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  • By the Lake
  • Written by John McGahern
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By the Lake

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With this magnificently assured new novel, John McGahern reminds us why he has been called the Irish Chekhov, as he guides readers into a village in rural Ireland and deftly, compassionately traces its natural rhythms and the inner lives of its people. Here are the Ruttledges, who have forsaken the glitter of London to raise sheep and cattle, gentle Jamesie Murphy, whose appetite for gossip both charms and intimidates his neighbors, handsome John Quinn, perennially on the look-out for a new wife, and the town’s richest man, a gruff, self-made magnate known as “the Shah.”

Following his characters through the course of a year, through lambing and haying seasons, market days and family visits, McGahern lays bare their passions and regrets, their uneasy relationship with the modern world, their ancient intimacy with death.


The morning was clear. There was no wind on the lake. There was also a great stillness. When the bells rang out for Mass, the strokes trembling on the water, they had the entire world to themselves.

The doors of the house were open. Jamesie entered without knocking and came in noiselessly until he stood in the doorway of the large room where the Ruttledges were sitting. He stood as still as if waiting under trees for returning wildfowl. He expected his discovery to be quick. There would be a cry of surprise and reproach; he would counter by accusing them of not being watchful enough. There would be welcome and laughter. When the Ruttledges continued to converse calmly about a visit they were expecting that same afternoon, he could contain himself no longer. Such was his continual expectation of discovery that in his eavesdropping he was nearly always disappointed by the innocence he came upon.

" Hel-lo. Hel-lo. Hel-lo," he called out softly, in some exasperation.

" Jamesie!" They turned to the voice with great friendliness. As he often stole silently in, they showed no surprise. " You are welcome."

" Ye are no good. I have been standing here for several minutes and haven't heard a bad word said about anybody yet. Not a bad word," he repeated with mocking slowness as he came forward.

" We never speak badly about people. It's too dangerous. It can get you into trouble."

" Then ye never speak or if you do the pair of yous are not worth listening to."

In his dark Sunday suit, white shirt, red tie, polished black shoes, the fine silver hair brushed back from the high forehead and sharp clean features, he was shining and handsome. An intense vividness and sweetness of nature showed in every quick, expressive movement. " Kate." He held out an enormous hand. She pretended to be afraid to trust her hand to such strength. It was a game he played regularly. For him all forms of social intercourse were merely different kinds of play. " God hates a coward, Kate," he demanded, and she took his hand.

Not until she cried, " Easy there, Jamesie," did he release his gently tightening grip with a low crow of triumph. " You are one of God's troopers, Kate. Mister Ruttledge," he bowed solemnly.

" Mister Murphy."

" No misters here," he protested. " No misters in this part of the world. Nothing but broken-down gentlemen."

" There are no misters in this house either. He that is down can fear no fall."

" Why don't you go to Mass, then, if you are that low?" Jamesie changed the attack lightly.

" What's that got to do with it?"

" You'd be like everybody else round here by now if you went to Mass."

" I'd like to attend Mass. I miss going."

" What's keeping you, then?"

" I don't believe."

" I don't believe," he mimicked. " None of us believes and we go. That's no bar."

" I'd feel a hypocrite. Why do you go if you don't believe?"

" To look at the girls. To see the whole performance," he cried out, and started to shake with laughter. " We go to see all the other hypocrites. Kate, what do you think about all this? You've hardly said a word."

" My parents were atheists," Kate said. " They thought that all that exists is what you see, all that you are is what you think and appear to be."

" Give them no heed, Kate," he counselled gently. " You are what you are and to hell with the begrudgers." " The way we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived are often very different," Ruttledge said.

" Pay no heed to him either. He's just trying to twist and turn. Thought pissed in the bed and thought he was sweating. His wife thought otherwise. You'll get on good as any of them, Kate." He took pruning shears from his pocket and placed them on the table. " Thanks," he said. " They were a comfort. Pure Sheffield. Great steel."

