Nicholas Wroe, interview with Sebastian Barry, in The Guardian (11 Oct. 2008)

Details: Nicholas Wroe, “’As our ancestors hide in our DNA, so do their stories’, interview with Sebastian Barry, in The Guardian (11 Oct. 2008) - available online - accessed 31.07.2011.

Sub-heading: ‘By the accident of being born in Ireland, everywhere I looked I found people mired in history’. Incls. photo-port by Eamonn McCabe, with caption; ‘We can now drop the purely nationalistic, De Valera history’ —Sebastian Barry.]


Despite being the grandson of a betting man, Sebastian Barry would not have backed himself to be shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize. His previous novel, A Long Long Way, was shortlisted in 2005 and his agent explained to him how rare it was for lightning to strike consecutive books. But The Secret Scripture, Barry’s account of centenarian Roseanne Clear’s life story, has made it through to the final six, and the bookmakers, less pessimistic than Barry, have him and Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies competing as favourite (the decision is made on Tuesday). If Barry does win, he will be the third Irish writer, following John Banville and Anne Enright, to be awarded the prize in the past four years.

The story of The Secret Scripture came, as so often with Barry, via his mother, who once pointed out to him a ruined hut in her home town of Sligo and told him that his great-uncle’s first wife had lived there before being put in a lunatic asylum by the family. She knew nothing about the woman except that she was beautiful and in some way “no good”. She thought the two things were related. The woman was erased from family history and even Barry’s great-uncle’s children from his second marriage didn’t know of her existence. Barry’s novel has the wronged Roseanne, now aged nearly 100 and still in the asylum, surreptitiously writing her life story. His first attempts to write the story as a screenplay - “I thought that would be a properly glamorous recompense for this beautiful woman who’d been done down by my own family” - and then a play were defeated by her silence. He had to wait some years after tentatively starting a novel “to hear Roseanne’s voice. And when it arrived, it was the most mysterious and exciting thing. It makes you ask what sort of creatures are we that these stories can so powerfully reverberate in the brain”.

Joseph O’Connor, praising a “magnificent and heart-rending novel”, claimed Barry was involved in the ambitious creation of “one operatically extended fiction comprising discrete but interrelated novels and plays”. This grand project can, in hindsight, be traced back to Barry’s earliest poetry and fiction, but it began in earnest with his 1989 play Prayers of Sherkin. The writer and journalist Fintan O’Toole noted that the previous generation of Irish theatre had often been explicitly about social change and featured “epic convulsions” and actors who represented “not just individuals but forces”. Barry was not only a new voice, he was speaking “a different theatrical language, evocative rather than explicit, poetic rather than realistic, intent, not on making the familiar conflicts of everyday life strange, but on making the strange familiar”.

The principal character in the play, Fanny Hawke, was Barry’s own great-grandmother, but he knew nothing about her beyond her name “and the fact, or remembered fact, probably not the same thing, that she had left her people [a decaying Protestant sect transported from England a hundred years before] to marry my great-grandfather, a lithographer in Cork City”. The matter of Barry’s family connection to the story, and to the production, with his mother, the actress Joan O’Hara, part of the original cast, seemed to be of minor importance at the time. Barry says he did have some “inkling” that he might want to explore other family stories. “But I had absolutely no idea that 20 years later these people would still be with me. I’m in a book of quotations saying that, as our ancestors hide in our DNA, so do their stories. I don’t remember saying that, but over the years I’ve come to believe it. It’s as if these hidden people sometimes demand that their stories are told.”

Barry embarked on a cycle of acclaimed plays that culminated in the multi-award winning The Steward of Christendom in 1995. It was built around the fractured reminiscences of a character based on his own great-grandfather, Thomas Dunne, who, although a senior officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police under British rule, experienced discrimination as a Catholic and then faced ostracism as a traitor in the newly independent Ireland.

O’Toole observes that “grace and disgrace are constant companions” for many of Barry’s characters, who are “history’s leftovers, men and women defeated and discarded by their times”. Barry says he didn’t initially set out to locate such characters. “But by the accident of being born in Ireland into families who had lived in Ireland through this past century, everywhere I looked I found people mired in history.”

