- "In My Father's House":Renegotiations of Boyhood in Life Writing by John McGahern, Ciaran O'Driscoll, Dermot Healy, and Ciaran Carson
Recent Irish life writing has been marked by a proliferation of works that give particular prominence to reconstructing the formative childhood experiences of the authors in the middle decades of the last century—the austere de Valera years in the post-independence south of the country and the period of straitened postwar Unionist hegemony in Northern Ireland.1 Childhood and youth are not only central to the four books discussed below; they are also, in many ways, the essential subject matter of these works of highly self-conscious recollection and remembering of particular aspects of the past in order to understand, interpret, or draw creatively upon them from adult perspectives. John McGahern's Memoir (2005), his last completed work, was published when he was seventy one; Ciaran O'Driscoll's A Runner Among Falling Leaves (2001), when he was fifty-eight; and both Dermot Healy's The Bend for Home (1996) and Ciaran Carson's The Star Factory (1997), when the writers were forty-nine. All four men were already well-known for their literary achievements in other genres, and in this respect these books may be situated in the tradition of Irish literary autobiography and autobiographical fiction that extends across the twentieth century. As other commentators have observed, in many key [End Page 218] earlier works of Irish autobiography from the period of the Revival and the early years of independence, the social, political, and cultural history of the nation coexists in intricate proximity to the writer's personal history, which not only complicates and contextualizes the account of the emerging individual but also threatens to subsume it, and thereby to compromise the aspiration to achieve a form of individualized self-expression.2 However, the pressure for McGahern, O'Driscoll, and Healy was less to identify with national aspirations than to survive parental disillusionment with the realities of Irish independence and the authoritarian oppressiveness of family and society in the course of discovering their individual voices. Carson's childhood, meanwhile, was shaped by belonging to minority groups in both religion and language within a city deeply divided by sectarianism and discrimination. As a result, therefore, these books do not principally construct the past in terms of a national history but, rather, foreground the connections between the evolution of each writer and his ability to renegotiate intense and sometimes anguished memories of childhood and adolescence.
In doing so, they also renew an Irish thematic preoccupation in both life writing and literature—the relationship between sons and their fathers. As examples ranging from Moore's Confessions of a Young Man, Yeats's Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, Synge's The Playboy of the Western World, and Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Brian Friel's Philadelphia Here I Come, Hugh Leonard's Da, Brian Moore's The Emperor of Ice-Cream, and McGahern's own novel The Dark suggest, this relationship has characteristically been depicted as a difficult and competitive struggle to maintain and assert authority on the paternal side and to establish autonomy and individual identity on the son's part. That pattern is reiterated in McGahern's and O'Driscoll's accounts of their youth, [End Page 219] whereas Healy and Carson offer significant variations on it. For each, the father is a key presence and influence; yet it is notable that the sons were all middle aged or older by the time their books were published, and with the exception of Carson, their fathers were already dead, which is powerfully suggestive of the complexity both of these relationships and of the act of articulating them.
Nancy K. Miller has written that "memoirs are documents about building an identity—how we become who we are as individuals—and a crucial piece of that development takes place in the family" (xi). McGahern's Memoir appears to conform to this description in many ways. Motivated in part by the desire to memorialize his mother, it articulates the association he makes between what he learned from her and all that he...