On Canaan’s Side Teacher’s Guide

By Sebastian Barry

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry


Questions and Topics for Discussion

“We may be immune to typhoid, tetanus, chicken–pox, diphtheria, but never memory. There is no inoculation against that” (p. 83).

How much suffering can the human heart endure? At eighty–nine, Lilly Bere’s heart has experienced enough tragedy to truly test—and arguably surpass—its limits. Her beloved grandson, Bill, has just killed himself, and Lilly decides to follow suit. Yet she “cannot do such a terrible thing without explanation” (p. 7) and takes pen to paper to chronicle the events of her incredible life.

Lilly is the youngest child of James Patrick Dunne, chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police under the British regime. Widowed at Lilly’s birth, James never remarries and raises his four children—including Annie, Maud, and Willie—on his own. Lilly adores her formidable father, but as she approaches adulthood and learns about the charged relationship between Irish nationalists and their British rulers, she soon realizes that many of their neighbors and countrymen view him as “the enemy of the new Ireland” (p. 42).

Lilly’s brother, Willie, further diminishes the family’s standing among Irish nationalists by enlisting to fight for the British during World War I. Like so many of his generation, Willie never returns from the trenches. Instead, Tadg Bere—Willie’s friend and fellow soldier—arrives in Dublin, lured by stories of Lilly’s beauty, and begins to woo her. Tadg and Lilly might have found happiness in another place and time, but jobs are scarce and the ex–soldier is compelled to take the only work available: policing with the despised Black and Tans, an auxiliary police unit employed to suppress revolution in Ireland. When the IRA issues death sentences upon them both, the young couple flees their homeland and boards a ship bound for America.

Virtually penniless upon reaching Chicago, Tadg tells Lilly, “We have each other . . . That will be our kingdom” (p. 61). Their American story is, however, not to end happily. Over the coming decades, Lilly is by turns a beggar, servant, beloved wife, struggling mother, and surrogate parent to her ill–fated grandson, Bill. When Lilly becomes too frail to work, her longtime employer, Mrs. Wolohan, beneficently grants her a rent–free cottage on the shores of Long Island. The Wolohans are a politically prominent family of Irish–Catholic heritage who recall the Kennedys and—like Lilly—are devastated by events beyond their control. Ostensibly, Lilly’s narrative is intended for Mrs. Wolohan and their novelist friend, Mr. Dillinger. But the seventeen days following Bill’s death allow Lilly finally to contemplate the vicissitudes that swept her up in some of the twentieth century’s greatest upheavals and strained her immense capacity for forgiveness.


Long–listed for the Man Booker Prize and winner of The Walter Scott Prize, On Canaan’s Side is Sebastian Barry’s fifth novel and his third sojourn with the Dunne family. In prose both exquisite and humane, one of our most esteemed writers introduces an extraordinary heroine—“a bird that . . . existed in an epic landscape” (p. 14)—in a tale that is genuinely vast and heartbreaking.


Q. You first introduced Thomas Dunne—a character very similar to James Patrick Dunne—in your play The Steward of Christendom. Thomas Dunne was based on your great–grandfather, who was, in fact, named James Dunne. Would you say that your writing is driven by a desire to understand your family’s past and their place in history? How much of your work is autobiographical?

I suppose the first impulse was to try to solve a disorientation I felt myself as a person in my own country. But the second was purely novelistic: here was a group of people not much discussed by their own descendants, for various reasons, sometimes just the ordinary forgetfulness we all are subject to when we die, but also for other complicated political reasons, and religious. And in being unmentioned, naturally the true histories of these people fall gradually away. But a novelist can come and try to retrieve them, even if only by largely making them up. If you do it long enough, the difficulty is to try to remember what you invented and what was actually real. Given that the real is a slippery fish to begin with.

My books could be said to be autobiographical in that I often give my characters things from my own experiences, making them their experiences, if for no other reason than that this is often the only thing I have to give them. So that Thomas Dunne’s childhood in the play The Steward of Christendom is largely my own, in the same place but a very different time.

