Close Analysis of John McGahern’s ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’

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(For those of you who would like to revisit the novel in your own time all page references are from the Faber and Faber paperback edition.)

 

That They May Face the Rising Sun was published in 2001 (published in the United States as By the Lake) and is a portrait of a year in the life of a rural lakeside community.  It mirrors McGahern’s own return to his rural roots and is his paean to place.  I recently tucked this gem away in the hand luggage to reacquaint myself with the master’s work.  Don, my son, mentioned when he saw me reading it again that he would challenge me to date it – in other words, when exactly is it set?

The structure of the novel is unique and yet deceptive.  There are no Chapters or other recognised breaks in the novel – the story slowly evolves and is told in a circular, repetitive manner, a kind of stream of consciousness novel, beautifully crafted and told by a master storyteller.  McGahern throws some light on this layering and repetition in an interview given to James Whyte, ‘I see the whole function of writing as circling on the image […] To try to pick the image that’s sharp, that can dramatise or bring to light what is happening, be it a wedding ring, a Coca-cola bottle, or someone rolling an orange across the floor.’ [1]

The setting is one McGahern knows completely. It’s his own place, a remote and sparsely populated corner of Fenagh, County Leitrim, between Carrick-on-Shannon and the border near Enniskillen. There are a few houses by a lake, a bog stretching away to the distant Iron Mountains, a small town with two bars and a roofless abbey with the remains of a monks’ graveyard called Shruhaun.  This setting is described meticulously and repeatedly, just as it appears in stories like ‘High Ground’ or ‘The Country Funeral’.  The novel is dedicated to Madeline Green, his wife and support in those final productive years by the lake.

In response to Don’s challenge, the novel is hard to tie down time-wise – there are hints dropped here and there and we get outside references to ‘Fords of Dagenham’, ‘the death of de Valera’ (1975), ‘the escape from Long Kesh’ (1975),  ‘the hunger strikes’ (1980’s),  ‘the ring road round Roscommon’ (1980’s),  ‘Blind Date’ and All Ireland Finals on the television and ‘the massacre at Enniskillen’ (1987), etc.    However, McGahern is continually moving from the present to the past and much of the farming practices described are throw-backs to the Seventies, and Eighties – haymaking, single bar mowers, square bales, and the use of the buck rake are all redolent of this era. However, they are characteristic of ‘small’ farming practices on small holdings in poorer regions to this day.  This muddies the waters when trying to accurately date the text.  As a fictional work accounting for the final years of the author’s life and his return to his native place, my guess is that it took a number of years to write.  Therefore, my best guess is that it was written over time but no later than 1990.

However, it is not of vital importance that we accurately pinpoint the time of writing – it is a beautifully layered piece – it is akin to O’Faolain’s ‘A Nest of Gentle Folk’ – describing the locals, their relationships, their hardships, their foibles and peculiarities.  The lake itself is even reminiscent of Chekov’s ‘magic lake’ in The Seagull. This is mixed in with often poetic seasonal observations from the surrounding nature – the hills, the fields, the swans, the herons, the dogs and cats, the sheep and cattle of the small townland – and of course the lake which takes on the mantle of an ever-present vital character in the novel:

‘The banks were in the full glory of the summer, covered with foxgloves and small wild strawberries and green vetches.  The air was scented with wild woodbine’ (p.15).

‘Around him was the sharp scent of the burnished mint.  Close by, two swans fished in the shallows, three dark cygnets by their side.  Further out, a whole stretch of water was alive and rippling with a moving shoal of perch.  Elsewhere, except where it was ruffled by sudden summer gusts, the water was like glass’ (p.15).

In this place all news is local.  The daily visits to each other’s houses bring the usual banter:

‘Have you any news?’

‘No news.  Came looking for news.’

‘You came to the wrong place.  We are waiting for news’ (p. 126-127).

The outside world does not intrude to any great extent – McGahern is reinforcing the notion that all politics is local, that community is everything.  He is painting a picture of a disappearing world, of a close-knit rural community, cut off from the great earth-shattering events we see described on Sky and CNN – here all that matters is news of John Quinn’s latest conquest or other trivial local happenings which have been reported in the local Observer. The one significant ‘international’ story is the continuing ‘Troubles’ North of the border.  What, I wonder, would the locals in this small backwater Border area make of Brexit when it comes to the shores of the lake?

