Sebastian Barry, Ireland’s Greatest Living Writer, Speaks for the Voiceless
The prolific playwright, poet, and novelist Sebastian Barry talks about Joyce, Heaney, and his own family who have been finding their way into his fiction for ages.
Sebastian Barry is the author of 13 plays, two collections of poetry, two collections of short stories, and six novels, including his latest, The Temporary Gentleman. Every volume has either won or been short listed for just about every prize there is on his side of the Atlantic.
The Secret Scripture (2008) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the oldest fiction award in the UK, and was named the Costas Book of the Year (an award for British and Irish writers). The French translation won Le testament casche and the Cezan Prix Litteraire. His most recent play is Andersen’s English, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s visit to Charles Dickens’s home in the Kent Marshes.
The Temporary Gentleman is the story of Jack McNulty, an Irishman who served in the British army in World War II and later, in Accra, Ghana, chronicling his life and misfortunes as a soldier, engineer, and U.N. observer. As with all of Barry’s fiction, his characters are tied to each other through blood or marriage, and all are inspired by people from his own family. (Jack’s brother, Eneas, was the subject of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998). In a review of The Temporary Gentleman for The Guardian, Claire Kilroy called Barry “an artist of the highest order.”
Allen Barra spoke to him recently in New York during his latest publicity tour.
Allen Barra: By any chance, you weren’t named for Sebastian Dangerfield [from J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man]?
Sebastian Barry: I might have been. I was born the same year The Ginger Man was published, and the time I was growing up I remember people talking about how scandalous the book was … I’m going to say yes, I was named for Sebastian Dangerfield.
I’d like to confirm that you’re not planning on translating Gogol, are you?
No, I hadn’t considered it. Why do you ask?
Nabokov once complained about English translations of Gogol; they were so flat and colorless that he thought “None but an Irishman should ever try tackling Gogol.” Some—well, certainly me but also many others—consider you our finest prose writer. I thought you might like the job.
I’m flattered, but there’s others who should have done that before me.
The late Seamus Heaney, for one. He translated Beowulf into English, and I think he would have done well by Gogol.
Every time I meet an Irish writer, I find out that he knows just about every other Irish writer—not surprising when you consider that you’ve got—what?—maybe six to six-and-a-half million people on the whole island, and half of you are writers and poets …. Did you ever meet Seamus?
Yes, I did. He was delightful. He took great joy in displaying his Nobel Prize—kind of like a schoolboy showing off his prizes. He had a lot of other awards, too. One he was particularly proud of was, I think, from Croatia. He said, “When you win the Nobel Prize, you win all the others.”
What’s in the water over there? You writers all hang out together? You ever play handball with Roddy Doyle?
You know, I met him for the first time when we were both at a literary event in Perth, Australia. People like to contrast us—our subject matter, our styles. We had a wonderful time—I think it was a liberating experience for two Irishmen to meet almost 10 thousand miles from home.
I always ask every Irish writer how Joyce stands with him.
Did you ask Roddy? I know he had some criticisms of Joyce.
Yes, he said that the disparaging remarks he made about Ulysses were a joke, that he really loved the book or he wouldn’t have read it twice. But he did say that Joyce “could have used an editor.” How about you?
I remember reading Portrait of the Artist in a park, practically straight through, and I loved the stories in Dubliners. But Ulysses … I’ve tried to read it twice, but couldn’t get beyond Ulysses in Nighttown.
It’s difficult to trace influences in your work. The idea of writing novels that are self-contained but also interlocking pieces of a mosaic … Were you thinking perhaps of Balzac’s Human Comedie or maybe, as some have suggested, Faulkner’s novels set in Yoknapatawpha County?
No, whatever of their works I’ve admired, I can’t really say any other writers have influenced what I’ve tried to do in my novels. Members of my family, it’s like they made a sort of tent-town in my DNA, and they’re all waiting to be heard, to have their say.
Jack O’Hara, your maternal grandfather, was the main source for Jack McNulty in The Temporary Gentleman?
Yes. He was a marvelous storyteller, and he’d been many places. Had adventures in Africa. I remember sitting on the bed listening to him talk, and it was as if the bed was transformed into a magic carpet and I was off to the Gold Coast.
Do you think he would be happy with the way he’s re-created as McNulty in The Temporary Gentleman?
I don’t know. The character of Jack McNulty is responsible for doing a great many things you’d have to call bad. There were some things that upset him about the way I portrayed him in some early stories, and I also used him in a play, Our Lady of Sligo (1998). The Jack in the play is not what I think you’d call a reputable character, and in retrospect I think I was a little hard on him and that was stupid of me. But I think he’d have to own up to some things McNulty does in this novel because, after all, he told me he had done them.
Your ancestors, many of them, were loyal to the British Crown. Thomas Dunne, for instance, in your best known play, The Steward of Christendom, who was a retired senior officer in the Dublin police force. Some of your family fought in the British army in World War I and were scorned for it back home. It seems to me that what you’ve done is give a voice to people that the history of your country has swept under the carpet. As Roseanne McNulty says in writing the memoir she hides from others in The Secret Scripture, “I am completely alone. There is no one in the world who knows me now outside of this place. All my own people, the few farthings of them that once were, my little wren of a mother … they are all gone now … No one even knows I have a story.” And yet, would you agree that there’s nothing overtly political about your work?
Yes, that’s true. My subject isn’t politics at all. A lot of young people growing up today in Ireland aren’t even sure why these things ever were political, but there are certainly people living today who remember a time when old feuds and grudges weren’t past history at all.
Let me ask you about some news I just heard regarding The Secret Scripture, that it’s going to be made into a film and the heroine, Roseanne McNulty, who is condemned to life in an asylum by an unholy alliance of revolutionary politics and the Catholic Church, will be played by Jessica Chastain and, as an older woman, by Vanessa Redgrave. That’s marvelous casting …
It is. Jim Sheridan [My Left Foot and In The Name of the Father] will direct. I think they’re scheduled to start filming in the fall.
Not to push Faulkner on you, but it seems sometimes as if the Irish Revolution and Civil War provide a backdrop for Irish writers as surely as our Civil War did for Faulkner. You know what Faulkner said about the past …
“… is not dead, it is not even past.” I have pictures back in my home in County Wicklow that were going to be thrown out when my grandfather died. My sister and I rushed over to his studio and rescued them. I think that’s really what I’ve done with my books—I’ve rescued things that would have been consigned to the dustbin of history.