Sebastian Barry: Commentary

Christopher Murray
Matt Wolf
John Whitley
Maggie Gee
Kevin Myers
Eileen Battersby
John Lahr
C. L. Dallat
Jimmy Guerin
Emer O’Kelly
Helen Meany
Robert Hanks
Declan Kiberd
Angelique Chrisafis
Eamonn Sweeney
Mary Russell
Michael Billington
Paul Taylor
Claire Gleitman
John Kenny
Laura Barber
Fintan O’Toole
Keith Jeffry
Heinz Kosok
Munira H. Mutran
Lucasta Miller
Sean O’Hagan
Joseph O’Connor
Lucy Gardner
Dinitia Smith
John Wilson Foster
Stuart Jeffries
Alex Clark
Boyd Tonkin
Terry Eagleton
Claire Kilroy
Arminta Wallace
Kate Kellaway
Robbie Millen
Ciara Dwyer
Katy Simpson Smith
Allan Massie
Beejay Silcox

See also full-text interviews in the RICORSO Library ...
  • Nicholas Wroe, ‘As our ancestors hide in our DNA, so do their stories’, interview with Sebastian Barry, in The Guardian (11 Oct. 2008) [see full-text in RICORSO Library > Criticism > Reviews - as attached]
  • Stuart Jeffries, ‘Sebastian Barry reveals the secrets of his Costa prize win’, interview, in The Guardian (29 Jan. 2009) [see full-text in RICORSO Library > Criticism > Reviews - as attached].
  • Stephen Moss, ‘Costa winner Sebastian Barry: “My son instructed me in the magic of gay life”’, in The Guardian (1 Feb. 2017) [see full-text in RICORSO Library > Criticism > Reviews - as attached].

John Mullan, professor of English at University College, London, conducted a discussion with Barry on 8 April 2009. The venue was the Scott Room of The Guardian premises at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1. The podcast is available - online; accessed 30.05.2017.)

Fintan O’Toole: ‘Sebastian Barry’s plays are about history, but not in any very obvious or familiar sense. The history that informs these plays is a history of counter-currents, of lost strands, of untold stories. Against the simple narrative of Irish history as a long tale of colonisation and resistance, Barry releases more complex stories of people who are, in one way or another, a disgrace to that history. In Sebastian Barry’s luminous plays, grace and disgrace are not opposites but constant companions.’ (Preface to Plays, London: Methuen 1997.)

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Christopher Murray, ‘“Such a Sense of Home”: The Poetic Drama of Sebastian Barry’, in Colby Quarterly, 27, 4 (Dec. 1991), pp.242-48: ‘In 1986 Barry edited an anthology of younger Irish poets (including himself) under the significant title The Inherited Boundaries. He called his Introduction “The History and Topography of Nowhere”. Here he tilted against the prominent profile generally accorded contemporary Northern Irish poets. Barry wishes to mark out a space for a different kind of sensibility with different interests and commitments: “They [Northern poets] are a fine part of the story of an island, but they are no part of the story of the Republic”. The anthology was being presented as “the latest report on ... the poetic of a separate, little-understood place”. It was necessary to “map” such a territory, if you were a native, “mapping and talking about the visible and invisible country”, because “A country without definition is nowhere at all”. From Barry’s perspective, as a poet born in the 1950s, Ireland was still without definition, simply because “it was a new place”. / The seven poets whose work he gathered together had this for their theme: and here Barry obviously detects a common voice among his contemporaries: “They are talking about a new country that is often hard to make out at all in the thick rain of its history and the sullen, dangerous roll of the land - but they are talking about it with the courage of an inherited, doubted freedom.”’ (p.243.) [Cont.]

Christopher Murray (‘“Such a Sense of Home”: The Poetic Drama of Sebastian Barry’, in Colby Quarterly, Dec. 1991) - cont.: ‘“Barry’s insistence on “inherited boundaries” implies an impatience with republicanism. He wants to imagine an Ireland where sectarianism has no place. John Hawke is beleaguered, “since all around are the darknesses of the Catholics and the strangenesses of the higher Protestants”. But the man Fanny finds is a compound, the son of a Jewish woman from Lisbon who married a Cork Catholic. Patrick is an unconventional Catholic, who will not put pressure on Fanny to obey the bishops: “What are bishops only government? And I don’t care for that either”. His independence is just that: he has liberated himself from sectarianism and (in the idiom of the play) from darkness. He and Fanny will, in a way, extend the Quaker ideal in new directions. Perhaps Friel’s analysis in Translations is more realistic: it is a dangerous thing to marry outside the tribe. But Barry seems to be insisting that this danger is man-made and can be overcome. He is not advocating pluralism so much as New Ageism, a breaking away from old categories and a search for community, a spiritual world elsewhere. [...] All is connected, past and present, the human voyage and the flotsam of history. All is fuelled by a common concern which has its goal in spiritual destiny. Out of such unlikely material Sebastian Barry creates a drama, his dream of a new Ireland.’ (p.247 - end; available as pdf - online; see copy in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Monographs” - via index, or direct.)

Matt Wolf, ‘It’s Ancestor Worship, But of a Dramatic Sort’ [phone interview (from London)], in New York Times, (19 Jan. 1997) [‘Theatre’ sect.] quotes Barry: ‘I though if I was going to live a life in this land I was accidentally born on, I must people it; I must have a history’ - and remarks that all his plays ‘purport to be true, but of course are concoctions’. Further quotes: ‘finishing conversations with myself’; Fanny Hawkes, ‘a vanished, lost grandmother’. Also quotes Barry on the Steward of Christendom: ‘what it could be to be a father, seen as a bad father, an accused father - which may be the only sort of father there is.’

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Matt Wolf [London theatre critic for Variety], notice of Sinead Cusack [as Cossack] as Our Lady of Sligo, in The New York Times (23 April 2000), pp.6-7; off-Broadway at Irish Repertory Theatre; reprising a role that won her the Critics’ Circle Award and Evening Standard; Sinead is 32 (in 2000); played in Bad Behaviour (1993); Waterline (1992); Stealing Beauty (1996), often pop. Jeremy Irons; Max Stafford Clark says: ‘In some ways, Our Lady of Sligo is a more difficult play in that it is about someone to whom Sebastian doesn’t so easily extend grace and redemption. It trivialise it say that Our Lady is simply the distaff version of Steward. Cusack says (for reasons not given): ‘I bob about all over the place in my morphine-induced hysteria and euphoria […] It’s wonder wonders of morphine, really. You can do anything you like on morphine.’

John Whitley, ‘Terrible Tales at Bedtime’, Daily Telegraph, Saturday (18 April 1998): ‘Arts and Books’, A6, talks with Sebastian Barry about his second London premier (Our Lady of Sligo); remarks, Barry is ‘dandyish, in a Stephen Fry sort of way’, and quotes: ‘The land has been in a stagnancy, a backward, rural country and a frustrated place. It had been like that since the Thirties, but, since the Eighties, it has opened out, become part of Europe. We’ve a new confidence.’ Further: ‘All my other plays were like lamps, leading me to this one’; ‘I was in genuine fear of May in the way a child is afraid of a figures whose malice or destructiveness they cannot control. Every time I sat down to write about her, I let myself be deflected to an novel or another play. Only after The Steward have I felt able to face her. / These three are what I call my ‘bed’; plays: they all start from stories I was told when I was a child lying in bed with my mother or grandfather. But now I think I’ve done with them - I don’t need to say any more about my family’; spent ten years over The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty; saw his mother playing Kathleen Ni Houlihan in Yeats’s play: ‘It thrilled me but froze me to the bones’; ‘it’s the writerly function to go into the cell of the condemned man and to be overwhelmed by his vulnerability’; retains his Catholicism; ‘the most evil thing can find absolution by facing up to truth; ‘It’s the hardest thing of all, but, if you can get to the source of the desires and the hates, maybe you can heal them. And that’s something which is as true of the present divisions in Ireland as it is of my grandparents’ experiences under de Valera.’ (Also notes that Barry’s wife Alison is Protestant.)

Maggie Gee, rev. of Prayers of Sherkin in its London production by Peter Hall’s company (Old Vic; Times Literary Supplement, 6 June 1997), p.21; Gee finds it lacking in any vestige of historical or psychological realism; ‘there is nothing nasty in the woodshed; indeed, the woodshed is positively bursting with loving kindness.’

Kevin Myers, “Irishman’s Diary”, in The Irish Times (28 June 1997), on the publication of Complete Plays: ‘[…] Sebastian Barry’s importance as an enquirer, as a social historian and a reifier of lost and once certain worlds lies, among other things, in the honesty of his thought and the power of his imagination in dealing with what for must of us is gone quite beyond the power of our imagination. […] Sebastian’s most recent work, The Steward of Christendom, for which the other day he won the Ireland Fund award, is the most imaginative, the most generous, and by its historical elisions, contractions and reconstruct ions, emotionally - and by extension, politically - the most honest examination of the loyal southern Catholic Ireland which was either consumed by, or forced to hide itself from, the fires of 1916 onwards. That dead world has been brought alive with lazarene genius.’ Under the sub-heading “Stretching the truth”, includes this following: ‘ It is not that Sebastian is always factually correct. Playwrights needs must stretch truth; the Manchester from which Matt Purdy would have escaped in the 1790s in Prayers of Sherkin would not have been the great chimneyed metropolis Matt remembers in his Irish exile. Manchester’s dark satanic mills at that time were driven by water, not steam. But we know what Sebastian means; the error - if such it is - enhances a broader truth: and that is the nature of art.’

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Eileen Battersby, book notice of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, in The Irish Times (3 April 1999): ‘At a time when so much new Irish fiction has adopted a tone of aggressive comedy, Barry’s gentle tale about one of life’s innocents doomed to an existence of perpetual wandering stands out as something strange, surreal and even off-beat. As is to be expected from Barry, his artistic vision is shaped by his fascination with history and the idea that an epic does not necessarily have to be about public happenings. With its stylistic and thematic echoes of his previous novel The Engine of Owl-Light (1986), this novel manages to be both dream-like and earthbound. Eneas is battered as much by history unfolding as he is by bad luck and poor timing. He lives in his imagination as much as in a world of brutal confusions. Yet for all its beauty, Barry’s passive, airy novel, which flows and eddies like water, somehow fails to engage the emotions.’

Eileen Battersby, ‘Poor drama and bad manners’, in The Irish Times [Weekend], 9 Feb., 2002, ‘[…] Sebastian Barry’s drama depicting the disgraced former taoiseach’s life and misdeeds is a vulgar, tacky travesty, argues Eileen Battersby.’ Incls. remarks: ‘Hinterland is not Shakespeare because Haughey is not a tragic hero; he has no moral grandeur to lose. But his surviving the Arms Trial alone suggest that, beyond the big spending and grotesque self-delusions, there is something of near-sinister substance that demands scrutiny. A sloppy farce such as Hinterland is not the appropriate place for that political examination. / Nor should this play be condoned as the collective revenge of the Irish people on the man who betrayed the nation. It is to be hoped that the revenge of the Irish people is somewhat more sophisticated than the knowing cackles that greeted the direct hits of each unsubtle reference on the opening night.’ Further: ‘Far from serving the nation in staging this silly trash, the national theatre has simply confirmed that the Irish love gossip. Most ironically of all, it has furnished the fallen squire with even more mythology and yet another escape route.’ [End] (p.3.)