A year’s cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day, lambing. We move at one level from Bill Evans’ daily visits to the Ruttledges and his trips to town on Thursdays to the Shah’s arrival round the lake on Sunday’s.  We then move to celebrations of Christmas, Monaghan Day in February, Easter and the arrival of Johnny Murphy on his annual visit home from England.   Food, drink, seasons, weather, the grey heron, the black cat, are re-created continually, different each time, with intense, eloquent simplicity, as if a painter (or a poet) were returning over and over to the same scene:

The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish.  There were many swans on the lake.  A grey rowboat was fishing along the far shore.  A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog.  A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand.  The blue of the mountain was deeper and darker than the blue of the lake or the sky.  Along the high banks at the edge of the water there were many little private lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otters fed and trained their young (p.44).

As we read, we encounter the ones who stayed, the ones who left and return once a year and the blow-ins who come to live in this magical backwater of a place.  The story is told in cycles of time, the seasons melding into each other, Christmas and Easter given their rightful place.  Even the title echoes the Resurrection at Easter-time and helps explain why every Christian graveyard faces the rising sun!  The novel may not have Chapters in the accepted sense but as we read we are lulled by the benign, repetitive rhythms and cadences of rural life: On Sundays the Shah’s black Mercedes rolls round the lake, on Thursdays Billy Evans goes to the local town in the yellow minibus, each summer Johnny comes from London on his holidays and each evening the heron rises out of the reeds and flaps ahead leading Jamesie round the shore.

Joe Ruttledge and his wife Kate ‘came from London in the spring’ having abandoned the mayhem of London’s high life and glamour and purchased a small cottage by the lake.  The auctioneer, Jimmy Joe McKiernan is brutally honest about their prospective purchase telling them that it is little more than a site, ‘a site above a lake, on twenty acres’:

The small fields around the house were enclosed with thick whitethorn hedges, with ash and rowan and green oak and sycamore, the fields overgrown with rushes.  Then the screens of whitethorn suddenly gave way and they stood high over another lake.  The wooded island where the herons bred was far out, and on the other shore, the pale sedge and stunted birch trees of Gloria Bog ran towards the shrouded mountains….. Swans and dark clusters of wildfowl were fishing calmly in the shelter (p.19).

They learn quickly the native ways and discover a place where they belong – all temptations to return to the centre are gently refused.  Through them, we are introduced to the motley crew of neighbours, the mad, the bad and the sad.  Their foibles, their character and flaws are keenly observed – mainly through Joe’s eyes.  Their neighbour, Patrick Ryan remarks:

‘Strange to think of all the people that went out to England and America and the ends of the earth from this place and yon pair coming back against the tide’ (p.80)

They are blessed with their neighbours – particularly Mary and Jamesie Murphy.  From the very beginning, Jamesie and Mary befriend the new arrivals, Joe and Kate, and made them welcome.  Mary is a very deep reflective character, the real strength in the Murphy household.  She had grown up at the edge of the lake and when she married Jamesie she left her father and brother and moved to her new home at the far side of the lake.  Her home place is described as being idyllic:

Cherry and apple and pear trees grew wild about the house, and here and there the fresh green of the gooseberry shone out of a wilderness of crawling blackthorn.  Hundreds of daffodils and white narcissi still greeted each spring by the lake with beauty, though there was no one near at hand to notice’ (p.92).

When she marries she is torn between her new home and having to leave her father and brother to fend for themselves.  She begins to understand that ‘to be without anxiety was to be without love’ (p.94).  Kate Ruttledge recognizes her worth as a friend and compliments her by saying that the spirit of her old home came with her across the lake. Mary and Jamesie live out their life by the lake: her father passes away, her brother emigrates to Boston, she becomes pregnant and Jim is born. He does well in school, winning a scholarship to continue schooling in the local town.  He marries and has children of his own.  He visits infrequently and holidays in Italy.  Mary’s silent reaction is characteristic of her deep and reflective nature:

Completely alone though a part of the crowd, Mary stood mutely gazing on her son and his wife as if in wonderment how so much time had disappeared and emerged again in such strange and substantial forms that were and were not her own.  Across her face there seemed to pass many feelings and reflections: it was as if she ached to touch and gather in and make whole those scattered years of change.  But how can time be gathered in and kissed?  There is only flesh (p.131-132).

Thinking of her brother-in-law, Johnny, who has returned to his bedsit in London she falls into reverie and shares a philosophy which is probably also shared by McGahern himself:

‘People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead,’ Mary said with a darkness that was as much a part of her as the sweet inward-looking smile, ‘We’re no more than a puff of wind out on the lake’ (p. 121).

