By Joseph Hurley
With and sometimes without the permission of his relatives, living and dead, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry has steadfastly climbed the branches of his family tree in search of subject matter for his stage works and, most recently, his prose.
"The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty," his second novel, is the latest outpouring from the 43-year-old Dubliner. In New York recently to promote the book, the affable, lanky author, handsome in an unimposing sort of way, linked his characters to the blood relations who served as their inspiration.
"Eneas McNulty is based on my great-uncle," he said. "I never met him. He died some years before I was born." That errant great-uncle isn’t the only family member about whom Barry has written without actually having had the benefit of personal encounters, depending instead on the tales he heard at family gatherings.
"The Steward of Christendom," the best-known of Barry’s plays, was based on his great-grandfather, a police chief at Dublin Castle half a century ago. The title character, played toweringly by the great Donal McCann, had suffered for his loyalty to England, and, in the view of Irish nationalists, been considered something of a traitor.
At the heart of his recent play "Our Lady of Sligo" is a relentlessly unflinching portrait of the author’s grandmother Mai O’Hara, who died two years before Barry was born.
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"If she is the darkest person I have written about, she is also the one I have thought about longest," he said. "When I sat down to make a play in 1986, I thought it was going to be this one. Yes, Mai is the darkest, but in the darkness of her journey, which began indeed so brightly, she has to me the considerable status of a traveler to the heart of personal disaster, a traveler, moreover, who did not come back."
The author initially thought of "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" in terms of the stage. It would have been the sixth, and probably the last, of a series of plays whose material was mined from the experiential lode of Barry’s family.
The writer found the great-uncle on whom Eneas was based "unreflective," and therefore less than ideally suited to the theater.
Barry considers his great-uncle to have been a "stateless" individual, a man who had become a seaman in the English Merchant Navy because he had experienced trouble getting work in Ireland. Like the disintegrating hero of "The Steward of Christendom," Eneas McNulty is viewed in some quarters as a kind of turncoat, because of his involvement, albeit reluctant, with the Crown.
To compound the complexity of his situation ,Eneas, after his tour of duty as a merchant seaman, joined the Royal Irish Constabulary, making it virtually inevitable that he will be seen as an enemy of the cause of Irish independence.
As if to underscore the point, when Sebastian Barry read from "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" some weeks ago before an overflow crowd at New York University’s Ireland House, he chose a tense passage in which a childhood companion warns Eneas that unless he leaves Ireland, he might easily be assassinated by nationalist forces.
In the new book as in both "The Steward of Christendom" and "Our Lady of Sligo," Barry seems to have an impulse toward redeeming individuals who have suffered unsettled and unsettling relationships within their families, men and women, in fact, who had been reduced to the status of virtual outcasts.
The playwright’s work is not always relentlessly sober. There are elements of humor here and there, and one early play, "The Only True History of Lizzie Finn," could be said to be an outright romp.
In the first production of "Lizzie Finn," a play that has yet to be seen in the United States, both Joan O’Hara and the writer’s wife, Alison, appeared, playing, respectively, a kind of rural dowager and her incipient daughter-in-law, the titular character.
The mere idea of having your mother and your wife in the same play might make a good many writers ponder long and hard, but not Barry, who credits his wife with having been responsible for his thinking in terms of writing for the stage again, after a few early, unsatisfactory efforts.
"Alison went to London to do something for the BBC and I decided I’d try to write a play while she was away," he said. The result was "Boss Grady’s Bays," which the Abbey Theatre produced in 1988, with veteran actor Eamon Kelly in the leading role.
Barry and his family live three-quarters of a hour’s drive from central Dublin. The couple’s youngest child, Tobias, was born in June of 1997. Their elder children, fraternal twins named Merlin and Coral, came along in November 1992.
The girl, Barry admits, was "sort of" named after the late Australian-born star Coral Browne. The writer denies that naming his son Merlin might put him under unusual pressure to be magical. "If he turns out to be mundane," he said, "then he’ll just be a mundane Merlin. Besides, there are lots of strange names going around these days."
None stranger, perhaps, than Eneas, the name the author gave his novel’s troubled, peregrination hero, at least partly to acknowledge the link between "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" and the Roman poet Virgil, whose "’neid" sports a roving central figure resembling Barry’s protagonist in more ways than one.
It isn’t Virgil, however, whose name had been mentioned most frequently by early reviewers writing about "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty." The name most frequently conjured up is that of James Joyce, like Sebastian Barry and Eneas McNulty, a Dubliner.
"Joyce does tend to come up," the author admitted, "particularly here in America, in places like literary services such as Kirkus. I have noticed that. They say things like, ‘Seventy years later, another Irishman has made use of an epic.’ I would regard that as fair comment, but at the same time, Joyce and O’Casey and the rest of them are the birdsong for us younger writers. It’s what we heard in the trees. There’s no getting away from it, and why would you want to get away from it?"
But the debt Barry owes Joyce and others isn’t the whole story. "At the same time," he said, "I have spent 21 years listening very specifically for the thing that is in my head, and if I were to be asked why I’m proud of this book, it would be because I listened intently for this man’s voice, and made this book, as honestly as I could, to honor that voice."
The novelist read Virgil’s "’neid" 20 years ago, but the tie between that work and Barry’s isn’t as simple as it might seem.
In search of a name
"The reason he’s called Eneas McNulty is quite a different thing," Barry said. "I was looking for a name. I was hoping for a name, because I knew I couldn’t call him Charles O’Hara. In ‘Our Lady of Sligo’ the people are called by their real names, and although Jack O’Hara is the brother of this man that I now call Eneas McNulty, I couldn’t use his name because Eneas had to erase his own life in order to survive, and because his family then further erased his life to hide the fact of him, I just couldn’t call him Charlie."
Barry remembers with particular clarity the moment he arrived at the name Eneas McNulty. "I was lying on the couch one night, after putting the kids to bed, having a glass of wine, in a kind of literary state of mind, absolutely exhausted, watching the news, where a report came on of a car accident in the Midlands somewhere. There was a witness, an ordinary laboring man of the district, but his face had a force for me, and his name came across the screen, Eneas McNulty. Then it was gone, and he was gone, and the news was gone, but I had my name."
The author had never heard the name Eneas used in any literary sense, but he knew it could be found in Cork and elsewhere. "A little hedge schoolmaster somewhere must have put the name out among the country people," he said.
"A Virgilian epic is a kind of echo of the Greek epics and the Greek epics are a sort of stationary echo of oral stories. That’s the connection. Everything is an echo of everything else, and that doesn’t make it unoriginal. That’s the importance of literature, that you’re singing back down through time. I think forms in literature are integral to the human creature. These things are receptacles that belong to us just as much as our hearts do. Or our livers. They’re reflections of some innerness of ourselves. You’re singing back down through three-and-a-half million years, into the very heart of things. My job was to listen. That’s my feeling about influence in literature."