When the old folks in the family start banging on about their parents or their childhood or – heaven help us – the war, most of us tune out or slip away. Not Sebastian Barry. He listens. He remembers. Then he takes the half-buried memories and dusty details, the detritus of long-ago lives, and turns them into literary gold.
On one level, Barrys family detritus is no more exciting than anyone elses. Among the less promising components of the research for his new novel The Temporary Gentleman were some random bits and bobs he came across in a drawer: a box of military medals, a set of false teeth, an old accounts book. At the beating heart of his novel, however, is Barrys intense childhood connection to his maternal grandfather, Jack OHara.
The very first thing I wrote when I was maybe 21 was six stories about him and me going around the place – not realising, because I was too young to realise it, that as a grandfather, that was the most magical and important thing you could do, he says. Bring the kid with you when youre going west. Because if he hadnt brought me with him when he was going west – numerous times – to see his parents, my great-great grandfather, I wouldnt have anything to write about.
A room in Monkstown
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 couldnt 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 OHara, 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 Barrys 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.
Its 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 Canaans Side.
A rift in the family
Im a little older now than my grandfather was when I was born, he explains. Ive had my three children, and Im having my marriage, and I see the difficulties. And I see that the challenge given to us in being alive is immense. Im trying to understand the cards he was given and what sort of game he played for himself.
As a novelist, his job in this instance has been to act as a kind of ghost writer. He set out to write his memoirs in that old accounts book, which I still have somewhere, says Barry. But he only ever filled the first three pages, which was the dutiful itemising of his possibly dubious ancestry. As soon as he even got to childhood he was in trouble, because of his mother not knowing her own family background. He screeches to a halt after three pages. So in a way, this whole book is like a 30- or 40-year delayed release. And I cannot tell you the strange joy of doing that – the feeling of being at his elbow as he finally fills this blasted notebook.
The novels spectacular opening sequence, in which the ship on which Jack is travelling to Ghana is hit by a German torpedo, was inspired by a chance remark from another of Barrys relatives.
Pat OToole was from the Aran Islands and was married to my aunt Mary. He knew my grandfather pretty well, warts and all, and he told me something that my grandfather had never told me. I dont know if it was a bar-room remark or what, but he said to him, ‘You know, Pat, three times in my life at the war, drink saved me. Alcohol saved me. Once when I was torpedoed, once when I was nearly blown up, and another time when I was in a car accident in the Hindu Kush. If I hadnt been functioning, but blind drunk, at the time Id never have survived.
Pat just said that to me a few years ago. And I remember it, that little moment when your brain goes ‘click and puts it somewhere, and you know that youve been given something really crucial. New ground. A new field to plough.
A matter of stepping back
I think a writer needs to have the gift of absence, he says. Its a matter of trying to get as close as you can to the actual syntax of the person. I believe that character, somehow or other, lives in syntax.
Thats three books Ive done now where the character has been writing their own book. In The Secret Scripture Roseanne is hiding her manuscript. In On Canaans Side, Lilly couldnt care less if anyone reads it or not. Maybe its an attempt to get closer to them, without the authorial flourish. So that they can be alone in their own book.
Listening to Barry talk about his fictional characters and his real-world family is slightly unnerving. Its as if, in keeping them all in his head over the course of six novels and 16 years, he has almost elided the distinction between fiction and reality. Has he? Its 96 per cent made up, he says. But as human beings, were 100 per cent made up. Fiction has us beat by some margin.