The Irish historian Roy Foster was recently asked to explain one of the great riddles of world literature. How was it, the interviewer wanted to know, that a sparsely peopled island on the margins of Europe had managed to produce such a hoard of canonical writers? At a bare minimum, the list would have to include Swift, Sterne, Yeats, Wilde, Shaw, Synge, Joyce, Beckett. Though how could you fail to mention Flann O’Brien? Or Frank O’Connor? For that matter, what about Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor, and Seamus Heaney? And this is to say nothing of the extraordinary crop of living talent—from Edna O’Brien to Sally Rooney—whose accustomed toil continues to enrich the tradition.
Instead of reaching for grand theories to account for this remarkable literary surplus, Foster did that very Irish thing: he told a story. One summer, he said, he’d been on holiday in County Kerry when the trunk of his aged Volvo became jammed. At a nearby garage, Foster asked the mechanic if he ought to take the car back to the dealership. The mechanic didn’t think so. He gave the trunk a good whack with his wrench, and just like that it sprang open. “In matters like this,” the man said sagely, “Volvo dealers wield no special magic.”
For Foster, the words were a small but irresistible example of Irish English, the unusually pungent dialect, or set of dialects, native to his homeland. Because English was imposed on Ireland over hundreds of years of colonial rule—it had all but replaced the indigenous tongue by the late nineteenth century—the Irish have never entirely made peace with it. “His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech,” Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus thinks, of his English dean, in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1916): “I have not made or accepted its words.”
What Joyce and his countrymen did do was to remake English, molding the language of the ruling élite into something beguilingly subversive, an unstable compound of familiar and foreign. If you want to understand Irish literature’s extraordinary richness, Foster suggested, the special magic of everyday Irish speech is a good place to start.
Few contemporary writers have done more with the natural resource of Irish English, or with the buried tensions at the heart of Irish identity, than Sebastian Barry, who made his name as a playwright before emerging as one of Europe’s leading novelists. To open one of Barry’s books is to be hit by a great gale of talk. In “Days Without End” (2017), the talker is Thomas McNulty, who has fled the Great Famine of the eighteen-forties and come to live in the United States. For want of other work, McNulty joins the Army, where many of his compatriots have also wound up. “You know a Irishman because he has it writ all over him,” he says in his vividly skewed English, which he has acquired only since arriving in America. “He speaks some other way and he is not a great man for hair cutting generally and there’s something about a Irish when he is drinking that just ain’t like any other human being. Don’t tell me a Irish is an example of civilised humanity.” If you’re Irish, of course, so-called civilized humanity may be more a term of abuse than of approbation.
Barry was born in Dublin in the nineteen-fifties, a few years after the newly declared Irish Republic severed its last remaining formal bonds with Britain. Back then, the young nation had a copper-fastened sense of itself as a land of Catholic piety and tradition, the home “of a people living the life that God desires that men should live,” as the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera put it in a famous speech. This people worshipped not only God but also their own past, in particular the men of 1916, who led the Easter Rising against British rule, and the larger cohort who finished the job in the War of Independence (1919-1921). By the time Barry was a child, the revolutionary era, with its large cast of heroes, had already hardened into myth.
Like all national foundation myths, the Irish one was necessarily partial (in both senses of the word), and the goal of Barry’s fictional project has been to nuance and augment it. This has often involved telling the stories of those written out of Irish history, or included merely as cartoon villains. Barry hasn’t had to look far to find examples of such figures. His paternal great-grandfather, a Catholic, was a chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police during British rule, which in the eyes of Irish nationalists made him the worst kind of traitor. In Barry’s play “The Steward of Christendom” (1995), set in the early nineteen-thirties, a decade after Irish independence, he appears as Thomas Dunne, an enfeebled, Lear-like old man, who babbles of his vanished prestige in a rural psychiatric home. The play isn’t out to rehabilitate Dunne, who was responsible for vicious repression; it does want to rehumanize him, to show that he believed he was only doing his duty.
