Literary Locations

Strandhill, Co. Sligo. Courtesy of Ciaran O’Murchu.

It is not unusual to find in a story or novel a location the reader has personal knowledge of.  Writers will write about what they know and that includes actual locations.  For the reader, it can be a delight to find in fiction a setting they call home.

In Nightlines (1970), his first book of published stories, John McGahern included Strandhill: The Sea, part of what Irish-Canadian academic Denis Sampson has termed an “existential segment” of stories dramatizing “the sense of time passing in a continuous present” (1).  To find a story set in a place known to the reader makes vivid that continuous present as the story’s narrative, dreamt up in the writer’s past, parallels the reader’s own, often ongoing experience of place.

In Strandhill: The Sea, the unnamed narrator, visiting the seaside resort just five miles from where I grew up, describes perfectly the vagaries of Sligo’s weather – “The sky filled over Sligo bay, the darkness moving across the links and church, one clear blue strip between Parkes’ and Knocknarea.”  Summers in the Northwest of Ireland invariably offer both the distant hope of sun and the almost constant threat of rain.

Strandhill reappears in McGahern’s writing on an intermittent basis.  In The Stoat, published in the collection High Ground (1985), a young man is asked to Strandhill to meet the woman his widower father is considering marrying.  Playing golf on the links course there, he finds a dying rabbit, the victim of a stoat.  In his imagination, the chase of rabbit by stoat contrasts with his father’s own chase of his potential wife – a chase casually abandoned when the woman’s health shows signs of fragility.

Moran, the anti-hero of the novel Amongst Women (1990), drives Rose, his second wife, to Strandhill for a day’s outing.  The seaside resort serves as an escape for McGahern’s characters, just as it has served as a sanctuary for me many times.  Moran’s trip is echoed by that of his youngest son, Michael, whose older lover drives them to Strandhill so they can spend time together away from the prying eyes of their inland, rural community.

McGahern’s descriptions of Strandhill make those particular stories more vivid in my own mind but, ultimately, his fiction stands on its own merits.

(1) Sampson, Denis, Outstaring Nature’s Eye: The Fiction of John McGahern, The Catholic University of America Press, 1993, p. 87.

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