Jamesie, an inveterate gossip is, however, a great neighbour and, especially in those early days, the difference between Joe and Kate surviving in their new location.  Early on he tells Joe, ‘I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world’.  As the novel ends, a very emotional Joe acknowledges the debt he owes to Jamesie when he says:

‘You do know the whole world,’ Ruttledge said.  ‘And you have been my sweet guide.’ (p. 312).

However, Jamesie and Mary, and Joe and Kate are the exceptions in this novel as the novel is peopled mainly by single men, men who see being single as a state to be coveted and prized: The Shah, Johnny Murphy, Patrick Ryan, Bill Evans, are all single.  The only exception to this general rule is John Quinn whose biblical mantra is ‘that it is not good that man should be alone’.  Quinn’s numerous efforts at fulfilling this ‘commandment’ are described, sometimes with humour, but his abuse of women is seen as abhorrent and crude.  The others are perfectly happy in their bachelorhood and this is one of the social ills that McGahern holds up to inspection in the novel.  Joe wonders why Patrick Ryan had never considered marriage:

This good-looking, vigorous man had lived all his life around the lake where nothing could be concealed, and he had never shown any sexual interest in another.  ‘I don’t have to even countenance that job,’ he joked once to Ruttledge.  ‘John Quinn has agreed to do my share’ (p. 213).

Father Conroy, the Catholic Parish priest is their role model – he lives a comfortable bachelor life, is respected and is seen as a pillar of the community but his power and influence, and the influence of the Church he represents is waning.  He is depicted as a peripheral, marginalized figure. No-one has a bad word to say about him. In his defence, he does use his influence in getting Bill Evans reinstated on the Thursday bus to town and he eventually finds a place for Bill in the new independent living accommodation in town – called ironically, Tráthnóna.  However, the locals have made their assessment of priests in general and what they represent:

‘Anyhow all the priests in England are sociable.  They are not directly connected to God like the crowd here.’

‘Father Conroy isn’t like that,’ Ruttledge intervened.

‘Father Conroy is plain.  The priests had this country abulling with religion once.  It’s a good job it’s easing off,’ Patrick Ryan said (p.86).

Joe Ruttledge sees Father Conroy as a decent man who tries his best not to offend and to blend in as best he can. Joe realizes that the priest is fighting a losing battle with diminishing levels of religious practice in the community.  That They May Face the Rising Sun is one of the last great expositions of a Catholic community moving on into a ‘Post-Catholic’ world and is another non-bitter example of Ireland’s troubled and complex relationship with the Catholic religion.

The novel is suffused with words of easy wisdom – distilled, incisive one-liners that come from a life keenly observed in the solitude and mindfulness of rural existence (and often delivered as banter):

  • ‘He that is down can fear no fall’ (p. 2)
  • ‘The way we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived are often very different’ (p.3)
  • ‘Thought pissed in the bed and thought he was sweating. His wife thought otherwise’ (p.3)
  • ‘You nearly have to be born into a place to know what’s going on and what to do’ (p.3)
  • ‘Those that care least will win’ (p.6)
  • Jamesie’s wisdom: ‘Enter lightly … and leave on tiptoe. Put the hand across but never press.  Ask why not but never why.  Always lie so that you speak the truth and God save all poor sinners’ (p.8)
  • ‘They say we think the birds are singing when they are only crying this is mine out of their separate territories’ (p.21)
  • ‘The borrowed horse has hard hooves’ (p.26)
  • ‘Let nobody try to best the guards or the doctors or teachers. They have their own ways of getting back at you. (p.34)
  • ‘There’s too much fucken drink passed around in this country’ (p.46)
  • ‘There’s nothing right or wrong in this world. Only what happens’ (p.58)
  • ‘There are times when the truth is the wrong thing’ (p.98)
  • ‘Lies can walk while the truth stays grounded’ (p.98)
  • ‘There’s a big difference between visiting and belonging’ (p.99)
  • ‘There’s nothing worse than widows. Even priests will tell you that’ (p.105)
  • ‘With people living longer there’s a whole new class who are neither in the world or in the graveyard’ (p.155)
  • ‘The greatest country in Ireland was always the world to come’ (p.210)
  • Finally, my favourite! It is Christmas Day and Joe Ruttledge is visiting his neighbour Patrick Ryan.  Patrick has a few cattle but they are not well taken care of.  He passes a very pessimistic comment to Joe that ‘I suppose no more than ourselves, lad, it doesn’t make all that much differ whether they live or die’.  Joe disagrees but doesn’t express his thoughts out loud – we, the readers, are the lucky ones with this beautiful, unspoken Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life?  What does love become but care?  Ruttledge thought in opposition but did not speak’ (p.216).