Eileen Battersby, ‘I can no longer decide what is invented and what is real’, interview with Sebastian Barry, in The Irish Times (23 July 2011), Weekend Review, p.7: ‘[...] Willie Dunne also features in On Canaan’s Side, in which the character’s sister, Lilly, tells her story. / As with Roseanne, the narrator of The Secret Scripture, Barry’s 2008 novel, which won the Costa Book of the Year award, Lilly speaks in characteristic heightened literary prose. “The legend of my mother was that she died in giving birth to me. I broke free, my father said, like a pheasant from cover, noisily. His own father had been steward of Humewood estate in Wicklow, so he knew what a pheasant looked like, breaking from cover.” / As the novel opens, Lilly is grief-stricken, coming to terms with the latest, most cruel loss in a life of hard losses. But Lilly is strong; there is nothing passive about her. Barry refers to her as “my hero” and speaks about his Aunt Lilly. “I first saw her in about the mid-Sixties; I was a child but I remember her. She had arrived back from America and she was wearing this print dress, an American dress, and she looked so happy. I remember thinking that, exactly that: Here is a member of my family who actually looks happy.” It is a powerful moment. [...]’ [Ensuing makes reference to The Engine of Outlight, &c.] (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

John Lahr, reviewing sundry plays incl. Sebastian Barry’s Our Lady of Sligo (Irish Repertory Th.), in New Yorker (8 May 2000), writes: ‘For Americans who watch Sebastian Barry’s Our Lady of Sligo (at the Irish Repertory Theatre), much of the historical predicament of Barry’s heroine, Mai O’Hara, a member of the Catholic bourgeoisie, which felt that it was robbed of its inheritance by the Sinn Féin revolution, is of almost no account. The dynamics of drama, not of Irish politics, are what hold the attention, or don’t. / Mai is a distressed alcoholic, who languishes with her memories and her monologues on a hospital deathbed in 1953. She is a roiling compendium of regret, an incarnation of personal and class disappointment - over her hate-filled, abusive marriage, her dead son, her lost prestige and promise.’ Remarks on the opening lines in which Mai shows herself to be locked into an inner dialogue that cannot be reached by the others: ‘The stakes are thus lowered, and, inevitably, the weight of the drama falls on language rather than on behaviour.’ Further, questions some of the poetic language: Barry can make wonderful music with words, but no one can accuse him of being a minimalist’; further, “I need rescue”, Mai says, and in her mouth speech becomes a kind of imperial assertion; she is, literally and figuratively, talking for history’. Lahr concludes: ‘Barry is probably Ireland’s finest living dramatist; his problem here is that his eloquence robs the barbarous moments of their danger. Hate and disgust and despair are rendered elegant. Barry writes beautifully, all right, but, unlike Chekhov, he insists too strenuously on himself as a poet, rather than letting the poetry of stage characterisation speak for him.’ [End]. Lead role played by Sinéad Cusack, dir. Max Stafford-Clark. (p.124.)

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Derek Hand, ‘The Future of Contemporary Irish Fiction’ [Irish Writing Today Ser./Irish Writers’ Centre and the James Joyce Centre, Dublin] (during 2001): ‘[…] In Sebastian Barry’s novel, The Whereabouts, we are presented with a Forrest Gump type of character: he appears to be wholly without agency. Events happen all round him but he is unable to intervene in productively in any of them. He possesses no firm belief in anything and wanders ­ almost aimlessly ­ through the world of the novel. Perhaps like the movie character, Barry is attempting to mediate history to us through a character so devoid of any ‘character’ that that history will be objective.The enemy in the novel are those characters who possess beliefs ­ in this instance, Irish nationalists. Actually this not true, for anyone who decides to rise up against the British Empire is deemed wrong. Of the rebellion in 1950’s Nigeria it is said, “What’s afoot is freedom, that dreaded thing”; and then little later: Bloody politics! Deathly, killing, seducing politics. Feckin ould freedom anyway. The problem is that the vision set against such ‘dreaded freedom and politics’ is little more than, basically, passive acceptance of the world ­ a usually British world ­ that one finds oneself in. Something similar is celebrated in his play, The Steward of Christendom, where the main character declares his ‘love’ for Queen Victoria because she was the head of an Empire that was on and brought ‘order’ to the world.This book has been hailed as a masterpiece. The reason why is simple. It attacks Irish nationalism and supposedly the all-pervasive influence of Irish nationalist history. In a time when to write a novel or indeed anything celebrating that aspect of Irish history would be different, this book simply reconfirms what we already know ­ the Irish past is a nightmare. Revisionist historians and literary critics in their rush to celebrate such a work as this, fail to recognise the cost ­ as displayed in the novel itself ­ of such a negative view of Irish history. McNulty is an enervated character who can believe in nothing, expect the world as it is. Indeed, what is being implied is that history should not have happened. In other words, for all its supposed iconoclasm, this novel actually suggests a return to colonial pre-independent Ireland would be a good move. Eneas McNulty, then, is no hero to be emulated in the present; nor does any of his actions (or to be more correct, inaction) gesture toward any type of future. Our heroes now must be toothless characters, afraid to act. Barry also engages in a sleight of hand in regard to the manner in which he presents death and murder in the novel. McNulty is involved on both the World Wars, but true to form he does not actually witness any action. It is a way for Barry to side-step the very real hard questions surrounding any act of killing. If his character was, himself, to kill an enemy soldier he would soon discover that all acts of killing ­ legitimate or illegitimate ­ are, close up, unpalatable and problematical. Instead, Barry opts for the easy option and the pat response: only the violence and chaos associated with rebellion are displayed and never that violence which is at the heart of the ‘order’ he so yearns for.’ (See Irish Writers’ Centre, “Anthology” [online] - accessed 25.10.2006.)

C. L. Dallat, ‘Hiding behind the Outskirts’, review of Hinterland (Cottesloe Th.)., in Times Literary Supplement (22 March 2002). Dallat writes: ‘If Barry’s earlier plays were intended to provoke cynicism about simplistic histories, Hinterland invites a comparable mistrust of contemporary politicians […] The decrying of the new, post-independence political class, is, however, an overworked theme in Irish writing […] Barry’s earlier creations freed him to weave complex emotional lives around a few known facts. Hinterland takes, relatively undoctored, a wealth of information already in the public realm [… /] The strategy of close identification fails, however, to engage the audience dramatically […] Not sufficiently broadly drawn to be satirical and not close enough to the characters to trouble us emotionally, [it] substitutes the exposure of familiar follies for the more exciting possibility of examining afresh the symbiosis between maverick leaders and the power-broking [sic] political culture that allows them to flourish.’ (p.19.)

Jimmy Guerin, ‘Cheap shots at the private lives of the Haughey family: Hinterland represents a sad day for our national theatre’, in Sunday Independent ( 10 Feb. 2002): ‘While we accept that most people who offer themselves for public life are open to scrutiny and most of Haughey’s problems have been self-inflicted, we would also recognise that no one has the right to portray someone’s mother, wife or sister in this light. Mrs Haughey deserves and rightfully expects more.’ [Appearing on the same page as Costa Del Sol Property Exhibition advertisement.]

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Emer O’Kelly, review, ‘A Party Line [believes] impartiality on air: RTE denies having an agenda […]’, reports on contacts made by Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme to establish her view of Barry’s play Hinterland, effectively vetting her to see if she held a view that suited the programme; O’Kelly writes of Duffy, ‘it was probably his big heart which led him to feel sympathy for the Haughey family when he attended the premiere of Hinterland. But the play does not deal with the Haughey family. It deals with a fictitious Irish political whose personal and political circumstances track those of Charles J. Haughey.’ (Sunday Independent, 10 Feb. 2002.)

See also O’Kelly, ‘Barry’s chilling study of CJ is uneven’, Sunday Independent (10 Feb. 2002): ‘And he has come up with a chilling conclusion: the sinner, he suggests, is in most cases capable of redemption, because he may come to realise the nature of his crime (sin) as immoral. But those guilty of corruption are irredeemable, because they are rooted in amorality, and are incapable of recognising right from wrong.’ Further, ‘The play has huge structural weaknesses as well as strengths. Barry combines farcical elements with edges of melodrama, but the two sit uneasily at times. And the introduction of Silvester’s mistress Connie, who is confronted by his wife, is at best dramatically peripheral. Indeed, the play is at its dramatic best when Barry moves away from realism, and gives Silvester just one some who becomes a metaphor for Irish society. Destroyed by what his father has done, he becomes suicidal […].’

Helen Meany, ‘Political Hinterland’, feature-interview with Max Stafford-Clarke, director of Hinterland, in The Irish Times [Weekend] (19 Jan. 2002): ‘My tasks is to make those scenes concrete, to bring the work on a parallel journey to the one he has indicated in the writing. It may be about a contemporary public figure, but this is not the language of TV naturalism. The director has to make it sound like psychologically accurate dialogue and yet not compromise its poetry.’ (p.4.)

Robert Hanks, ‘Sebastian Barry: A real family man’, in Independent [UK] (3 May 2002): ‘given the garrulous and somewhat high-flown eloquence of Barry’s writing. His new novel, Annie Dunne, set in rural Wicklow in the summer of 1960, is narrated by Annie, an elderly woman of little education, who at one point in the story is amazed by the level of learning reached by a cousin who can use a word such as “beauteous” in everyday conversation. But Annie herself talks like a cousin of the learned builder: “The barn owl, that roosts not in the barns, but in the tallest pine at the margin of the woods, calls out one haunting, memory-afflicted note.” / This is the kind of high-flown Irish prose that normally makes me itchy, but Barry stands up for its truthfulness: “If you listen carefully for how people are talking to you in Ireland, in certain districts, it is quite elaborate, there is a strangeness to it.” And in his novels - especially in what to me is his best book, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998) - the prose has a conviction that is hard to resist. / Back to Annie Dunne: Annie is a crookbacked spinster, living out her old age at Kelsha, a farm owned by her cousin Sarah. While her nephew goes off to London to search for employment, he leaves his two children, a boy and a girl, in her care. The book describes her joy at this brief spell of motherhood, and in the beauty of the land around her, but also her terrors - in particular, her fear that Sarah will marry and that Annie, not for the first time, will be left homeless and destitute. / This is fiction, but Annie Dunne was a real person. She was the writer’s father’s aunt and, in his boyhood, “my favourite person on God’s earth”. And he really did live with her at Kelsha through one summer. By coincidence, he says, he can see Kelsha from the house where he now lives.’ (Accessed online, 14.05.2010; for full text, go to RICORSO, Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

Robert Hanks, ‘Fools and Madmen’, review of The Secret Scripture, in New Statesman (26 May 2008): ‘[...] Barry writes ‘heightened prose’, at once high-flown and earthy, a plain vocabulary juggled into picturesque cadences and images. When this works, as in The Steward of Christendom and Eneas McNulty , the effect is bewitching; but it can become irritating. In the Secret Scripture, the difficulty of the style is compounded by Barry’s failure to give his two narrators sufficiently distinct voices - Dr. Grene was educated in England, and at one point says that nobody could mistake him for -an Irishman, whereas he is at times almost stage Irish. The book is also marred by a self-consciously literary quality, manifested in Roseanne’s improbable attachment to Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici and the predictable unreliability of the narrators. In an instance of Barry’s interweaving, Roseanne’s husband is Eneas McNulty’s brother: a brief appearance by Roseanne in the earlier book is retold here, but with significant variations. As the novel progresses, her clear-cut version of events is contradicted by documents that Dr Grene discovers: her father, whom she says was a gravedigger, is alleged by Father Gaunt to have been a policeman; a happy memory of her father testing Galileo by throwing hammers and feathers from a church tower, to see which fall faster, is transformed into a retelling of his death, tarred, feathered and beaten with hammers. But then this version of events turns out to be a fabrication of Dr Grene’s - an inexplicable one, as he has not yet encountered Roseanne’s original story.’ (For full text, go to RICORSO, Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Declan Kiberd, review of Annie Dunne, in The Irish Times (18 May 2002) [Weekend], p.10: ‘[…] It is audacious of Sebastian Barry to try to filter an entire novel through the contents of an ageing woman’s mind [and] Annie’s interior monologues are richer by far in their language than are her conversations with Sarah’; ‘There are beautiful passages of writing about the countryside all through the book’; ‘Any reader who has seen The Steward of Christendom […] might be forgiven for wishing that the second half of that drama had located itself inside the rich consciousness of Annie Dunne, the better to offer a multi-dimensional perspective on the policeman-father’s life. / Like that play, this book will be praised by many critics whose criteria are less artistic than political … that herd of independent minds which believes that it is a holy and wholesome thing to dismantle the narrative of nationalism. These reviewers will see Annie’s nostalgia for a “proper kingship”, her contempt for Gaelic revivalism and de Valera’s followers, as further proof of Barry’s genius. But they aren’t. The weakest parts of the book, as of the earlier play, are those which submit to this rather sentimental style of Raj revisionism. And the strongest are those in which the rituals of country living are narrated with a sort of delicate, inquiring reverence which is that closest thing that fine writing can ever come to prayer.’ Notes above that ‘the redemptive strangeness of the children’s presence in the unfamiliar setting is rendered with a noble tact […; &c.]’

