Sebastian Barry and the Re-Stranding of Ireland

There is a pivotal observation by Dr Grene in Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture that ‘it is sometimes forgotten the effort that was made in the twenties to include all shades of opinion in the first Irish senate, but it was an effort that soon lost heart. Our first President was a Protestant which was a beautiful and poetic gesture. The fact is, we are missing too many threads in our story that the tapestry of Irish life cannot but fall apart.’

Irish life is not falling apart because we are in fact re-stranding Ireland in a process of reflection and recovery thanks to the centennaries that are now upon us. As a writer, Barry fearlessly explores what history did to the Irish in the mid-twentieth century.  He has few equals when it comes to summoning into daylight Ireland’s secret histories. In his interlinked novels centred on the McNulty family from Sligo, these secrets and their cruelties are generated for the most part by the dislocations of revolution and the highly straitened and oddly self-conscious society that was Catholic Ireland after indepedence.

For Barry’s central male characters, their tragedy is borne of the changed power structures after British withdrawal. In the novels, men are cheated of a place at home by the sudden turn of history that reshapes the meaning and implications of loyalty; they go to war in British uniform and return to an Ireland in which British service is no longer acceptable (Long Long Way; and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty).  Their fate is to be an emigrant, an exile or even an outcast.

The cruelest fates await Barry’s tragic women. Women are particularly put upon: in post-independent Ireland young attractive women are the dangerous innnocents, liable to incarceration of various sorts (mental institutions or convents) or exile (The Secret Scripture). Most innocent of all were the children born out of wedlock and therefore into shame. Secrecy was shame’s antidote, though the price was heavy. As Roseanne writes of Sligo’s Garravogue river, in The Secret Scripture, the river ‘took the rubbish down to the sea… bodies too, if rarely, and poor babies, that were embarrasments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend of secrecy.’

Secrecy indeed, the heavy price of shame: Shame and secrecy were double entries in the ledger between family and Church. In The Secret Scripture, the terrifying Father Gaunt, whose intense accountancy of public morality and norms has fed his lust for power just as surely as it has strangled any instincts he may have had for mercy and compassion, appears briefly but devastatingly. Not since Bram Stoker created Dracula has Irish fiction produced such a monster.

Jack McNulty, Eneas’ brother, is the narrative voice of Barry’s latest novel, A Temporary Gentleman. Jack’s sad fate is largely of his own making thanks to gambling and alcholism. His larger crime is his capacity to excuse and elude the consequences of his own actions. Only in forcing himself to write an account of his life in the steamy obscurity of a small African town does he find some way to assess it.

For a number of Barry’s characters, the true confessional is not in the Church but in the act of writing. There may be a broader point too; Ireland’s literary tradition is a form of redemption, a corrective commentary and assessment of the more oppressive expectations and narrow official narratives of mid-century independent Ireland.

One could say of course Barry has consigned unflattering roles to the architects of independent Ireland – the revolutionaries, local politicians and priests who define and rule their fiefdoms after the ebb and flow of the struggle for independence. But his novels and his importance as a writer are the richer for that; his very iconoclasm when it comes to the paragons of Irish independence is what give us pause for reflection. Moreover, if the soldier deems to take life, the priest to judge it and the politician to lead it, then they can at least suffer such interrogations in the corrective narrative of Irish fiction.

Association with or service in the British Armed Forces features heavily in Barry’s novels.  It is interesting to reflect on the distance that Ireland has travelled on this issue. Post-independent Ireland’s definition of nationalism was perforce too narrow to embrace the varieties of identity. For as Ireland struggled to free itself from the insistent embrace of the British Empire, a dialect process was set in play that frustrated the moderates and emboldened the radicals who were committed to republicanism and the use of force. Prevarication and delay in promulgating Home Rule (since it had been put on the agenda generations earlier by O’Connell, Parnell and Redmond) had fatally rationalised the arguments of Irish republicanism in favour of armed rebellion, just as machismo, militarism and romantic notions of the battlefield were reaching a climax across Europe.

One of the main casualities of this “de-stranding” of Irish identity in the twentieth century was British Ireland, the web of private associations created by individuals through family heritage, connection, career choice or emigration. It was only in the latter half of the 1980s that Irish service in foreign armies was begun to be officially commemorated in Ireland. As a new diplomat serving in Anglo-Irish Division at the end of the 1980s I recall the novel and delicate consideration of the new protocols of the remembrance service for those who served in the armed forces of other states.

Truth be told, we were only really sensitive of the British services. For in reality a good portion of this sensitivity arose from the role of the British Army in Northern Ireland during the conflict.  The Northern Ireland Peace Process has cleared the space for the current reflection:  Think, for example, of the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday and its redemptive effects.

Remembrance today now unashamedly embraces those Irish who served with the British military. One of the highlights of my time as Ambassador in South Korea was in 2013 when we welcomed Irish veterans who served with British units in the Korean War, mainly in the Royal Ulster Rifles. They and their units had distinguished themselves in the grim pivotal battles to save Seoul. Being part of such events and commemorations is now a regular and welcome feature of the public activities of Irish Ambassadors around the world.

The Ireland-Britain nexus is a much wider community than those who served in uniform, or even the wider catchment of the Anglo-Irish. It embraces all those who, comfortably or not, moved between both worlds even as they kept their travels across the Irish Sea secret or at least discreet. It includes too all those Irish who have made Britain their home and who felt a powerful liberation during President Higgins’ state visit to Britain last year. His visit, and the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 2011, were both profound waypoints in our development as a nation, our understanding of the past, and the re-stranding of Ireland.

Tolstoy once wrote that “A historian has to do with the results of an event, the artist with the fact of the event.” As a novelist, Barry does this fearlessly, poignantly and beautifully.

Eamonn McKee

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