One of the major episodes in the novel is the annual summer ritual of haymaking.  This was often a very hectic, stressful and frenetic time for farmers who, in Ireland at any rate, are open to the vagaries of the Irish weather.  This is beautifully rendered by McGahern in the novel and the various mundane tasks of saving the hay crop are punctuated with many poetic descriptions of high summer by the lake:

Then the settled weather came, the morning breeze from the lake lifting and tossing the curtains on the open windows to scatter early light around the bedroom walls (p.108).

…..

Outside there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  The ripe heavy grass in the meadow was stirring like water beneath the light breeze (p.110).

…..

The morning wind from the lake that lifted the curtains had died.  The water was like glass, reflecting the clear sky on either side of a sparkling river of light from a climbing sun.  Not a breath of wind moved on the meadows.  The only movement was the tossing of the butterflies above the restful grass (p.110).

…..

When all the meadows were cut they looked wonderfully empty and clean, the big oak and ash trees in the hedges towering over the rows of cut grass, with the crows and the gulls descending in a shrieking rabble to hunt frogs and snails and worms.  In the corners of the meadows, pairs of plump pigeons were pecking busily at grass seed’ (p.111).

…..

Along the shore a boy was fishing out on the stones, casting a glittering spoon out over the water and then reeling it slowly in.  The heron rose out of the reeds and flapped ahead before swinging away towards the farther shore.  A glaring red sun was sinking below the rim of the sky (p.117).

…..

The next morning a white mist obscured even the big trees along the shore.  Gossamer hung over the pear and plum and apple trees in the orchard and a pale spiderwebbing lay across the grass in the field (p.117).

…..

The very quiet and coolness of the morning was delicious with every hour promising later heat.  When the sun had burned away the mist and dried the dew on the swards, the tedding[2] began (p.118).

…..

As the stacks (of hay) disappeared from the meadows and the shed filled, the sun coming and going behind the dark, racing clouds, they were able to stack the last loads at their ease, chatting and idling.  The birds had gone quiet.  The hum of the insects was still.  Swallows were sweeping low above the empty meadows.  The wind beats of swans crossing between the lakes came on the still air and they counted seven in formation before they disappeared below the screen of trees (p. 134-135).

Weather by the lake is also described in detail and is used as a device to show the passage of time.  Without exception, these link passages are again powerfully poetic and show McGahern’s exceptional powers of observation:

Autumn: ‘There were many days of wind and rain.  Uneasy gusts ruffled the surface of the lake, sending it running this way and that.  Occasionally, a rainbow arched all the way across the lake.  More often the rainbows were as broken as the weather, appearing here and there in streaks or brilliant patches of colour in the unsettled sky.  When rain wasn’t dripping from leaves or eaves, the air was so heavy it was like breathing rain.  The hives were quiet.  Only the midges swarmed’ (p. 154).

…..

‘The lake was an enormous mirror turned to the depth of the sky, holding its lights and its colours.  Close to the reeds there were many flies, and small shoals of perch were rippling the surface with hints of the teeming energy and life of the depths.  The reeds had lost their bright greenness and were leaning towards the water.  Everything that had flowered had now come to fruit’ (p. 186).

…..

‘The little vetch pods on the banks turned black.  Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes.  The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed.  Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot.  Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar.  For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean’ (p.191).

Winter: ‘The leaves started to fall heavily in frosts, in ghostly whispering streams that never paused though the trees were still.  They formed into drifts along the shore….. Traceries of branches stripped of their leaves stood out against the water like veins.  Under each delicate rowan tree lay the pale rowan stones, like droppings.  In the cold dry weather the hedges were thinned for firewood, the evenings rent with the whining rise and fall of other chainsaws similarly working.  In this new weather, sounds travelled with a new cold sharpness’ (p. 192).

…..

‘A river of beaten copper ran sparkling from shore to shore in the centre of the lake.  On either side of this bright river peppered with pale stars the dark water seethed.  Far away the light of the town glowed in the sky’ (p. 201).