" I bought them from a stall in the Enniskillen market one Thursday. They weren't expensive."

" The North," he raised his hand for emphasis. " The North is a great place for bargains."

" Would you like a whiskey, Jamesie?" she asked.

" Now you're talking, Kate. But you should know by now that 'wilya' is a very bad word."

" Why bad?"

" Look at yer man," he pointed to where Ruttledge had already taken glasses and a bottle of Powers from the cupboard and was running water into a brown jug.

" I'm slow."

" You're not one bit slow, Kate. You just weren't brought up here. You nearly have to be born into a place to know what's going on and what to do."

" He wasn't brought up here."

" Not too far off, near enough to know. He wasn't at school but he met the scholars. Good health! And more again tomorrow," he raised his glass. " The crowd lying below in Shruhaun aren't drinking any drinks today."

" Good luck. What's the news?"

" No news. Came looking for news," he cried ritually, and then could contain his news no longer: " Johnny's coming home from England. He's coming home this Tuesday. Mary got the letter."

Every summer his brother Johnny came home on holidays from the Ford factory at Dagenham. He had left for England twenty years before and never missed a summer coming home. " I'd be glad to run you to the station," Ruttledge offered.

" I know that well, and thanks, but no, no." He raised the hand again. " Always go in Johnny Rowley's car. Jim is meeting Johnny at the airport and putting him on the train. Jim is taking time off."

Jim was Jamesie and Mary's only child, who had been clever at school, had entered the civil service, where he had risen to a high position, and was married with four children in Dublin.

" There was a time Johnny spent the night with Jim and Lucy in Dublin."

" Not any more. Johnny and Lucy don't pull. He's not awanted. It's better, better by far the way it is. I'll meet the train with Johnny Rowley. We'll have several stops on the way from the station. When we get to the house, Mary will put the sirloin down. You can't get meat in England. You'd just love to see Johnny's face and the way he says 'God bless you, Mary' when she puts the sirloin in front of him on the table."

The house and the outhouses would be freshly whitewashed for the homecoming, the street swept, the green gates painted, old stakes replaced in the netting wire that held Mary's brown hens in the space around the hayshed. Mary would have scrubbed and freshened all the rooms. Together they would have taken the mattress from the bed in the lower room, Johnny's old room, and left it outside to air in the sun. The holy pictures and the wedding photographs would be taken down, the glass wiped and polished. His bed would be made with crisp linen and draped with the red blanket. An enormous vase of flowers from the garden and the fields--roses and lilies and sweet william from the garden, foxglove and big sprays of honeysuckle from the hedges--would be placed on the sill under the open window to sweeten the air and take away the staleness and smell of damp from the unused room. The order for the best sirloin would already have been placed at Caroll's in the town. The house couldn't have been prepared any better for a god coming home to his old place on earth.

" Johnny was the best shot this part of the country has ever seen. On a Sunday when all the guns gathered and they'd be blazing away, all Johnny had to do was to raise his gun for the bird to fall like a stone. He had two of the most beautiful gun dogs, Oscar and Bran, a pointer and a red setter. He had the whole world at his feet," Jamesie said. " He didn't have to lift a hand. All he had to do was go round and oversee what other men were doing. Yes, he could be severe enough and strict, too, in his own way . . . too exact when it wasn't needed. The whole country was leaving for England at the time and if any of them had a hope of Johnny's job there'd be a stampede worse than for a gold rush back from England. If anybody had told us what was going to happen we wouldn't have believed them. We'd have laughed.

" He went after Anna Mulvey. He and Anna were the stars in The Playboy that got to the All-Ireland Finals in Athlone the year before but neither of them was fit to hold a candle to Patrick Ryan. He had Donoghue the solicitor in town down to a T as--I forget rightly who it was . . . Patrick had the whole hall in stitches every time he moved. Johnny was wild about Anna. We were sure Anna left for England to get away from Johnny. The Mulveys were well off and she didn't have to go. Then when she wrote to Johnny that she missed him and wanted him to come to England I don't think his feet touched the ground for days. We wanted him to take sick leave and go and test the water and not burn all his bridges but he wouldn't hear. If he'd heeded our words he could be still here."

