Sebastian Barry was born on 5 July 1955 in Dublin and educated at Trinity College, Dublin.
His academic posts include Honorary Fellow in Writing at the University of Iowa (1984) and Writer Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin (1995-6). His early plays include Boss Grady's Boys (1990), which opened in 1988, and won the BBC/Stewart Parker Award. His play The Steward of Christendom (1995), was first staged at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in March 1995, an 'Out-of-Joint' Production with Donal McCann in the title role, subsequently transferred to Broadway. It won the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, the Ireland/America Literary Prize, the Critics' Circle Award for Best New Play and the Writers' Guild Award (Best Fringe Play). Sebastian Barry also won the Lloyds Private Banking Playwright of the Year award in the same year. Our Lady of Sligo (1998) was joint winner of the Peggy Ramsay Play Award, and was seen off-Broadway, and Hinterland, premiered at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and the Royal National Theatre, London in 2002. Whistling Psyche (2004), and The Pride of Parnell Street (2007), are two interweaving monologues. His latest play is Tales of Ballycumber (2009).Barry has also written poetry, including the collections The Water-Colourist (1983) and Fanny Hawke Goes to the Mainland Forever (1989); a novel for children, Elsewhere: the Adventures of Belemus (1985); and short novels, Time Out of Mind/Strappado Square (1983).
His novels include The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998); translated into seven languages; Annie Dunne (2002), set in Wicklow in the 1950s; and A Long Long Way (2005), shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, and winner of the 2006 Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award.
Sebastian Barry lives in County Wicklow, Ireland. His recent novel, The Secret Scripture (2008), was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and winner of multiple awards, including the 2008 Costa Book of the Year Award, the 2009 Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year and the 2009 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction). It also won the 2010 Irish Book of the Decade Award. His latest work, On Canaan's Side, was published in 2011 and shortlisted for the 2011 Hughes & Hughes Irish Novel of the Year and the 2012 Walter Scott Prize.
Sebastian Barry’s overriding concern is with recovering those parts of Irish history that have been forgotten or displaced by official, particularly nationalist histories.
Drawing heavily on the experiences of his own family, his choices of subject matter, including most notably a long running interest in the displacement felt by Catholic middle-class loyalists in the early years of the Irish Free State, are often awkward and unfashionable. He has said that he didn’t intend to locate forgotten characters of history ‘But by the accident of being born in Ireland into families who had lived in Ireland through this past century, everywhere I looked I found people mired in history.’ The Guardian (11 October 2008).
Barry’s preoccupation with the lost stories of Catholic loyalism in Ireland has proved irksome to some nationalist critics, and he has been seen by some as a historical revisionist operating through the medium of fiction. Though his work varies in form between novel, short story, drama and poetry, a device common to most of the texts is the weaving together of separate narrative strands and voices. This method of composition questions commonly accepted accounts of historical episodes and locates his work on the intersections between family and national histories, and fact and fiction. The frequent reappearance of minor characters from previous works as main characters in new works (and vice versa), offers further suggestion that Barry’s writings constitute an ongoing, openended project, the creation of a polyphonous alternative history of Ireland through the excavation and reworking of fragments from family history.
Barry established himself as a writer in the early 1980s, publishing collections of poetry for adults and works of short fiction for children, though these distinctions are questioned by his predilection for generic experimentation. In the short novel Elsewhere: The Adventures of Belemus (1985) the adventurous fantasies of the eponymous Dublin schoolboy are rendered in a series of chapters which demonstrate an ability to move between numerous fictional modes including the detective story, Dickensian urban fairytale and a cinematic cowboy and Indian adventure. The importance of place in Barry’s fiction can also be seen in the way that these episodes are mapped onto named streets and areas in Dublin: in later works, notably the novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), the town and landscape of Sligo begin to exert a clear hold on Barry and his characters, anchoring the lyrical and mythical dimensions to his work by locating his fictions in named and real places, as can be seen in the repeated appearances of Sligo’s Café Cairo. The use of dramatic voices in the complex and rhetorically sophisticated early collection of poems The Rhetorical Town (1985) hints at Barry’s future career as a dramatist with a tendency for extended speeches and monologues, and his next collection, Fanny Hawke Goes to the Mainland Forever (1989) shows further movement in this direction, consisting of poems of experience recounted by a series of enunciated narrative personae.
