Sebastian Barry

21 08 2009

I’ve just finished reading and re-reading three  books by Sebastian Barry an Irish playwright and novelist  whose non judgemental  love for his characters and his  rich insight into Irish  history  is a searing  constant revelation evoked in lyrical prose.  His words open  a clearer window into the complexities of the Irish civil war in the early part of the 20th century  showing  both the horrors and the humanity common to  the times. 

The Secret Scripture was short listed for the Booker prize in 2008 and won the 2008 Costa Book of the Year   in January despite the judge’s assessment ( with which I agree) that the ending is flawed. The book’s primary narrator is a woman who may be approaching her 100th birthday  in the insane asylum where she has spent most of her life.  Once a striking beauty Roseanne Clear now describes herself as  “a thing left over … a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in my niche like a song less robin — no, like a mouse that died under the hearth stone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids … No one even knows I have a story.”   Dr. Grene, her caregiver, had given her a biro  with blue ink which she determines to use along with some ‘discarded paper’  to record the memories she has so that when she is gone her own story of her life will be found.   The power the Catholic church wielded over the everyday lives of  anyone  living  in Ireland in those times is portrayed  wrenchingly in Roseanne’s continuous betrayals. These tragedies she records  with an amazing lack of blame saying  “There is no difficulty not of my own making. ”  and in another passage “I suppose we measure the importance of our days by those few angels we spy among us, and yet aren’t like them.”   Dr Grene has his own dilemma: the asylum is going to be closed in a few months with as many of the frail patients returning back to society as can be safely discharged.  As Dr. Grene  attempts to assess Roseanne for possible discharge the journal he is keeping becomes crucial to his understanding  of her tangled past.  We forget or perhaps have never known that it was common in the much of the 20th century for Irish women to be “sectioned” for “moral” reasons, for flirting, for being too pretty or boisterous, for being too much of a temptation, for being unwed and pregnant, for having been raped and ruined.    In reviewing   The Magdalene Laundries    Norm Langenbrunner, a priest of the Archdiocese of   Cinncinatti says  “When Ireland became a free state in 1922, politicians and prelates began to work collaboratively to make Catholic morality the criterion for Ireland’s public image. Among their primary concerns was sexual immorality…..In an incredible display of hypocrisy, the women were blamed for all sexual sins, while the men involved went free.”   The Secret Scripture  explores this complex era of dance halls, jazz, civil war, betrayal and  turmoil  though  the cloudy lens  and vicissitudes of an old woman’s memory and the empathy of her caregiver.

 Annie Dunne  is set on a small farm in  Wicklaw Ireland  around 1959, in a rural Ireland that no longer exists.  It’s here we find the book’s narrator, a  slight and remarkable spinster and her spinster cousin Sarah, anticipating the arrival of her young nephew and niece.   With poetic, emotive, bewitching language,   Sebastian Barry brings  us into Annie’s small limed cottage, her hen yard, her life.  We’re there in the shadows, as she   explains the proper gesture for drawing rain water, we are there in the dairy, watching,  as she and Sarah perform the ageless sorcery of making  butter.   We suffer her slights, her spites, her quick tongue and temper, the aches of her toil  but mostly we experience her frugal  pleasures and the fierce joy and love she feels for her family.  The Washington Post calls this novel a ‘deliciously poetic book’.  It is one of the best written books  I’ve read in a very long time.  If you read this book and remain unmoved by it you have my pity.

The Whereabouts Of Eneas McNulty was published in 1998 and is set in roughly the same time period as The Secret Scripture  It’s the story of Roseanne Clear’s brother-in-law,  the one with a price on his head and marked for death by the IRA, continuing the turbulent saga of the McNulty’s  of  County Sligo. At 16 Eneas goes to sea in the British Merchant Navy, spends time in the dives and whorehouses of Galveston, grows out of the boy and into the man,  musters out – goes a year home in Sligo with no work  because of his service for the British and then, irrevocably goes the step too far  in joining the  RIC, The Royal Irish Constabulary, the police force augmented by The Auxiliary, the Tans.  After a brutal killing of a fellow policeman by the IRA , while he is left unscathed, he is mustered out of the RIA returning in terror and shame to Sligo.  There he is labeled a traitor marked for death and his  boyhood friend  is the  assassin chosen to kill him.  His life becomes that lonely life of the man ever on the run, beginning on the cattle boat he takes to England to find work.  The Wall Sreet Journal  says  ‘Eneas’s gripping and tragic story serves as a reminder of the fine line that lies between hero and murderer, politician and criminal.’   This too is a book full of  beautiful prose and compelling characters, a well told  story of mis-adventure.

This is the book I plan to read next.

 

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