" Why would Anna write for him to come to England when she wasn't serious or interested?"

" She was using him. She could be sure of adoration from Johnny. She had only to say the word and she'd get anything she wanted."

" That was wrong," Kate said.

" Right or wrong, fair or foul, what does it matter? It's a rough business. Those that care least will win. They can watch all sides. She had no more value on Johnny than a dog or a cat.

" Poor Bran and Oscar. The gun dogs were beautiful. They were as much part of Johnny as the double barrel, and they adored him. The evening before he left he took them down to the bog with the gun. They were yelping and jumping around and following trails. They thought they were going hunting. I remember it too well. The evening was frosty, the leaves just beginning to come off the trees. There wasn't a breath of wind. You'd hear a spade striking a stone fields away, never mind a double-barrel. There was just the two shots, one after the other. We would have been glad to take care of the dogs but he never asked. I wasn't a great shot like Johnny but I would have kept the gun and the dogs. They were beautiful dogs. That evening a man came for the gun and another for the motorbike. He had sold them both. You'd think he'd have offered me the gun after all the years in the house. I'd have given him whatever he wanted."
John McGahern

About John McGahern

John McGahern - By the Lake

Photo © Jerry Bauer

John McGahern was the author of five highly acclaimed novels and four collections of short stories. His novel Amongst Women won the GPA Book Award and the Irish Times Award, was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and was made into a four-part BBC television series. He had been a visiting professor at Colgate University and at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and was the recipient of the Society of Authors’ Award, the American-Irish Award, and the Prix Étrangère Ecureuil, among other awards and honors. His work appeared in anthologies and was translated into many languages. He died in 2006.
Praise | Awards


“Ranks with the greatest Irish writers: Joyce, Yeats, Synge, Beckett, Heaney.” -The New York Times Book Review

“Subtly intricate. . . . McGahern’s achievement in this autumnal novel is to remind us how much even a happy life can know of sorrow.” -The Atlantic Monthly

“Every so often a book comes along that captures people, landscape and place in such a perfect rendering that you would recognize it instantly. . .By the Lake now moves onto this very short list.”–The Seattle Times

“Deceptively wise. . . . Possesses the warm certainty of a writer who loves and respects every character . . . rascals and heroes alike, and who wants to deliver them to us in all their dimensions.” -The Boston Globe

“The most perfect novel I’ve read in years.” –Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

“Ireland’s finest living fiction writer. . . .A gripping, poignant book.” –Chicago Tribune

“This is the Irish temper, free of all the caricatures. . . . Writing this true, this unaffected–no wonder we celebrate the Irish.” –The Dallas Morning News

“Wonderful. . . . No body of water has been so lovingly revered since Henry David Thoreau went to the woods."”–The Christian Science Monitor

“Has the appeal of a letter from home. . . . Wonderfully engaging.” –Newsday

“His lyrical, almost painterly evocation of the activities he knows so intimately is well-displayed here.”–The Washington Post

“Stumbling upon a novel like By the Lake is as rare a pleasure as finding an unspoiled country hideaway.” –Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“McGahern enchants with simplicity and eloquence. . . . we are drawn into his corner of remote rural Ireland, its characters and their lives.” –The Baltimore Sun

“McGahern's luminous threnody to the particulars and permutations of aging and change is captured in prose of the utmost simplicity and precision.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“This great and moving novel, which looks so quiet and provincial, opens out through its small frame to our most troubling and essential questions.” –The Guardian

“This is a book to surrender yourself to. . . . you will find yourself in an intense, poetic world in which the simplest objects. . .take on a quiet but magical luminosity.”–The Economist

“One of Ireland's most stupendous prose stylists, with an uncanny knack of homing in on the definitive moment, the illuminating detail.” –The Independent

