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Sebastian Barry salutes the writers who inspired him

Laureate for Irish Fiction’s lecture hails Val Mulkerns, Michael Hartnett, Philip Casey and Leland Bardwell

Sebastian Barry delivers the Laureate for Irish Fiction annual lecture at the Gate Theatre last night. Photograph: Barry Cronin

Sebastian Barry paid tribute to the Irish writers who inspired him in his first lecture as Laureate for Irish Fiction at Dublin’s Gate Theatre last night.

Among the names saluted in the talk, entitled The Lives of the Saints, were Val Mulkerns, Michael Hartnett, Tom Murphy, Philip Casey and Leland Bardwell. A thread running through the talk was the financial struggle many writers face and the importance of State support through Aosdána.

Barryis now a bestselling and awardwinning author – his most recent novel, Days Without End, won both the Costa Book Award and the Walter Scott Prize – but he recalled the difference it made to him when, aged 34, Benedict Kiely and Val Mulkerns nominated him to Aosdána.

“Val Mulkerns was born, according to the data, in 1925, but she was perpetually stocked with youthfulness. This was the secret of the freshness of her writing. In her memoir Friends with the Enemy, she is clear in her contempt for the rigid Catholicity of Eamon De Valera. She put her head above the parapet I suspect in a thousand conversations when it was perilous to do so. She was one of those writers who wanted to take Ireland by the scruff of the neck and demand maturity of it, a maturity we are even now still just inching towards. I think of that generation as sometimes harsh and even half-ruined by existentialism and a sort of national despair. It must have been a horror to find yourself an intellectual in that Ireland. Yet she was an exception to that. She was the least despairing person.

“In the Eighties she published a novel called The Summerhouse, which I happened to review in The Irish Times, very enthusiastically. She wrote me a note and said she was glad my parents had gone to the trouble of conceiving me.

“A Time Outworn was published in 1951 when she was in her mid-twenties and got an admiring letter from Frank O’Connor, who then galvanised himself into promoting her in America. Sometimes a writer can live a long time and seem therefore to outlive their allotment of fame. Whatever fame is. The admiration of the tribe? A just elevation? An error of understanding? Well, who knows. At any rate, I suppose it is a pity we are not better able to celebrate and revere writers always when they are that bit older. In Ireland we have the indomitable examples of Jennifer Johnston and Edna O’Brien, so it is not always the case. Val’s reputation had been moved from the ballroom to the anteroom, certainly.”

From left: Dermot Bolger, Sebastian Barry and poet Thomas McCarthy. Photograph: Barry Cronin

Barry said that for many years he was published and even praised, but had no money.

“Patrick Kavanagh said they don’t want writers to be talking about money because they don’t want to give them any. I think of the beneficent good indeed that the cnuas would have rendered to Kavanagh, standing outside his house with a borrowed sixpence in his hand, and wondering whether to put it in the gas meter or buy a glass of whiskey. Some years ago the eminent economist Colm McCarthy said there was no need for the state to subvent writers, because they will write anyway. .. We might say the same of economists – they don’t need to be paid because they will what, economise, anyway. Hardly. To give him his due, I have known writers who seemed to be natural occurrences, like robins and their songs, or wrens. I think of Michael Hartnett, a man so unusual, so concentrated, that he was like a piece of the seventeenth century broken off and rendered into a gold coin. He wrote many truly great poems...

“Did I say he was a gold coin? Maybe a farthing is better, a coin indeed with a wren on it, in the old money. A poet so quick, so restless, so loved, so awaited. And only briefly here, a bird alighting on the field of life as if just for a blessed moment. At a handclap, off he flew. Even I, who did not know him as a close friend, relished him and in my secret heart celebrated my acquaintance with him. It was delicious to know him, even as he seemed to row himself ever quicker towards that bloody waterfall. Fiercely, fiercely.”

Barry recalled the playwright Tom Murphy telling him at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig that he thought maybe writing wasn’t worth all the trouble. “It was probably too late for him, but – he could save a younger man. He had heard me singing and said maybe I should give up the writing and go on the road. Much more fulfilling. It was The Gigli Concert in 1983 – indeed a play about the power of singing – that had made me want to write a play. It dismayed me that he thought, that he was obliged to think even for a moment, that the business wasn’t worth the candle in the upshot. But when he heard I had just been elected to Aosdána, he stood up and shook my hand. Don’t worry about anything, he said. That’s the best thing I’ve heard all year.”

Barry went on to praise the late Philip Casey. “How can I describe to you the gentle intensity of that man, his lovely honesty, his country courtesy? How funny he was, how scrupulous in the matters of the heart and the soul? How he never gave offence in his conversation, and who bore offence indeed with a sort of kingly indifference. He wrote the Bann trilogy, three riverlike novels, one might say, and many many lovely poems that I lovingly and fiercely recommend to you. He wrote against the odds, he wrote without thought of surrender.”

The laureate concluded by saluting Leland Bardwell who, in the early eighties, was instrumental in publishing his first book, a novella, Macker’s Garden, with the Irish Writers’ Co-op, “an early version of something as magical, say, as today’s Tramp Press”.

“She was a terrific writer, an unstoppable writer. Girl on a Bicycle is a most extraordinary book. Our old landlord David Norris has called it the best big house novel of the twentieth century. She was the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of literary bridges. Born into an Anglo-Irish family, the Hones, full of painters and dignitaries, she nevertheless lived mostly on the crumbling margins of society and society’s economies, at that hem where everything starts to fray, and economic theories flounder, where maybe she could work best, or perhaps where writing and having children had placed her.”

Barry, 63, said that having been a writer for 41 years, art of the reason for accepting the laureateship “in such high excitement” was the passage of time.

“It has been a long time, but like all time looked back on, it seems to barely have dimension. A private Bayeux tapestry but even a long, long tapestry has only the depth of a communion wafer. What remains true is, I have been privileged to encounter some extraordinary souls, yes –but it is the accidental, impromptu nature of it that impresses me... Avatars, guides, exemplars, headed up by the avatar in chief, my ordinary, hunchbacked great-aunt Annie, before time was even time.

“I couldn’t but have stumbled in the dark without my secular avatars, without my own versions of them, written on the heart, scribed on the soul... It might be all luck and happenstance but it has led me betimes into marble halls. I think of these figures every day, I refer to them like texts or aphorisms, I live by them, I live sometimes through them, and I live towards them, even unto the waterfall.”