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Sunday 22 September 2019

Writer Sebastian Barry: The book that changed my life and helped me leave Ireland


Irish playwright, novelist and poet Sebastian Barry was enthralled by Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' novel
Irish playwright, novelist and poet Sebastian Barry was enthralled by Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man' novel

Jonathan deBurca Butler

To ask any book to change your life would be a major request, but I suppose a book could do that just as soon as a person. I think this book (Portrait Of The Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce) certainly overwhelmed me. I was something of the age that Joyce was writing about when I read it.

I was maybe 20 or 21 and I was reading English and Latin at Trinity College Dublin.

I'm sure it must have been assigned to us.

The only book of his that I knew was Dubliners which my mother loved and I had read that as if it were an actual transcription of life. He produced life in front of your nose but at that age, 15 or 16, you don't really realise the magic of that.

Portrait Of The Artist as a Young Man is Joyce's first novel and traces the intellectual awakening of a young Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's fictional alter ego. It is a raw book.

It's perfectly composed but there's no wild urgency to it at the same time. I read it in what is called the New Square, in Trinity.

There were small trees planted there, maybe myrtles, and I remember standing under one of those trees on a summer's day for shade and reading it from start to finish.

It was like being teleported somewhere else, maybe Joyce's head, which was never a comfortable place to be because it was such a troubled head.

I got that violent feeling of being possessed by the book but the overwhelming part of it, the significant part of it for me, is towards the end when he talks about creating a conscience of his race and leaving.

There's the suggestion of mail boats and having to go away. That had a huge effect on me, almost to a ridiculous degree.

It was as if your own ticket for the mail boat was being issued by Joyce and you must shortly leave.

And I did leave, after my degree.

It seems ludicrous now but it was very serious to me. I remember being on the mail boat with my then girlfriend, the two of us in the prow of the ship like in Titanic and leaving Ireland; passing all these Joycean places, Dalkey Island, Sorrento Road and indeed where I grew up as a boy in Monkstown.

Drifting away on the wine dark sea, the boat thronging and being with her never to return. I was fulfilling, in a way, the end of Joyce's book.

Of course, I was back a year later and have been back and forth since as many have been but that's what that book did for me, it made me feel like I had to go.

I think to be a writer you've got to remove yourself somewhat from all sources of toxicity and, in that sense, I'm grateful to him because I understood that and he got me out.

There is an element of the metaphysical about it too. It's about putting yourself physically where the rest of your body can function, or have a chance to function, without present difficulties or childhood stuff that you have yet to work out.

It's a quicker road to that essential and hard-won calm that you need as a writer.

It's not emotion recollected in tranquillity but tranquillity has something to do with it.

Distance was important and I have Joyce and, in particular, this book to thank for that.

Sebastian Barry, award-winning writer and newly appointed Laureate for Irish Fiction, will be discussing the theme of home in his work with Catriona Crowe at the Galway International Arts Festival on July 21. Booking from www.giaf.ie

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