Over the past decade or so, novels, as well as plays, have provided the vessels for these forgotten voices. The protagonist of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), another servant of the British state, is forced into exile; Annie Dunne (2002) features Barry’s great-aunt; A Long Long Way (2005) focuses on Annie’s brother, Willie, and Ireland’s entry into the first world war.

The Booker shortlisting of his latest two novels has been “a very simple and simplifying pleasure”, Barry says. “MacNeice said ’simplify me when I’m dead’. News like that simplifies when you’re alive. It’s like a child being alerted to something lovely and it’s kind of wonderful there are still things in your 50s that can do that to you.”

Such pleasures have been hard won. Early in his career Barry and his wife, the actress and scriptwriter Alison Deegan, were at times penniless. And from the beginning he learned that delving into family histories would have an emotional cost. An early book, comprising two short novels Time Out of Mind and Strappado Square (1983), employed stories based on his grandfather’s life. “He read them, called me to his flat and he cursed me,” Barry recalls. “He said: ‘You fucker’. To hear that out of my grandfather’s mouth was shocking. I adored him, but we never spoke again. He kept asking me how I knew all these things. And of course the answer was that my mother had told me. It was all from within our own family.”

Barry was born in Dublin in 1955, the middle of three children to O’Hara and the architect Frank Barry. Family stories were there from the beginning. “I sometimes think of myself as an African writer because I was told all these stories by my mother. She was a little bit bipolar, a wonderful actress and an incredibly energised person. She would pour these stories on top of us, mostly about her 30s and 40s childhood in Sligo, and sometimes they were incredibly dark and slightly traumatising to a child. By contrast there was virtual silence on my father’s side, who had a Sartrean darkness about him and who believed history was dead, love was dead and family was dead. Especially family.”

Barry didn’t read or write until he was eight and thinks part of the reason was that until then, “language was such a physical thing for me. It was as if I was looking at those Hogarth paintings with their strips of tickertape text in the air. My mother would put out this huge river of tickertape, and my father this thin dribble of Morse code I couldn’t really understand. And out of the confluence of her volubility and his silence these books and plays have been made.”

His parents eventually separated, and Barry says he and his siblings endured a “very difficult childhood that you could be a casualty of, a survivor of, or a writer. My sister ultimately survived, but my younger brother became very ill”. His brother, who aged 17 was on a scholarship at Harvard, has suffered severe mental health problems throughout his life. “And now I don’t know where my brother is. It sounds like a biblical phrase, but it is true. I hope that he is well, and that he is batting up to whatever is presented to him. I pray for him. And coming from the son of two agnostic Catholics I hope they are particularly strong prayers.”

Barry once began a childhood memoir but soon abandoned it, wary that he might “drain the well from where I draw water”. But he says he has become increasingly “afraid of things that cannot be said. I’m afraid of the damage that is caused by not speaking of people like Roseanne, the unmentioned first wife, like so many families’ old uncle Jacks who died in the first world war fighting for England. I’m concerned these silences leave a gap in yourself which then leaves a gap in your children and can ultimately lead to a hole in the country’s sense of itself. Ireland’s history is so much more rich, exciting, varied and complicated than we had realised. What I’m trying to do is gather in as much as I can. It’s not to accuse, it is just to state that it is so.”

From his time at Trinity College Dublin, where he read English and Latin, Barry had an almost physical compulsion to write. Working as a time-strapped English teacher in Paris in the early 80s left him “ill and detached from myself. It was frightening and I have worried ever since that if you turn your back then somehow the cooking will burn.”

He and his wife “were the traditional broke arty couple hiding under the bed when the rent needed to be paid”. When Barry was inducted in 1989 into Aos Dána [Aosdána], the Irish arts organisation set up by the controversial former Irish prime minister Charles Haughey, he was its youngest member and received an annual grant of £8,000. “It was a miraculous sum of money. We could pay the rent, which is really the thing you’re always trying to do, whether it is temporal or spiritual.”

