40 pages 1 hour read

John McGahern

Amongst Women

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1990

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Summary and Study Guide


Amongst Women by John McGahern is a contemporary Irish novel published in 1990. This novel explores themes of The Individual in a Changing World, The Individual Versus the Collective, and The Importance of Women. Amongst Women is also specific to Irish history and culture, as it portrays a rapidly modernizing Ireland that threatens the protagonist Moran’s sense of self.

Considered McGahern’s greatest work, Amongst Women is the fifth of his six published novels. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1990 and won the Irish Times Aer Lingus Literary Award in 1991. Amongst Women was adapted into a television series for the BBC and RTÉ in 1998. This adaptation was nominated for a BAFTA and won Best Television Drama at the Irish Film and Television Awards.

This guide refers to the 1990 Penguin Books edition.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide include depictions of family conflict, physical fighting, and generational trauma.

Plot Summary

Michael Moran is a widower and a veteran of the Irish War of Independence. Bitter about the war and how he’s been forgotten by a rapidly changing Ireland, Moran devotes himself to his farm and his five children. He largely isolates himself from his small rural village. His only friend is a fellow veteran named McQuaid, but they stop spending time with one another when they argue about the value of the war and how Ireland has progressed since independence.

With McQuaid out of his life, Moran resolves to marry again because he doesn’t want to grow old alone. A woman named Rose, who has returned to her family in the village after spending years as a nurse in Scotland, has been chatting with Moran at the post office. Moran decides that Rose would be a suitable wife and stepmother to his children. Despite all the town gossip and suspicions about Moran’s isolationist ways, Rose finds him handsome, intelligent, and interesting. They marry quickly, even though Rose’s family doesn’t approve.

Rose is an excellent addition to the family. She makes the house feel homey and takes care of everyone. Moran’s daughters—Maggie, Sheila, and Mona—are teenagers who were responsible for the domestic tasks before Rose arrived. Rose empowers them to pursue autonomous futures. She helps Maggie get a nursing job in London and encourages Sheila and Mona to study hard in school. Rose also nurtures Michael, Moran’s youngest son. Moran is supportive of Maggie’s departure for England, even though he will miss her. However, he is bitter that Maggie will be reunited with his oldest son, Luke, who left the family many years before and cut off contact with Moran.

Rose is shocked to discover Moran’s bad temper. He has a deep well of anger and creates tension in the house. His children are often afraid of him, and Rose starts to fear his temper and sharp tongue. She resigns herself to loving Moran despite his flaws.

Sheila and Mona study hard and earn excellent marks in school. They both get job offers in the civil service in London, but Sheila also gets an offer to study medicine at university. Moran resents doctors because he believes that they and the Catholic Church run the country. Additionally, Moran doesn’t want Sheila to study medicine because he doesn’t want her to supersede her social station. Sheila begrudgingly chooses the civil service over medical school. She is obedient to her father but resents him for the rest of his life for preventing her from pursuing her dreams.

When his older sisters leave the house, Michael no longer has the nurturing protection of anyone but Rose. As a teenager, he starts finding his own personality. He and Moran often clash, as Michael spends more time out of the house late at night, attending dances. Michael meets an older woman named Nell, with whom he has his sexual awakening. He wants to drop out of school and follow Nell to America. He also becomes more aware of himself as a man, which leads to more fights with Moran. When Moran hits him, Michael runs away to his sisters in Dublin. Sheila helps negotiate peace between Michael and Moran, which is short-lived. The second time Michael runs away, his sisters help him get to Luke and Maggie in London. Michael and Moran reconcile with time.

As the years go by, Moran’s daughters continue to visit him regularly. They bring news and trends from the outside world, from which Moran has isolated himself. Maggie, Sheila, and Michael get married and have children. Luke returns to Ireland to attend Sheila’s wedding. He reunites with Moran, but they don’t speak a lot, and Luke returns to London without visiting Moran at the family home. When Moran’s children do visit, they help him tend to his fields. The older Moran gets, the less he needs the income from the farm, and the more the farm begins to deteriorate.

In his elderly years, Moran grows ill and is well-attended by Rose and his daughters. He starts to fear the company of his daughters because their will to keep him alive goes against his own rational ideas about mortality. Moran dies peacefully surrounded by his family. Only Luke doesn’t attend his wake or his funeral.