Untangling family roots

By Stephen Jewell

Dublin-born Sebastian Barry, who is visiting Auckland in May for the Writers & Readers Festival, says the subtle connections between his works were arrived at purely by chance. Photo / Supplied
Dublin-born Sebastian Barry, who is visiting Auckland in May for the Writers & Readers Festival, says the subtle connections between his works were arrived at purely by chance. Photo / Supplied

Irish author's books have teased out his ancestors' 'intricate web of secrets'.

Talking to Sebastian Barry is like digging up the roots of his family tree. I only have to ask the Dublin-born author about his most recent book, last year's On Canaan's Side, and he branches off on a tangent about his grandparents or his youthful road trip across America.

But, from his 1995 play The Steward of Christendom to his 2008 Costa Award-winning novel The Secret Scripture, most of his stories have been thinly veiled biographies of those closest to him.

"It shows how terribly one-minded I've been, always writing about the same people," says the 56-year-old. "In a way, they all tie in together because they're about the two sides of my family that didn't unite, as it were, until my parents married, so they kind of swim around in that great pool of relatedness.

"There are still some unwritten books, which will hopefully remain so when the two strands join together, but in that sense they'll all turn out to be related at some point in the future."

Scheduled to visit Auckland in May for the Writers & Readers Festival, Barry was last in New Zealand in 1996 when The Steward of Christendom was staged in Wellington at the International Festival of Arts.

"I was enchanted by the place ... I suppose it was that usual thing of it being so far away but so familiar."

Based on the experiences of his great-grandfather, the book told the story of police officer Thomas Dunne, whose daughter, Lily Bere, is the central protagonist of On Canaan's Side.

Cutting between the present and the past, as the 89-year-old widow looks mournfully back upon her life and the events driving her to move from Dublin to the United States just after World War I, Barry has filled in many missing facts with his own fictions. "In all honesty, I have no idea what happened to Lily when she went to America," he says of his great-aunt, who also features in The Steward of Christendom under her nickname, Dolly.

"I did see the real woman once in the 1960s when she came back to Ireland for a few days.

"That's invaluable to me because you can give them everything you have, such as all my travels in America, my feelings about America and the things I've seen there. One spends an incredible amount of time in America as an Irish person and an Irish writer. That was one of the great pleasures of doing the book."

According to Barry, the subtle connections between his works were arrived at purely by chance. He cites the example of his 1990 play, Prayers of Sherkin, which was inspired by his great-grandmother, a former Quaker who was shunned by her own community after she married Barry's great-grandfather.

"She was the mother of my grandfather, who I adored, but he never spoke about her," he says. "I had to find out about her and it was kind of thrilling to retrieve her. I couldn't exaggerate the excitement of doing something like that because there's a kind of wickedness to it. It's been so many years now but it does surprise me that there's this accidental web of plays and novels. If I'd intended to do that, I think it would have been quite a different matter altogether."

Barry recalls how, as a child, he once loudly referred to an elderly woman's prominent facial hair, much to the fury of his grandfather. "There's a bizarre vindication in somebody saying the unsayable and the books and the plays are like an extension of that," he says.

"In my family there was such an intricate web of secrets ... it created such mayhem, sometimes benignly and sometimes not so.

"In Ireland, we've lived in a kind of institutionalised web of secrets with the clergy and the Government and to stop people from speaking has been the job of many oppressive governments around the world in the history of our lifetime."

But not everyone has appreciated his efforts. "You do take a terrible risk with it, but the only time I've come a cropper with it was with my other grandfather," says Barry. "He was a major in the British army in World War II and quite innocently I wrote a book based on things that I knew about his life, that my mother had told me. He took grave offence to that book and we had a row over it.

"We never spoke again, which is mostly my fault. I suddenly realised that you can be offensive in absolutely the wrong way."

Barry's next book will explore Ireland's non-aligned status in World War II. "There was so much censorship at the time that people almost lived through those years forgetting there was a war on," he says.

"That was interesting to me because 20,000 men were going off to fight in the war and were then returning and changing out of their uniforms on the boats because you weren't allowed to wear them in Ireland ... This place ... was acting as if nothing was happening while all around them U-boats were causing mayhem to shipping, including Irish shipping. Then, when you think of the horror of what was happening in Europe and in the aftermath of the war, you think, 'Jesus, what were we doing being neutral?'. I just want to write about that."

Sebastian Barry will appear at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, Aotea Centre, May 9-13.

- NZ Herald

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