Shamrock Social Norms: Security, Catholicism, and Shame

By Carleigh Garcia

Irish writer John McGahern stated in an interview with Eamon Maher, “I think fiction is a very serious thing, that while it is fiction, it is also a revelation of truth, or facts” (Maher 74). McGahern’s second novel, The Dark (1965), takes place in rural mid-century Ireland, with many scenes in the novel correlating to those in his memoir, published in 2005. Memoir articulates his childhood memories as well as his experience of the “McGahern Case” (McGahern, Memoir 252), which saw the censorship of his second novel by the Irish government. After the success of McGahern’s first novel, he received a grant to live abroad for a time while writing The Dark. During this period, he also married a foreign woman, both a Protestant and a divorcee, contributing to his censorship, according to McGahern (n.p.). While still living abroad with his new wife, 260 copies of the novel arrived in Dublin in May of 1965 and were at once seized “in accordance with sub-section 1 of section 5 of the Censorship of Publications Act, 1946,” which led to the novel being formally banned on the first of June 1965 (Nolan 262). Although the board had been anonymously cautioned that the book would be “dirty,” it was unread upon its seizure (262–263). There are many levels of shame surrounding McGahern and The Dark. McGahern’s experience of shame upon the censorship of his novel and his removal from his teaching position are reflected in the topic discussed in this article and at the center of his novel – shame. Shame in the Irish context is irrevocably linked to social norms established by the Catholic Church, as will be seen through the novel’s protagonist, young Mahoney, and his struggle to reach security and discover his vocation.

The censorship of The Dark prior to reading it, subsequently led to skepticism surrounding the integrity of Ireland’s Censorship Board by the Irish media. The Irish Times was one of the skeptics, suggesting past banning appeared “shameful and soddy now,” and led to the question of whether they should “ban the Old Testament and Shakespeare” too (Nolan 263). The author’s portrayal of the Catholic Church, the protagonist’s lustful scenes, the guilt and shame he faced when dealing with his vocation, and the relationship between the protagonist and the adult, male characters in the novel, including a priest, I believe, most likely led to the claim it should be banned. Peter Guy insists that the banning occurred “principally for its depiction of abuse in the homestead” (93). However, if silenced, cyclical shame and abuse will continue, which is why it is vital to not perpetuate silencing conversations around such topics, as censorship does. The censorship of this novel was not the only consequence McGahern experienced, as he was also prevented from resuming his post as a schoolteacher upon his return, by order of the archbishop (McGahern, Memoir 251). Upon attempting to appeal his dismissal, he was informed, “[i]f it was just the auld book, maybe . . . we might have been able to do something for you, but with marrying this foreign woman you have turned yourself into a hopeless case entirely” (251). His corrupt publication and marriage outside of the Church and Ireland meant he was not fit to be an educator.

The “McGahern Case,” and one of the major themes in the novel, shame, point to various social norms in Irish society, and the shame felt by those who violate them. Social norms can be identified as the “rules that govern the attitudes and behavior of members of a group, specifying how those individuals ought (not) to act” (Billingham and Parr 999). When a social norm is internalized and a member of a group disregards or violates it, or even fears that they could be in violation, they will feel shame. While it is “preferable for individuals to uphold social norms because they recognize the moral reasons that support these norms, and not wholly because they fear losing social standing” (999–1000), it is clear in the Irish Catholic context of The Dark, this is not always the case. Some norms are commonly found across various cultures, including honesty and fairness, while others will vary (200–201). McGahern’s Ireland predominately upheld Catholic social norms (Fuller, Irish Catholicism Since 1950 n.p.). Jennifer Jacquet, who identifies the positive in shame, argues it is “bound to the norm [it is enforcing, which] also means we should not blame shame – the emotion or the act of shaming – for making us uncomfortable if what we disagree with is the norm that shame is attempting to enforce” (214). Norms can change, as we have seen in the secularization of Ireland, but censorship was one of the blockades attempting to prevent this from occurring (Fuller, Irish Catholicism Since 1950). 

