In the beginning, Dr. William Grene’s interest in the almost impossibly old woman is merely professional, tinged perhaps with a hint of curiosity. Roseanne McNulty, one hundred years old, was one of the most beautiful girls in County Sligo, Ireland, in her youth. She has been confined in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, where Dr. Grene is the senior psychiatrist, since the days of World War II. Now, in compliance with a change in government policy that has decreed the closing of the hospital, Dr. Grene is evaluating the facility’s patients to make dispassionate recommendations about which ones are mentally fit to resume life in society. As he interviews Roseanne to determine her mental state his neutrality evaporates. Reluctant to cooperate but curiously compassionate toward him, the ancient woman impresses him as “a formidable person,” and indeed she is. Cleverly, carefully, she keeps the doctor at bay, denying him access to the deepest secrets of her past.
All the while, however, Roseanne is at work on a personal narrative of the very facts she withholds from her doctor—the “secret scripture” of the novel’s title. Over a period of years, holding almost nothing back, she has patiently recorded the details of her preconfinement life, including her father’s ill-starred attempt to give comfort to a band of Irish rebels, a cataclysmic fire at a local orphanage, and the descent of her mother into derangement. Her narrative becomes a chronicle not only of her deep emotions, but also of a turbulent era in her nation’s history, from the upheavals of the Irish civil war to the German bombing of Belfast during World War II. It also speaks personally and poignantly of the struggles of Roseanne’s Protestant family to live a peaceful, unmolested life in the midst of religious prejudice. Slipping continually into her story is a dark and ominous specter: a Catholic priest named Father Gaunt who is committed to preserving the perceived purity of his flock and the values of his religion, even if it means destroying the lives and families of those who hold dissenting views. As Roseanne scribbles out her testament, Dr. Grene also prepares a journal, intended at first to contain his professional findings but soon expanding to contain his reflections on history, the human condition, and the failure of his relationship with his wife. Gradually, the two lonely diarists forge a bond, which, in the end, proves far closer than either could possibly have imagined.
A finalist for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and winner of the Costa Award for Best Novel, The Secret Scripture encompasses not only some of the most painful episodes in Irish history, but also delves deeply into the emotions of love, passion, and soul-destroying prejudice. Casting doubt upon the reliability of human perceptions and, indeed, the very nature of truth, it also upholds the possibilities of dignity and redemption.
A native of Dublin, Sebastian Barry was educated at Trinity College Dublin, where he edited the highly respected literary magazine Icarus. He first received widespread attention as a playwright, earning broad acclaim for The Steward of Christendom and generating controversy with his stage satire Hinterland. In recent years, he has won an enthusiastic following with a series of historical, familial novels dealing with World War I and its aftermath in Ireland: The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Annie Dunne, A Long Long Way, and, most recently, The Secret Scripture. The last two novels were shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Mr. Barry lives in Wicklow, Ireland.
Things have indeed changed in Ireland, not only with new roads of tar and light, but also stranger, thinner roads back into the past. Ireland is a comparatively new country and it has taken a while to grow up in a sense. One of the fruits of that grown-upedness is a fresh hunger for the past, stories of the past that may have been glossed over and then forgotten, a hunger to know that vanished soldier who fought in an unpopular war and was an ancestor, or a woman put away for “moral” reasons into an asylum who was perhaps a great-aunt. So Irish history is both fading and becoming more vivid, all in the one phase of present history. There is a lack of need for it, and in the same breath a greater need. The troubling legacies of Irish history are the music of that history, in a strange sense to be not only dragged into the light, but also, by doing so, “celebrated,” dark as they are. They are the strands of the rope that leads us down from the dark tower.
Q. Some writers and historians revisit troubled times in search of resolution and catharsis. Others turn to them out of a need to relive their passion and horror. What motivates your ongoing engagement with the Anglo-Irish War?
My main concern in the last twenty-five years has been to go back and find members of my own family who were not talked about for various reasons, forgotten, quietly erased. Like all mortal creatures you find them, like ourselves, mired in history. Many of the people I am after happen to have lived through the ’20s and ’30s. My grandfather for instance was born in 1902, my mother in 1930, etc. For a novelist it has a huge advantage in that many of the intricacies and contradictions and tragedies of the time were, for even good reasons sometimes, smoothed out, simplified, and now can be teased back into a more likely and, to my mind, fascinating complexity. Of course, that very teasing out creates its own distortions I am sure.
Q. While the events in Irish history that form the backdrop of The Secret Scripture are no doubt familiar to your domestic readership, most Americans are likely to be less informed about the Irish civil war, the Black and Tans, and so on. They may also be surprised by the savageness of the passions that divided Ireland in the times you describe. Is there anything you can briefly tell us to make the historical situation more comprehensible?
Believe me, many Irish people find the long tangle of twentieth-century history quite perplexing, and hard to string out on a necklace of facts. I do myself! What is sometimes forgotten is that the nineteenth century, while it contained a struggle against imperial rule, also contained a struggle between physical force nationalism and constitutional nationalism, the former in large part winning, but that three-pointed struggle informed the subsequent history. The sequence is World War I (sometimes this is left out!), rebellion in 1916, war of independence 1919 to 1922, treaty 1922 leading to formation of a free state within the commonwealth, civil war 1922 to 1923, rise of DeValera to power 1932 (he was the losing side in the civil war), then a slow progression away from all residual links with England, eventually leading to establishment of the Republic of Ireland as late as 1949. This is all Roseanne’s time.
