The mystery of Sebastian Barry’s grandfather

The main character of Barry’s latest novel, who is no angel, is inspired by the writer’s late grandfather, who had disapproved of his grandson’s fictionalising of family lore

Sebastian Barry: ‘I think a writer needs to have the gift of absence.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Sebastian Barry: ‘I think a writer needs to have the gift of absence.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Wed, May 14, 2014, 15:05

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, Barry’s family detritus is no more exciting than anyone else’s. 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 Barry’s intense childhood connection to his maternal grandfather, Jack O’Hara.

“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 you’re going west. Because if he hadn’t brought me with him when he was going west – numerous times – to see his parents, my great-great grandfather, I wouldn’t have anything to write about.”

A room in Monkstown
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.

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