In twentieth-century Ireland, norm entrepreneurs, the people in a society who have more influence than others over the norms society upholds (Jacquet 220–221), included the members of the Shamrock Establishment: Church, State, and lay pontificate (Nolan 266). In The Dark, Father Gerald, a priest and the cousin of the protagonist, helps the reader identify members of the clergy as norm entrepreneurs. Norm entrepreneurs are “capable of using shame effectively because they have the trust and attention of the crowd,” however, “they need not be famous, but they should be respected” to maintain this status (Jacquet 220–221). It is “[b]ecause Catholic moral teaching was upheld by law and in the Constitution, [that] this cultivated a coercive moral climate rather than a morality based on conscience, conviction, and free choice” (Fuller, “Revisiting the faith of our fathers” 41). By establishing social norms, be it through law or simply cultural or religious norms, which seemed to overlap in the Irish context, the power the Church upheld in twentieth-century Ireland is evident. The institutional Church’s agency is also clear in the shame felt by the novel’s protagonist, young Mahoney, when he violates norms, as well as the fallout from the publication of the novel, with its graphic and affecting depictions of abuse and loneliness. As secularizing influences of popular culture, especially television, became more prevalent in the later years of twentieth-century Ireland (Fuller, Irish Catholicism Since 1950 127), coupled with the revelation of longstanding scandals and abuse, the respect of Irish norm entrepreneurs was lost, leading to the changing of social norms, along with the sources of shame. By banning McGahern’s novel, the Church and state were reinforcing the silencing of those questioning social norms. This can now be analyzed in the secular world of contemporary Irish society, in which social norms have begun to change. The Dark and other literature like it may be used to track the affective power of shame in the Irish context and shed light on the role of shame and shaming in this setting.

The novel’s protagonist, identified by his father’s surname, young Mahoney, lives with his father, Mahoney, and multiple siblings on their farm, following the death of their mother, which we can assume happened less than a year prior (Keaveney 62). Young Mahoney is raised in a patriarchal society, where a man’s success, or “security”, as it is called in the novel, is the main source of pride. Consequently, if lacking security, it is a grave source of shame. Young Mahoney’s father, Mahoney, is ashamed of his situation in life. He does not have the influence or education of a priest, nor is he financially successful. His wife has died, and he replaced her in the marital bed with his son, sexually abusing him, and struggles to be proud of his son’s accomplishments. Mahoney can be read as one of the men of the newly emerged Free State, who has seen himself as “marginalized within the hierarchized operations of the new state,” leading him to exert the only “real power” he holds over his family (Holland 186), whether that be through verbal or physical abuse.

The abuse and violence Mahoney inflicts on his children is a result of his own shame. This leads his son to suffer from internalized shame, as his faults are reinforced by his father daily. Though he seeks security, young Mahoney does not feel worthy of his options: being a priest or continuing his education. He lacks a sense of worth, fortified by his father and his faith. By the conclusion of the novel, young Mahoney is afforded options denied to his father: a journey to the priesthood, higher education, or an ESB clerkship. Part of this article’s focus is to understand why he chooses the clerkship. I argue here that he does not feel morally good enough to become a priest and he fears what he sees as inevitable failure in school. His reasonings to deny both opportunities point to his struggle with internalized shame. Due to the lack of adult female characters in the novel, it is important to consider the impact male, and typically paternal, figures have on the life of young Mahoney and his affective experiences. Through the protagonist’s narration, readers can witness vital interpersonal bridges fracture throughout his adolescence, inducing shame, as he experiences chronic abuse and humiliation.