Angelique Chrisafis, ‘Dramatist tells of ‘extraordinary’ reaction to satirical work about political corruption in Ireland’, The Guardian (Saturday, 8 June 2002): ‘Barry, 47, who rose to international fame in 1995 with his play The Steward of Christendom and has based his work on Irish life, said: “I felt that I didn’t know my own country. I felt like I had suddenly been disproved, that I no longer understood the place. Something happened in my heart, whatever was left of my spirit changed. I do passionately love my country, and my whole impulse with the play had been to heal what had gone before, not to open a wound. But after going through the fire of Dublin, I felt desperate. / “It was confusing to be told by my own country that I was a savage, unfair and scandalous. To be called moronic in the world of opinion that we all belong to was a shock and confusing.” (See full text at Guardian > Books, online.)

Eamonn Sweeney, ‘Busted flush? [Eamonn Sweeney is disappointed with Sebastian Barry’s latest, Annie Dunne]’, in The Guardian (Saturday 29 June 2002): ‘The Steward of Christendom, Sebastian Barry’s magnificent play about the last days of the former Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, was a big success when it premiered at the Royal Court in 1995. No less impressive were his other plays Boss Grady’s Boys, Prayers of Sherkin and Our Lady of Sligo. Then there is his last, excellent novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998). / From his own family history, Barry had wrought an exhilarating series of works that were linguistically brilliant, contained haunting characters and fell just on the right side of the line that separates pathos from mawkishness. For breadth and depth of talent, no Irish writer of his generation could rival him, it appeared. / Annie Dunne sees him again mining the seam of his ancestral past. Annie is the daughter of Thomas Dunne, the central character of The Steward of Christendom, but Barry approaches her in a manner which suggests the seam is becoming exhausted. This latest book has the enervated feel of a padded novella. / Waiting for Godot has been described as a play in which nothing happens, twice. Annie Dunne is a novel in which nothing happens many times. The eponymous protagonist is an unmarried woman in her sixties who lives with her similarly solitary cousin Sarah in a Wicklow farmhouse. In the summer of 1959, they are asked to care for their grand-niece and grand-nephew whose parents are going to England to seek work. / Not much else happens. There are copious descriptions of the daily agricultural round, the introduction of a farm labourer, Billy Kerr, who has designs on Sarah, and some hints about possible child sexual abuse. These plotlines are abandoned unresolved, as if Barry couldn’t be bothered to do anything more with them. What is most disappointing is that the writer’s touch with prose seems to have deserted him. I very much hope his next book sees a return to form.’ (For full text, go to RICORSO, Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct; visit Guardian > Books - online.)

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Mary Russell, ‘No wonder Sebastian Barry was intrigued by his namesake’, in The Irish Times (28 June 2004; Weekend), on Whistling Psyche: ‘[…] The person known variously as Margaret Bulkley, Miranda James Stuart and James Barry continues to fascinate writers. For the 1988 Dublin Theatre Festival the Abbey put on a production of Colours - Jean Barry Esq, Jean Binnie’s play based on the life of the enigmatic military surgeon whose true identity was revealed only on his deathbed. In 1999 Patricia Duncker’s novel James Miranda Barry was published, followed three years later by Rachel Holmes’s excellent biography, Scanty Particulars. / Barry follows in their footsteps by turning his attention to the life of this courageous and brilliant character, who was born in Cork in or around 1799, went to Edinburgh in his teens to study medicine and rose through the ranks to become colonial medical inspector and, later, staff surgeon to the forces. / In Whistling Psyche the elderly doctor has a fanciful encounter with Florence Nightingale, a device Barry uses to contrast the lives and ambitions of these two people whose paths crossed briefly, and rancorously, in the Crimea in 1855, when Nightingale was 35 and Barry 60, both of them motivated by a compassionate desire to work in medicine and both of whom were constrained either by disguise or by the mores of the times. Nightingale formed passionate but sexually unfulfilled friendships with at least two women; Barry guarded his male persona jealously and on only one known occasion formed a relationship with a man, causing a scandal at [the] time […]’

Michael Billington, review of Whistling Psyche (Almeida Th., London), in The Guardian (Thursday May 13, 2004): ‘Sebastian Barry writes like an angel; but I sometimes feel it is a recording rather than a dramatic angel. And, while his latest piece has an eloquence unmatched on the London stage, its intersecting narratives deny us the familiar satisfactions of a play. […] You can see what fascinates the author: “the lost fields of womanhood” and the personal griefs that accompanied an expansive empire. His writing is also burnished with a shimmering prose-poetry. Dr Barry talks of “the strange original that is an Irish person” and “the toothless Leviathan of poverty” that lies across Victorian London. Only occasionally does the language seem richer in sound than sense. When Florence talks of the vats of faeces at Scutari you wonder what she means by “the wild broken music of that stench.” / But writing is not the same as drama; and what one misses is not just interaction but any real sense of narrative momentum. Only at the end does the play touch the heart; and that is because the characters achieve mutual recognition and because the doctor has a beautiful speech about the mercy of God comparable to Sonya’s final exhortation in Uncle Vanya. / he main pleasure, however, comes from watching Kathryn Hunter as Dr Barry: with her husky voice and stance, she persuades you of the character’s enforced maleness while lapsing into a nostalgic femininity. Claire Bloom also brings out the bitterness and solitude of Miss Nightingale. But while Robert Delamere’s production works hard to lend the play theatricality, what you are left with is a rich text that demands to be read as much as enacted.’ [End.]

Michael Billington, review of Andersen’s English by Sebastian Barry, in The Guardian (9 April 2010). ‘[...] By mixng fact and fiction, Barry heightens the sense of Dickens’ domestic cruelty: it is striking that the great writer shows more concern for the future of the Irish maid than he does for the jettisoned Catherine. Andersen is also made to appear nicer than he probably was: Kate Dickens described him as “a bony bore who stayed on and on”. Yet Barry captures excellently Dickens’ dynamic restlessness and the sense that his supposedly contented family life was one of his greatest fictions. The play also vividly conveys the cost of being closeted with a creative genius. Catherine, often seen as a dull, child-bearing appendage to Dickens, is here rescued from oblivion and sensitively portrayed by Barry as a loving wife, tender mother and even kindly host to the odd Dane. / The tone of the play is quiet, sad, reflective: something beautifully brought out in Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Joint production interspersed with familiar folk songs. David Rintoul also admirably suggests that Dickens’ whirlwind energy masks a guilt-ridden unease. Danny Sapani even induces sympathy for Andersen as the observer who sees most of the game. And there is good work from Lorna Stuart, doubling significantly as Dickens’ daughter and future lover, and from Lisa Kerr as the resilient Irish maid. But the play’s abiding image is of Niamh Cusack as Catherine, grieving over her departing son and gazing at her tormented husband with a compassion he has hardly earned. Once again Barry has shown that it is to the defeated and discarded that attention must be paid.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Paul Taylor, ‘Psyche’s longeurs [sic] leave it whistling in the dark’, in Independent [UK] (13 May 2004):‘It was Kathryn Hunter’s childhood dream to play King Lear, an ambition she achieved at the age of 40. The tiny, sprite-like actress has also given us her Richard III and the Old Shepherd in A Winters Tale. These assumptions of masculine identity were, however, voluntary and temporary and therefore very different from the prolonged male impersonation imposed by cultural constraints on the historical character that Hunter brings to compellingly clear, if excessively mannered, life in Sebastian Barry’s new play Whistling Psyche. [...] The raw material is fascinating. Happiest when writing monologues of dense lyricism and rhetorical reminiscence, Sebastian Barry constructs a scenario that plays to his perceived strengths but renders the occasion dramatically inert, a fact that Robert Delamere’s sensitively shaded production cannot disguise. The author imagines a limbo-like situation where the transvestite doctor finds herself in the ornate waiting room of a spectral railway station (the grand, eerie design is by Simon Higlett). She is so wrapped up in her recriminations that she can’t perceive the other presence in the building: an ancient Florence Nightingale, whose ladylike asperity and vulnerability are beautifully captured by Claire Bloom. / You know that these opposed types will eventually discover much in common and end in an awkwardly touching embrace. Before that, though, the charge between the characters remains obstinately feeble because of the incommunicative format. / The situation, despite all its latent black comedy, is desperately low on laughs, though the monologues themselves are almost risibly overwritten. Nightingale refers to “the wild, broken music of that stench” in the wards at Scutari. Synaesthesia seems a rather fancy figure of speech to use to evoke a retch-making reek. Music, though, is the art form that springs to mind when you sit through this work, which feels more like a recital than a play - and a laboured recital at that.’ [Available online - accessed ].

Claire Gleitman, ‘Reconstructing History in the Irish History play’, in Cambridge Companion to Twentieth Century Irish Drama (2004), pp.218-30 [Chap. 16], pp.224ff.

[...] Sebastian Barry’s 1995 play, The Steward of Christendom, charts the efforts of Thomas Dunne to pick through his memory shards in search of consolation for the anguish of his old age. Like Observe the Sons, Barry’s drama concerns a man at the margins of history, a former Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. The DMP was a British-controlled, Irish police force which (most infamously) clashed with Irish workers and nationalists during the Dublin Lock-Out of 1913 and the Easter Rising of 1916. After the establishment of the Irish Free State, former members of the DMP were vilified by their fellow Irishmen for what was perceived as their traitorous collaboration with imperialist rule. The play’s present-tense action is located in 1932, and is set in a county care home where the nearly senile Thomas Dunne is now confined. At the same time the play transports us to various moments in the former Chief Superintendent’s {224} past life, as he strives to recapture the orderliness and perfect joy he associates with his personal past and with the Ireland of his youth. For Dunne the pivotal moment of change was 1922, when a nation which was ‘shipshape as a ship’ detached itself from Britain and swiftly became overrun by ‘savagery and ruin’. [6]

Yet woven through Dunne’s memories of a serene Ireland, basking in the glow of benign British rule, are constant reminders of how brutal and vulnerable to chaos were the systems of order on which his nostalgia feeds. Indeed, the self-deceiving nature of his memories is underlined by the very manner in which Barry dramatizes them. Just as the grief-stricken old man is on the verge of embracing a precious moment or a lost child, darkness intrudes, the memory vanishes, and Dunne is left to roar ‘with pain and confusion’ as he finds himself alone again with his regret and loss (20). The sum effect of the string of gapped memories is the recognition, for us if not for Dunne, that there is no past, pure and simple unto itself, which has not always been contaminated by the tendency towards disorder which defines the personal and the political spheres. As Dunne gropes for constancy his daughter Annie confronts him with the implacable fact that dooms his efforts: ‘Papa,’ she says, ‘we’ve all to grow old’ (37).

