You Should Be Reading Sebastian Barry

Ireland’s fiction laureate has a special understanding of the human heart.

Illustration with gray-haired white man in a black knit cap, a green turtleneck, and a brown coat in front of coastal rocks (in foreground), with an author writing in top right corner (in background), and a shoreline and ocean beyond him
Karlotta Freier

Five years ago, when Sebastian Barry was appointed laureate for Irish fiction, he delivered a lecture that began with what he confessed was a truism: “All things pass away, our time on Earth is brief, and yet we may feel assailed at great length in this brief time, and yet we may reach moments of great happiness.” The whiplash repetition of “and yet” is typical Barry, and so is the stoic resolve behind the truism, a long, bleak perspective that accedes to the inevitable, with misery and joy cozying up to each other. Reading his novels is like braving Irish weather: You’re chilled and drenched and dazzled and baked in buffeting succession.

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His new novel, Old God’s Time, his ninth, is a beautiful, tragic book about an “old policeman with a buckled heart” who’s assailed at great length and yet enjoys streaks of jubilance, even after repeated assaults. I find the book powerful enough to want to bang the drum and say as loudly and clearly as I can that Barry ought to be widely read and revered—he ought to be a laureate for fiction everywhere.

Let’s start with the writing, an unclouded lens that, yes, occasionally goes all purple. No surprise to hear an Irish lilt and discover an unabashed delight in metaphor—paragraphs without a simile or three are a rarity. Barry is a poet and playwright as well as a novelist, and lyricism and drama jostle in nearly all his sentences, many of which are stuffed to bursting. Prose seems the wrong word for what he does; paragraphs unspool like spells, dreamy incantations, words repeated, cadence summoned. A sample plucked more or less at random from his most resolutely rural novel, Annie Dunne (2002): “Oh, what a mix of things the world is, what a flood of cream, turning and turning in the butter churn of things, but that never comes to butter.” A skeptic might dismiss this as a nostalgic ditty with a clunky ending, but as the eponymous Annie knows, “there is a grace in butter, how can I explain it—it is the color we all worship, a simple, yellow gold.” Barry churns and churns, and gold comes out. And so does pitch black. This, from the new novel: “Tar melting in tar barrels, roadmenders. The lovely acrid stink of it.”

Each of his novels stands on its own, but many of the characters belong to two interconnected Irish families, the Dunnes and the McNultys, based on the two branches of his own clan. Ordinary, inconsequential folk in sometimes extraordinary, history-defining circumstances—soldiers, spinsters, policemen, rogues, fugitives, many of them willing or unwilling participants in the Irish diaspora—emerge from what Barry calls “the fog of family.” (More Irish weather!) They themselves are substantial, flesh and blood, but drifts of fog cling to them, the secrets and lies, the hopelessly mixed motives and divided loyalties of kinfolk everywhere. The family connections add a satisfying resonance. Knowing that Annie Dunne is the sister of Willie Dunne, whose hellish sojourn in First World War trenches is the subject of A Long Long Way (2005), seems to give both books greater heft. Annie cherishes the sentimental notion that Willie fought to protect the world of her childhood, “so that everything could continue as before,” a faith painfully stripped from Willie in the mud and gore of Flanders.

Family is rooted in history and place. The epicenter of Barry’s world, his home turf and time, is the early and mid-20th century in Dublin and County Wicklow, hilly countryside about 40 miles south of the capital yet somehow excitingly remote. Many of his characters roam the globe; some turn up in war zones. The painful birth of an independent Ireland and its ugly and confused sectarian struggles always loom in the background of whatever else happens. An exception, the magnificent Days Without End (2017), is set in mid-19th-century America and, weirdly, miraculously, resembles nothing so much as a mash-up of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

Its sequel, A Thousand Moons (2020), is set in Tennessee in the aftermath of the Civil War and narrated by Winona, an orphaned Lakota woman who was adopted and raised by the narrator of Days Without End, Thomas McNulty, and his “beau,” John Cole. New World horrors have proved as fertile to Barry as Old World horrors. He describes Indian War massacres and the Easter Rising of 1916 with equally clinical specificity, and yet there’s something beyond history, beyond war and politics, beyond America’s manifest destiny and Irish independence that animates his novels.

