McGinley's Darkly Comic 'Foggage' Explores Incest in Rural Ireland

As seen in Foggage, Patrick McGinley's fiction reveals a writer whose worth lies in his ability to balance perverse humour and human pathos on the cutting blade of his perfectly turned phrases.

Patrick McGinley

New Island

2015 (revised)


Like insects crawling under the deep black of chernozem, Patrick McGinley's Foggage festers quietly with nervous, busy energy. Little known to readers outside his home of Ireland, McGinley has dependably and admirably cornered the market on the modern gothic Irish novel, bringing to sordid life a host of characters who trade on their ruinous nature in the matters of love.

Like most of the author's works, Foggage (originally published in 1983) is a composition of rural Irish life, where small towns are inhabited by folk whose ancestries run centuries deep and where the ghosts of their forbearers haunt their idle lives. The theme of morality is usually the design with which McGinley orchestrates his wayward narratives, and with Foggage he doesn't much deviate from this usual practice in his mystery fiction.

However, McGinley is no traditionalist when writing in the mystery genre. Rarely is his aim to uncover the truth in some ignoble scandal, as was the case with his best-known work, Bogmail (1978) his first novel. Bogmail, a gallows-comedy-thriller about a pub owner who foolishly gets caught up in murder, revealed a writer whose worth lay in his ability to balance perverse humour and human pathos on the cutting blade of his perfectly turned phrases. Never having been a wide-reaching success whose works have travelled far beyond the borders of his home country, he is, no less, a critic's darling, and his prose is every bit deserving the readership which has been afforded to that other Patrick, writer too of modern gothic fiction, McGrath.

Like McGrath, McGinley expounds the social inadequacies of the marginalized and mentally ill, winding their fates down roads to personal ruin amidst the confusing human dramas. But whereas McGrath opts for a grander scheme of situational horror, sculpting his narratives like the tall boles of a massive, dark forest, McGinley looks toward the private fears hiding in the low underbrush, scavenging for the dropped threads of his disordered written lives.

Foggage's morbidly compelling story of siblings living together in wanton lust may have been the stuff of a lesser writer of third-rate fiction. In McGinley's hand, however, the pen that inscribes such illicit emotions is wielded with the pedigree of long practiced craft. His way of evoking a world undeniably real in its depiction of lonely people levels any reservations about the questionable narrative.

Kevin and Maureen, unfortunate by-products of a loveless and unhappy upbringing, have worked out their personal progeny, private and separate from the always watching eyes of the townsfolk. Described in equally disagreeable and erotic fits, the unholy union between brother and sister stretch the complexities of the narrative's emotions, tangling them up in the moral knots that anchor each to their homestead with toxic guilt.

Complications arise when Maureen fears she is pregnant and their carefully guarded secret is at risk of being exposed. Looking fast for a fall-guy, Kevin eyes Billy and plots to set him up as the one responsible for the pregnancy. Unfortunately, things don't go as planned and soon turn from bad to worse when Billy discovers their secret.

The presentiment of danger in McGinley's dark-hearted prose hangs thick and he gathers details with textured and painterly strokes, creating a portrait of rural Ireland full of menace and subterfuge. In this inescapably familial town, action, dialogue, and place ring thick with local colour, whether it's in the worn mahogany wood of the town's faithfully frequented bar, or the much trekked agriculture of the farmlands, seeded with indigenous vegetation and deeply-rooted desires.

In this vast and desolate haunt, McGinley outlines Kevin and Maureen's incestuous coupling with a lethal and frank eroticism. And here, in firm and deliberate prose, he achieves an unlikely response in his reader: empathy. Because he is at once a brazen and subtle writer, one willing to defy boundaries with careful and strategic measure, McGinley is able to conceptualize a world where sexual taboos, such as the ones enjoyed by Kevin and Maureen, are meted out with a degree of true compassion.

Though an Irish writer through and through, he avoids tapping into his country's rural folklore and instead creates his own startling and anti-romantic mythologies. The essences of these fashions are to be found in the natural environments of his settings. Witness the traction such descriptions of the wind, earth and sky gain when McGinley imbues them with an almost animal sense of being. Indeed, there is much to explore here in this bleakly comic tale of family bonds and the dangerous emotions that threaten them.

It should be noted that the edition of Foggage being reviewed here is the 2015 reissued version by New Island, which has been revised by the author. Many of the passages have been rewritten so that they are now pointed and concise, bringing a stronger clarity to the prose. What it lacks from the original 1983 St. Martin's Press edition are the far more descriptive passages which, in turn, lend a richer sense of atmosphere to the narrative. Depending on what kind of reader you are, you can go for either edition, as it remains, in any case, an engaging and impressive read.

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