The Steward of Christendom draws our attention immediately to the gruesome gap between idyllic childhood and dismal old age. The play opens in 1932 in the ‘bare room’ of the care home, where the furnishings are spare and even the morning light is ‘poor’. Dunne’s opening lines, which echo the opening of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, show him taking refuge from his surroundings in a serene recollection of childhood: ‘Da Da, Ma Ma ... Clover, clover in my mouth ... and Ma Ma’s soft breast when she opens her floating blouse, and Da Da’s bright boots in the grasses, amid the wild clover’ (3). Almost instantly this lyrical evocation is undercut by images which encapsulate much of what will follow: ‘and me the Ba Ba set in the waving grasses ... and the farmhands going away like an army of redcoats but without the coats, up away up the headland with their scythes’. As through metaphor the farmhands are turned into ‘an army of redcoats but without the coats’, the tranquil scene darkens (though Dunne fails to notice) into an anticipation of his beloved son’s death in the trenches of World War One. [7] More than that, the image suggests that order is typically maintained through force and is always on the verge of collapsing into chaos. Dunne’s Da Da, lovingly recalled in the first monologue, reappears moments later as a more threatening figure: ‘When little Tom no sleepy sleep, big stick comes in and hitting Tom Tommy ... and all is silence ... except the tread of the Da Da, ... except the fall of the big stick’ (4). {225}

The story about Dunne and his mother’s ‘black time’ is also resonant because it culminates with a hen whose ‘wits go astray’ thanks to his abuse of it. This is suggestive of what happens to Dunne himself and to the generation of Irish people with whom he identifies. ‘All of them’, he says, ‘lost their wits and died’ (45), or ended up confined with him in the home. The care home, which he repeatedly describes as a madhouse, is a perfect emblem for the world which he both exalted and feared, the world of order restraining the chaos battering at its gates. The madhouse’s inmates, like Dunne, linger on in a state of shrivelled bewilderment, ‘crying and imagining’ because they cannot make sense of what he calls ‘the gap between the two things’ (16): what was and what is, what they were and what they are. These mad folks are watched over by a man named Smith who, not incidentally, is an orderly who carries a ‘pacifier’ (or billy club) which he does not hesitate to use. Smith, in short, bluntly embodies the figures of parental and civic authority which haunt Dunne’s imagination, and whose methods of preserving order now take the distinct form of a ‘pacifier’; the very term neatly blends the tenderly {228} parental with the brutally oppressive. As for Dunne (who, as an old man in the home, is stripped naked, unceremoniously bathed, and occasionally whipped), he is now clearly the infantilized subject of the authorities which, in reality, he always was.

Thus the madhouse becomes a kind of nightmarish wish-fulfilment where the order Dunne so obsessively desired is finally brought to bear on him. It was the news of Collins’s murder which precipitated the emotional breakdown which landed him in the home, and he recalls this event shortly before the play’s end. Forced to confront his inability to resist the ‘to-do and ... turmoil’ which descended on his family and nation (62), Dunne asks Annie to slay him with his ceremonial sword. Instead she has him committed. But his memory of his breakdown seems cleansing, as it is followed by the merciful gift of a vision. Like Lear imagining Cordelia’s breath on the looking-glass, Dunne is granted the illusion of life in a dead child: Willie appears to him, his ‘uniform flecked with gold’ (63). As his son helps him to his feet, Dunne utters the words which are inscribed on Jim Larkin’s statue on O’Connell Street: ‘The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.’ Seemingly embracing the wisdom of his former political enemy, Dunne appears to repudiate the colonial mindset which so debilitated his life. As he admits to his child, ‘It’s all topsy-turvy, Willie’ (63).


Sebastian Barry, The Steward of Christendom (London: Methuen, 1997), 50. Further references are included in the text in parenthesis.

7. The term ‘redcoats’, of course, no longer literally described the British army during World War One, as it had long ago traded in red uniforms in favour of more practical khakis. Hence Barry’s suggestive, qualified synecdoche.
For longer version - see RICORSO > Library > Criticism - infra.

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John Kenny, review of A Long Long Way, in The Irish Times, “Weekend” (26 March 2005): quotes preface to Plays I (1997) in which the writer declares it has never been his intention to immerse himself in the historical archives but, instead, to “try and guess the shape of things in the ordinary dark”, and remarks: ‘This guesswork has mainly emanated from the private histories of a number of Barry’s own ancestors, and his involved sense of urgency is appreciable: “What I have to do to tell a story is accept in my mind that these people survive in me somewhere, in a corner of the brain, in the heart, wherever, and somehow or other release their stories.” Further quotes: “There were people in the past who are not spoken about because the truth about them cannot be admitted to [...] A silence grew up around them. So we have a censored past, censored individuals, and a country whose history is erased.” Also: “[In our society] a game is played with our history and our society, of cops and robbers, goodies and baddies. But there is no such thing.” Kenny remarks on ‘[t]he sententiousness of Barry’s concept of historical revision’ and the ‘political transparency of [his] writing, at its worst in the weak dramatic farce that was Hinterland (2002), [which] disables any potential suasive force it might have among those who conceivably need convincing. […]’ (Cont.)

John Kenny (Irish Times, “Weekend”, 26 March 2005) - cont.: ‘Barry’s prose, like his drama, often depends too much on lyricism at the expense of driving action, and the pace slows intermittently as the mixed motives (a “deep, dark maze of intentions”) of Irish volunteers are thematically worked through, but the cast of support characters and the developing frantic scenes of battle, especially the first experiences of gas warfare and forays into no-man’s land, are brilliantly devised. […] It is difficult to separate Barry’s wish, deeply evident in all his work, for there to be goodness and redemption in the world from his tendency to politically sanctify his mouthpieces. A chief strategy has been to prevent the heightened innocence of his heroes being sullied, and thus ideologically complicated, by the dirt of volitional experience; things tend to happen to - rather than by or because of - his usually guileless principals; in Barry’s world it seems history, not the individual, is always to blame. Willie Dunne is typical to some degree, but by the time he is taken to the far side of direct involvement in the Easter Rising, of a decimated regiment, of destroyed relationships with Gretta and his father, of sheer physical pain and the speechless horror of the trenches, his complex feeling of homelessness is plainly believable and he has earned the elegiac inscriptive ending Barry grants him.’ [Cont.]

John Kenny (Irish Times, “Weekend”, 26 March 2005) - cont.: ‘Prior to A Long Long Way Barry had frequently failed to convince with his themes and styles, with his leading characters who frequently fell under the weight of their ideological equipage. Here, in a lighter combination of personal motivation with considered artistic execution, he succeeds on almost all fronts. […]’ (For full text, go to RICORSO, Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

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Laura Barber, ‘Hear the bleak ballad of Willie Dunne’, review of A Long Long Way in The Observer (Sun., 3 April 2005): ‘The author’s determination to make something substantial of Willie Dunne is shared by the boy’s father, an imposing 6ft 6in policeman who has great hopes that his son will follow him into the force. To Willie’s bitter dismay, however, he never reaches regulation height and only when he goes to fight for “King, Country and Empire” does he feel he’s reached “bloody manhood at last’. It is not long, of course, before Willie realises just how bloody his manhood will be. The intimate brutality of life in the trenches is evoked in visceral detail, from the stench of raw terror to the sensation of walking on a “foul carpet of crushed dead”. In this landscape of death, all the normal associations of domestic and natural life are horribly mangled and imbued with a macabre grace: gas folds over the trench like a bedspread and a kingfisher shoots along the river bank like a “glistening blue bullet”. / The poetic quality of Barry’s writing, in which a description of the arrival of winter comes with three dazzling similes, may initially seem to add a layer of inappropriate luxury and beauty to the bleak subject matter, but it serves a deeper purpose here, reflecting Willie’s faltering understanding of the war. / As the political and moral ground slides beneath his feet and the Irish soldiers are simultaneously despised by nationalists as traitors and denounced by the English as mutineers, Willie clutches at familiar symbols in a desperate attempt to bridge the gap between the world he knows and the one he has stumbled into. / The great achievement of this novel is the restraint with which Barry allows the awful complexity of Willie’s situation to dawn on him. Early in the story, when he learns something disturbing about his father’s policing, we are told that the knowledge “sat up in Willie’s head like a rat and made a nest for itself there”. During the course of the novel, the scampering of confused thought and the constant gnaw of doubt gradually become impossible for Willie to ignore. [...; &c.]’ (See full text, in RICORSO, Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

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Fintan O’Toole, ‘The Former People’, review of Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way, and Dermot Bolger, The Family on Paradise Pier, in Guardian (Sat., 7 May 2005): A Long, Long Way is strikingly distinctive, both in the quality of its prose and in its angle of vision. For the Irish soldiers who fought in the British army, the first world war had an added dimension futility. Like American soldiers who fought in Vietnam, the country they were supposed to be fighting for dissolved, as Barry puts it, “like sugar in the rain” Tens of thousands of Catholic nationalists joined up at the urging of leaders who believed that the war would bring all Irish factions together and thus create the conditions for an amicable transition to Home Rule. But the 1916 Rising caused the ground to shift towards a more militant nationalism. Those who survived the horrors of Flanders returned not as heroes, but as traitors. The home fires had burned out of control, consuming the memory of their sacrifice. / A Long, Long Way recreates the experience of one short life that was wasted in this way, that of his ancestor Willie Dunne, who died aged 21 in October 1918, near the war’s end. The name will be familiar to Barrys readers. The Dunne family - Thomas, the Catholic-chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police under British rule, his son Willie and his three daughters - figure in Barry’s celebrated play The Steward of Christendom and in his previous novel Annie Dunne. In the play, Willie appears as a silent ghost haunting the memory of his deranged father in 1932. Here, the ghost becomes flesh.’ [Cont.]

Fintan O’Toole, ‘The Former People’ (Guardian, Sat., 7 May 2005) - cont.: ‘Barry’s previous work on the Dunne family, and the references to characters from other Barry plays, are not important for enjoyment of the novel but they do help to account for its uncanny power. Though relatively short, it feels as if it is surrounded by a great hinterland. It seems to distil a great quantity of thoroughly imagined material, so that the reader, even without knowing much about the other members of the family, becomes aware that the author knows them very well indeed. / This depth of intimacy creates the sense that every sentence has unspoken things weighing upon it. The pressure results in a language that is both hypnotically lyrical and vividly immediate: “The gas boiled in like a familiar ogre. With the same stately gracelessness it rolled to the edge of the parapet and then like the heads of a many-headed creature it toppled gently forward and sank down to join the waiting men.” There is, indeed, a new edge to Barry’s writing here. Whereas his previous work has tended towards a dream-like beauty, A Long, Long Way is soaked in blood, semen, excrement and filth. Yet it still manages to retain an elegiac, trance-like elegance. Rage at the senselessness of Willie’s death is balanced by Barry’s determination to call up the dead with appropriate dignity. / Through this richly textured language, Barry creates for Willie Dunne a no-man’s land unlike any other. It stretches, not just between the British and German lines, but between the man he becomes at war and everything he knows and loves. He loses his country, the girl he loves, and even his father, who is horrified by Willie’s ambivalent sympathy for the executed Dublin rebels. With no world in which to live, he becomes a kind of ghost even before he is dead. It is Barry’s heartbreaking achievement not to exorcise that ghost, but to allow it to haunt us with the unspeakable sorrow of an irreparable loss. [End.]’

