The Trick of the Ga Bolga, 1985
The Red Men, 1987
The Devil’s Diary, 1988
The Lost Soldier’s Song, 1994
Patrick McGinley, the eldest of five children, was born to Mary Anne Gihley and Peter McGinley, a hill farmer and fisherman. McGinley was educated from 1941 to 1950 at the Cashel National School in Glencolmcille and later matriculated at St. Enda’s College, Galway, for his secondary education. In 1954 he entered Galway University, where he studied English literature and commerce. Under the influence of one of his professors, Jeremiah Murphy, McGinley developed a love of Middle English poetry and a general appreciation for the mechanics of fiction, which later influenced his own novels. During this period he also read widely outside his courses in European and American literature, pursuing special interests in Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad.
After graduation in 1957 McGinley spent four years as a secondary teacher in Gweedore, Dublin, and Mullingar. Eventually restless with the stagnation of Irish life, he left for London in 1962 and became an assistant editor for World Book Encyclopedia. In 1965 he was transferred to offices in Sydney, Australia, where he began work on an autobiographical novel.
In 1967, after returning from his year in Australia, he married Kathleen Cuddy, also from Ireland, and in 1970 their son Myles was born. During the 1970’s McGinley rewrote his first novel and completed a second; neither was published. He began work on a third simply to please himself; the result was the well-received Bogmail, a mystery involving a pubkeeper, set in contemporary County Donegal. His next novel, Goosefoot, is set alternately in the Irish Midlands and Dublin and combines the conventions of the Bildungsroman with a mystery formula. Foggage is set in County Laois in the Irish Midlands and explores the theme of incest among rural figures. Foxprints, set in the London suburbs and featuring, among other things, the clash in cultural sensibilities of an Englishman, a Scot, a Welshman, and an Irishman, revolves around a series of murders that involve a web of intricate vulpine clues and allusions. With The Trick of the Ga Bolga, McGinley returns once more to the rural life of County Donegal, and though they are deemphasized, mystery elements continue to operate in his fiction. His next two novels, The Red Men and The Devil’s Diary, are both set in Glencolumcille and deal with the subjects of patrimony and moral temptation.
While the conventions of mystery fiction animate many of McGinley’s novels, his fictional concerns extend far beyond the limitations of the “whodunit” formula. In many ways The Devil’s Diary stands as a representative example of many of McGinley’s fictional preoccupations. The influence of setting on plot and characterization is crucial, with rural Ireland being particularly significant. McGinley renders Donegal, the place of his birth and youth, through intricate details of language, customs, and folklore, and in The Devil’s Diary the legend of the Termon Stone builds in suspense until its full significance is revealed at the novel’s close. In all of his descriptions, place is conveyed in an elegiac tone, a tone especially appropriate for a landscape that has been ineradicably altered with time.
A persistent McGinley theme is the role of fantasy in Irish life. In The Devil’s Diary the protagonist, Father Jerry McSharry, happens upon his brother’s diary and discovers a series of extraordinary and quite probably criminal revelations that threaten Father Jerry’s view of the world. His brother eventually confesses that the entries are largely fictitious, but Father Jerry has by this time entered a fabulous world in which the influence of miracle, desire, and the past collide and vie for attention. As in all McGinley’s novels, here the distinction between appearance and reality blurs, and readers find themselves moving in a twilight realm of heightened sensations and revelations. The effect is frequently dreamlike, and in each novel dreams and dreaming play integral roles. Characters will wander in and out of consciousness, and their dreams become vehicles for personal illumination. Father Jerry’s dreams, for example, allow him to travel through time, satisfy some of his deepest wishes, and foreshadow crucial events and complications. All of this creates a rich texture to characters’ existences, as each struggles with questions of identity and purpose.
To many, Patrick McGinley is noteworthy as one of a new breed of mystery novelists. These readers and critics view his ironic and imaginative manipulations of mystery conventions as signs of rejuvenation for an often clichéd literary formula. More important, though, McGinley represents a distinct and important voice in late twentieth century Irish fiction. In this context, critics praise his use of fabulist elements and note his place in a line of evolution in the Irish novel.
The author’s own sense of this dimension of his work may be discerned in The Lost Soldier’s Song. Without forgoing any of the intellectual and perceptual riddles that underpin the sense of mystery in his murder novels, McGinley in this novel introduces a new realm of experience, the historical. Set during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), the novel tells the story of Declan Osborne, an idealistic member of a band of republican combatants. The plot subjects Declan to the various vicissitudes of guerrilla war, each one of which effectively erodes his sense of commitment and self-possession. Acts of bravery, the experience of comradeship, close encounters with the enemy, and the supposedly collective ethos of nationalism and republicanism all produce provocatively unexpected outcomes. In this manner, McGinley, in typical fashion, conveys an unconventional and offbeat view of what is commonly regarded as a defining moment in modern Irish history. The novel’s subversive approach also has a literary dimension, the relationship between Declan and Nurse Maureen Sheehy providing a dark variation on the affair at the heart of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929).