[Source: www.unison.ie/irish_independent; copied by Christina Mahony, 12/07/2006.]
Sebastian Barry is 50 this year; so it is well overdue to have a publication on his work. And the collection of essays edited by Christina Hunt Mahony goes some way to redressing the imbalance of neglect for a writer who has huge significance in the Irish canon, and whose work is also a milestone for the return to lyricism in Irish prose and drama.
Not surprisingly, almost all of the contributions in the collection are almost entirely positive, only one of them (of which more later) taking issue with the credibility of Barrys vision.
Equally, all of them treat Barry as a writer in full maturity - in itself an achievement of objectivity in a country where artists are considered ‘young until they pass into dotage. (Although Eilis Ni Dhuibhne in dealing with Barrys fiction for juveniles refers to his first book Mackers Garden, published when the author was 21, as the work of one who was ‘little more than a child himself.)
The abiding focus in the treatments is on Barrys retrieval of the lost stream of 19th and early 20th century life in Ireland, the Catholic loyalists written out of history, and indeed in reality written almost out of citizenship. And most of the essays recognise Barrys unique vision of this stream - studied through the history of his extended family - as uniquely complex.
When there has been a revisionist view of Catholic loyalism to date, it has usually represented the stream as looking entirely to Britain and rejecting Irishness. Sebastian Barrys mining of his family history has brought to light people of fierce Irishness, deeply in love with their country while deploring many of her cadences, and seeing her salvation as lying in conjunction with Empire and Crown.
Indeed, in his study of his first novel, The Engine of Owl-Light, Bruce Stewart takes things further and suggests that Barry sees nationalism (or the negative nationalism practised in Ireland in the times of which he writes, and which continues today) as being uniquely religious, a saga in which Catholicism is the real aggressor and imperialist, developing as it does from the Christian conversion of the country.
This view is shared by David Cregan in his study of Barrys dramaturgy, in which he points out that the plays go ‘beyond the mere identification of organised religious sentiment in modern Ireland towards creating a theatrical ritual of longing, reconciliation and transformation long associated with sacred faith and religious practice.
In her own essay Children of the Light, Christina Hunt Mahony also refers to Barrys non-theistic credo, describing its very contemporary liberal humanism as reflecting the form of late-Victorian humanism featured in much of his work.
That Barry is primarily a ‘servant of letters in his representation of history (noted by Stewart with the final line from The Engine of Owl-Light) is also noted at an early stage by Cregan, when he points out, ‘these words [stage directions] are never intended to be expressed to an audience, but instead are for the edification of the reader, the designer, the actor or the director.
This is undoubtedly true, but the possibility must also be considered that Sebastian Barrys lyricism is, while not effortless, at least so imbedded in the mechanics of his expression, that he can express himself no other way.
Curiously, only two of the essays refer to White Woman Street, one of what is almost a trilogy with Boss Gradys Boys and Prayers of Sherkin and which to this critics mind comes close to being the most lyrical in both language and approach of all the plays (with the exception, of course, of the masterpiece The Steward of Christendom.)
And indeed I would also argue with Cregans claim of dramaturgical genius for Fred and Jane, the early play which received its stage premiere only four years ago.
Hunt Mahonys essay concentrates on the disparity between what she calls the ‘poignant fragility and poeticism of the fictive reality of Barrys characters and their levels of desire and ‘shining hope. She exemplifies this particularly by the lack of zealotry in the characters, such as the father in Sherkin and the two different ‘boys in Boss Gradys Boys.
Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, on the other hand, seems to find little admirable in the gentleness Barry ascribes to his characters in her consideration of The Steward of Christendom and the novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.
While I consider the latter to be the weakest of Barrys more recent novels, the weakness to my mind does not lie in the persona which the author draws for his central character. (There is a progression from McNulty through Annie Dunne to the most recent A Long Long Way where the author can be seen progressively to have let go his fierce regard for form and allowed the poetic strength of his language to take over, putting him in the same league as novelist that he has long been in as a playwright.)
But for Cullingford, his abstention from the nationalist consensus is not credible or acceptable - either politically or creatively. For her, the Dunne family of Steward and the two most recent novels cannot be allowed what John Wilson Foster describes as their ‘inconvenient and sometimes awkward eloquence.
He adds that this ‘need not blind watchers and readers of the play to the fact that Thomas Dunne, if not Willie Dunne, might have been that less-than-noble figure, the dupe. Cullingford goes further: she describes Barry as having ‘conservative ends in borrowing the ‘rhetoric of silencing from radical critics.
She considers the passage in Steward in which Thomas Dunne - the Empire loyalist who handed over Dublin Castle to Michael Collins - recalls his own surge of republican/nationalist feeling as an attempt by Barry to discredit de Valera, just as she claims the affective power of Eneas McNulty is diminished by ‘the single-mindedness of its anti-nationalist allegory.
To me, the argument contradicts itself, as Barry presents both characters as having hearts as torn as their country is.
Cullingford seems to interpret the work as stemming from a primary agenda of politics: the portrait of Eneas would be ‘unproblematic were it not so sanitized.
This assessment of Barrys priorities would probably strike many people familiar with his work as puzzling, even prejudiced.
Anthony Roche is on territory which seems more recognisable - critically and theatrically - in dealing with The Only True History of Lizzie Finn when he examinesBarrys concern with family, particularly father and sonrelationships, and its extension into the idea of theatre as ‘family.
After all, Barry is the son of actor Joan OHara, and is married to actor Alison Deegan. Deegan played the lead female role in two of his plays, while his mother played the role of Deegans mother-in-law in Lizzie Finn.
But it is Nicholas Grene who perhaps best sums up the totality of Barrys work when he describes it as ‘writing back into the story of Ireland those parts of it which our nationalist master-narrative has most signally left out, the pieces of our past that do not fit with the way we want to imagine our history.
Perhaps it is that unwillingness which has given Barry his dark vision, as Roy Foster posits in his essay, ‘despite odd transforming rays of light.
History is presented as a juggernaut, he suggests, like fate in classical tragedy.The terseness of his novels is set against the great floods of speech in his plays, but both modes articulate and demand historical empathy as a condition of entering their enclosed worlds.
The final two essays concern the controversial play Hinterland and Whistling Psyche, Barrys most recent work, as yet unseen in Ireland.
Colm Toibin deals with the former, concentrating on its reception in Ireland as a study of Charles Haughey, when it in fact concerned with the nature of corruption and Barrys recurring obsession with father/son relationships.