What Makes a Great Writer

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

THE LIVES OF THE SAINTS. By Sebastian Barry. Faber 2022. 119 pp. h/b. €13.20

In 1990, Sebastian Barry was the youngest person elected to Aosdána, one of Charlie Haughey’s best gifts to Ireland. In 2019, he succeeded Anne Enright as Laureate for Irish Fiction, a three-year position, a role in which he was followed by the current Laureate, Colm Tóibín. This book is the result of one of his laureate duties. It consists of three lectures, each about one hour long, the first two delivered in the Gate Theatre in Dublin, the last one online due to Covid.

Barry was born in 1955, so it is useful to place him in the line of 20th century Irish writers. The early century featured people like Yeats, O’Casey, Joyce, Beckett, Padraic Colum, Maurice Walsh, Walter Macken; the mid-century was Flann O’Brien, Seán O Faoláin, Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Anthony Cronin, Edna O’Brien; the last third was people like Roddy Doyle, Dermot Bolger, Jennifer Johnston, John Banville, Joseph O’Connor, Colm Tóibín. Of course, some of those covered more than one era, but Sebastian Barry belongs to the end of the century.

The ’Saints’ in the title of the book are people of significance to the author in his personal and professional life. The first was his great-aunt Annie, ‘a woman with a hunchback and therefore in the mistaken and cruel thinking of her youth, considered unmarriageable’, who gave her name and character to his second novel Annie Dunne. Others who helped Barry’s career included people like Val Mulkerns, James Plunkett, Anthony Cronin and Benedict Kiely (‘Tony’ and ‘Ben’ respectively, in Barry’s telling). He writes too about Thomas Kinsella and Tom Murphy and Philip Casey, names not as well known, but a reminder to this traveller of what could never be replaced by occasional book gifts from family or book review requests from media outlets.

The second lecture is devoted almost in its entirety to the actor Donal McCann. One of the drawbacks of living outside Ireland is that you miss the theatre. The author’s mother was an actress, as was/is his wife and the opening pages of this book reveal that while he himself is the author of eight novels and three books of poetry, he has also written 14 plays. Internationally, he may well be best known as the writer of The Steward of Christendom, based loosely on one of his great-grandfathers, the chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in the troubled years between 1913 and 1922.

The lecture describes in some detail how McCann was persuaded to take the main role in that play and the many stages in rehearsal and pre-production.

The job as he saw it was not to have an opinion about Thomas in any shape or form, but to become him. To become him without grace or favour, without regret or condemnation or judgement, even though in his personal politics Donal’s identification was entirely with the working person, the so-called common man or woman, and the radiant citizen, and indeed the workless person.

The play was originally produced in a 60-seat upstairs theatre in London; a private English company brought it to The Gate theatre in Dublin and from there it took off, literally, around the world, including to Australia. This year, it has been revived in The Gate, after which it moved to Cork and Limerick. After the New York production, Newsweek called McCann ‘one of the greatest living actors.’

The third lecture possibly suffers from the absence of the live audience which applauded the first two so enthusiastically. It is devoted mainly – devoted is probably not the correct word – to his own family. His paternal grandfather was associated with the rebels in the 1916 period, though the author does not know whether he was part of any action. He won a scholarship to study painting in London and ‘taught drawing to ungrateful pupils in the Technical College in Ringsend.’ All his life he spent in rented accommodation and even when his son, the author’s father, offered to buy a house for him, he did not want it. The other grandfather was an officer in the British army during the Great War, working as a bomb defuser and rising to the rank of major.

There were problems in both sides of his family, but these are hinted at, rather than described. What is understandable, however, is how a great deal of the people in his background seem to feature in one of his novels.

Sebastian Barry is one of Ireland’s great writers, that adjective in no way out of place. I have most of his novels on my shelves and if you do a search under his name in Tinteán.org.au, you will find reviews of many of them. In the meantime, this little masterpiece is enthusiastically recommended.

Frank is a member of the editorial team of Tinteán.