“This beautiful novel . . . bestows on the reader one of the principal gifts of fiction: that of having one's experience enlarged by a process of intense, almost resistless sympathy. Through intense concentration on the local, McGahern has again found a route to the universal.” –The Times Literary Supplement

“A superb, earthly pastoral . . . a knowing, quick-witted performance . . . McGahern, a supreme chronicler [of] the closing chapters of traditional Irish rural life, has created a novel that lives and breathes.” –The Irish Times

“When nature is rendered as vividly as this, it changes the character of fiction . . . McGahern has captured the ties of custom and affection that bind people to the land-and to each other.” –Sunday Telegraph (London)


FINALIST 2003 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“Ranks with the greatest Irish writers.” —The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of By the Lake, John McGahern’s most ambitious, generous, and superbly realized novel to date. We hope they will provide you with interesting ways to talk about this beautifully paced story that brings to vivid life the world and the people of a contemporary Irish village.

About the Guide

Joe Ruttledge and his wife Kate have left their jobs in London to live on a farm in Ireland, near where Joe was born. In doing so, they enter into a community in which people know each other’s ways intimately, but usually can’t afford to speak the truth directly to each other. Among the neighbors are the gentle Jamesie and his wife Mary, who haven’t spent a night away from the lake in seventeen years; Patrick Ryan, the builder who never quite finishes what he starts; John Quinn, who will stop at nothing to make sure his sexual needs are met; Bill Evans, the farmhand whose orphaned childhood was marked with cruelty and whose adulthood bears the scars; and the wealthiest man in town, Joe’s uncle, known locally as the Shah.

A year in the lives of these and other characters unfolds through the richly observed rituals of work and play, of religious observance and annual festivals, and the details of the changing seasons, the cycles of birth and death. With deceptive simplicity and eloquence, McGahern reveals the fundamental workings of human nature as it encounters the extraordinary trials and pleasures, terrors and beauty, of ordinary life.

About the Author

John McGahern is the author of five highly acclaimed novels and four collections of short stories. His novel Amongst Women won the GPA Book Award and the Irish Times Award, was short-listed for the Booker Prize, and was made into a four-part BBC television series. He has received the Society of Authors’ Award, the American-Irish Award, and the Prix Etrangere Ecureuil, among other awards and honors. His work has appeared in anthologies and has been translated into many languages. He lives in Dublin.

Discussion Guides

1. Why does McGahern open the novel with the image of stillness on the lake? Why are the swans, the lake, the heron, the farm animals, and the changing seasons constantly juxtaposed against the human action related in these pages? Which descriptive passages are most striking? What is Joe Ruttledge’s relationship to nature, his farm, and his animals?

2. McGahern introduces a number of characters in the Ruttledges’ circle: Jamesie and Mary, Johnny, Patrick Ryan, John Quinn, and the Shah, among others. How does McGahern make these people seem real? What are their defining qualities? Which characters are most likeable and why?

3. When asked what’s wrong with his life in London, Joe Ruttledge replies, “Nothing but it’s not my country and I never feel it’s quite real or that my life there is real. That has its pleasant side as well. You never feel responsible or fully involved in anything that happens” [p. 23]. How is Joe’s reply to Jimmy Joe McKiernan understood in the context of the rest of the novel?

4. How does McGahern use the character of Johnny to depict the emigrant’s life and the painful uprooting of so many of the Irish who left home? When Jamesie says, “He’d have been better if he’d shot himself instead of the dogs” [p. 9], what does he mean? How welcome is Johnny when he comes home?

5. The brutality of Bill Evans’s life as an orphan [pp. 10–16] casts a shadow on the kindly behavior that seems to pervade the novel. How has Bill Evans, now an old man, been scarred by his experiences? Why is Joe Ruttledge willing to be unfailingly generous and patient with Bill Evans?

6. By the Lake is a novel of manners that, like the work of Jane Austen, scrutinizes the ways in which human beings interact in a small community. What is most noticeable about how Joe, Kate, Jamesie, and Mary behave toward one another? How important are the qualities of generosity, humor, and patience? Why is so much careful attention paid to certain ceremonial aspects of life, such as when the Ruttledges host a dinner party for Jamesie’s extended family
[pp. 288–92]?

