There are very few Irish authors who have achieved the acclaim of Sebastian Barry.
He was a poet before he became a successful playwright, but these days he is most acclaimed as a multi-award winning novelist. His novels include The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), The Secret Scripture (2008) and On Canaan’s Side (2011), and many others.
On June 20th Sebastian Barry arrived in all his splendour to the Eirgrid Stage in Kells, a guest of the Hinterland Festival. He was in fine spirit and even finer voice, starting the event with an Appalachian song. He followed with a reading from his most recent novel, and his mother, actress Joan O’Hara, would be delighted with his beguiling style of delivery.
Interviewer Myles Dungan did a fine job asking questions, although, like Patricia Scanlan before him, Barry hardly seemed to need the prompts. He’s an author who seems to love talking about his books and his family. Indeed, there hardly seems a hair’s worth of difference between the two, as his fiction is inspired by various family members.
Mere slivers of family lore send his imagination aloft, filling in the blanks. Asked how much factual information he had before he started writing his recent novel, he said, “Only half a sentence. The story is lost… A gift to a writer. You only need two sticks to make a fire.”
One stick, in this case, was his grandfather’s comment that a distant family member Thomas McNulty had “served in the Indian wars.” That was all he needed. Barry wove the story that became Days Without End (2016). As much as the novel is a tribute to an obscure relative, it is an homage to Barry’s son Toby who, at the age of 16, came out to his family as gay. (The author’s response to Toby’s pronouncement was a relieved, “Thank God. You won’t have to go through this mess of heterosexuality!”)
Through his son, Barry learned something of gay relationships and felt uplifted by the romance between Toby and his boyfriend. Subsequently, when he came to write Days Without End, he created in Thomas McNulty, a soldier, a man accustomed to violence, a man who loves another man John Cole, (“John Cole, my beau,” he says.)
Having the initial idea for the story wasn’t enough to get started. He needed the voice of his character. This is what Barry calls the “pre-writing stage, when the book is still in the air.” After seven months, Thomas McNulty suddenly spoke to him and said,
“The methods for laying out a corpse in Missouri sure did take the cake.”
The difficulty of finding a character’s voice is a familiar one to most fiction writers. It makes the difference between success and failure. In the case of Days Without End, Barry had to decide how Irish the character would sound. Would he speak a kind of pidgin English? “What is this English we speak?” he asked the audience (a packed house, by the way, with enthralled being its unequivocal state.)
Thomas wouldn’t talk about the famine, Barry decided, for all he had arrived in America, along with so many Irishmen, to escape that fate. He was utterly individual, wearing dresses–this before the word ‘gay’ meant anything other than happy–until an 1863 edict declared, “men must not dress as women.”
For all the violence in the novel, it contains exquisite language whose lyrical beauty binds to one’s DNA. For instance, of Thomas’s partner John Cole, Barry says, “The moonlight not able to flatter him because he was already beautiful.” And yet the violence is there, too. Thomas is a soldier and a good one. Violence is part of who he is.
Asked by a member of the audience how his family feels about the way he uses his own kin as fodder for fiction, Barry replied, “A writer can be a very inconvenient person to have in a family. You don’t know how much you can hurt a person in what you write. You are a deeply disgraceful human being.”
May Mr Barry continue to be a disgrace for many years to come.