To pinpoint that something is to risk sounding mawkish. Annie Dunne, a “humpbacked woman” whose only brush with romance consists of a foolish fantasy, finds other uses for her load of thwarted passion. A summer spent looking after her young, city-bred grandniece and grandnephew on the tiny subsistence farm in Wicklow where she lives teaches her to see “eternal pleasure and peace in the facts of human love.” The deepest of the “moiling mysteries of the human heart,” human love is Barry’s great subject—love enjoyed, love tested, love betrayed, love annihilated by human depravity and the suffering it inflicts.

Old God’s Time, set in the 1990s in Dalkey, a seaside suburb south of Dublin, cranks into motion with a comically hackneyed premise: a retired detective visited by former colleagues who drag him into a cold case he dreads revisiting. Tom Kettle has had nine months of mostly sitting in his favorite wicker chair, gazing out his window across Dalkey Sound to “stolid” Dalkey Island. The sudden intrusion has “unmoored” him—an “act of terror,” he calls it. A storm is rising outside his modest flat; it all seems a bit overwrought, the air of menace and mystery and guilt thickly laid on. One of the younger detectives brandishes a “rumpled sheaf” of police reports, and Tom seems to know without looking that it concerns historic allegations of child abuse leveled at the clergy. His visceral response: “Ah no, Jesus, no, lads, not the fecking priests, no.”

We learn in due course that Tom, who never knew his parents, was raised in an orphanage run by the Christian Brothers in Connemara. (The institution is unnamed, but we can assume it’s the infamous St. Joseph’s Industrial School, in Letterfrack, where abuse was rampant and extreme.) And we learn that Tom’s late wife, June, was also an orphan, raised by nuns, and repeatedly raped, from the age of 6, by a priest. So, yes, the fecking priests.

We learn that Tom, too, was beaten and “used” by one of the Christian Brothers, information gleaned from hints and asides (“He was the guardian of his own silences, had been all his life”). We hear of June’s trauma from June herself. “Tom, will you forsake me if I tell you?” she asks on their honeymoon. “I’d better say it now.” The words come out in “her smallest voice.” The passage is hard to read, not because it’s graphic, which it is, but because Tom feels her words so keenly. “Now, Tom, now Tom—you love me now, if you can,” she says, and he does.

She also says, “It’s a wonder we’re alive at all, us two.” They raise a couple of children, Winnie and Joe. The family, but most especially his love for June and hers for him, is the source of “immeasurable happiness.” And then, when the children have barely reached adulthood, it’s all taken away, item by item. This is as close as Tom comes to self-pity:

Things happened to people, and some people were required to lift great weights that crushed you if you faltered just for a moment. It was his job not to falter. But every day he faltered. Every day he was crushed, and rose again the following morn like a cartoon figure.

Tom has the Road Runner in mind, and Bugs Bunny, but the epigraph for Old God’s Time is from the Book of Job: “Will the unicorn be willing to serve thee?” God, speaking from the whirlwind, contrasting his omnipotence with Job’s impotence.

The narrative technique (though Barry is expert enough to make it seem not a technique but an organic element of the story) is close third person: Tom isn’t the narrator, but we’re nonetheless in his head, often an uncomfortable place to be. Preternaturally observant—he’s a detective, after all—he has moments of startling lucidity, accompanied by a heightened awareness of the tragic arc of his existence. Here he’s remembering the rhythm of his day when he was still young, his family still intact,

the two babies in their beds and June in their own … Tom would be thinking of the early rise in the morning to get out to the bus, and the long trek into town, head nodding from the broken sleep, and the passing from his character as father and husband into his character as policeman and colleague, a curious transition that in the evening would be reversed, in the eternal see-saw of his life, of everyone’s life. The only thing being missed by him in those moments being the absolute luck of his life, the unrepeatable nature of it, and the terminus to that happiness that was being hidden from him in the unconsidered future.