7. There is much talk in By the Lake; the rhythms of talk and the sound of human voices are central to the novel. Why is Jamesie so thirsty for gossip? Why is the need for stories so important in a small rural community? Why do some people reveal a lot about themselves, while some reveal almost nothing? For instance, why do we learn so little of Joe Ruttledge’s private life while we learn so much of John Quinn’s?

8. The novel is marked by a distinct lack of action. At one point, Joe realizes, “The days were quiet. They did not feel particularly quiet or happy but through them ran the sense, like an underground river, that there would come a time when these days would be looked back on as happiness, all that life could give of contentment and peace” [p. 234]. Why is contentment difficult to describe within the conventional expectations of plot in fiction?

9. Writing in The New York Times Book Review, John Sutherland pointed out that “One cannot appreciate McGahern’s prose unless one understands the strenuous purging that produces his final text. For every published page, he writes about six that are discarded. The By the Lake we have is the redaction of a novel of more than a thousand pages. Pruning is the essence of McGahern’s art.” What light does this shed on the novel’s prose style, its structure, and the arc of time it covers?

10. Given that Jamesie and Joe are very good friends, is it surprising that Joe refuses to speak about the reason he and Kate have no children? Does the episode of the black lamb shed any light on this issue? How does McGahern comment on the curious relationship between what is shared and what is kept private in such a tiny community?

11. Does Joe Ruttledge, given his education and his time spent in London, fit in socially when he comes to live by the lake? Are Joe and Kate unusual in their willingness to give up a cosmopolitan life for a rural backwater? Does McGahern imply that it takes a very alert, observant sensibility to enjoy life in such a quiet place?

12. Why are details of historical time, as well as the characters’ ages, deliberately withheld? How relevant is the fact that this community is close to the border with Northern Ireland, or that we hear of an atrocity that took place at nearby Enniskillen? What is the significance of Jamesie’s story about the ambush by the Black and Tans, which is commemorated every year [pp. 271–278]?

13. Discuss the crisis caused by Johnny’s decision to return home to live with Jamesie and Mary. The narrator tells us: “The timid, gentle manners, based on a fragile interdependence, dealt in avoidances and obfuscations. Edges were softened, ways found round harsh realities. What was unspoken was often far more important than the words that were said. . . . It was a language that hadn’t any simple way of saying no” [p. 210]. What is valuable, and what is less so, about such manners? Is Joe right to offer to intervene in this family matter?

14. What narrative effect is achieved by the description of the laying out of Johnny’s body? Why does Joe volunteer to do this? How important is the fact that the novel includes a death, a wake, and a funeral? Why does the story end as it does, with the shed unfinished, and Ruttledge thinking that he’ll decide whether to take Patrick Ryan up on the offer to finish it?

15. Some of the most important questions addressed by this novel were asked by reviewer Hermione Lee, who wrote in the London Observer: “This great and moving novel, which looks so quiet and provincial, opens out through its small frame to our most troubling and essential questions. How well do we remember? How do we make our choices in life? Why do we need repetition? What is to remain of us? Above all, what can happiness consist in?” How does McGahern’s novel address these issues?

Suggested Readings

John Berger, Into Their Labours; Wendell Berry, A Place on Earth; Anton Chekhov, The Seagull; Seamus Deane, Reading in the Dark; Jean Giono, Joy of Man’s Desiring; Thomas Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge; Kent Haruf, Plainsong; James Joyce, Dubliners; D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers; Edna O’Brien, A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories of Edna O’Brien; Frank O’Connor, Guests of the Nation; Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries; William Trevor, The Hill Bachelors; Ivan Turgenev, Home of the Gentry, Fathers and Sons; William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats.

  • By the Lake by John McGahern
  • April 08, 2003
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.00
  • 9780679744023

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