John McGahern, The Dark [1965] (London: Faber & Faber 1990).

Some Extracts

Keywords: priest; mystery; sock; pleasure; death; girls, women; father; dark, darkness; violence; England; authority. Notice pattern of narratorial pronouns: He, 21, 147, &c.; I, 32, 188, &c.; You, 37, 165, &c. Also small caps. spelling ‘The Leaving’ (Cert.). For full-text version of Chapter 12 (in Fr. Gerard’s House) see attached]

Chap. 1
 “Into the girl’s room. This’ll have to be witnessed. I’ll teach a lesson this house won’t forget” [...] He didn’t lift a hand, as if the stripping compelled by his will alone gave him pleasure. [8]

[...] he had to hurry out of the room with the last of his clothes in his hands, by the front door out to the old bolted refuge of the lavatory, with the breeze blowing through one airhole. There they all rushed hours as these to sit in the comforting darkness and reek of Jeyes Fluid to weep and grope their way in hatred and self-pity back to some sort of calm. [10]

Chap. 2
They all got beatings, often for no reason, because they laughed when he was in foul humour, but they learned to make him suffer - to close their life against him and to leave him to himself. [11]

Chap. 6
You went out into the night, clean with stars, but you didn’t linger; but went by the plot of great rhubard stalks to the dark lavatory, refuge of many evenings. [38]

Chap. 7
Such relief had come to you, fear and darkness gone, never would you sin again. The pleasures seemed so mean and grimy against the sheer delight of peace, pure as snow in the air.

[...] The world was unreal. All your life had been gathered into the Confesion, it had been lost, it was found. O God, How beautiful the world was. The benches, the lamps, the people kneeling there, all washed in wonder, the sheer quiet mystery of their faces. How beautiful the world was, you wanted to say to them, and why did they not dance and smile back at you, sing and praise. [42]


You were in a state of grace, you remembered you were supposed to love everyone, and your father was waiting for you outside the gate. You had no right to hate him, he was there to be loved too. [...; 43 - end.]

Chap. 8
There had never been any understanding or anything. But he was troubled by the intensity of the hatred, they were commanded [44] to love, though the nerves bristled with date at every advance or contact. [45]

Afterwards he took the woollen sock that had soaked the seed and held it to the light.
 “Fuck it,” was said quiet, eyes on the wet stain, dust of tiredness or hopelessness dry in your moth.
 “you couldn’t have Mary Moran if you went to be a priest [57] and you couldn’t be a priest the way as you were. The only way you could have her was as an old whore of your mind, and everything was growing fouled. [58]

[...] was it all mere pomp and ceremony to cover up the unendurable mystery, the red petals withering in the centre of the road with the people drinking ro gone home? It was [58] impossible to know, and in that uncertainty you went to confession, you had to find some limbo of control before facing the priest, but you were farther from any decision or certainty than ever before in your life. [59]

VOCATION: “The Holy Father had defined a vocation as three things: good moral character, at least average intelligence, a good state of health.” [72; for full episode, see attached.]

Chap. 13
Anguish stayed after the priest had gone - rage, you’d been stripped down to the last squalor, and no one had right to do that to anybody: shame, what must the priest think of you every time he looked at you any more: and if it could happen again what you’d say and not say, what you’d want to happen, you’d give nothing away, you’d destroy him, but it was all over now, except for the feverish restlessness of the anguish. The moonlight was still in the room, the crack across the mirror. The clocks beat the half-hours, single quick chimes,
but you couldn’t the hours, none of the clocks struck alone or together, just one broken medley. And it was impossible to sleep, the mind a preying whirl. [...]
 At last, restless and hot, you reached out and found a sock across your shoes on the floor, pulled your prick till it grew stiff, and you could push it into the sock. You were all disturbed [75] and it was something to do and it would draw off some of the fever. You turned and started to pump, rhythmically but without imagination till you heard the springs creaking. You moved out to the very edge of the bed, where the solid rail was under the mattress. You imagined nothing, neither edge of nylon nor pink nipple in your teeth, nor bands thrusting through your hair, but just pumped mechanical as a slow piston up and down, you got hot and you could press your mouth on the pillow, pumping madly, till you started to beat out into the sock. You turned at the last flutter, so that it wouldn’t have chance to seep through the wool and stain the sheet. Wet came on your hand as you removed the sock and let it fall over the shoes on the floor again. You were able to lie on your back and stare at the ceiling in more stupor than calm.
 Youd broken the three weeks discipline since Confession, you’d not be able to go to Communion in the morning. You’d never be able to be a priest either, you’d drift on without being able to decide anything. [...] [76]

[...] You ground your teeth, your hands clenched and unclenched, the mind bent on destruction of the night before, but only managing to circle and circle in its own futility [...] You were a drifter, you’d drift a whole life long after pleasure, but in the end there’d be a reckoning. [...] But the night and the room and your father and even the hedge around the orchard at home were all confusion, there was no beginning or end.
 In the grappling the things of the morning lost their starkness, you were standing lost between the graves when the door opened, and the priest was there, in his soutane, a jug and heav latchkey in his hand. [77].

