The 50-year wait to find a voice
Sebastian Barry tells our reporter how a passing remark by his grandfather was the slow-burning inspiration for his second Costa prizewinning novel
The most important bird in Irish literature is not in fact the curlew with its haunting call. Nor is it the wild swans of Yeats' vision. It is the small robin that comes and sits on the handle of Sebastian Barry's garden spade and sings the only song it knows how to.
"That's his proper song," Barry explains, "as the Romans would say, his 'proprius'. You're looking for the birdsong of a character, and the only way you can do that is by sitting as still as you might with a bird so you don't scare it out of the garden."
The Wicklow institution is referring to the ghost of Thomas McNulty, the antebellum protagonist of Days Without End. This rollicking, at-times horrific historic novel has just won Barry the Costa Book of the Year for an unprecedented second time.
Much of this is unquestionably down to the fireside tones of its central narrator, a voice that is one of the great incantations in English literature of the last few years. A Sligo famine refugee who enlists to fight in the US Civil War alongside his same-sex lover, Thomas, bends his limited 1850s lexicon into strikingly vivid shapes, a writhing creature in itself that has the ability to stop you dead in the middle of a paragraph for a few moments. The Costa judges duly described the 61-year-old's seventh novel as "a miracle".
Like most of Barry's creations on both page and stage, Thomas germinated from the writer's genetic material. A remark his grandfather made in passing bedded itself into Barry's boyhood mind. It referenced a long-lost great-great-granduncle who fought in the American Indian Wars. Barry wanted to flesh-out this mythical relative, and positioned himself for the voice to come through him.
"I'd been thinking about him for 50 years. I sat very still and patiently in the work room for about nine months," Barry recalls, matter of fact. "I also did a lot of writing about him and the Irish famine which was not very helpful, ironically - it wasn't him telling me anything.
"And then suddenly one day, from where I do not know, came that opening sentence," he continues, switching on a southern drawl. "The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake. It was the fact he said cake instead of biscuit that alerted me to the possibility it was really him. It was my responsibility then to stand out of the way and let him do it."
He is aware that he sounds like his mother, the fondly remembered Abbey stage legend Joan O'Hara who he says was "a great believer in séances, which I am not". "But there is something in it in that you're looking for somebody maybe who nests in your own DNA. It's an impossibly complicated unknown world, so why not?"
On a half-year sabbatical in London (where journalist daughter Coral resides) with wife Alison, Barry is absorbing to listen to as he rummages through anecdotes and observations on everything from house prices to Jim Sheridan's starry film adaptation of his previous Costa winner, The Secret Scripture. He'll be in Australia when the film comes out later this spring and looks forward to "witnessing the fruits of other people's efforts".
Of his own efforts, he claims to have read "two to three hundred" books while researching Days Without End, and joins the dots silkily between non-fiction and what emerged the other side. Civil War battles and harrowing Indian massacres. The Auschwitz-like conditions Union POWs were held in. The way the "famine copyright" stamp on his Irish outlook kept noticing famine and hunger turning up in American history.
"Imagine how angry you'd be already by the small matter of losing your entire future and family in the famine and then being thrown on to this new continent which you knew nothing about. You might even be speaking Irish and not English.
"There were tens of thousands of very angry young Irishmen out on those battlefields and Thomas describes running against Confederate troops who are shouting the same Irish war cries he is. Personally, it's a bit dismaying but as a novelist, it's just crazily thrilling to try and get a hold of some of those things."
He checks himself with an uneasy chuckle. "I'm almost confessing that to you, Hilary, because some of it is quite inexplicably dark. I mean almost beyond words."
You can say that again. There are passages of Days Without End, as Thomas and his partner John Cole participate in "ferocious" acts of ethnic cleansing by the US Army or endure trench misery during the bleak Civil War, that are sobering. But there are extraordinary phases of beauty and bemusement too.
When Thomas and John are married after the war by a blind preacher, Barry explains, it is based on historical accounts. Thomas explores cross-dressing and gender fluidity. Out of the horrors the two men see, they adopt a young Indian girl called Winona whom their actions have orphaned and she becomes a reason for being for Thomas. Barry never lectures but he smuggles these themes in under the radar.
"We used to be bedevilled by people like the Catholic Truth Society, telling us 'the family' was everything and being gay was wrong so there was an element of a heartening wickedness for me to write this truly vivid, viable important-in-its-unimportance, family. Thomas's sense of achievement was in making this family unit. That is what we do - we try and make some sort of island of family in the storm of life. He's telling us he not only survived all of this, he also drew something important out of it which is his love for John Cole and his urgent care for this young Sioux girl. In this world of live or die or stand or fall, that seemed admirable to me."
Robins and research and voices from the past are all very well, but Barry cites "the absolute minutiae of love", of his children and theirs for him, and of wife of 30 years Alison, as being the largest influence on him ("You cannot write truthfully or piercingly about life without it also being an act of love"). At the very core of Thomas was the coming-out of his youngest child, Toby. It was a relief to the family after he had been showing signs of unhappiness, which for young men in this country is a serious worry. Barry is proud of an Ireland that voted in a referendum for people like Toby to stand proudly in society.
"They talk about gay pride - well, I think there was straight pride that day. It was not just 'oh, now we're tolerant', it was getting to the level where it was perceived as a radiant and important part of life that this was a group that actually had a magnificence and an importance for everybody to see, and, to some degree, emulate and learn from. We don't need a lot of prompting as a people to celebrate something that's true and true-hearted. I love that about us."
It didn't prevent Toby getting abused on a train a few weeks on from the Marriage Referendum after he had kissed his boyfriend goodbye, Barry seethes, punctuating the sorry anecdote with the exact same "goddamns" Thomas uses in the novel. This is presumably all part of the "wonderful turmoil" and "flowing cup of life" he gushes about in reference to parenthood of twins Merlin and Coral, and Toby. The idea of children, let alone marriage, was once an alien one for Barry because he didn't think a writer could realistically support a family.
We are talking just a few days after a Sunday Independent news story about Donal Ryan returning to his job as a civil servant has forced a conversation both sides of the Irish Sea about the publishing industry. Barry comments cautiously that while Ryan is relatively new on the publishing scene, he can "absolutely understand and respect what he is doing" and that "sometimes you just have to do the thing that makes you feel like your children are safe".
"It's that very moment where you're children are small," he says, "when your reputation is high but there's an extraordinary gap between reputation and ostensible earnings, and it's bridging that gap with something like the tax exemption. Also, I was 33 when I became a member of Aosdána. My children were born a few years later and without that Cnuas [a five-year annuity currently valued at €17,180 per annum], I don't think I could have had kids.
"People do what they have to do," Barry shrugs. "As long as the books aren't prevented from issuing forth. I suppose Donal just happens to have written three or four amazing books. He's almost like a Joseph Conrad, all his books are the same level of immaculate conception, so it'd be well worth a couple of senators forgoing their pensions and throwing them his way instead. I'm only being mischievous now, but you know what I mean. He deserves it. The age will partly be remembered for him."
The age Barry refers to in these closing moments of our interview is the renaissance of Irish fiction which he has spoken of as a "revivifying" force to his own craft. He smiles at the thought of being Kevin Barry's "honorary uncle", and emits a gasp at the very idea of Lisa McInerney ("this woman who has a microchip of energy in every sentence").
"The level of accomplishment almost immediately…" he says, struggling. "It must be the better diet in the 80s or 90s or something…
"So yes, you've got to pay huge attention to everything around you, not only the robins in the garden but the other birdsong that comes across the hills to your house."
Days Without End is published by Faber and Faber, €13.99