Catholicism, young Mahoney’s religion, is of immense importance to him, consequently making it a source of shame. His father figures, Mahoney and Father Gerald, often enforce a negative view of God on young Mahoney. When a person suffers from chronic shame, the version of God they accept is typically one which reinforces “unlovability or defectiveness,” as they often project their view of their parent(s) onto God (Park 364). Viewing God as omniscient and omnipresent, this is a frightening and intimidating prospect (Pattison 239), as God is witness to his every failure, including masturbation. This leads young Mahoney to feel he is unworthy of being a priest. The priesthood has been reinforced in his mind, through his society’s social norms and cultural scripts, as one of the only paths available to him to find security in both life and death. Theologically and intellectually, his understanding of God may be that He loves him, which is illustrated in the ecstasy he receives from Confession towards the beginning of the novel, but it is also clear that he holds a contradictory image of God later in the novel. When a person feels they have offended God, also known as ‘sinning’, that person may “see [themselves] as isolated from God, unworthy of a relationship with God,” which results in a turning inward, away from God, and in shame (Vandenberg 311). By the end of the novel, young Mahoney’s joy in Confession turns to further shame, as he sees himself as a sinner and unable to feel God’s mercy, only his disdain. While Confession should enforce a “fleeing to God,” searching for His mercy, a shamed person will avoid and flee from God, as they are unlovable in their own eyes, and they feel this must be reflected in God’s as well (311). Young Mahoney progresses in the novel from thinking he has sinned to believing he is a sinner. Stephen Pattison makes the point that “[w]hile guilty people need forgiveness, shamed people need a sense of valued self” (245). While guilt is associated with sin, an act which can be remedied, shame is more strongly associated with “a global judgment about the whole self as fundamentally bad, defective and worthy of rejection” (266). Once young Mahoney begins to believe his status has changed to a sinner, that he will never overcome his badness as it is part of who he is, his vocation is denied to him by himself and his shame, as he no longer feels worthy of the routes offered to him.

His struggle with vocation, sin, and sexual shame is evident when he visits his cousin, Father Gerald, to identify his calling. One of the imperative moments of this visit is when Father Gerald encounters young Mahoney in bed one evening. Young Mahoney is already tense in this scene because of its setting, which makes him recall earlier scenes of shame and sexual abuse from when he shared a bed with his father. It is important to note that many vital scenes in this novel take place in the dark. The title itself in this way evokes shame, The Dark, as McGahern’s confessional is in the dark, too shameful to account for in the light. Father Gerald tells him in this dark, intimate moment that to become a priest, you must have three things: “good moral character, at least average intelligence, [and] a good state of health,” to which young Mahoney replies, “I don’t think I’m good enough, Father,” as he squirms with tears flowing down his face (McGahern, The Dark 72). When the priest asks if he pleasures himself, which he admits to, he feels “broken” as Father Gerald was “cutting through to the nothingness and squalor of [his] life, [he was] now as [he was] born, as low as the dirt” (72), relating him to the state of Original Sin. Father Gerald tells him he may be good enough if he avoids future sin, though this moment of joy and release does not last, as it is partially depleted when the priest avoids admitting he also sins (72). Young Mahoney now feels not only betrayed but ashamed of his own sins and reacts in anger. His rage, directed at the priest because he had “been stripped down to the last squalor”, and his “shame, what must the priest think of [him]” lead to him masturbating — sinning — once again (75). His masturbation is seeking a release from shame and searching for self-love, yet it only leads to more shame. Masturbation is a perfect example of Silvan Tomkins’ theory of affect (Tomkins n.p.), as it is something that gives young Mahoney joy. But this joy is depleted due to the social and religious norms enforced on him, which leads to shame, yet not a complete lack of interest in engaging in the act once again. Crucially, it is the notion that it is not what he is doing that is wrong, but that there is something wrong with him, that he cannot stop masturbating, which leads him to believe he is a lost sinner, unable to become a priest.

Young Mahoney’s dedication to his education is key to his overcoming poverty and escaping his father. Though Father Gerald has provided him with reasons to feel shame, he also reminds him that though he is poor, he could become a priest because of his intelligence, unlike the village boy who cleans the priest’s home: “treat him respectfully, of course, but never forget that both of you are in unequal positions” (McGahern, The Dark 64). Though young Mahoney has many reasons to feel he is inferior, he is in fact not the lowest on the social scale of Irish society. He does have choices; he just sees himself as unworthy of them because of his shame. While young Mahoney chooses to no longer become a priest because he sees himself as a sinner, he does have the opportunity to pursue a scholarship, which he initially accepts.