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Fintan O’Toole, ‘Bringing a Ghostly Past into Modern Theatre’, [in his “Culture Shock” column], The Irish Times (October 17 2009), Weekend, p.9 [on Tales of Ballycumber]: ‘The play is [...] a superb demonstration of Barry’s ability to write for actors. It is not accidental that in spite of having little to work with in the way of conventional psychology or motivation, David Leveaux’s production is blessed with a series of memorable performances, especially from Stephen Rea, Aaron Monaghan and Derbhle Crotty. For all the lyricism and artifice of the language, Barry has the knack of shaping it so that it can be fully inhabited by actors. / With such splendours of writing and performance and with highly accomplished direction and design, Tales of Ballycumber ought to feel like a masterpiece. What’s fascinating is that it doesn’t. It feels like a piece that anyone with any interest in theatre would want to see. But it also feels somehow incomplete. And since none of the usual suspects can be used to explain this sense of dissatisfaction, it forces you to think quite hard about why that should be. / The easy explanation is that the piece is so static. It has one almost unchanging set, a sequence of long speeches (some monologues, others as near as makes no difference) and very little onstage action. But the same can be said of, for example, Boss Grady’s Boys or The Steward of Christendom, and those are wonderful plays. Static in both senses - quiet and electric - is what Barry does. / The difficulty, rather, lies with those two questions: the use of the contemporary and the struggle to find a public myth. And these two issues are, in fact, related. Fixing the play in time is the crux of both.’ (See full txt, in RICORSO, Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Keith Jeffry, ‘Young Ireland Comes of Age’, review of Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way, in Times Literary Supplement (22 April 2005): ‘[…] Notions of nationality, patriotism and loyalty are central to A Long Long Way, which explored a particular dimension of early twentieth-century Ireland. Existing novels about Irishmen serving in the British Army during the First World War either deal with regular soldiers, like Liam O’Flaherty’s grim Return of the Brute (1929), or migrant London Irish volunteers, such as Patrick MacGill in (for example) the fictionalised reportage of The Red Horizon (1916). Harry Heegan, the Dublin working-class recruit in Sean O’Casey’s play The Silver Tassie (1928), is closer to Barry’s Willie Dunne, though in the single act set in the battle zone, O’Casey (unlike Barry) robs his soldiers of all individuality and portrays them as mere ciphers. More recently, Jennifer Johnston, in How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974), traced the intertwined stories of a young Ascendancy-class officer and a stable-lad recruit joining up to learn how to fight against the British. / ‘[…] Willie Dunne is essentially apolitical at the start of the book, following (in so far as he thinks about it at all) his father’s loyalty to Crown (King George V) and country (Ireland). Barry marvellously recreates an early-twentieth-century environment where, despite the increasingly urgent political conflict between nationalist Home Rulers and predominantly Ulster Unionists, most people were not bothered by politics one way or the other. But Dunne cannot remain unaffected by the changes in the Irish political landscape. He happens to be in Dublin on leave at the start of the 1916 Easter Rising, when what he witnesses unsettles him, and leads to a falling-out with his father. During Easter week, he travels from Dublin back to Flanders, in actuality an improbable feat, but in context a rewarding manoeuvre which allows Barry to counterpoint the similarities, and the differences, between Irish soldiering at home and abroad, as well as the challenge which the Rising offered to notions of patriotism and national allegiance. One fellow infantryman, a nationalist, later executed for disobeying orders, tells him, “I came out to fight for a country that doesn’t exist, and now, Willie, mark my words, it never will”. Willie, too, observes the widening distance “between the site of war and the site of home”, and in 1918, after another leave in Dublin, he finds himself happy to be going back to the war. The front line, among his friends, is the only place for him: “He knew he had no country now”. [...’; &c.] (See full text, in RICORSO, Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Heinz Kosok, ‘The Easter Rising versus the Battle of the Somme: Irish Plays about the First World War as Documents of the Post-colonial Condition’, in Munira H. Mutran & Laura P. Z. Izarra, eds., Irish Studies in Brazil (Sao Paolo: Associação Editorial Humanitas 2005): ‘Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom occupies a somewhat different position in this context. It is remarkable not only because it complicates the memory perspective by pre-dating it to 1932, but also because it establishes a direct relationship between the World War and the Easter Rising. In the iridescent memories of the former Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, the War in France where he lost his only son, is set against “that rebellion at Easter time, that they make so much of now (Three Plays, Methuen 1995, p.77).” The phrase “that they make so much of now” could refer to Irish drama as well as to the celebration of the Easter Rising in other spheres of life. The fourteen plays that have been listed in section III of the Appendix [Kosok, p.101] (there may have been even more) clearly reflect the changing attitudes in the Republic to the events of Easter 1916, and, taken together, they are a remarkable document of the important role the Rising has assumed in the collective consciousness of the Irish population.’ (p.96.) [Cont.]

Heinz Kosok (‘The Easter Rising versus the Battle of the Somme: Irish Plays about the First World War as Documents of the Post-colonial Condition’, 2005) - cont.: ‘That such fear was not totally unwarranted [i.e., the fear of the Rising being ‘repressed’ from ‘national memory’ rather than ‘glorifying it into a national illusion’ contemplated by Tom Murphy in 1991], can perhaps be inferred from Sebastian Barry’s great play White Woman Street of the following year. The action of White Woman Street is dated to Easter 1916, but it is set in Ohio, and from this telescopic distance the events m Dublin are hardly discernible. The only direct reference to the Rising comes in a paragraph from a newspaper, misquoted by an uncomprehending bar-keeper: “We get plenty Irish here. Place there burning like Richmond, I hear some big mail depot or someplace. Fire and ruin in Dublin. Fellas put in jail and likely to be shot. Fighting the English.” (Three Plays, 1995, p. 175.) And before this, the Irishman in the play had already placed the events in Dublin in a wider moral perspective when he asks: “Ever see an Indian town - the tent towns? Put me in mind of certain Sligo hills. The English had done for us, I was thinking, and now we’re doing for the Indian.” (Ibid., p.158.) Here the postcolonial approach characteristic of all the dramatisations of the Easter Rising has been extended to encompass the share of Irishmen in other colonialist measures, counteracting the vision of Ireland as the one-sided victim of colonialism. Judging from such examples, the ghosts of the country’s colonial past are perhaps at last being laid to rest.’ (p.99; end.)

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Munira H. Mutran, ‘The Mysterious Dimension of the Human Spirit’: Sebastian Barry’s Whistling Psyche’, in From English Literature to Literatures in English: Vol. V - International Perspectives, ed., Michael Kenneally & Rhona Richmann Kenneally (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag [Winter] 2005), pp.183-93: ‘[...] While a whole lifetime unfolds in the biography, their encounter takes place one night in 1910 (the year Miss Nightingale died) from two to three o’clock The Perfect Gentleman’s subtitle [1950; by June Rose], eliminates suspense because it informs us that Dr. Barry was a woman, whereas the playwright is able to maintain ambiguity and, therefore, suspense, by referring to the doctor as a figure or person, and by avoiding the pronoun: “Takes off the hat and sits, the chair emphasising how small the person is” (10). When the doctor finally refers to the pathetic change in his childhood, when “the garb of a girl was taken from me, item by item, and my wardrobe of dresses, stockings and privy garments, scant though it was, was discarded forever” (32), Miss Nightingale has drifted asleep and cannot hear his confession. Only much later is the suspense broken. [185] / Confessing reinforces the impression that Whistling Psyche is not made up of two biographies on the stage but two narratives following closely the conventions of the autobiographical mode [...] In Whistling Psyche the characters insist on “my true story,” “my story,” “the spectacle of my private story,” from infancy to old age and death. Their monologues are autobiographies transposed from the biographies and hence to the play. Sebastian Barry imagines an encounter between two ghosts, gives them voice and allows them to re-live their past lives through their memories. It is extremely interesting to hear what the author has to say about the process of creation [here quotes letter from Barry]: “I had great excitement here in this small room writing both Barry and Nightingale, because they seemed to me to speak so urgently, talking fiercely in my ear. That’s when I trust a play, when it seems to be given, or lent maybe, when you lend an ear to some vanished creature and find they are still capable, livingly and urgently, of speaking, of representing themselves in the strange Victorian courts of forgetfulness and eternities.” / Three topics present in Rose’s biography are emphasised, and acquire additional significance in the play: the doctor’s isolation, his fondness for pets and his bitterness towards Miss Nightingale.’ [186 ...] (See longer extracts in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Monographs”, via index, or as attached; for more of Barry’s correspondence, see under Quotations, infra.)

Lucasta Miller, ‘Trying to Hear and See’, interview with Sebastian Barry, in The Guardian (3 Oct. 2005), Review Section: ‘[...] Much of Barry’s writing has been inspired by his family’s past, and both his grandfathers were hugely influential. From his mother’s father, a major in the British Army, he imbibed stirring tales of empire and the North-west frontier. In contrast, his father’s father, a watercolourist and art teacher, was a fervent nationalist, who saw it as his duty to teach himself Irish, yet who nevertheless married the daughter of a policeman, whom he regarded as one of the chief officers of British imperialism. Barry is Catholic on both sides, but, he says humorously, “I took the precaution of marrying a Protestant.” Barry’s sense of multiple, shifting identity, derived from this background of mixed allegiances, seems to underlie his belief in the necessity of reconciliation, a recurring theme in his work. / Barry’s plays and novels are themselves interconnected by family ties. Willie Dunne in A Long, Long Way has appeared before: he is the son of Thomas Dunne, the ex-superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, based on the writer’s great-grandfather, who is the embittered protagonist of The Steward of Christendom, the 1995 play which was Barry’s first big international hit. Most of Barry’s work is set in the past. When he tried using more contemporary material, in his play Hinterland, about a corrupt Irish politician who was simplistically identified in the press as Charles Haughey, he suffered a painful media backlash. “I don’t know how I got through that time. I was like a fox trapped in a fence, suddenly realising that these hounds chasing me actually wanted to kill me,” he told The Irish Times. / It was, perhaps, inevitable that Barry should write for the theatre. His mother, Joan O’Hara, is a former actress. [...]’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Sean O’Hagan, ‘Ireland’s past is another country’, notice of The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, in The Guardian, (27 April 2008), Barry, a dapper dresser who looks like he might be related to W. B. Yeats, is a great interviewee. He tends to talk as he writes, in sentences full of beautiful imagery. “History,” he says, “has always seemed to me to be an intoxication of facts and it is in the ever-present ruins of history that I work.” / It is in these ruins, he explains, that he found Roseanne, who is based somewhat tangentially on one of his great aunts, who similarly disappeared into an institution, having somehow transgressed the rigid codes of Catholic Ireland. In one way, The Secret Scripture is a final breaking of the long familial silence that enshrouded her. “I once heard my grandfather say that she was no good,” says Barry. “That’s what survives and the rumours of her beauty. She was nameless, fateless, unknown. I felt I was almost duty-bound as a novelist to reclaim her and, indeed, remake her.” / This excavation of his own family history to underpin his stories is not without its risks. His play, Our Lady of Sligo, based on tales his mother told him of his grandmother’s life, utterly incensed his grandfather. “He summoned me and asked me how I knew all these things,” says Barry, grimacing now at the memory. “Then he cursed me and told me he would never speak to me again. He’s gone now but he was as good as his word.” [Quotes Barry further:] “I am trying to rescue my characters from the cold hand of history,” says Barry, “and from the silences that surround certain turbulent periods in our own history.” And this on Fr. Gaunt: “For a long time, all I had was this image of him swishing though the streets of Sligo, bringing morality house to house,” laughs Barry, before turning suddenly serious. “In many ways, he is an arbiter of the thing that terrifies me most, the absolute certainties of Irish history.” (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.) [On Barry as a talker at interview, see Robbie Millen, infra.]

