Once, when rector of a parish in rural Ulster, I officiated at the funeral of a local “character.” At the tea afterwards, I was berated by the brother of the deceased for telling the truth. The complaining brother had not visited his deceased sibling for years, nor had he cared anything for his brother’s welfare. The truth I had spoken had not been uncharitable, but had been born out of many occasions of direct experience. To have pretended the man had been a saint may have pleased the uncaring brother, but would have been regarded with derision by those packed into the pews of the small country church – they knew the character to well for there to be any attempt at revising the record.
Oddly, it was years later, when I was reading John McGahern’s novel “The Dark” that I thought that perhaps even the most disreputable of men might be judged with charity.
McGahern’s characters come out of a dark and violent rural society and Mahoney is presented as representing the darkness and the violence. Mahoney is a widower with a family, he has become an abusive bully, expecting to get his own way, yet in a drunken moment shows that beneath the aggression, there is deep vulnerability.
McGahern writes that Mahoney “suddenly jumped up, the face red and bloated, dramatic arm outstretched, to do a half-circle swing on the floor and shout, “I went to school too”.
“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.
Mahoney’s actions are not excused, but they appear in a different light. He is a pathetic figure behind an aggressive facade. Perhaps no-one would speak well of him, but if they had overheard his speech to his children, they would wonder what deeper thoughts he might have.
At the funetal of a Mahoney-like character, there would be people who knew him as he was and who would be unimpressed by deceit that suggested he was anything other than the man he was. But would there also be those who had seen a deeper pain behind the anger?
Walking past a gravestone and seeing a name, there was a temptation to remember the deceased in a particular way. The story of Mahoney is a warning that the person who might lie beneath might be very different from the person who had been a “character.”