Chap. 14
Once back in the room you had the pure day on your hands, without distraction, except when you wished to be without, the fears and doubts and longings, coming and going.
  The mahogany bookcase stood solid. Scott, Dickens, Canon Sheehan under glass: Wordsworth, Milton, volumes in brown leather, gold on the spines: staunch religious books, doctrine, histories of the church, books of sermons. One lone paperback, Tolstoy’s Resurrection in a red and white Penguin, and you turned the small key to get it out, though you’d never heard of it or Tolstoy. It didn’t look such a tomb as the others, there were more green leaves and living light of the day about it than the dust and memory of the others, it was too new for many dead hands to have turned the pages. [81]


If you married you would plant a tree to deny and break finally your father’s power, completely supplant it by the graciousness and marvel of your life, but as a priest you’d remain just fruit of the cursed house gone to God. [84]


You want to go out into the world? You want girls and women, to touch their dresses, to kiss, to hold soft flesh, to be held in their caressing arms? To bury everything in one swoon into their savage darkness?
  Dream of peace and loveliness, charm of security: picture of one woman, the sound of wife, a house with a garden and trees near a bend in the river. She your love waiting at the wooden gate in the evening, her black hair brushed high, [...; 82] a boy and a girl [...] Picnics down by the river Sunday afternoons, [...] Winter evenings with slippers and a book, in the firelight she is playing the piano [...] the long nights making love [...] A Christmas of rejoicing and feasting [...] World of happiness without end.
 You’d have to give that up to be a priest, but it would come to nothing on its own anyhow, the moments couldn’t be for long escaped. Death would come. Everything riveted into that. Possession of neither a world nor a woman mattered then, whether you could go to the Judgement or not without flinching, that was all that mattered. I strove as fierce as I was able, would be a lot to be able to say. A priest could say that. He’d chosen God before life.
 Hell was there too, the fires and crawling worms, sweat and curses, the despair of for ever. How would the innocent afternoons on the river look from hell the brush strokes through the black hair in the mirrow. Was it better never to know happiness so that there’d be no anguish of less. A priest could have no anguish [83]


Chap. 15
 “How much money have you, Joan?”
 “No, I just wanted to know. I had [sic for hadn’t] enough to get both of us home tomorrow but we have plenty now.” [93]

You didn’t know very much about yourself so. The mirror was before you now, temptation to probe to see other pictures of you in her mind, but it was no use, she had had her life as well as you, every life had too much importance and importance to be only a walking mirror for another. [94]