Joseph O’Connor, ‘Not all knives and axes’, review of The Secret Scripture, in The Guardian (24 May 2008): ‘[...] Roseanne’s voice is urgent, colloquial, strange, a song of insinuations, non-sequiturs and self-corrections. It sifts the troubled memories it purports to be organising while always keeping faith with the impossibility of the task. Shards of stories intrude; fragments of lost narratives jostle. Half-forgotten quotations and scraps of ancient folklore blow around her mind like old leaves. Is she chronicler or creator? How much is reliable? “No one has the monopoly on truth,” she points out. “Not even myself, and that is a vexing and worrying thought.” / Her turn of phrase is bleakly funny and there are warm, vivid reminiscences, for a girlhood in rural Ireland “is not all knives and axes”, but as recollection coheres into a devastating story the nature of her sufferings becomes clearer. Dr Grene is both detector and hider of truths, and he finds himself in paradoxical reversal with his baffling patient, speaking to her of his own losses and hurts. But the book is arranged and imagined with immense tact, so that it is never unbalanced by its ironies. Roseanne and Dr Grene, though hardly ever described, are incarnated with such commitment and narrative astuteness that you feel you are standing in the rain of their lives. You are reading them, not reading about them. [.../] Barry is doing something darker and more daring than image-breaking. He makes enthrallingly beautiful prose out of the wreckage of these lives by allowing them to have the complication of actual history in all its messy elusiveness. “History, as far as I can see, is not the arrangement of what happens,” he writes, “but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.” His achievement in this magnificent and heart-rending novel is a kind of restitution.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Lucy Gardner, notice of Pride of Parnell Street, in The Guardian (7 Sept. 2007): ‘“See, love between a man and a woman, it’s private. It happens when you never do see it. In rooms,” says Joe. But it is not private in Sebastian Barry’s two interweaving monologues, which dissect the fractured marriage of Joe and Janet, whose love for each other echoes their love for their home city, Dublin. / Like so much of Barry’s work, this is a memory play in which the protagonists pick away at the scabs of the past - in this case a happy marriage scarred by the death of six-year-old Billy, killed by a lorry in Parnell Street, and an act of senseless violence that took place on the night of Ireland’s quarter-final eviction from the 1990 World Cup as Dublin’s men turned their disappointment on their wives. “When the Irish team lost, they realised they were losers too.” / This is a portrait of reasonably happy lives that take a wrong turn - petty thief Joe loses wife and children, his liberty, his dignity and his health, but saves himself through an act of redemption, though even this is founded on someone else’s blood and a miraculously timed arrest. Life’s random bricks and bouquets, suggests Barry, can make us or break us. Given that Barry writes in a honeyed prose spiked with a wormwood humour, and the monologues are performed with exquisite restraint by Mary Murray and Karl Sheils, there is hardly a dry eye in the house by the end. But though you would require a heart of stone not to warm to this 100 minutes, there is something lazy about its monologue construction, and if Janet and Joe’s story was supposed to have wider implications for modern Irish life, I couldn’t fathom it. What it is is very nice, but nice is not quite enough. (The Guardian, 7 Sept. 2017, “Stage” - online; access 30.05.2017.)

Dinitia Smith, ‘Old Battles are Burnished by Time’, review of The Secret Scripture, in The New York Times (23 June 2008) - Book Reviews: ‘[...] Roseanne is a Presbyterian, the daughter of Joseph Clear, a “keeper of the graves” in a Catholic cemetery, who may or may not have been in the Royal Irish Constabulary. A group of Irish Republican Army irregulars, opposed to the 1922 treaty with Britain that partitioned Ireland because they believe it gave the British too much authority, stumble into the family hut carrying a dead comrade. Roseanne is sent to fetch the local priest, Father Gaunt, to administer the last rites. (Catholic Church officials in Ireland opposed the renegades.) Later, Roseanne is accused of betraying the boys to their former allies, the Free State Army, which favors the new treaty, and with whom the I.R.A. irregulars are conducting a bloody civil war of their own. / Roseanne’;s father loses his job and becomes the village rat catcher. He is later found hanged, whether by murder of by suicide is not known. / Re-enter the aptly named Father Gaunt, who is a masterpiece of cold dominion if there ever was one, a hater of women’;s sexuality, “cleaner than the daylight moon,” who tells Roseanne that he can’;t have a beautiful girl like her running about as a temptation to all the young lads of Sligo. He arranges for her to marry a Free Stater, Tom McNulty (the brother of the title character of Mr. Barry’;s novel “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.”) / But the young bride is spotted talking to one of the I.R.A. irregulars, the brother of the dead boy. For this simple transgression she is banished, by her husband’;s family and Father Gaunt, to a life of complete isolation in an iron hut at the edge of the sea. Father Gaunt arranges for her marriage to be annulled on the ground that she is a nymphomaniac, and he schemes to have her imprisoned in the mental institution. When crossed, Roseanne notes, Father Gaunt “was like a scything blade, the grass, the brambles and the stalks of human nature went down before him.” [... &c.]’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

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John Wilson Foster, ‘“All the Long Traditions”: Loyalty in Barry and Ishiguro’, in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture, Dublin: IAP 2009) - [prev. printed in C. H. Mahony, ed., Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry (2006) [contents as infra]: ‘[...] The Steward of Christendom is on one level a political tragedy, the tragedy of a man marooned in his opinions and allegiances by the changing tide of Irish history. The source of this tragedy is Dunne’s resistance to the idea of changing sides, declining to accept fully the new Ireland and preferring to remain in heart with the old dispensation, that being the nobler choice. For he recalls that when Dublin Castle was signed over to Michael Collins (to whose personality he was in fact drawn), most of the men in his division of the DMP would have gladly transferred their loyalty to the Big Fella: “And for an instant ... I felt the shadow of that loyalty pass across my heart. But I closed my heart instantly against it” (Steward, Methuen 1995, p.50). Loyalty puts honour and principle over feeling and pragmatism. / On another level, The Steward of Christendom is a domestic tragedy - in the way King Lear is a domestic tragedy - about a widower with three daughters and who in the end goes mad with the weight of authority, the weight of historical change and the rewardlessness of loyalty, the weight of the years.’ (pp.79-80.) [Quotes ‘We did our best ... &c.,’ as given under Quotations, infra.]

John Wilson Foster (‘“All the Long Traditions”: Loyalty in Barry and Ishiguro’, 2006, 2009) - cont.: ‘Above all, Barry’s play is a moral tragedy about a man whose relationship with society, with the world, is underminded and transvalued by circumstnaces over which he has no control. At the heart of Dunne’s relationship with socierty and the world is the notion of service. [...] So politicized are we in Ireland that Irish readers have to work hard today so see virtue in Dunne’s rambling self-justifications; he and the DMP followed orders and cleared O’Connell Stree of strikers in 1913 and several men died, and we know today what we thing of those who followed orders at all costs: professional dury and professional obedience can appear almost by definition nowadays as vices not virtues. But Barry puts accountings of service into Dunne’s mouth and mind in sophistication far beyond these ideas, complex though these can be.’ (p.80.) ‘Dunne’s idea of service was once no dementia, as is clear from [...] Othello and King Lear [...;’ cites Michael Neill on ‘the faithful servants’s fulfilment of his office’ in these plays [Neill, ‘Servile Ministers: Othello, King Lear and the Sacralization of Service’, Garnett Sedgwick Mem. Lect., Univ. of British Columbia, 2003]. (p.81.) Earlier, Foster quotes at some extent from James H. Murphy: ‘It is presumed that Irish nationalists were hostile to the English monarchy [...] Most Irish nationalists were monarchists of either the enthusiastic or the grudging but realistic varieties [...] Monarchy seemed the natural form of government and it had the blessing of the Catholic Church [...] Republicanism was the preference of only a minority in Ireland.’ (Murphy, Abject Loyalty: Nationalism and Monarchy in Ireland, Washington: CUA 2001, op. cit., pp.xix, xxi; Foster, op. cit., p.78-79.) Foster begins: ‘Sebastian Barry’s most characteristic idiom, in novel, poem and play is a gravid lyricism.’ (p.72.)

Stuart Jeffries, ‘Sebastian Barry reveals the secrets of his Costa prize win’, interview, in The Guardian (29 Jan. 2009). ‘[...] Throughout [his career], as Barry wrote in an earlier novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, his concern is with “scraps of people, blown off the road of life by “history’s hungry breezes”. One scrap, Roseanne McNulty, is nearing 100 as she records the story of her life. / The novel was catalysed 10 years ago by his mother. “We were driving through Sligo, and my mother pointed out a hut and told me that was where my great uncle’s first wife had lived before being put into a lunatic asylum by the family. She knew nothing more, except that she was beautiful.” / [...] Barry admits to plundering his family history for fiction: “I can’t seem to do anything else”. While he was at work on the book, his mother, a famous Irish actor, became terminally ill. This family drama fed into the novel. There’s a scene at the end when Dr Grene, the psychiatrist charged with assessing Roseanne, goes back to the mental hospital not so much to visit her as to “go to see if she was alive. I was pulled up short with this elemental sense of a mother and a son that I hadn’t felt before. We had had a difficult relationship, not speaking to each other for a year at a time.” / Barry’s seeming miserablism has exasperated some English critics (those unremittingly sunny people) who ­perhaps yearn for Irish fiction to be like a mini-break to Dublin, all craic and no downside. But Barry refuses to cater to them. His first agent, one Sophia Sackville-West, told him at the outset not to write about Ireland. “She said there’s no market for Irish stuff, write about England.” Why did you not take her advice? “I couldn’t. It’s like salmon fishing. It’s so hard to catch a book in the nets of time. Hard enough catching an Irish one. I don’t think I could catch an English one”.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Alex Clark, review of On Canaan’s Side, in The Guardian ([Wed.] 20 July 2011). ‘[...] Barry resists filling in complex historical detail with a heavy hand, although he is more heavy-hearted than might meet with Lilly’s approval. His method is to imply a dreadful strangeness rather than a straightforward working-out; conflict and tumult blind-side his characters rather than staring them full in the face. “Tanks. Wounds received. Nothing,” reports Lilly’s friend Mike Scopello tersely, when asked about the Purple Heart he received in the second world war; elsewhere, America’s brimming racial tensions and its participation in the Vietnam war are similarly obliquely sketched, their force and magnitude evident from the damage and alienation that they leave in their wake. Sometimes those effects are bizarre and mysterious: in the sinuous strand of the novel that charts Lilly’s marriage to policeman Joe Kinderman, his subsequent abandonment of her is eventually revealed to be the result of a painful neurosis that is all the more powerful for its unpredictability and oddness. / By anybody’s reckoning, Lilly’s life is a traumatic one, encompassing multiple bereavements and separations, material hardship, numerous upheavals and unrelieved exile from an oppressed and divided homeland. Her indomitability – she is, she tells us, “thankful for my life, infinitely” – derives in part from the very invisibility and stoicism that she has had to cultivate and for the joy in small reliefs and pleasures to which that has led. Paradoxically, shrinking her life to escape the assassin’s gaze has induced in Lilly a deep appreciation of America’s vastness and mobility, a mental relief from claustrophobia. Arriving in New York, slinking through the streets with Tadg, she is at once terrified and awed: “I almost laughed at the memory of Dublin, with its low houses, their roofs tipped like deferential hats to the imperious rain.” Much later, in Cleveland, in a marvellously conjured episode in which Lilly visits Luna Park with Joe, “the generous American sky threw its arms open above us, and above the brightened factories, and the stretching wilderness of the human streets.” / Barry’s prose is overwhelmingly poetic, its lyricism yielding a seemingly endless series of potent and moving images [...]’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Alex Clark, review of Days Without End in The Guardian (28 Oct. 2016): ‘Sebastian Barry’s commitment to telling the stories of two Irish families, the Dunnes and the McNultys, over several novels and multiple time frames and locations, has led to one of the most compelling, bravura and heart-wrenching fictional projects of recent memory. Its gaps and fissures, its silences, its elaboration of attachment, separation and loss amount to a profound meditation on the nature of national identity, enforced emigration and the dispersal of a people into lands frequently inhospitable and alienating, there to forge a new life. / Days Without End, a fever dream of a novel that has much in common, particularly in terms of style, with Barry’s prize-winning The Secret Scripture, presents us with Thomas McNulty, who has crossed the Atlantic to rebuild his life. The traumatic chaos of what he has left behind in Sligo - his family dead from famine, his country “starved in her stocking feet. And she had no stockings” - is more than matched by the horrors that he encounters in a US in the grip of self-creation, its expansionist violence underwritten by its adherence to the notion of manifest destiny. [...] Days Without End is a work of staggering openness; its startlingly beautiful sentences are so capacious that they are hard to leave behind, its narrative: so propulsive that you must move on. In its pages, Barry conjures a world in miniature, inward, quiet, sacred; and a world of spaces and borders so distant they can barely be imagined. Taken as a whole, his McNulty adventure is experimental, self-renewing, breathtakingly exciting. It is probably not ended yet.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

