Rosamund Burton heading
Faith, Memory and a Beautiful Handshake | Good Reading | December 2008/January 2009

A ‘beautiful’ handshake between his nationalist paternal grandfather and British major maternal grandfather gave Sebastian Barry something on which to rest his faith in Ireland’s future, as he tells Rosamund Burton.

When I speak to Sebastian Barry he is on his mobile at Canterbury Cathedral, as his new play, Dallas Sweetman , opens tomorrow. It is the first play to be performed in the nave of the cathedral for 80 years, he explains. In 1928 a drama by John Masefield was staged there, but every line was lost to the audience and disappeared up the tower due to the dreadful acoustics, so subsequent plays, including T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral , were performed in the Chapter House.

‘But now with modern technology we hope you can do a play in the nave,’ Sebastian explains. ‘It’s the most astounding place you can imagine. I mean apart from the fact that for an ordinary Irish Catholic person with regard to the history of Catholicism and Protestanism in Ireland, what a place to stand.’

For this 53 year-old Dublin-born writer religious difference is an ongoing theme, and one that runs through the rich prose of his latest novel, The Secret Scripture, which was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

The main character, Roseanne McNulty, is based on a great-aunt in Sebastian’s own family who he describes as ‘the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time’. Her religion, Presbyterian rather than Catholic, is totally unacceptable in her mother-in-law’s eyes and the reason, eventually, for her marriage to be annulled. Having a child ‘out of wedlock’ ostracises her further, and causes her to be removed from the community and put in the local mental asylum.

In this book, Roseanne McNulty is now nearing her 100th birthday, having spent most of her adult life in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, and the story is told through her journals and those of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene. This beautifully written book is an intricate web of memory and truth. As Dr Grene realizes that Roseanne’s recollection of the facts is not always necessarily the truth, he also sees that these memories have actually given her enormous resilience and strength, not to mention mental health.

Acceptance and belonging is a big issue in Sebastian Barry’s own life. His family spent three years in England and returned to Ireland when he was eight years old. Because of his London accent he was beaten up in the schoolyard and quickly adopted an Irish accent again. ‘ It created in me a sense of emergency to belong, and yet realizing that it wasn’t true belonging.’

Sebastian Barry was previously short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2005 with his novel, A Long Long Way. Willie Dunne, the main character, is another outcast. The young Dubliner unable to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a policeman, because he is not tall enough, goes to fight for ‘King, country and Empire’ in the First World War. While he is in the trenches in France, Irish nationalism is gathering force, and in 1916 Dublin experiences all the bloodiness of the Easter Rising. As an Irish soldier in the British army he is not trusted by the English and seen as a traitor by the nationalists in Ireland. The effect of this permeates all Willie Dunne’s close relationships, and leaves the reader with the achingly painful image of what it must have been like for a young man to face all the horrors of the Western Front bereft of either family support or belief in the cause.

Sebastian Barry tells me that, as a child, his two very different grandfathers led him to question his own identity and sense of belonging. His father’s father, Matthew Barry, was a painter and a nationalist, who has been part of the Easter Rising in 1916. His maternal grandfather came from a working class family in Sligo, in the West of Ireland. This grandfather was clever and became an engineer, and when the Second World War broke out he signed up and became a major in the British army.

‘In many ways they were quite similar men,’ Sebastian muses. ‘ They wanted an Ireland of decency and gentleness. Strangely enough they wanted the same things. I remember them shaking hands, not entirely friends, but shaking hands, and it was that beautiful handshake on which I rested my faith.’

Sebastian grew up in a large 19th-century house by the sea in the south of Dublin. He did not learn to read until he was nine years old, and that breakthrough he claims was due to reading the catechisms and the constant repetition of the words.

After leaving Trinity College where he read English and Latin he sent off two letters looking for work. One to a financial institution, to which he received a reply saying he was the least qualified person to ever apply for the position, and the other to Hanna’s Bookshop in Dublin, which was also rejected. Having done his job-hunting he started to write books, and he admits that it was a good thing that he didn’t manage to get anything published for six or seven years. He describes those early writings as ‘ a little like stepping stones across this rather stormy isthmus of being so young’.

When I ask how he managed financially, he explains his father had been a poet as a young man, before he became an architect, so understood his position. ‘My father and I haven’t spoken for about ten years,’ he says without elaborating further, ‘but credit where credit is due, he was very supportive when I was a young man living in Greece and Paris and just trying to scrap along and keep writing.’

Another family rift occurred between Sebastian and his maternal grandfather over his play, Our Lady of Sligo , which was based on stories his mother, well-known Irish actress, Joan O’Hara, told him about his grandmother. The play is set in a room of a Dublin hospital where the main character, Mai O’Hara, is dying of liver cancer. This is a woman who has been magnificent at moments in her life, but whose descent into alcoholism has blighted both her husband and her daughter’s lives. His grandfather never mentioned his wife to Sebastian, who was born three years after she died, and he never spoke to Sebastian again after the play premiered in 1998. Six years later, in 2004, Sebastian wrote: ‘I see now that his silence was a species of love.’

It was in production of one of his early plays, Prayers of Sherkin, that Sebastian met his future wife, Alison Deegan. The play was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1990 and Alison acted in it. Later they married and they now have three children – Merlin, Coral and Tobias – and live in Wicklow.

When I ask about his routine, Sebastian admits that sometimes he can write all day, and on other days will only do a few hours. ‘ What I try to do is only work when the little fire is there – is there within me to work – not to push or force it.’

His children, he says, observe no boundaries, and quite often will come crashing in while he is working. Although sometimes he is shouting, ‘Get out, get out, get out, I have to be in 1945 for an hour, or I’m doomed,’ he tells me how blessed he feels by his children. He quotes Ben Jonson, who said own son was his best piece of poetry, and adds: ‘I do regard my children and – if I may say - my marriage as forms of narrative that I am trying to follow correctly or well.’

Despite the turbulent relationships between himself and his father and grandfather he is attempting to shape the best future for his own family. He also passionately believes that it is possible to have true unionism in his country and a joining together of all strands of Irishness, and describes seeing again in recent years his grandfathers’ handshake when two Sinn Fein and Unionist politicians shook hands at Stormont.

The rich, magical poetic quality which permeates all Sebastian Barry’s writing, combined with his ability to place his characters in the savage heart of Ireland’s turbulent history, make him a truly brilliant writer of our time.

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, published by Allen & Unwin, rrp $32.95

Sebastian Barry is speaking at the Perth Writers’ Festival in February 2009.