The rat-catcher's daughter takes her turn centre stage

FICTION: The Secret Scripture b y Sebastian Barry Faber & Faber, 300pp. £12

FICTION: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry Faber & Faber, 300pp. £12.99 Sebastian Barry's beautiful and disturbing new novel is a stirring indictment of Ireland's patriarchal attitudes, writes Patricia Craig.

SEBASTIAN BARRY SETS out his current purpose in the second epigraph to his new novel, from Maria Edgeworth's preface to Castle Rackrent, and in certain opening reflections of his principal narrator. In the face of so much historial uncertainty, Edgeworth says, the seeker after truth is necessarily drawn to all manner of "secret memoirs and private anecdotes". The story of Roseanne McNulty, recounted here, comes under that heading as, in her final days, she struggles to leave "some kind of brittle and honest-minded history of myself" - not only a memoir, but an illumination of anti-heroic and distorted trends in the country.

An absent epigraph provides a further clue. Barry's title comes from a first World War poem by Tom Kettle (killed in France in 1916). "Know that we fools," Kettle wrote, "now with the foolish dead,

Died not for flag, nor crown, nor emperor,


But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,

And for the Secret Scripture of the poor.

Secret scripture, secret history, secret burials, whether of men or guns: the novel's larger design has to do with the state of Ireland in the first half of the 20th century, its anxieties, deprivations and deadly alignments. The fact that Roseanne McNulty, born before the first World War, is ending her days in a lunatic asylum ties up with the perception of one character that the whole bloody country is a madhouse. "A fucking madhouse", says Tom McNulty, Roseanne's husband, in the 1930s, when de Valera has come to power and an economic war is raging, resulting in the slaughter of lambs in the fields. The slaughter of lambs - it's a powerful image, and, like much else in this beautiful and disturbing novel, it has implications for the Ireland of the past with its century-long emergencies, its days of darkness and blight.

ROSEANNE MCNULTY, dark-haired but not to be equated with Dark Rosaleen, is an emblematic figure but scarcely a representative one - she has too much individuality for that. Incarcerated in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital for nearly 50 years but not in the least "mad" for all that, she makes an engaging but not an entirely reliable narrator. Her version of events has entailed the suppression of things too dreadful to be told, such as all the unspeakable evil surrounding the death - murder? - of her father, Joe Clear. Some ingredients of that death have become, in her mind, part of a different story, a more buoyant order of things. (So, the author might be saying, the national story is subject to purposeful amendment, brutality becoming courage and bitterness conviction.) And, to augment and rectify where possible Roseanne's recollections, we have a selection of entries from a journal kept by the mental hospital's chief psychiatrist, Dr Grene, who goes out of his way to check some facts relating to the life of his oldest patient. For example: was Joe Clear, or was he not, a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and if so, did this circumstance have a bearing on his death? According to Roseanne, her Presbyterian father was employed solely in Sligo town as a (Catholic) cemetery attendant and gravedigger; and later, after trouble had come upon him as a consequence of an act of charity and misunderstanding, as the town's rat-catcher. (Is there a joke here?)

Roseanne Clear, as she then was, describes the Civil War days, a time of turmoil, with left-over republicans fighting, and dying, in the back hills of Sligo, while Free State forces assume an unaccustomed authority. A priest makes an appearance early on in the book, a kind of quasi-McQuaid figure called Fr Gaunt, who weaves in and out of Roseanne's life, always with malign effect. Not that Fr Gaunt is without his comic accoutrements, such as the "highly ecclesiastical umbrella" which accompanies him on his officious outings.

Before disaster, injustice and cruelty overtake Roseanne, her narrative suddenly effloresces into a wonderful evocation of the charm and exuberance of young girls in their dancehall days: "Happy. Just straightforward ordinary girls we were. We liked to bring as much despair as we could to the lads". And: "I think we looked like young goddesses". "All that happiness" she recalls; while black misery is waiting in the wings, and all connected, obliquely but inflexibly, with happenings in the past, episodes of private and public upheaval, some "strange chapters" in the "bewildering story" of 20th-century Ireland. Unspoken connections come into the picture too - take Joe Brady, for instance, a coarse peripheral character who possibly attempts some kind of sexual assault on Roseanne. Joe Brady was the name of one of the Invincibles involved in the Phoenix Park murders of 1882 - who later turns up in Ulysses: is this significant? In any case, it adds to the web of associations animating this highly wrought novel.

ACTUALLY, THIS is not the first time we've encountered Roseanne McNulty: she made a brief appearance in a previous novel of Sebastian Barry's, living in mysterious circumstances (which are now explained). The Wherabouts of Eneas McNulty, it was called (Eneas being her brother-in-law). She flitted quickly into and out of that book, but now comes centre stage in her turn, a person of resourcefulness and integrity despite the traumas, maligned in the way of Irish women of a different era. Roseanne shows pity for everything pitiable that crosses her line of vision: murdered freedom fighters, country boys; Protestant girls like fiery angels jumping from the upper floors of a burning orphanage; her father's poor rats. Sebastian Barry's narrative has a poetic element: it glows with the uncanny luminosity of a twisted fairy tale, The Rat-Catcher's Daughter, as it may be. And, with its emphasis on a feminine version of history, or histories, it adds up to a stirring indictment of Ireland's patriarchal attitudes.

Patricia Craig is a critic and biographer. Her memoirAsking for Trouble was published last autumn