The Dunne family has been a deep well of material for Barry. He went back to it for his astonishing novel “A Long Long Way” (2005), which tells the story of Thomas’s son, Willie, who volunteers to fight for king and country in the First World War. An innocent boy of seventeen, Willie is unprepared not just for the horror of the trenches but also for the deracinating identity crisis that follows the Easter Rising, whose leaders called on Germany and the other Central Powers (“Our gallant allies in Europe”) to help them oust the British from Ireland. If the rebels consider the Germans their allies, Willie wonders, then what does that make him?
It is typical of Barry, a writer of almost Joycean amplitude, that this essentially tragic tale should be packed with moments of comedy and joy. In the midst of death, Willie and his comrades are very much in life, singing and joking and telling stories. Willie is a gifted singer who has made a specialty of Schubert’s aria “Ave Maria.” The sergeant major of his company, a high-spirited man named Christy Moran, repeatedly asks him to sing it for the men, though he can never quite get the Latin title right: “For fuck’s sake and the love of God, would you give us your ‘Half of Mary’, please.” Moran’s world-class swearing is one of the book’s great pleasures. “The fucking cunting thing is after biting the thumb off me,” he says when he cuts himself on a piece of barbed wire during a night patrol, “the fucking bastarding cunting piece of English shite.” (That piquant “is after biting” is the Hiberno-English way of forming the past tense.) The company captain is quick to shush him:
Moran’s joke is double-edged. He clearly does speak English—a more colorful English than most Englishmen speak—but, like Stephen Dedalus, he is never quite at home in the language. What’s more, there were many Irish veterans who came back from the killing fields of Europe to discover that they no longer felt at home in their own country. Like the Americans who served in Vietnam, these men were given a hero’s sendoff but returned (those who made it back alive) to find themselves the objects of suspicion or contempt. The brutal British crackdown following the Rising had transformed the national mood; there was no place in Ireland’s emerging self-conception for men like Willie Dunne. “How could a fella go out and fight for his country,” Willie thinks bitterly, “when his country would dissolve behind him like sugar in the rain?”
All Barry’s characters find themselves wrong-footed by history in this way, caught between identities in a no man’s land of indifference and neglect. Tom Kettle, the protagonist of Barry’s latest novel, “Old God’s Time” (Viking), is no exception. Kettle is a retired policeman living alone in a coastal Dublin suburb during the mid-nineteen-nineties. As we slowly come to learn, Kettle spent his childhood in an orphanage, where the boys were serially raped by the Christian Brothers who ran the place—or, in Kettle’s understandably squeamish poeticism, “put to the sword of their lust.” Such institutions were full of the children of “fallen” women, from whom they were often separated at birth. The mothers (Kettle never knew his) would be confined to the so-called Magdalene asylums, where they provided free labor for the local community. The system was nothing less than an Irish Gulag, its inmates nonpersons, placed beyond the pale of citizenship.
“Old God’s Time” shows how Kettle made a narrow escape from this state-sanctioned hell into the blessed normality of middle-class life. The escape came at a cost, though. As a police officer, Kettle was forced into complicity with the system that brutalized him. “Girls fleeing from laundries, children fleeing from orphanages, all had to be returned,” he recalls of his days on the force. There was no law dictating this; it was just how things were done in a Catholic nation that valued social “harmony” above individual rights. To challenge the status quo was to jeopardize one’s precious place within it.
This state of affairs persisted until the nineteen-nineties, when the Church began to lose its theocratic grip on the state. It was a time of reckoning in Irish public life, and Kettle soon finds himself caught up in it. At the start of the novel, his solitary existence is disturbed by an unannounced visit from two former colleagues. They want to know what he can tell them about an unsolved case he worked on in the nineteen-sixties, involving two priests accused of sexually assaulting children. One of the pair was murdered, and the killer has never been found; the other got off scot-free when the Archbishop of Dublin declined to take action and the matter was dropped, but new evidence has now emerged, and a conviction appears within reach.