Chap. 16
 “[...] Did you ever hear of the word bourgeoisie?”
 “Yes, father. I did.”
 “It comes out of French strangely enough. Most of us in Ireland will soon be that, fear of the poor-house is gone, even the life your father brought you up on won’t last hardly twenty years more. A priest who ministers to the bourgeoisie [99] becomes more a builder of churches, bigger and more comfortable churches, and schools than a preacher of the Word of God. The Society influences the Word far more than the Word influences the Society. If you area good priest you have to walk a dangerous plank between committees on one hand and Truth or Justice on the other. I often don’t know. I often don’t know.”
 He paused on some futility or despair.
 “[...] A priest has to do it utterly alone, alone with his life and his God, there arenot any dramas of quarrel and reunion about that. It’s not easy, day after day.”
 His words, so different to anything he’d ever shown you in his life before, changed the day by magic, though you didn’t fully understand what he said. It became one call to struggle and sacrifice.
 “I thought I might be a priest after a few years, when I’d be more certain,” they moved you to say.
 “It’s unlikely,” he brought that to a halt. “I’m not so sure of late vocations. Life is very short. There’s something not nice about making a gift of worn clothes. You can do good in any way of life, a person is always more important than any way. If a man chooses a way of life he should try and stick to it. Changing doesn’t matter. You’ll have yourself on your hands at the end of all change. [100]  “Don’t throw things in the ditch no matter what happens. You’ll be tempted. Your faith will weaken. Doubt will grow like cancer. You’ll be rebuked by other people doing better in the world than you, but do not mind. Remember your life is a great mystery in Christ and that nothing but your state of mind can change. And pray. It’s not merely repetition of words. It’s a simple silent act of turning the mind on God, the contemplation of the mystery, the Son of God going by way of Palm Sunday to Calvary and on to Easter.”
 “Yes, father,” you answered, somewhere you’d felt or known that before though you couldn’t say how or when.
 “Though remember I’d do Peter on this in public before I’d admit it. They’d think they’d a madman for curate, and that’d do no one good. I’d deny it in public. It’d only cause trouble for me and everyone.”
You’d never heard talk of this kind before. Everything seemed to grow more complicated.
 “Thank you, father,” you said, mechanical.
 “For what?” he reacted sharply.
 “For telling me,” you fumbled, out of depth.
 “No, don’t thank me. Someone told me much the same once, it doesn’t matter much who. The man’s dead. But it was one thing I never lost, it meant something. I’ve told you now. The debt is paid back in some way. It is a great mystery.
 “Don’t think I’m a saint because I’m a priest and know things hundreds knew. I’d probably deny it before a crowd, to myself even on another night. I have some reason to believe that even the most stupid and mean are visited many times by consciousness of the mystery. You see it especially after the [101] feasts of food and wine, around Christmas, in the dregs of a wedding day. That it’s safely killed doesn’t matter. We all want to enjoy ourselves in eternal day. Security, that’s what everyone’s after, security.”
 What he said didn’t matter. He’d moved deeps within you that you could not follow. He was so changed: was this the same man that had showed you scars on his belly, the arm and voice of the night before, he who’d been resentful of you over the meal bemuse you’d left the house to see Joan. Yet it must be. It must be that something had broken, a total generosity flowing.
 “You can do me one favour.”
 “What, father?’
 “Remember me in your prayers, as I’ll remember you.”
 “I will, father.” [102]


 “Will I have to go to England? It’ll be horrid to face into all that strangeness.”
 “We may be all in England soon.” [104]
 “You too?”
 “Me too,” you smiled cruelly.” [105]


 “But England’s rotten, full of filth and dirt. No girl could be safe there.”
 “She wasn’t very sage where she’s after coming from and it’s no England”, it brought it to a sour end. [108]

Chap. 18
 You had to grind to do well in June. It could only be done a night at a time. You didn’t know what you wanted to do with your life even if you did do well in June. June was as blank and distant as your death, with hot days perhaps. The only way to get release was to work. You’d not go down or stand aside, you’d ride on top of the others if you could, whatever security that’d give. It was too grisly to think, it was easier to work than to think. Death was all that mattered, it gave quickness, that was one accent you’d never lose. You didn’t have to say it out loud. Life was the attraction, every instinct straining its way, and it was whether to be blind and follow, and work was a way out. Pass the exam. Learn the formula. Things would come out that way.
 One-two-three-four the reasons Napoleon failed at Waterloo. [114] Get by heart passages of prose to support an answer to Addison’s style when you knew every characteristic of style except that it was simply the inexplicable way a man who usually donned britches in the mornings had of writing. Learn how to praise the sensuous mysticism, the haunting lyricism of Ode to the Nightingale if they asked for an appreciation: how Keats’s imagination was befogged by too much heavy sensuousness if a criticism was the order of the day. On and on, further rubbish by the ton, cram it into the skull, get a high place in the Exam, play up and play the game well, ride down the slowcoaches. [114]

 “Anyone can go to England. If you’ve a fiver in your pocket and the boat fare you can go to England, that’s all that’s wanting. And I don’t want any dirty money from England. What do I want your money for? I got on before I ever saw sight or light of you, and I’ll get on after. Who wants your cursed money?”
 Violence had grown, steady eye on his throat and talking face, urge to smash him. Hate gave such strength that you felt you could break him, you didn’t care about anything any more, there was only this doghouse of the teeth at the throat.
 “Can you not shut up? Can you not even leave me alone for these few months?” you cried violently into his face and Mahoney was taken back, he could not meet it with his own old violence. [115]


You were crying, No one else in the class had to put up with such as this. They’d be helped and encouraged to study, not this mess, with that bastard of a madman shouting and hammering and abusing away, and why had you to be given such a dog’s chance.
 Your feet were on the mould of the rhubarb bed going for the lavatory with its Jeyes Fluid and solitary airhole when you stopped. You couldn’t do it, go in and smother yourself with sympathy and cursing.
  What happened didn’t matter, you had to go on, that was all. You had to look it in the face. That was the way your life was happening, that was the way you were. There was no time for sadness or self-pity. The show of your life would be always moving on to the next moment. The best was to dress up and bow to it and smile or just look on but it was easier to say than do.
  The night was cold. Away towards Oakport, above the Limekiln Wood, you began to watch the clouds cross the face of the three-quarter moon. [116; end chap.]

