Old Irish joke: an Irishman goes to ask for work at a building site. The foreman says, all right, Ill take you on if you can prove you know what youre doing. So tell me, whats the difference between a joist and a girder? And the man says, Sure, didnt Joist write Ulysses and Girder write Die Leiden des jungen Werthers?
I was reminded of this talking to Sebastian Barry, when he recalled the unexpected flush of fame that came on the back of his 1995 play, The Steward of Christendom: Its a commonplace, but such a success does bring with it huge demands and also huge difficulties. You have to get your, your kind of tin head around things, and go out and go forth and speak and be something, and write op-ed pieces in The New York Times, and things Im just not fit for, you know? It suits me better to be in south Wicklow, writing, and putting some floor joists back into the ... He trails off, so Im not quite sure where the joists go. Anyway, hed be all right on the building site.
This is surprising, perhaps, given the garrulous and somewhat high-flown eloquence of Barrys 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 writers fathers aunt and, in his boyhood, my favourite person on Gods 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.
Barrys family is the thread that runs throughout the writers work. Thomas Dunne, the central character of The Steward of Christendom, was based on his great-grandfather, a chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and Annie, Thomass daughter, was one of the minor characters. Perhaps more surprising is the realisation that Barrys recent play, Hinterland, which finished its run at Londons National Theatre just last week, was also about his family.
In the play, Johnny Silvester – an ageing, prodigiously corrupt Irish politician – muses over his past and faces accusations from his wife, his lover, the ghost of a former colleague, and his psychologically distressed son. English critics, who by and large adored The Steward of Christendom, gave Hinterland a cool reception. (Paul Taylor called it a glorified promissory note; fine writing in desperate need of a stronger dramatic mechanism.)
In Ireland, by contrast, the reception was somewhat hotter, thanks to Johnnys close resemblance to the former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey. Some made allowances – Fintan OToole, rueful in The Irish Times, found the play deeply flawed but utterly compelling. It is hard to think of a piece that is at once so problematic and so unmissable – but most were openly hostile. In The Irish Times again, under the heading Poor drama and bad manners, Eileen Battersby dismissed Hinterland as a vulgar travesty and a sloppy farce, complaining of the moronic obviousness of its satire.
Barry himself says that he never intended to write a satire on Haughey. His purpose in creating a Haughey-like figure was, he says, to hide my own family inside this kind of found world .... The accusations of public corruption within the play were intended as an objective correlative for an accusation of a father ... It really is a play for me about what being a good father is.
Given the plays quite explicit references to Haughey, this may sound disingenuous. Meeting Barry, though, with his deeply serious, gentle manner and his softly cadenced voice, it is hard to believe that he is insincere. And internal evidence in Annie Dunne suggests that Silvester can be identified with the father in that book, and hence, perhaps, with Barrys own father, from whom he is estranged.
With hindsight, Barry recognises that by hiding the play in this very obvious place, I should have expected it – you know, if I was an intelligent, sassy, in-the-world individual. As it was, he was taken aback by the controversy, the clamour in radio programmes, headlines and editorials. Perhaps worse than that, the response means that another production of the play is unlikely. He says he doesnt mind a play being a failure, and admits: Its always a possibility that this is a dreadful and unsuccessful play.
What does bother him is the thought that the political reaction completely obscured my own purposes in the play. Perhaps in 10 or 20 years, with the fuss died down, a more objective assessment would be possible. But the chances of that are remote.
I went to see Hinterland a few days after meeting Barry, hopeful that, primed with his explanations, I would find more in it than the critics did at press night. In the event, I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed. Then again, I could see the sense in a remark made by Fintan OToole about Max Stafford-Clarks naturalistic staging. It was praised in London for being better than the play deserved, but it may have done Barry a disservice, causing stylisation to be interpreted as woodenness.
But I wonder how far theatre plays to Barrys strengths anyway. His mother acted at the Abbey in Dublin, so that he grew up around the theatre and actors. Whats more, his eloquent writing is a marvellous gift to an actor who knows how to deliver it. The late Donal McCanns Thomas Dunne was a marvel; likewise Sinead Cusack, who, in 1998, won the London Evening Standards Best Actress award for her performance in Our Lady of Sligo, at the National Theatre. But without a really transforming central performance, the eloquence runs the risk of seeming forced, and you feel the lack of any underpinning dynamic.
There is no such strain in his underrated novels. Both The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and Annie Dunne are books about people who have been uprooted from family and happiness, and all but overwhelmed by terror (two of Barrys great-grandparents met and married while working as tailor and seamstress in a Sligo asylum, and in all his work, the madhouse lurks in the margins).
But in both books, there arises from the improbable eloquence moments of tremendous beauty. Nobody in Barrys novels is unredeemed; everyone has a hinterland of human fear and love.