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Niall MacMonagle, review of On Canaan’s Side, in The Irish Times (30 July 2011), Weekend Review: ‘Voice is everything. As you move through this story, Lilly’s voice becomes the voice inside the reader’s head, a voice that is private, self-conscious, deliberately rich in imagery. At times the language is quaint and idiomatic, and at times limpid and beautiful, as when Lilly looks on her son Ed when he tells her that he’s been drafted to Vietnam: “I was gazing at him. I was seeing I thought something for the first time. His features were regular, square, like a portrait. He stood before me, and I gazed at his face. I think I saw how doubt wavered there, and courage, and of course the blessed ignorance of what was truly to come.” / Love and hatred feature. When Mr Nolan, both friend and enemy, reveals a shocking truth, Lilly’s hatred is as vivid as the tender love she shows for her son Ed, now a Vietnam vet, who returns to Lilly’s porch but will not come in. And the truly observant passages in which Lilly tells of watching her son and grandson grow, “the deepest, most important poetry of my life”, are clearly written out of felt experience. / Though Lilly’s mother dies in childbirth, though Lilly’s own first love dies suddenly and subsequent events bring terrible sorrows, On Canaan’s Side is not a bleak book. Its remarkable wisdom and spirited openness save it from that. Clearsightedly, Lilly says: “I am dwelling on things I love, even if the measure of tragedy is stitched into everything.” / Desmond MacCarthy, writing about E. M. Forster, differentiated between the masculine and feminine ways of life. The masculine way is “to handle it departmentally” but the “feminine impulse ... is to see life as more of a continuum”. Barry’s Lilly Bere brilliantly encapsulates that continuum in a book beautifully and rhythmically woven. Though the similes are overdone, the plot revelations are handled much more effectively here than in The Secret Scripture. [...] This new novel forms, together with A Long Long Way and The Secret Scripture , an impressive triptych celebrating “the lost names in the history of the world”. I enjoyed and admired this one best.’ (p.10; see full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Boyd Tonkin, review of On Canaan’s Side, in The Independent [IE] ([Fri.] 29 July 2011): ‘[...] On Canaan’s Side, Barry’s first novel since the Costa Award-winning The Secret Scripture and already long-listed for the Man Booker, once more revisits the Dunnes. It follows Lilly’s bruising odyssey as she flees to America after the collapse of the imperial Ireland that her father loved. There, “on Canaan’s side”, in “the place of refuge itself”, she encounters not simple peace and plenty but a battle for life through murder, poverty and successive wars. / In a way, Lilly prevails. She endures loss after loss to nest here on a swanky coast, the beloved former cook of a family related (as we slowly learn) to the Kennedys. “A grateful relic, for what I was given, if not for what was taken away,” she nonetheless inspects her deep wounds in a journal written after Bill’s death. And she concludes that “the pressure of sorrow is like being sent down to the core of the earth. So how are we not burned away?” / Barry’s writing suggests that memories rehearsed in a language that out-sings tragedy will, if not fireproof us, at least retard the flame of grief. Anyone who knows his work will seek, and find, a lyrical incandscence in Lilly’s narration. At its mid-point a single two-page sentence moves with her up and down a roller-coaster in Depression-era Cleveland and, via its own spectacular swoops and lurches, captures in miniature Lilly’s, and America’s, “long story of suffering and glory”.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Terry Eagleton, ‘Overdoing the Synge-song’, review of On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry, in London Review of Books (22 Sept. 2011). ‘[..] Barry’s fiction does not resolve political conflicts by personal means. Even so, the personal in his novels quite often displaces the political. His great-grandfather was a Dublin chief superintendent of police who early last century led a baton charge on strikers in which four men were killed. In his play The Steward of Christendom this historic personage appears as the protagonist, Thomas Dunne. But though Barry’s embarrassingly arch introduction to the play leads one to expect that the incident will figure, ther is strikingly little allusion to it, even though it constitutes what one might see as the original sin or primordial crime of the Dunne family, which was to spread its sickness down the generations. The only trenchant criticism of Dunne’s actions comes from a foul-mouthed nationalistic prison warder, whose snarls are easily discounted. [...]’ [Cont.]

Terry Eagleton (London Review of Books (22 Sept. 2011) - cont.: ‘Blaming is not Barry’s forte. The point is not to judge but to understand. Literature, in a familiar liberal wisdom, yields the felt experience of things rather than delivering moral lessons. This is a remarkably recent view of the function of fiction. Jane Austen observes of one of her characters that he would have been better off not being born. Dickens sees no discrepancy between bringing his figures vividly to life and telling us what creeps or buffoons they are. Barry, by commor, writes of Thomas Dunne in the introduction to The Steward of Christendom that “I was no longer looking fur demons, but trying to wrench a life from the dead grip of history and disgrace.” But why cannot one both rebuke and recreate, as one would need to in a play about Attila the Hun or Charlie Haughey? Cannot understanding sharpen criticism as well as mollifying it?’ [Cont.]

Terry Eagleton (review of On Canaan’s Side, in London Review of Books, 22 Sept. 2011) - cont.: ‘There is a curiously complex relationship in the novels between the voice of the author and the voice of the narrating character. There are times when this amounts to so-called free indirect speech, as the two languages become hard to distinguish and a Wicklow idiom inscribes itself within a more sophisticated discourse. At other times, as in The Secret Scripture or On Caanan’s Side, the voice of the character has the edge over the author’s, while in the preternaturally slow-moving Annie Dunne, the narrative discourse is clearly beyond the powers of Annie herself. A well-nigh perfect blending is achieved in A Long Long Way. / This subtle ratio of voices leads these novels much of their extraordinary richness. Yet it also means that the voice of the novel itself is too closely intertwined with the consciousness of the protagonists to pass critically distancing judgments on them. And there are times when this abstention from judgment is politically convenient. As far as politics goes, it is worth noting that though Barry is a deeply nostalgic writer, full of delectable memories of rural Wicklow, this is rarely held against him by the militantly modern, urban Irish literati, as it is sometimes held against authors like Brian Friel and Seamus Deane. This is because in their case, but not in his, the backward glance to rural Ireland is associated with a currently unfashionable republicanism. [... &c.]’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

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Claire Kilroy, review of The Temporary Gentleman, in The Guardian ([Sat.] 29 March 2014): ‘I will put my hand up and confess to having had a fleeting “change the record” moment with Barry’s last novel, On Canaan’s Side, only to be bowled over by the unexpected power of the ending (so many writers have tried and failed to capture the moment of death). The states of goodness that his previous narrators maintained in the face of startling iniquity were beginning to strain belief, but then, Barry’s writing is inspired by his family so it is natural to write with tenderness. The Temporary Gentleman, however, is narrated by the bad guy. Jack is a drinker, a gambler, an absent father, a neglectful husband, a gunrunner and, at the end, a coward, afraid to return home. The hallmark heightened lyricism and stylised idiom of old is still there, but it is tamped down by Jack’s rueful voice. / The novel seems part of something bigger, almost a prelude, in fact; and this is not a flaw but, rather, an indication that new life is being breathed into the Barry project. Watchers have been planted within the text in the shape of Jack and Mai’s two unfortunate daughters, Maggie and Ursula. They are almost entirely silent: terrified children in an adult world, witnesses to misery and - in one vicious episode - subjected to violence. They appear at windows, or at the top of stairs, observing their parents’ abject state as they drink themselves into oblivion. Their presence is electric, because you know that it is only a matter of time before Barry will get round to telling their stories. Maggie, the oldest, becomes an actor, locating her in his immediate familial terrain: his late mother was the actor Joan O’Hara. Ursula emigrates to England to become a nurse, fearful that her father will disapprove of her engagement to a Nigerian. The novel ends as Jack’s testimony ends, having succeeded in intriguing the reader. If anything, the work is getting more exciting as it broaches contemporary times. / Barry is drawn to complicated subjects. [...]’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

Arminta Wallace, ‘The mystery of Sebastian Barry’s grandfather’, in The Irish Times (1 April 2014): ‘[...] Ask Barry a question about The Temporary Gentleman’s central character, Jack McNulty, and he’ll answer with a story about Jack O’Hara. “We shared a room in Monkstown [Co Dublin] for most of my childhood,” he recalls. “I knew things about him that you probably shouldn’t know about anybody - his private habits - and I helped him through various ailments and so on. / “He loved telling stories. He had been everywhere in the world. The northwest frontier, the landscape of the Hindu Kush, was one of the great landscapes of my childhood because he used to evoke it with his stories. He taught me the sequence of ranks in the British army when I was about eight. I was in the bed with him while he told me everything about his life, except probably, the real things, because of course you couldn’t go there.” / Many of the stories about his grandfather, which Barry has recreated in the book, he first heard in the form of a diatribe from his mother, the actress Joan O’Hara, a woman who knew how to deliver a dramatic monologue. “While he was alive, it was always weighted against him. All her stories were for her mother and against her father.” / It rapidly becomes clear to the reader of The Temporary Gentleman that Jack McNulty is no angel. Many of Barry’s characters are caught up in the storms of history: Willie Dunne in the trenches of the first World War in A Long Long Way; Eneas McNulty in the cross-currents of the Irish War of Independence in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty. Here, though, Jack, an engineer who has worked in bomb disposal for the British army, struggles against a perfect storm of his own making, in the shape of over-indulgence in gambling and alcohol. / It’s nothing new for Barry to be digging around in difficult parts of his family history. The story of a great-aunt who was confined to a mental hospital provided him with the character of Roseanne in The Secret Scripture; the physical disability of another great-aunt was the inspiration for Annie Dunne; a third great-aunt became Lilly Bere in On Canaan’s Side.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or direct.)

