Life in rural Ireland, two generations ago

Life in rural Ireland, two generations ago Walter Macken at home in his native Galway.
The Bogman

by Walter Macken [1952] (Modern Irish Classics/New Island Books, €11.95)

Walter Macken may be a familiar name to some of our readers. In the 1960s, he was a hit author, with a best-selling trilogy of historical novels, and before that he was a successful actor and playwright with the Abbey Theatre. Knowing this, New Island Book’s decision to reprint his works as part of a ‘Modern Irish Classics’ series makes sense, to introduce him to new generations of Irish readers.

Their choice of novel, however, is strange. The Bogman, Macken’s fourth novel and one of the plethora of Irish ‘misery memoirs’, bares the markings of an ideological rather than an artistic choice. His vision of a stifling, irrational rural village in the 1950s fits nicely with our preconceptions, but does little to make reading the book an inviting prospect.


Set in the fictional village of Caherlo in the west of Ireland, it recounts the travails of Cahal – an intelligent, good-looking orphan, recently released from an industrial school to return to his tyrannical grandfather, who turfed him out originally. Just 16 when he returns, the novel spans 14 years, as Cahal falls out with everyone in the community, with the exception of a few good-looking young women. (It’s likely his various affairs with them led to the book’s ban shortly after being released.)

Irish artists down through the years have devoted their time to demonstrating the stifling nature of rural Ireland – John Millington Synge and Patrick Kavanagh in Tarry Flynn are two others who jump to mind. If Macken’s portrayal of rural communities is accurate then it’s no surprise that they did so. When Caherlo’s men arise to cast Cahal out of the community, they are characterised as one, black, lumpen mass, the worst kind of irrational mob.

This depiction, it would seem, results from a chasm of understanding between the man of artistic sensibility and his subjects, who unfortunately have no literary skill in rising to their own defence. It also seems a conflict between modern and pre-modern sensibilities. Cahal – and presumably Macken – shows little sympathy for their pride or sense of self, inimically tied up as it is with their community. To him, they are ultimately the oppressors, unable to recognise or accept his individuality. For him, freedom comes when communal ties are severed and man is his own master.

The issue is that Cahal, having misunderstood when he first arrived the need to stand up for himself in order to thrive in the community, compounds his error by then deliberately and successively tweaking the noses of his neighbours. It’s hard to have much sympathy for him, however hard Macken works to create it.

And he does work hard – the plot-twists tip over into melodrama towards the end and the book becomes almost a page-turning pot boiler. For instance, when Cahal rescues a man – Jamesy – from a river, but not the man’s father, Jamesy turns on him, accusing Cahal of effectively killing his father. It’s the kind of clumsy device necessary to ensure there’s not one friend left for Cahal, that we might better sympathise with his plight.

The pity is, Macken can clearly write. His sentences are short and fluid, while the dialogue often has a musicality to it. He brings to life with tender the care the landscape, so that at times it is like a painting and at others a poem. There are smatterings of humour and passages – such as Cahal rescuing Jamesy from a river made swollen and turbid by heavy rains – that are exciting.

So, while this book is not the best way “in” to his works, there was enough evidence of his skill in it to pique my curiosity in Macken. Almost despite the book, he is now an author I’d like to read more of.