Family Matters

Sebastian Barry’s Quarrel With Irish History

The Irish novelist continues to give voice to those who have been shut out of the official telling of Ireland’s past.

A couple of years ago I interviewed the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín after he had published New Ways To Kill Your Mother: a book of essays that explored how writers’ relationships with their families constantly inform their work.

I asked him if authors should use their own family members in the stories they create?

He answered that artists had only rights and no responsibilities. In other words, if a writer feels an image coming into their head, even if it was a painful family memory or secret, they should put it down on paper, and worry about the consequences later.

Tóibín also mentioned a moment during the mid-’80s when he enviously spotted Sebastian Barry through the window of a café in Camden Street in Dublin.

At the time, Tóibín was working as a journalist, and was still hoping to become a successful author. Barry, meanwhile, was a published poet, playwright, and novelist. He had, according to Tóibín, the look of a pure artist about him that particular day.

I mention this anecdote because both authors seem to share similar traits in their work when it comes to using their own family members as a muse. In On Canaan’s Side, Barry’s last novel, he based the main protagonist Lilly Bere on his great-aunt who emigrated from Ireland to the United States in the ’20s. And in his award-winning 2008 novel, The Secret Scripture, Roseanne, one of the book’s leading voices, is based on a great aunt who was forced into a mental asylum against her will.

Using these family figures, however, hasn’t been without controversy. Barry based his 1998 play Our Lady of Sligo on stories about his grandmother’s life. This infuriated his grandfather, who cursed Barry and never spoke to him again.

The Temporary Gentleman is a reworking of that play, with a few adjustments, into the novel form. And the main character, Jack McNulty, is a fictional re-creation of the man who refused to speak to Barry for washing the family’s dirty laundry in public.

The book begins with Jack sailing on a British army supply ship heading for Africa during World War II. Like many of Barry’s previous novels, the story is plot-heavy. There is plenty of movement across continents and travelling between different time zones, often within the space of one chapter. Beneath all of this action, though, is a very simple tale about two lovers: Jack and Mai.

The story is being told in 1957. Jack has come back to the city of Accra to live after many trips to and from Ireland since the war. But the country that was once called the Gold Coast has now been renamed Ghana: the first black independent nation on the African continent to break away from the shackles of colonial rule.

Similarly, the story this book is really concerned with begins in 1922: the year the Irish Free State was established, finally gaining independence from Britain.

This was also the year that Jack first set eyes upon Mai Kirwan, the love of his life. There are many moments like this, where Barry drops the reader little clues, images, dates and details. All of which connect together like a jigsaw as the story progresses.

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Jack and Mai marry in 1926. And over the course of the book—as the action moves between Sligo, Galway, Dublin and Ghana—Barry reveals a story of two vulnerable characters who both succumb to alcoholism. Nevertheless, they love each other with a tenderness that drives them to despair over their 31 years of marriage.

Barry’s main concern may be a simple love story. But the hand of history leans heavily on each of the characters’ shoulders for the duration of the book. Barely a chapter goes by when there isn’t a reference to Michael Collins, Eamon De Valera, the Irish Civil War, or the trouble inflicted on the Irish people during the ’20s by the infamous Black and Tans.

Barry’s work has always focused on the way history distorts the present. And this book is no different. Even the way Jack’s story is mapped out in such a haphazard way gives the reader the impression that the author is questioning the reliability and purpose that memory and history actually serve.

After Jack remembers a story his father told him about how their family had once been butter exporters, he writes that “this was a history without documents, [and] it constituted in my father’s mind a faithful and important record of real things.”

Later on, when Jack thinks back to the Irish civil war, he tells us: “History was the burnt edges of the Book of Life, as if it had indeed been in a great fire, but it was not the story itself.”

Contemporaries of Barry, such as Eavan Boland and Hugo Hamilton, have also attempted to document in their work the lives of people who have been airbrushed out or silenced from the dominant narrative of Irish nationalism.

These writers try, each in his or her own way, to display how ordinary lives function and operate outside of the mythologies that are created by those who hold power in a nation.

When Ireland officially broke away from the British Empire in 1922, first becoming a free state and eventually a republic in 1949, there was an attempt by its leaders to create at all costs a Catholic, nationalist country, where a homogenous population revered anything that wasn’t British. While this mythology may have been true for many citizens, it certainly wasn’t the complete picture. Barry is constantly reminding us of this fact in his work.

When Jack comes home from the war he talks about how proud he is to have fought in the British army against the evils of Nazism. But then he reminds us that “pride in that foreign war meant little in Ireland.”

Barry’s voice as a writer—which is methodical, poetic, and almost angelic—works both in his favor and against him at times.

There are moments when his sentences can describe in simple music what two pages of dialogue would fail to achieve. For example, after Mai and Jack bury their baby, Colin, who dies of complications after childbirth, Barry records the somber atmosphere in the graveyard: “An hour when the bell of the cathedral sounded in the lower town with a fantastical meaning. When the mother stood there without her child. When the father stood without his son.”

There are times, however, when an editor might have suggested to Barry to take it easy with the similes, which jump off the page in every single chapter. Irish writers have a rich tradition of lyrical prose that they should be proud of. But a novelist trying to write like a poet can—in my humble opinion—begin to turn their own book into a farce if they’re not careful.

A Temporary Gentleman does what it sets out to do with consummate elegance: attempting to understand complex, individual lives that challenge the predominate mythology created by the Irish state after independence. But despite all the sentences that move in perfect music, sparkling on every page, there is something predictable and mundane about Barry’s formulae of poetic prose, which he has managed to make a novel out of every three or four years now without fail over the last two decades.

Historically, Irish literature— through writers like Swift, Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien— has prided itself on an ability to be modern, fresh, and reinvent a new genre when a culture is in danger of conforming to the status quo. But maybe there is a difference between best-selling fiction that appeals to the masses, and literary fiction that dares to be different. Barry lies in the former category: providing us with a brand of safe-bet-sentimental romanticism that is singing the same tune over and over.