Kate Kellaway, ‘The Temporary Gentleman: Sebastian Barry’s hard-drinking, continent-spanning love story’, in The Observer [Sunday] (20 April 2014): ‘This novel is an elegy - not for a temporary gentleman but for his wife. The prose has the black-bordered elegance of a Victorian mourning letter yet it is, at the same time, a restless recollection of the life of a couple - animated but doomed. It is written with a redeeming artistry - almost as if good writing might have the power to save a marriage or contain the secret of happiness. It manages, with the lightest of touches, to be a politically adroit sketch of Ireland and of colonial Africa in the last century. / Barry [...] lets slip here that Jack McNulty is brother to Eneas (from his 1998 The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty). Jack fought in the second world war, although his commission was never permanent, and became a UN observer and a gunrunner in Africa. We meet him, in 1957, in Accra lodgings, waited on by a houseboy, Tom Quaye, whose marital circumstances partly parallel his own. / Jack is at work on a memoir and with Barry’s help we get to know him better than he knows himself. The pleasures of reading this novel are not dissimilar to reading Jane Austen - although darker - in that one is allowed to make moral judgments in advance of the characters themselves - although Jack is, eventually, permitted to catch up - writing his way into culpability. [...] Like a series of magic lantern slides, we view Jack’s past. We follow him and Mai to the Gold Coast and see them return to Ireland when Mai is pregnant with their first child (she causes a stir by bringing back an outlandish pet monkey too). A brilliantly abject scene describes the moment she realises her family house in Sligo must be sold to pay off Jack’s gambling debts - the bright smile she gives him when she realises he has gambled away her last sovereign is devastating. No surprise then when Mai takes to the bottle too. Yet, in the end, this rare and heart-breaking novel’s subject is not drink at all - it is erring, selfish, enduring love.’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

Stephen Moss, ‘Costa winner Sebastian Barry: “My son instructed me in the magic of gay life,”’ in The Guardian (1 Feb. 2017): ‘[...]The novels Barry has written over the past 20 years owe much to the history of his own extended family. The character of McNulty grew out of a reference his grandfather Jack O’Hara made to a great uncle who emigrated to America to escape the famine. O’Hara, who fell out with the author over the literary airing of family secrets, is himself the mainspring of another Barry work, The Temporary Gentleman. / Barry has described his childhood as a “singular mess”. He says he and his three siblings were farmed out to relatives, which is how Barry heard the stories about the first world war, the Easter Rising and the civil war in Ireland that he has used to such effect in his novels. This obsessive winnowing of family secrets suggests a search for certainty after a childhood that had little. / “When we were children we did feel a little bit up in the wind,” he says. “My mother was an actress, my father was a drinking man, and we weren’t totally safe as kids.” He has previously hinted at a darkness in his childhood - though, conversely, also says an author needs to be in touch with the innocence and openness of those early years. He will not, however, be drawn on the precise circumstances of what he once called “the thing that hurt me into trying to put something back in its place. To set up a thousand kingdoms to heal that one blasted site that has nothing on it.” / That sentence is Barry at his most lyrical and plangent, but I take it to mean that the neglect (and perhaps worse) he experienced as a child led him to explore his wider family and pushed him towards the fantasy life that feeds the novelist. It may also explain why he has always cleaved to home, not leading the peripatetic life favoured by some Irish writers of his generation. “I don’t think I can write outside Ireland,” he says. “I need to be there. I probably even need to be in Wicklow. The calf returns to where it got the milk.” [...]’ ’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

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Robbie Millen, ‘Sebastian Barry: ‘I wrote this book so my son could be safe on trains’;, in The Times (25 Jan. 2017): "[...] Sebastian Barry is a very Irish novelist. / If an English novelist were to say that we have “just been through the “age of Heaney” or describe Irish as that “beautifully capacious adjective” or refer to another person’;s soul as “a radiant thing”, well, I’d want to snigger or mock. We English don’t do grand, baroque or full-blown emotion. / Yet say these things in an Irish brogue and it feels right, even laying aside the incongruity of it being said in a clone coffee shop in Harlesden, an unromantic corner of northwest London. I suspect no one else has declared over a latte there that “the native Americans put their medicine in the dried scrotums of - writers need a dried scrotum of a buffalo with good things in it” or described writing a novel as “spring clean[ing] the little house of your imagination”. / On Tuesday, the 61-year-old Barry will find out whether his latest novel, Days Without End, has won the 2016 Costa Book of the Year [...]’ Further: ‘He likens writers to “a kind of rotten Jesse James” and writing a book as “trying to rob a train and get down to Mexico before Pat Garrett [the lawman who killed Billy the Kid] gets hold of you — and Pat Garrett would be the more conventional members of your family, representing good citizens. And I am only really interested in the renegades and the outlaws.’ (Available online; accessed 15.03.2017.)

Katy Simpson Smith, ‘A Lover and a Fighter’, review of Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, in New York Times (5 Feb. 2017) [Book Reviews, BR24; online version, 3 Feb. 2017]: ‘[...] “Days Without End” — the Irish writer Sebastian Barry’s seventh novel, and the fourth to feature a member of the McNulty clan — is a haunting archaeology of youth, when “time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending.” To the fatalism and carnage of classic westerns, Barry introduces a narrator who speaks with an intoxicating blend of wit and wide-eyed awe, his unsettlingly lovely prose unspooling with an immigrant’s peculiar lilt and a proud boy’s humor. But in this country’s adolescence he also finds our essential human paradox, our heartbreak: that love and fear are equally ineradicable. / Thomas first stumbles across John Cole beneath a hedge in Missouri, sometime around 1849, when the teenagers are just “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.” Their first employment as dolled-up saloon dancers gives Thomas a taste for ladies’ accoutrements, but war, with its disregard for finery or flesh, keeps intervening. The friends join a platoon charged with clearing the West for whites and encounter Caught-His-Horse-First, a chief of the Oglala Sioux who clasps the United States Army in the two-step of generosity and vengeance that will bloody the plains for generations, its “tremendous grasses folding, unfolding, showing their dark underbellies, hiding them, showing.” In an interlude of peace, Thomas and John Cole hie to the Midwest with the chief’s niece, Winona, a placid child and ward of the Army, and Thomas once more dons “the stays and the corset and the bosom holder and the padded arse and the cotton packages for breasts” for nightly performances on behalf of the enraptured local miners. The Civil War interrupts this idyll, and the seesaw of petticoated peace and trousered violence continues its rhythmic tilting. / The makeshift family develops sweetly, while the scenes of battle sear. Thomas claims “there is a seam in men called justice that nothing burns off complete” - moments before an Army sharpshooter kills the daughter of a retreating Sioux. Justice is a troubled concept here: Women and children are never spared, Irish-born Yankees bayonet Irish-born Rebels, and friendship is no defense against murder. Nor does our guide through this gory fantasia have clean hands. If Thomas’s adoption of Winona, another chess piece in the prairie wars, is an attempt to shore up human decency, we learn too little about her own cultural cleavage. That two strange white men can so neatly become her parents belies the trauma of Indian dislocation. Barry draws parallels between the Irish and the American Indians - pushed out, despised, dispossessed - but he leaves Winona untethered from her identity as a Sioux. A few days after being taken from her people a second time, we find her “loosening too, and laughing now.” [...]’ (See full-text version in RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index, or attached.)

Allan Massie, review of A Thousand Moons, in The Scotsman (25 March 2020) - ‘Barry has found a wonderful speaking voice for Winona: lyrical, youthfully innocent, yet darkened by her memories and awareness of the genocidal destruction of her own people and their way of life. Here one must get out of the way the accusation of cultural misappropriation that some will surely bring against Barry: how dare he, an Irishman in his sixties, adopt the persona of an 18-year-old Native American girl, and provide her with a voice? Well, it’s a stupid charge, but then we live in exceptionally stupid times. Fiction is a work of the imagination and Barry is as entitled to invent Winona and find a voice for her as Hilary Mantel is to enter the mind of Thomas Cromwell. In both cases there is only one intelligent question: is it well done? In both cases it is supremely well done, and that’s enough. A Thousand Moons is, like so much of the greatest fiction, a crime novel. There is private crime - a rape, a beating, a murder - and there is public or political crime, the aftermath of the terrible Civil War in the divided state of Tennessee, where the defeated Confederates seek first revenge, which takes the form of lynchings, murders and arson, and then the re-establishment of their political power, which sees a terrorist become a judge, and justice first denied, then horribly perverted.

Allan Massire, review of A Thousand Moons (Scotsman, 25 March 2020) - cont.: How do you survive in such a diseased climate? Winona has dark memories from her ruined childhood, memories of her mother and a way of life in harmony with nature. These memories, an accuser might say, are sentimentalised, but they are memories which Winona was justified in retaining, and it is the richness of her memories which make for the alertness of her response to the physical world, to the shimmering beauty of the landscape and to its birds and wild animals.

 Then Winona is strengthened by the love that surrounds her: the love of McNulty and Cole for each other and for her, the loving support of their employer, the framer Lige, the love of the two emancipated slaves Rosalee and her brother Tennyson, and finally the love of Peg, a girl whom she first fights and then befriends.

 So in the end she may conclude that while “the world was strange and lost” and that there was no place that was not “perilous,” the reality of love is the “truth self-evident to behold.” In this realization, the crime novel becomes an affirmative one.
Barry writes with the freshness and beauty of an early summer morning when the dew sparkles and the air shimmers with the promise of a glorious day. He is also a masterly craftsman, modulating the pace of his narrative, alternating vivid scenes of action with tranquil moments in which time seems to stand still. It is common for novelists to do their best work when they are in early middle-life, between say 35 and 50, before energy begins to fail and many years at the desk have dulled their response to experience, and so they come often to repeat themselves or at best offer new variations on familiar themes. Not Barry; his writing is better than ever. Days Without End and A Thousand Moons are equally marvellous; together, one of the finest achievements in contemporary fiction.
(Available online; accessed 22.07.2020.)

Beejay Silcox, review of God’s Old Time, in Times Literary Supplement (24 March 2023): "Sebastian Barry’s new novel, Old God’s Time, is a tale of long-buried anguish and guarded silences. The narrative thread of Tom [Kettle]’s life is institutions and institutionalized violence: he left a Catholic boys’ home for a stint with the British Army in Malaya, then joined the Gardaí. The ghosts of his past are insistent. So, too, is his love for his late wife, June. Will the ferocity of that love redeem or damn him? Perhaps both. Or perhaps he has already been judged. There are hints that his world may not be as corporeal as it seems. This is a fitting setting for a novel that considers “the long tale of Empire” and “the fecking priests” - a setting equal to the sense of cultural and psychological purgatory. / Old God’s Time is a portrait of a mind sliding into crisis - a high-definition disintegration. We follow Tom through the lonely rituals of his day, privy to every thought and meander; every stray observation and daydream. He ponders lost toothbrushes and toaster crumbs; the aesthetic qualities of a slice of cheese; a colleague’s resilient perm. More than once he extols the depressurizing pleasures of a good fart. It is all evasion. Barry’s soul-weary detective has spent decades papering over his pain - “think [of] everything else before he thought those things” - but his defences can no longer hold. Tom Kettle is a watched pot, ready to boil. / But the more that he deflects, particularly around the mysterious death of his wife, the more his pain becomes a mystery ...’ (Available online; accessed 10.12.2023.)

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