At times this hyperclarity is almost too much to bear, as when he describes the devastation caused on one Dublin street by the car bombings of May 1974, a particularly vicious episode in the long, sad history of the Troubles. (“Political bombs with personal outcomes” is Tom’s bitter understatement.) A sentence that in its entirety runs to 256 words takes us from the scene as Tom imagines it in the seconds before the explosion to what he actually witnesses as he arrives, galloping in his heavy boots from the nearby police headquarters:

And then the blast, bursting everything known and usual to smithereens, every window in the street blown in in a great cascade, and the bomb debris and the looser items of the street, and the window glass, all turned into weaponry now, against the soft bodies of the citizens, and rending them, and tearing them, and undoing them, till Tom saw more clearly what he had thought were the cuts of meat, black smoke everywhere and the cuts of meat, some of them neatly squared, smoking, blackened, but it was sections of those just recently living souls, oh some still living, a head and a torso with the mouth moving, the eyes open in bloodied faces, and some still whole, in their blast-torn coats, here and there kneeling to the imploring faces, saying words that Tom could not hear, prayers maybe, or whispering.

This is shocking but not gratuitous. The gruesome details foreshadow June’s equally shocking and violent death—not witnessed and, mercifully, not imagined on the page—and remind us that no one, not even poor Tom, has a monopoly on suffering: “There were worse things and worst things.” June, who “survived everything except survival,” dies a death that lies on the absolute grievous end of that spectrum.

A widower for 20 years, retired from police work for nine months, and now suddenly asked to consult on a case that dredges up an obliterating load of grief and guilt, Tom veers into fantasy, a dreamworld so lifelike that the reader will only with difficulty separate Tom’s imaginings from what transpires in reality. The first time this happens, he’s having a drink with his landlord, Mr. Tomelty, and his wife—or so he thinks. He notices that in the corner of the room “stood a unicorn, with a silver horn, or possibly white gold, raising its delicate right hoof, and innocently staring out through quiet eyes. Mr. Tomelty and his missis made no reference to it. It was just there, verifiably.” But we later discover that Mr. Tomelty’s wife died years ago. Subsequent appearances of the mythical beast signal the recurrence of fantasy or a dream sequence: “Mrs. Tomelty’s unicorn was standing on the little beach. Pay it no heed.”

Tom is a victim, a modern-day Job, but he’s also the perpetrator of a crime committed two decades earlier. His fellow detectives might just let him off the hook, but Barry won’t. He once wrote, in an essay about his family, “I am honour-bound to judge them in the round,” and he seems to feel the same about his characters. The doomy first chapters of Old God’s Time are crammed with clues pointing to Tom’s stricken conscience. Looking in the mirror, he sees a criminal: “He had no cheekbones, it was suddenly clear, and his face just seemed like a flat, failed loaf with dirty knife-holes in it. It looked to him like he had had his head shaved in a sort of unconscious gesture of atonement.” The novel’s ending is a dramatic exploration of the possibility of atonement. One cannot say for sure whether his putative redemption is “verifiably” real or fantastical, but there can be no doubt about how Tom feels. The final pages are ravishing.

In A Long Long Way, Willie Dunne listens to a battlefield sermon and has a minor epiphany: “He wondered suddenly and definitely for the first time in his life what words might be. Sounds and sense certainly, but something else also, a kind of natural music that explained a man’s heart or heartlessness, words as tempered as steel, as soft as air.” The ending of Old God’s Time explains Tom Kettle’s heart as truly and well as can be.

This article appears in the April 2023 print edition with the title “Love Annihilated.”

By Sebastian Barry

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