is this perspective which contaminates the assimilative and secular elements in this truly inter-penetrative Catholic novel. It gives a religious meaning to Elizabeth's acceptance and transforms the stoicism which pervades the novel into the typically Irish "tragic joy" that characterises Yeats's later poetry.


14. GARFITT R., "Constants in Contemporary Irish Fiction," Two Decades of Irish Writing: A Critical Survey, Douglas Dunn ed., Chester Spring., Pennsylvania: Dufour Editions, 1975 (p. 207-24), p. 224.




GARFITT R., "Constants in Contemporary Irish Fiction," Two Decades of Irish Writing: A Critical Survey, Douglas Dunn ed., Chester Springs, Pennsylvania: Dufour Editions. 1975, p. 207-24.

GREENE G., The End of the Affair, London: Heinemann, 195 1.

HAMON Ph., "Un Discours contraint", Littérature et Réalité, éd. Roland Barthes et al., Paris: éditions du Seuil, 1982, p. 119-81.

HORNSBY-SMITH M. P., Roman Catholic Beliefs in England. Customary Catholicism and Transformations of Religious Authority, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

JOYCE J., A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, London: Grafton Books, 1977 (1916).

KELLOGG; G., The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence,

Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970.

McGAHERN J., The Barracks, London: Faber and Faber, 1963.

–– The Dark, London: Faber and Faber, 1965.

–– Interview with Julia Carson, Banned in Ireland: Censorship and the Irish Writer, Julia Carson, ed., London: Routledge, 1990, p. 53-67.

QUINN A., "A Prayer for my Daughter: Patriarchy in Amongst Women," The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 17. 1, July 199 1, p. 79-90.

WAUGH E., Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962 (1945).


 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 6. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1995)