Q. This novel encompasses Ireland’s Troubles, but also America’s Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam and Gulf wars. Were you ever intimidated by the scope of what you set out to narrate in this novel? What sparked you to engage with so many important moments in the twentieth century?

Writing a book is always, well, not quite intimidating, perhaps overwhelming is the word. The big wave of the unwritten book stands over you as if poised to fall. You have to find a way to surf that wave but at the same time to describe it in all its mathematical complexity—on the wing, as it were. Oddly enough, the pins of history in the novel, such as the Dust Bowl, helped me greatly, rather than hindered, because the other challenge in writing a book set over a lifetime is knowing not only where the character is, but also where you are in the making of the landscape. Nothing exists till you write it down! The Vietnam War, which is a smallish part of the book in a way, was the war my generation in Ireland “experienced” one way or another, but of course didn’t experience, because we were far away in Ireland, picking up only the signals and traces of its hardships, tragedies, and terrible ambiguities. I hitched around the United States when I was seventeen, and in every little town were those young men at street corners, veterans of a war, and yet little older than myself. I have never forgotten them. I would say that anything mentioned in the book, the American things, are the things I have thought about for a long, long time—heart things. It was a sort of unexpected if secret pleasure to be, temporarily, unofficially and no doubt dubiously, an American writer for a while, in that sense.

Q. Tadg and Lilly visit the Art Institute of Chicago, “where for nothing at all, not two cents asked, you could see room after room of paintings, windows of beauty, he called them” (p. 73). Do you view novels in a similar way? How, if at all, does visual art inspire your writing?

The scene that happens there in the novel was, for me anyway, a crucial one. I had to go to the trouble of writing it from the shooter’s point of view, in a little radio play called A Play with Two Joes in it. I had the same experience looking at the Van Gogh painting myself—just a sense of the artist’s continuing presence near his painting. And because Tadg thinks he looks like the painting, he is stilled by it, and his attention is claimed by it. A novel is a whole world, and it is invented very like a painter invents a picture, or series of pictures. If you learn to paint, as I did myself as a young man under the guidance of my painter grandfather, you have to understand that what you mark on the paper will only make visual sense when the viewer is standing some six or ten feet from the painting. So the close–in work is not the actual painting, but the marks that will suggest the painting in the viewer’s mind. This is quite useful for writing, or rather rewriting. Many details may be interesting in themselves, but have to be taken away, because in the end they muddle or distort the actual picture itself.

Q. Mrs. Wolohan’s mother—a third–generation Irish woman—hires Lilly because she wants an Irish cook. Lilly writes, “people love Ireland because they can never know it, like a partner in a successful marriage” (p. 127). Why do you think it is that Irish Americans, in general, feel such strong ties to their homeland?

Why do Irish people feel such a bond with Ireland? Why do Americans feel their bond with America? There is an Irish saying, “The calf returns to where it got the milk.” Love of country is somewhat inexplicable and maybe even unavoidable! But yes, then there is the bond that immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants, feel for the country they left behind. The bond between an Irish American and Ireland is I think a very complicated, sometimes mysterious, thing. It may depend on when their ancestors left, maybe during the famine, or during the period after independence in the 1920s—half a million left Ireland during the fifties and sixties, for instance. Considering the traumas involved, considering the actual country they left, it is really remarkable, and in the final analysis admirable, that this love of Ireland dominates the Irish American memory.

Q. After Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mrs. Wolohan’s unnamed brother are assassinated in 1968, “Ed said it was the death of hope, and many people said that too, everywhere you went” (p. 204). As a young person in Ireland, how did the cause of Dr. King and the news of his death affect you? Do you believe the feeling of despair from the shooting’s aftermath still lingers?

