Set in rural Ireland, this uncompromising family drama revolves around Michael Moran, the father of five. A member of the IRA during the time of The Troubles, years ago, Michael has apparently repressed violent traumas which, we are led to believe, are responsible for his withdrawal from society and his current violence against his family--it is not the result of drink or the frustrations of poverty. Now the father of teenage children, he is disillusioned by what he sees as the fruits of this war, remarking, "Look at the country now. Run by a crowd of small-minded gangsters out for their own good."
Within his own household, Michael upholds all the values he fought for years ago. He's a hard, independent man, beholden to no one, and his word is law. To his family, however, he is often a tyrant--obstinate, cruel, full of hatred, quick to anger, and reluctant to apologize-and his second wife Rose his three daughters, and his two sons are "inordinately grateful for the slightest good will." Outwardly religious, Michael daily recites the Rosary, looking for religious help for his inner turmoil and the complications of his daily life. As he says, "the war was the best part of our lives. Things were never so simple and clear again."
With a main character who is never endearing, McGahern challenges the reader to empathize with Michael and understand why the women in his family remain tied to him emotionally, even after they have successfully escaped his domination and established independent lives away from the farm. Gradually, the reader begins to understand the overpowering need to form connections with the past, even when it is not pleasant--to forgive one's parents for their limitations while remaining strong and faithful to oneself. In clear, straightforward prose of immense power, McGahern piles mundane detail upon detail, creating a sensitive family story of great universality, one which will give the reader much to ponder.