Barry’s 2002 play, Hinterland, included a thinly disguised version of Haughey and provoked threats of libel writs. But, he says, while Haughey “obviously had his bad points, he really wanted to be a sort of chieftain at the centre of Irish culture. And the fact that people have raised families by telling stories over the past 30 years is miraculous in a way. I live in a house that books and plays built. You can feed your children with a strange form of barter whereby you can convert sitting in a room into spuds and chops.”

The prominence of his mother’s career delayed Barry’s own entry into theatre, but when he did begin to write plays he experienced “an almost literal sense of coming home. I was forever that little boy going into town with his mother to sit with the beautiful actors in the theatre”. Plays drawing on fragments of family history such as Prayers of Sherkin, Boss Grady’s Boys (1989), The Only True History of Lizzie Finn (1995), The Steward of Christendom and Our Lady of Sligo (1998) attracted near-universal praise. It was not until Hinterland, a rare excursion into the contemporary, that he suffered a critical setback. But while the press focused on the Haughey character, Barry’s attention had always been on the disturbed son, who was based closely on his brother. “I was trying to put together some sort of family formula that would explain what had caused this in my brother, and what could be done about it. And the most frustrating and terrifying thing is that it seems there is nothing you can do except stand and watch these things unfold.”

Barry’s earliest artistic impulses had been to use writing as a salve against family pain. His first poetry collection, The Water Colourist (1983), was in response to news that his artist grandfather was dying. “I suppose I was trying to rescue him, to stop him dying. It was part of a strategy against the darkness. To somehow build a counterweight against nothingness. I’ve never been to funerals. I didn’t even go to my mother’s last year. My feeling is that they go on living in us. They keep talking and keep informing us and I want to carry them on for other people. I loved history at school, but didn’t truly understand these things as being in the past. There was something lacking in my brain and it felt more as if the living and the dead were all here together.”

The writing of The Secret Scripture was also informed by personal pain. While he was working on the book, his mother became terminally ill. Barry then discovered that she had been writing her own account of her Sligo childhood, which in effect featured some of the same people that would inhabit Roseanne Clear’s fictional life.

”It was set in the same epic landscape and felt like the finishing of some enormous circle. Our relationship had been difficult and we hadn’t been in touch for a while. But then not only was there this real document, somehow all the difficulties of our relationship also fell away to leave just this elemental sense of mother and son, which took me back to that asylum ward full of those women who were of course unknown mothers and unknown children themselves. It sort of gave me hope for the human creature that there is at bottom such an abiding central impulse.”

Barry’s readings of his work have been compared to revivalist meetings. People want to testify about family members who became “history’s leftovers”. “I was down in Kilkenny and this woman in her 70s stood up and said in a trembling voice how her grandfather was the chaplain in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. It was probably the first room she had ever been in where she could stand up and say that.”

As a young writer in Ireland, Barry had been taught that sort of emotion was “wrong and corny. We learned that literature was about distance and an audience was unimportant. Even if you were in Dublin, you had to pretend you were silent in Paris. That it has changed is something to do with the country growing up in a way which should have killed literature, as the opening up of eastern Europe was the death of the poets, but in a bizarre and wonderful way has actually expanded the possibilities.”

He says, much to his surprise, “the way we think about ourselves in Ireland means there is no longer a necessity for those secrets. We can now marvel at them. It’s as if the signal has been given that we can drop the purely nationalistic, DeValera history. It’s like that certain sort of handshake you sometimes exchange in the country when you meet someone at a farm gate. It’s not saying come on my land and do what you like, it’s just an acknowledgment that you’re welcome in the district too. It’s a nod of the head, a gesture of respect and you both carry on with your lives.”

Barry on Barry
“That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.
 There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.
 The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, oh and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.
 That is Sligo town I mean.”

 I wrote this little opening section in about 2003 and it sat alone in my computer, forlornly representing the entire novel, for about two years, until I managed to write some of the rest of the chapter. Then there was another worrying break in the connection. In about the summer of 2006 I sat down with this little I had done, confidently thinking it was about time I began properly, and had the chastening experience of waiting four more months before I could see and hear the book, and so write it. But these paragraphs were at least a herald, a coin in the bank, and I suppose contained something of the whistle-tune, the birdsong, of the book.

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