In his past two novels, Sebastian Barry is working out two strands of stories that come from the two sides of his family. But does he feel constrained by the past and its people?
BEAUTY AND MENACE are interesting bedfellows, and the writer Sebastian Barry glides gracefully between them. In an age of brash modernity, he seems otherworldly, sympathetic, vulnerable.
His preferred territory is the past, “and Irish writers have been criticised for writing about the past, but I like the feel of it, the stories it gives, the people, my people. I am drawn to the past; it says more to me than the present does.” He is different; quite unlike not only his generation of Irish writers but most other people as well. There is also an old-world quality about him, a touch of the artist responding to the sheer strangeness of life instead of the relentless demands of book sales.
It is no coincidence that within moments of meeting to discuss his new novel, On Canaan's Side, Barry has mentioned the poet Michael Longley, with whom he shares not only an interest in the Great War – "his father, my grandfather" – but also the classical element. Barry enjoys recalling that he studied Latin at Trinity College Dublin; he also likes playing little games and quickly crushes an earnest comment about Ovid with a smile. "Oh, now I couldn't translate a word of it." Both are the gentle breed of men who give the impression they would probably ask the nearest woman, no doubt their wives, to fix a punctured tyre.
Therein lies the wonderful contradiction. The soft-spoken, quietly sophisticated Barry may appear a dreamer, courtly and benign, sensitive, even fragile, but he must have a spine of steel. On leaving university, in 1977, he set out to be a writer, bypassing all other roles, including the usual one of journeyman journalist. “I’ve only been a writer,” he says, as a fact, not a boast. He could add that he has only been an artist, a bestselling one at that. Twice in three years he was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and he is still most often referred to as a playwright.
“Prose began to beckon; I was at it all the while, even when I was writing plays. I’ve written 12 plays and enjoyed it, but theatre has demands; you’re involving other people. I was always aware of this finger pointing at me.”
He recalls how he had begun writing a novel just before he wrote The Steward of Christendom. "I had this image in my mind of a man standing up on a hill looking down on his home town. I didn't know who he was, but it was obvious to me that he was an exile, an outcast." That man on the hill became the central character of Barry's second full-length novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty(1998). The novel waited while the playwright not only completed the play that made him internationally famous but also gave him one of the most special relationships of his life, his friendship with the actor Donal McCann. "We were soulmates. We understood each other. My childhood was his childhood. When he died I had to carry on like a bird with one wing."
It seems fitting that two paintings by Jack B Yeats are hanging on the wall of the hotel foyer leading to the room in which Sebastian Barry is sitting. He too is part of a family with strong Sligo connections, while several of Barry’s plays have links to theatrical works of another Yeats, the poet with whom Barry says his mother, the late actor Joan O’Hara, was obsessed. “To me, when I was small, Sligo was about stories and all these amazing people, my family, not about Yeats.”
At first Barry moves as if he were far older than the 56 he reached this month. “Sorry, I missed that,” he says, holding a hand to his ear. “I didn’t hear you . . . my hearing.” Had he been in an accident? Then a pause, for the highly improbable could he have been in a fight? After all he uses boxing imagery and speaks about writing at heavyweight instead of lightweight.
“No,” he says, smiling his mild patriarch’s smile, “it’s age.”
Again, this could be a Barry joke, or perhaps it’s not. Suddenly no one is all that young any more. It is shocking to admit the world is now being run by twentysomethings who can send texts on five phones simultaneously and have never heard of Sebastian Coe. Barry nods and makes clear that he has heard of Seb Coe and that he himself “sort of runs, jogs, in a sort of way. Well, I stumble along.”
He then mentions that his twins are now 18 and that they did the Leaving Certificate this summer. It is said with a sigh that suggests Barry suffered with them through each paper. It is his way of introducing the passage of time. The theme of parenting surfaces throughout the interview. He has three children, the twins and a 14-year-old, with his wife, Alison Deegan, who played Fanny Hawke in another of Barry's finest works, Prayers of Sherkin, a haunting account of the journey to oblivion experienced in the 1890s by an English religious sect that had settled on Sherkin Island, off the Co Cork coast. The play premiered in 1990, and for many critics it has remained a seminal moment in Barry's artistic development. Fast forward more than 20 years later, and he is an established member of Ireland's international literary elite. But he has another life as well.
“It’s a serious business, parenting” he says, “a job not to be taken lightly.” He believes parents should think carefully before they speak. “There are things that children should not have to hear.” It is an interesting aside coming from Barry, as he is the least polemical of writers.