Chap. 19
 Violence often came: frustrated abuse of the books on the table till your hand hurt or you got afraid the noise might carry downstairs; or desire to smash the lamp would end with you going to the bed, loosening your clothes. A newspaper down on the floor, pull up the draped eiderdown, press your flesh on the bed’s edge. Black hair and lips on the yellow coverlet; soft white of the breast, pink nipple, lower. Pump your nakedness into the bed’s belly, hot flush rushing to the face as it goes down to the lips opening and closing on the yellow coverlet, the raw tongue seeking past the teeth, fit of trembling before the seed pumps rustling down on the already positioned newspaper. Heavy breathing and sweat hampers the dressing again. Crumple the newspaper and put it to burn, the wet centre hissing. You are quiet and moping, the body dead as ashes: as you go back to the table and books a vicious musing about how many conceptions the rationed distribution of all that seed hissing in the centre of the newspaper, how many could it cause, the passing eggs touched to life. [118]


Most came from small farms in the country on their bicycles, stacked downstairs where they ate their lunches out of paper bags and horseplayed on wet days. They knew too it was get high honours or go to England. The air was tense with this fear through the exam, the folding doors that sepatated the classrooms drawn back to make an examination hall. [119]

Chap. 19
The next night you didn’t give up, you’d go through in the face of set teeth before you’d give up now or be crushed by some other force outside of your will. [...] This was the slow night of struggle, night after night till June, and the strain couldn’t be much worse in life afterwards. [...] This was the slow night of struggle, night after night till June, and the strain couldn’t be much worse in life afterwards. You’d the satisfaction of staggering away from it downstairs at ten, compitely worn, the swaying contentment after the football pitch or alley, only more so, diabolical pride of drawing the mind to the boundaries of what it could take, the shiver of the nerves as it trembled back from the edges. [117]

Chap. 20
There was it simply, and you had set your face the other way from it, towards the bauble. you were heading out into an uncertain life, sacrificing the certainty of a life based on death; for what you didn’t know, windblown excitements and imaginings that in the dumdrum of their actuality might soom get stripped of their sensual marvel. [127]

How easy it would be to go downstairs to the community room where the priest interviewed anyone interested afterwards and say, “I want to be a priest, father.” Everything would be taken care of. You’d go to the Seminary at the end of the year. You’d be cut loose from your father. You’d not have to worry about a job or what people thought. In your death you’d be a priest, a priest of God, the death already accepted in life, the life already given into His keeping before it was required, years before, in your youth. [127]

There was a fierce drag to go down to the community room and give your life into that death, but no, you’d set your face another direction, and you knew if you did go down that the draf would be back to where you were now. No way was easy. [127]

The other appeals - comradeship, the sharing of mysterious power, working in exotic countries where oranges and lemons grew along the roadside, walking with the great of the land - never moved you much. In reality your life moved in the shade of a woman or death. Only the lifeless or blind fell for the lesser of these. This was just the destruction of [127] entering the dream around delight of the woman or the disciplined waiting in the priesthood of Christ. [...; 127-28]

[Mahony:] “this is my life, and this kitchen in the townland of Cloone is my stage, and I am playing my life out here on,” and he stood, the eyes wild, as if grappling for his lines.
 “And nobody sees me except a crowd of childer,” the voice trailed bitterly, and then burst out again.
 “But it’s important, it’s important to me, it’s the only life I’ve got, it’s more important than anything else in the world to me. I went to school too,” and he started to sob drunkenly [...]
 “What are ye gaping at? [...; 128]

The poor tramps of the road, were supposed to have better chance in the final round-up than the secure. What was you alone went to Him, not the roses and vegetable garden and semi-detached house and young wife and children and the Ford or Volkswagen for Sunday outings from the Dublin suburbs you took to him if you got the Junior Executive Exam for the Civil Service, but whatever was you alone. [129]