Spring: ‘The fields long sodden with rain hardened in the drying winds.  Small flowers started to appear on banks and ditches and in the shelter of the hedges….. Birds bearing twigs in their beaks looped through the air.  The brooding swan resumed her seat on the high throne in the middle of the reeds.  The otter paths between the lakes grew more beaten.  In shallows along the shore the water rippled with the life of spawning pike and bream: in the turmoil their dark fins showed above the water and the white of their bellies flashed when they rolled.  The lambs were now out with their mothers on the grass, hopping as if they had mechanical springs in their tiny hooves, sometimes leapfrogging one another’ (p.250).

…..

‘There were primroses and violets on the banks of the lane and the dark leaf of the wild strawberry, dandelion in flower and little vetches.  It was too early to scent the wild mint but they could see its rough leaves crawling along the edges of the gravel’ (p. 258).

Summer: ‘The plum trees blossomed, then the apple came and the white brilliance of the pear tree.  May came in wet and windy.  The rich green of the grass in the shelter of the hedges travelled out over the whole fields.  Weeds had to be pulled from the ridges, the vegetable garden turned and weeded.  Foxgloves appeared on the banks of the lane and the scent of the wild mint was stronger along the shore’ (p. 263).

…..

‘The water was silent, except for the chattering of the wildfowl, the night air sweet with the scents of the ripening meadows, thyme and clover and meadowsweet, wild woodbine high in the whitethorns mixed with the scent of the wild mint crawling along the gravel on the edge of the water’ (p. 312-313).

As the novel moves to its climax McGahern revisits the annual commemoration of the massacre at Glasdrum.  This is embedded in the local folk memory and commemorates an ambush carried out by the Black and Tans during the turbulent War of Independence.  The local volunteers had no chance and were mown down in the ambush and their bodies are buried in the graveyard in Shruhaun.  Following the massacre, the locals carried out a reprisal killing and the local Protestant, Sinclair, is taken away from his family and shot.  Each year the deaths of the IRA volunteers are commemorated by a march and speeches are made at their gravesides.  This is orchestrated by the Jimmy Joe McKiernan and is used as a reminder of the brutality and oppression suffered in the past.

The whole area on either side of the Border again suffered greatly during the ‘Troubles’ which divided the people in Northern Ireland during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.  Communities on both sides of the Border were convulsed with acts of brutality and violence.  This conflict is close and ever-present; it colours the whole history of the region.  Jimmy Joe McKiernan who is also the local auctioneer, publican and undertaker has his finger in many pies.

In the middle of the crowd, Jimmy Joe McKiernan walked quietly, the head of the Provisionals, North and South, with power over all who marched (p.258).

McKiernan’s every move is monitored by a very Irish form of surveillance: two ‘undercover’ detectives sit in their ‘unmarked’ police car in a laneway across from his bar in the village and record his every move. McGahern’s cipher and benign alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out fiercely against the violence towards the end of the book – ‘They honoured themselves at Enniskillen.  How many people did they kill and maim?’ (p.238).  We are left in no doubt where the author stands on this important issue – an issue that is raised on the opening page when Joe Ruttledge tells us:

‘We never speak badly about people.  It’s too dangerous.  It can get you into trouble’ (p. 1).

Throughout the novel, in endless, repetitive descriptions of people and places, McGahern is reminding us all of how people lived in the past and how we should live our lives today before it is too late. There is an old Irish sean fhocail or proverb which states ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – we rely on our neighbours for our survival.  The pastoral and Edenlike world created by McGahern here in this, his swansong novel, gives us a notion of how this can be achieved; neighbourliness, hospitality, ritual, friendly banter.  In capturing this passing way of life he celebrates its rites and rituals with such dignity that the novel has many of the hallmarks of religious worship. But more important than the living world he celebrates is the natural world which surrounds it – the sun, the sky and the lake – which provides order and an everlasting backdrop to the lives of its inhabitants. The time frame of the novel may be blurred and timeless but the constantly evolving and changing descriptions of the lake are a constant reminder of our strictly human scope within the wider canvas of the natural world.  As Mary Murphy reminds us we are merely passing through – “We’re but a puff of wind on the lake.”  Joe Ruttledge puts it beautifully in his already mentioned Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life? What does love become but care?’

[1] Interview, quoted in James Whyte, History, Myth and Ritual in the Fiction of John McGahern, NY: Edwin Mellon Press 2002, p.229.

[2] Tedding – turning the hay with a hay turner

McGahern (3)

Read also: Amongst Women by John McGahern

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