When he receives the ESB clerkship in Dublin, he immediately considers leaving university, as it would only end in “failure” (McGahern, The Dark 179). Though he has only ever been academically successful, his past experiences of shame, at the hands of his father, Father Gerald, and because of the social norms which surround him, have led him to form a shame script. He has experienced so many shame scenes in his life, that he responds to future situations in a way which allows him to avoid more shame (Kaufman 33–34). His only reason for leaving university is to prevent failure and shame. Mahoney suggests they meet with a priest to decide if he should leave university for the clerkship. When young Mahoney feels “shabby in the priest’s eye”, and “contempt in his voice”, as both father and son were “his stableboys, and would never eat at his table”, it only affirms his decision to leave (McGahern, The Dark 186–188).

In a repetition of an earlier scene, the final moments of the novel encounter father and son once again sharing a bed (McGahern, The Dark 189). With even the same words repeated, it must be questioned if young Mahoney is a static character, and why a young person full of potential has retreated into the depths of an earlier abuse scene. Mahoney recalls the good and troubled times they had together, and that he is happy young Mahoney took the ESB (191). The words typically spoken at weddings are repeated, “I do,” in response to Mahoney asking if young Mahoney knows he loves him (191). In the background, a train “shunt[s]” (191) just like the story. The readers are transported back to the abuse scene in the marital bed in chapter three and are confronted with the question of progression. Did their relationship profoundly change? Was this the beginning for young Mahoney and his release from shame? He may be in denial, as Mary Ann Melfi believes: “[d]enial is still the reigning sentiment in the boy. His spirit has apparently been molested once too often. His spirit seems broken; his reach will probably not exceed his grasp” (119–120). Rejecting his opportunities, he will progress in an analogous way to his father. His shame, and fear of further shame, cause him to deny himself opportunities denied to many.

By analyzing the writings of McGahern, the reader is confronted with the uncomfortable reality of shame, and the detrimental effect social norms can have on a person. The world can be “bleak, dark, filled with suffering, but our acknowledgment of that reality binds us to one another with a sorrowful compassion” (Liddy 121). It is because of writers like McGahern, who speak of injustices and the shame they felt because of their own sexuality, that further socially conditioned shame may be prevented and social norms which are unjust may be changed. Through McGahern’s work, an “awful truth” can be discerned: “that one whose home was predominantly without love during many of the formative years will most often embrace this liminal state, always limited but ‘yearning for more’ because this sensibility is the foundation of one’s life” (Melfi 119). The reader can identify what is awful, what is abusive, what needs to be changed, and do something about it. Shame breeds shame: it is a difficult affect to speak about, and if one hides from it, nothing will change. While McGahern’s childhood comprised the belief that fiction was fiction, “it is also a revelation of truth or facts. We absolutely believed in Heaven and Hell, Purgatory, and even Limbo. I mean, they were actually closer to us than Australia or Canada, that they were real places” (Maher 74). While his novel is a work of fiction, it reveals some truth, which has lent the reader a clearer view of Irish social norms and the shame they enforced in twentieth-century Ireland.


Carleigh Garcia, “Shamrock Social Norms: Security, Catholicism, and Shame,” Alluvium, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2022): n. pag. Web 8 August 2022. DOI:

About the Author

Carleigh Garcia is in the fourth year of her PhD at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick in the Language and Literature department. Her thesis, under the supervision of Dr Eoin Flannery, analyses seven Irish novels written between 1940 and 2007 through the lens of affect theory, with the aim of exploring the influence of the Catholic Church on social norms and shame in the Irish context. The novels included in the thesis include Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl, Girls in Their Married Bliss, and their ‘Epilogue’, Eric Cross’ The Tailor and Antsy, Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship, John McGahern’s The Dark, and Anne Enright’s The Gathering. She works as a Departmental Assistant in her department, as well as Research Assistant to the Irish Institute for Catholic Studies.

Works Cited

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