This is apparent in his use of the past, particularly of the Great War, as a recurring literary device. For Barry it is not so much the war as what it did to individuals and the harsh, problematic legacy it bequeathed, specifically in Ireland. “It created divisions, and I’m glad that these have now come to the surface and been acknowledged. That’s what I said to the queen when she was here. I thanked her for going to Islandbridge and the war memorial and for going to the Garden of Remembrance: that’s what I said in my few words with her at the O2. I thanked her for making this gesture. She must have wondered about me; maybe she didn’t. But I felt it was so important, what she did.”
Then he stops and peers at me as if testing my reaction for something he is about to say. But he says it anyway. "They, royalty, they are different. You know I could feel it, this air of being different, that, you know . . . " And he quotes from Richard IIand we both chant the famous lines: "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings."
In the tiny but formidable figure of Queen Elizabeth he saw the continuity of history. “She could be this lady of a certain age with a handbag. But instead she is this symbol of something, kingship, something that has endured.” It has nothing to do with fame; it is the endurance of the past.
DOES HE FEEL CONSTRAINED by the past, and by this succession of overlapping characters that appear to have emerged either from his imagination and his memory of stories or from a combination of both? “It’s true I feel that I can no longer decide what is invented and what is real. I’m asking myself, ‘Did that happen, or have I made it up?’ It’s not that bad; I don’t mind. It doesn’t really matter.”
But does he believe he has to remain with these characters? Barry is working out two strands of stories that come from the two sides of his family. A Long Long Way, his bestselling 2005 novel, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker, tells the story of Willie Dunne, the youth who went to the Great War, a ghost that refuses to pass into history – but then why should he? The novel says a great deal not only about Willie's tragedy but also about the wider, shared horror when "the world was distressed into a thousand pieces".
Barry is aware of the forgotten heroes, the Irishmen who, by taking one uniform, alienated themselves. I mention Francis Ledwidge, who could easily inhabit a Barry novel, and he says, “His big anniversary is not that far off. It will be interesting to see how that is handled.”
Willie Dunne also features in On Canaan's Side,in which the character's sister, Lilly, tells her story.
As with Roseanne, the narrator of The Secret Scripture, Barry's 2008 novel, which won the Costa Book of the Year award, Lilly speaks in characteristic heightened literary prose. "The legend of my mother was that she died in giving birth to me. I broke free, my father said, like a pheasant from cover, noisily. His own father had been steward of Humewood estate in Wicklow, so he knew what a pheasant looked like, breaking from cover."
As the novel opens, Lilly is grief-stricken, coming to terms with the latest, most cruel loss in a life of hard losses. But Lilly is strong; there is nothing passive about her. Barry refers to her as “my hero” and speaks about his Aunt Lilly. “I first saw her in about the mid-Sixties; I was a child but I remember her. She had arrived back from America and she was wearing this print dress, an American dress, and she looked so happy. I remember thinking that, exactly that: Here is a member of my family who actually looks happy.” It is a powerful moment.
Sebastian Barry is easy to speak with but not all that easy to interview, as he feels deeply and does not toss off responses. He imposes a moral responsibility on his listener, more or less as he does on the reader, because he chooses to write about real grief, actual suffering, the multiple hurts that don’t recede.
No, he does not feel trapped by the past and its complex memories. “I am happy in my patch. John Banville has this great estate, but I have my subsistence farm.” He laughs at the image and says that although he now lives with his family in Wicklow, “I have no sheep, no cows, just the ones that belong to the neighbours.”
His literary life began with 1982's Macker's Garden, a gesture of daring, followed by The Engine of Owl-Light, in 1987, an ambitious narrative of six interwoven stories, born of Barry's travels during a period of living in France, Greece, Switzerland, England and the US.
"America's funny: you arrive there and think that you've really been there all along." He pauses. His attention shifts to The Engine of Owl-Light,a work that remains more important than he may suspect.
It contains the key to his history novels and, in Moran, a wanderer born in a Sligo poor-house, the first of such figures that may culminate in the disturbed and distraught Ed, Lilly's son, in the new novel. "That book [ The Engine of Owl-Light] is in a strange place for me. It is a young man's book." But it was also a response to a threatened legal case that affected an earlier book, causing it to be withdrawn. Barry wrote The Engine of Owl-Lightin six weeks; it is a statement of intent, an artist's response. That spine of steel was in place from an early age. To the remark that his narrators speak in a lyric language, Barry replies: "It's my lexicon; they speak using the language that I use."
He has ventured into the present before, as with Hinterland, his 2002 play about Charles Haughey; it didn't work, probably because the harshness of the subject matter didn't suit his lyric vision. "I have my subsistence farm. But there may only be one more of these history books on it and then . . ." He smiles, leaving little doubt that he knows exactly where his stories are taking him.
On Canaan's Sideis published by Faber and Faber