It is a truism that everyone remembers when John F. Kennedy was shot. I was a little boy in London, where my father had sought work. I came home from school and my sister was weeping. She was I think six and had maybe never heard of JFK. I was four. I was soon weeping myself. The sequence of ferocious murders that happened in America during the sixties had effects that touched everywhere. Sometimes you have to ask, how could that have been? How could the best hearts alive in that time, from Evers to Dr. King and beyond, have been murdered? Who thought that was a good idea? What caused it? What is the shape of human hope now, after it has been so assailed? What alteration was made in the very DNA of hope and has it been altered back? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was so blatantly a good man, clearly one of the best men that ever lived. To eradicate that goodness, which was a gift to the earth and so utterly essential to the age—what sort of impulse was that? Where does that impulse reside now?

Q. Twice in the novel, a volume of Homer is given as a gift. What affinity do you feel to this early storyteller? Is Lilly an Odysseus figure?

An earlier novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, was very, very loosely modeled on The Aeneid by Virgil, which I read while studying Latin at Trinity College Dublin. It of course was written as a sort of founding myth for Rome. Homer did the same for Greece, or rather his work was used for that. I didn’t take Greek at college, so all my Greek reading, such as it was, was done through English. The handing of a book from one person to another always seems to me to have magical properties. You don’t give a book of no value to yourself. The book you chose also in some way represents how you feel about the person you are giving it to. By giving Lilly this book, the finest book ever written, Mr. Dillinger is expressing his respect for her, just as Mr. Eugenides does the same by giving the book to Bill, although in that instance it is also being given as a talisman against hurt and danger in war. Of course, Lilly, like Eneas and his namesake Aeneas, is a wanderer, but unlike Odysseus there is no question of her ever being able to return home.

Q. On Canaan’s Side is your third chronicle of the Dunne family. Between Annie Dunne, A Long, Long Way, and On Canaan’s Side, which novel do you feel closest to? Would it be wrong to expect Maud’s story next? Or are you working on something entirely different now?

Maud was my actual grandmother, and strangely enough I have never had much of a fix on her in my imagination. She died when I was two. When I was born, though, my mother was unwell, and I was given to Maud for the first six weeks, so she must have been the first person I bonded with. This occurred to me only recently. A sort of lost mother, as well as a grandmother. I don’t know if I will ever be able to write a book about her, or for her. But I still have a couple of these odd family books to write, I suspect. The other two novels already written are about the McNultys, which would be the other side of the family, as they say. For symmetry if nothing else I might have to go back to them.

  • Most of Mr. Dillinger’s family died in Dachau. Why do you think Barry chooses to contrast this information with Lilly’s more recent tragedy?

  • When the Dunnes are moving into Dublin Castle, Lilly contemplates “the Wicklow lighthouse when at last it turns in its great arc towards you. What use was the lighthouse’s light to those on land, I never knew” (p. 19). What does the lighthouse symbolize?

  • Besides his own image, what is it that Tadg sees in Van Gogh’s self–portrait?

  • Did Cassie suspect Joe’s secret? If she had, would she have approved of his relationship with Lilly?

  • As Lilly and Joe drive past the Bellows’ house, Joe says, “the past is a crying child, that’s for sure . . . but it will all be made up to him in the coming times” (p. 141). How do you read his statement in light of later events?

  • Why do you think Barry includes the story of Mr. Dillinger’s visit to China?

  • Why is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination more poignant because it’s “on Canaan’s side itself” (p. 203)? How does the novel’s title affect the way you read the events it relates?

  • Do you think that Lilly will go through with her plan to kill herself? How would you feel if she did or if she didn’t?

  • On Canaan’s Side interweaves Lilly’s deeply personal story with major historical events. How did this narrative technique affect your reading of the novel as well as your understanding of the twentieth century as a whole?

  • Have you read Annie Dunne or A Long, Long Way? How does this novel fit into that trilogy? If you haven’t already, are you compelled to learn the rest of the Dunnes’ story?
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