The savagery of the civil war was such that it was hardly mentioned in our history books when I was a child and we as a nation have only recently been able to bear to look back at it. But the facts of the war deeply informed political life, and created two hostile strands in Irish political life, though the roots of the hostility were thus strangely and very tragically hidden.
Q. In your novel, the work of Sir Thomas Browne matters greatly to Roseanne. Given that not all your readers will know about Browne, can you tell us something that explains Roseanne’s attachment to his writings?
He is a chronic favorite of my own. I have the very book she possesses in the novel on my desk as I write this, down to the date and the edition. He is a matchless and entirely unique writer and worth a look, and worth giving a certain amount of allegiance to. The nature of his prose informs Roseanne’s first attempts at writing her “scripture.” Browne, an elaborate Stuart writer, frees her into her own simpler style.
Q. Although you are an established novelist, you may still be best known as a playwright. For you, how does novel writing differ from writing for the stage, and has your proficiency in one genre helped you to master the other?
I really and truly am not sure I know what established is. In the theater you are only as good as your last play, which is one reason why I love it. It is like the circus in that respect, and who didn’t want to run away with the circus? There may be more dialogue in my novels than in my plays . . . but what plays have taught me is perhaps an inevitable lesson, that the voice can contain worlds, and also, the voice on stage cannot miss a beat. This is something that can at least be attempted in a novel, which in its English tradition has been allowed to be “baggy” (in a good sense), capacious. But the Irish novel is trying to cultivate a different cut to its trousers.
Q. Your work tends to explore the fine line between sanity and insanity, seeming sometimes to deliberately blur and question the distinction. Why does this engage your attention so forcefully?
My great grandparents actually did work in Sligo Lunatic Asylum, as the tailor and the seamstress. There has been mental illness in my family also, and sometimes a life has been lived along quite a fine line. My own brother, whom I loved above all things when we were young, has suffered in this way. My mother, who died a couple of years ago, was a great actress and a great eccentric.
Q. Much of the injustice that is visited upon Roseanne comes at the hands of Father Gaunt, whom her father initially calls a “good man” but whose intolerance destroys Roseanne’s happiness. Do you regard Gaunt as representative of the Catholic Church as a whole or as a tragically misguided individual?
In A Long Long Way I was privileged to write about a good priest in the person of Father Buckley, who ministers to the dying men and boys at the front in World War I. Just a few years later, independence gave a lot of power to young priests in Ireland, and in my view it didn’t do some of them much good. I think some readers may recognize Father Gaunt. At the same time the genesis of the character is actually in my own family again, in that one of my cousins was auxiliary bishop of Dublin under Archbishop McQuade (very conservative), and I wondered what sort of young man he might have been. I do see Father Gaunt also as a victim of the times, but some readers have chided me for this. They want his hide.
Q. Roseanne’s fate is truly horrifying but not all that uncommon for young Irish women who gave birth out of wedlock or were abandoned by their husbands during this time. Was Roseanne modeled on any particular person?
On a great-aunt, who was sectioned perhaps in the ’30s, and had her marriage annulled, and disappeared. I still don’t know her true name. It seems she was the piano player in my great-uncle’s band and full of life, and beautiful. Perhaps that was her crime.
Q. The Secret Scripture as a whole is concerned with unreliability, whether the uncertainty has to do with memory, with human motives, or the act of writing itself. Your novel describes a search for truth. Given the nature of memory and storytelling, do you think this is achievable?
No, hardly, but what might be achievable is a preference for one sort of misapprehension over another, for gentleness over cruelty, no matter how backed up with fact, for mercy over torture, etc. Mental health to me is not factuality, though it may contain it, but the music of being alive, contained and expressed in many ways, including the sounding and rightness of syntax and language, which is after all our birdsong, our signal to each other and to whatever God or gods might take an interest in us.
Q. Your books and plays are often linked together by characters and families that appear in more than one of them, like the Dunnes in The Steward of Christendom, A Long Long Way, and Annie Dunne. You do this again with Eneas McNulty inThe Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and The Secret Scripture. What does this say about you as a writer?
Well, that I stumbled into twenty-five years of work without quite knowing what I was doing. As the poet Patrick Kavanagh said, I “dabbled” in this act of writing, and “found it was my life.” I have tried to make up a family, a kind of ramshackle history, and perhaps even a tin-plated country, in order to be a son and a father in it, and a citizen of that invented place. What has given me joy as a writer is that against all the odds sometimes readers seem to recognize the place.
Q. You have now been shortlisted twice for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Has this changed your life and the way that you work? In what ways?
The Man Booker has been an adventure, especially as I was shortlisted for consecutive books, which is rare enough. It was a privilege to have that adventure, part of which is endurance naturally, but mostly a sense that there is a little more space in the room to swing the cat. The winning of the Costa Book of the Year in January 2009 was also a shock and has been celebrated in Ireland in a way that really has moved me. But I still work the same way—that is, in the same confusion and worry and doubt, and sometimes, if I may say, inexplicable joy when a long, long theorem of a book or play just for a moment, just for a moment, seems to intimate an answer.