Such an opening seems to prime us for a piece of high-end genre work, but this is just the first of Barry’s feints. It’s not that he’s uninterested in the procedural dimension of his story, which generates its share of action and suspense; he simply has other, less conventional, ambitions. These are signalled by the novel’s epigraph, which comes from the Book of Job. With his horrific childhood, Kettle would seem to have endured more than enough pain for one lifetime, but his creator has further trials to inflict on him. In the years before the novel opens, Kettle has lost his wife and two adult children to an escalating sequence of tragedies and now subsists on a diet of fantasy and nostalgia. Like Thomas Dunne, in “The Steward of Christendom,” he isn’t merely a social outcast; he is also metaphysically divided, adrift between past and present, the imagined and the real. His daughter, Winnie, who died of a heroin overdose, is always dropping in to chat; pages of conversation go by before he grasps that he is simply talking to himself.
Other spectres haunt the book. Kettle lives in a Victorian mansion that’s been divided into flats. One of these has recently been occupied by an actress and her young son. The first time Kettle meets his new neighbor, who is going by her maiden name, Miss McNulty, she tells him she’s in hiding from her violent husband. Kettle, who keeps a gun or two lying around, vows to protect them.
Barry’s artistry is such that you can read almost the entire book without realizing an essential fact about Miss McNulty and her son: they are ghosts, of a kind. This aspect of the novel doesn’t lend itself to paraphrase, but certain details appear to suggest that Kettle’s neighbors are apparitions from the nineteen-sixties—or that Kettle himself has somehow stepped back thirty years into the past. As “Old God’s Time” wears on, it reveals itself to be a Möbius strip of a book, in which the “real” plot, involving Kettle’s old investigation, is slowly superseded by this paranormal one. The effect is peculiar, and it leaves the reader with an urgent question: What in God’s name is going on?
Our natural impulse is to psychologize Kettle—to see the imperilled mother and child as projections of his unspooling mind, a way for him to metabolize the guilt and impotence he feels over the death of his own family or the innocents whom he failed to rescue in his years of police work. This account doesn’t quite square, though. Readers of Barry’s novel “The Temporary Gentleman” (2014) will recognize Miss McNulty as Maggie, the daughter of that book’s narrator, Jack McNulty, who has appeared in other works by Barry and also makes a cameo here. (Maggie and Jack are descendants of Thomas McNulty, from “Days Without End,” and are based loosely on Barry’s own mother and grandfather.) In other words, Kettle hasn’t simply dreamed these people up; they seem to have an existence independent of his thoughts.
Barry is fond of the notion, often credited to Einstein, that time is illusory. “Everything is always there, still unfolding, still happening,” the aged narrator of his novel “The Secret Scripture” (2008) says. Many writers, from Jorge Luis Borges to James Cameron, have explored the narrative implications of this theory, with results that tend toward the fantastical. What’s striking about “Old God’s Time” is the scrupulous realism that Barry brings to his outlandish premise—and his guileful refusal ever to clarify what kind of novel we are reading. The effect is one of bracing instability, as we are forced to partake of Kettle’s own confusion. Are his seeming gifts of transtemporal perception some sort of cosmic recompense for everything he’s suffered, like God’s voice speaking to Job out of the whirlwind? Or is he simply in desperate flight from what Yeats once called “the desolation of reality”?
In the end, the best way to understand Kettle may be as an eccentric portrait of Sebastian Barry, a writer of historical fiction who has described himself as a sort of human radio, picking up frequencies from the long ago. In “Old God’s Time,” those frequencies carry the music of Kettle’s abundant inner life. Like Willie Dunne and his comrades, Kettle remains, in the midst of untold anguish, a “very living man,” intensely receptive to the world and its marvels. Barry’s casually exquisite prose, capable of lyrical expansion but always firmly rooted in the dialect of the tribe, seems to capture them all. It gives us the “roast-beef skin” of a man’s face, and a woman’s garnet necklace, the stones “held tense on her lined neck, like insects on the very point of dispersal.” It gives us a view of the sea through a rifle scope, “the cormorants right in front of his nose, it seemed like, and the very barnacles on the black rocks, and the heavy skirts of dark-brown seaweed, shrugging in the late tide.” It gives us the sky on an overcast day:
In such passages, Barry gives us his “Half of Mary”—a great demotic aria to existence, which, for all its grief and abjection, he sees as something full of grace. ♦