 There was certain pain leaving for the last time, getting the bicycle out of the big room [...] They were gone, the places in their days, probably able to see them again but never this way, coming from the day of the school. Part of my life had passed in them, it was over, to name them again was to name the dead life as much as them, frozen in the mystery of love.
 Yet the surface of it was that I had cycled past them hundreds of evenings without paying the slightest attention. I knew them only now when they were lost, I’d loved them without knowing, and only learned of the love in the losing, and I cycled past the trees and houses of the road, the quarry, afraid to think: and Mahoney read the last paper greedy as he’d read all the others when I got home.
 “So it’s over,” he said. ”I’m afraid I wouldn’t have made much of a fist of any of it.”
 “You would if you’d been taught, if you’d studied for it. It wasn’t so hard.”
 “Nothing’s hard if you have the know-how, it’s only hard if you don’t. And you think you managed it alright?”
 “I think I did.” [145]
 “Time’ll soon tell that. And whether the others did better.”
 “That’s the question,” I was able to laugh. I didn’t care, the dice was through, I’d have to wait to read its fall, that was all.”
 “That’s the question,” Mahoney repeated, ”And one certain thing is that there’s not places for everyone.”
 “Dog eat dog,” Mahoney muttered in an abstraction over the red paper, the conversation fading.
 “Dog eat dog, who’ll eat and who’ll be eaten, and what’ll the eaters and the eaten do,” there was at least grim laughter.
”Go on aten, and being et,” Mahoney said.
”I suppose.”
  “May you be lucky anyhow. That’s all there’s for me to say. And may you be lucky with your luck,” he said, an old prayer. He took his hat off the sill. I watched him go.
 “There’s still work to be done, exams or no exams.”
I gathered and put away the books that night. The nights of slavery, cramming the mind for the exam, most of it useless rubbish, and already being forgotten. The most that was left was some of the Latin lyrics, their strange grace; Macbeth; some poems; and the delight of solving the maths problems, putting order on their enclosed world, proving that numbers real and imaginary had relationships with each other. That was all. The quicker the rest went out of the head the better. One by one I put the books away, a kind of reverence, my life same as by the shops of the town had passed over these pages, it was over, but there were too many kinds of deaths, and no one’s life was very important except to himself or someone else in love with it.
[...; end.] 146 ]

Chap. 26
The day would not end properly without the Royal Hotel, its promise of celebration in style. ON day they’d dress up and go to town and dine in the Royal Hotel, it was come true at last. [156]
 “Do you know what that cost?” Mahony joined him.
 “We got to the Royal Hotel at last, after all these years. It’s a fine meal and a happy day. We’ve come into our own at last. We’re celebrating in style and something to celebrate at last.”
A vision of how happy the others must be with their tea and bread, free in the hosue, no burden of what they were not accustomed to.
 “Yes, that’s all that matters,” pressure of Mahoney was driving him crazy, ground underfoot by it, and the walls of the room and the people closing round, he’d have to get out of here, if it was only to see the empty street and gulp air on the bridge or watch the river flow into Key and Rockingham.
 “A disgrace, no wonder they’re rotten rich. You pay for the silver and the ’Sir’, and the view of the river as if you never saw a river. Think of all the loaves of bread you could buy for the price of them two meals.! [...; 159]
 “It gives me the creeps, that place! No matter what happens it winds up there. And you wouldn’t mind only there’s people dying to get into it,” everybody repeated themselves but suddenly the old joke he wanted to laugh with him and say,
 “You are marvellous, my father.” [160]

Chap. 27

 “Good-bye. Thanks,” he wanted to say it now for everything if he could, no bitterness or anything else in some vision of this parting as both their lives passing utterly alone and lost in time, outside the accidental places and manner of their happening, and then one absolute compulsion to praise or bless. [163]

This was the dream you’d left the stern and certain road of the priesthood to follow after, that road so attractive now since you hadn’t to face walking it any more, and this world of sensuality from which you were ready to lose your soul not so easy to drag to your mouth either for that one destructive kiss, [177] as hard to lose your soul as to save it. Only in the mind was it clear. [178].

Chap. 30
[The Dean’s scorn:] ‘[...T]here seemed contempt in his voice, you and Mahoney would [187] never give commands but be menials always to the race he’d come from and still belonged to, you’d make a schoolteacher at best. You might have your uses but you were both his stableboys, and would never eat at his table.

One day, one day, you’d come perhaps to a more real authority than all this, an authority that had need of neither vast buildings nor professorial chairs nor robes nor solemn organ tone, an authority that was simply a state of mind, a calmness in the face of the turmoil of your own passing. [188]

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