Barry’s first full length work of fiction was The Engine of Owl-Light (1987), which loosely weaves together the stories of six different fictional historical characters in one volume, using six distinct narrative strands. Each strand stylistically reflects its protagonist, so that the tale of a medieval Irish chieftain is related in Middle English and that of a young man’s growth to adulthood displays clear echoes of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The result is a complex and frequently confusing collection of meta-fictions, in which Barry’s characteristic engagements with questions of history, language and nationality become somewhat lost in a narrative hall of mirrors.
With Boss Grady’s Boys and Prayers of Sherkin in 1990 Barry began what would become a series of six plays “looking for the lost, hidden or seldom mentioned people in one Irish family” as he wrote in the notes to the fifth in the series The Steward of Christendom (1995) with which he achieved international success and widespread critical acclaim. The family, of course, was his own, and would go on to populate two further novels: Annie Dunne (2002); and A Long Long Way (2005), both also based on the fragmented histories of his antecedents. Chief amongst these is Barry’s great grandfather Thomas Dunne, an officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police under British rule, fiercely loyal to the Empire of which Ireland was an anomalous part. Prevented from achieving highest office due to his Catholic faith, following Irish independence he was denounced as a traitor and lived as a pariah, ending his days a broken and tormented Lear-like figure in a county home in Wicklow, the setting for the memory play The Steward of Christendom.
Annie Dunne depicts in turn the autumn years of one of Dunne’s three daughters (and Barry’s great aunt) in 1950s Wicklow, plagued in her own old age with resentment at the treatment of her father under the new regime, whilst the hugely successful A Long Long Way takes as its hero his son Willie, another Irish servant of the crown in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the Western Front during the First World War. On leave in Dublin during the Easter Rising of 1916 Willie is drawn into the battle with the rebels and is wracked with sympathy for a young insurgent shot and dying in a doorway. Perhaps more tragic than Willie’s inevitable eventual fate at the Front is the alienation from his loyalist father resulting from Willie’s ambivalent expressions of sympathy for the rebels, constituting an impassioned plea on Barry’s part for the value of communication to both family and nation. As with earlier literature of the First World War, the poetry here is in the pity.
Barry’s 2002 play Hinterland, which unusually features contemporary Irish politics, and includes a barely disguised representation of controversial former Taoiseach Charles Haughey in the character of disgraced politician Johnny Silvester, provoked a critical storm focusing on the similarities between the two. However, Barry himself has insisted that his main aim in the play was to explore the troubled relationship between Silvester and his disturbed son Jack, for whom the factual counterpart was Barry’s own brother rather than Haughey’s son. The effects of the failure of the relationship in the play suggests that personal neuroses (Silvester describes himself at one point as ‘the father of the nation’) are inseparable from the body politic, and once again demonstrate Barry’s concern with the interplay between family and national history.
Following the incongruous monologic and highly topographical play, The Pride of Parnell Street (2007), which uses Ireland’s loss to Italy in the 1990 football World Cup as a springboard to relate a harrowing tale of domestic abuse on a Dublin North Side, left behind by Ireland’s 1990s boom years, Barry published the novel The Secret Scripture in 2008. A masterful return to familiar themes, it tells the life story of 100 year old Roseanne Clear, a peripheral yet pivotal character in the earlier novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, incarcerated for most of her adult life in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital – it seems as though Barry sees Ireland’s mental institutions as repositories for much of the nation’s lost history. The narrative is divided between the secret, lyrical memoirs of Roseanne and the journal kept by her psychiatrist Dr Grene as he investigates her past. Another of Barry’s Irish historical outsiders, as a working class Presbyterian from Sligo, Roseanne subverts the Republican trope of the nation as old woman, whilst her great age enables him to chart traumatic episodes in the birth of the Irish nation as they relate to one 20th-century life.
Guy Woodward, 2008