Sebastian Barry: The pride given to you by your gay child is unquantifiable
Celebrated Irish playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry was suffering a bout of writer's block - until a revelation by his son caused a creative epiphany, he tells Joanne Hayden
In 2014, Sebastian Barry and his wife, Alison, were very worried about their son, Toby.
The youngest of the couple's three children, Toby was then 16 and had been quite sad for a year. One morning he came into his parents' bedroom and told them he was gay. At the time, Barry had no idea just how much Toby's communication would affect him.
In 2014, Sebastian Barry and his wife, Alison, were very worried about their son, Toby. The youngest of the couple's three children, Toby was then 16 and had been quite sad for a year. One morning he came into his parents' bedroom and told them he was gay. At the time, Barry had no idea just how much Toby's communication would affect him.
"We had this magical transformation of us, really," he says, "when he [Toby] came out in that incredibly brave way people still have to do - to say it. And it just changed me. He knew who he was his whole life because he's a beautiful and wise person but it sort of transformed me, especially in my work."
The central relationship in Barry's latest, Booker-longlisted, novel, Days Without End, is inspired by Toby. Set during the American Indian and Civil Wars, the story follows Irish Famine survivor Thomas McNulty, as he and his partner, John Cole, create a family in the midst of barbarism and chaos. Barry's son was also the catalyst for his new play, On Blueberry Hill, which premieres in the Dublin Theatre Festival. It's a play that has had a long incubation - Jim Culleton, artistic director of Fishamble: The New Play Company, first commissioned Barry in 2009.
"I spent the next few years with a page on my desk, rewriting the page," says Barry. "And then I asked Jim would he mind if I gave him the money back."
Culleton told him they'd leave it to run as a long bet and in spring 2015 "suddenly the play was there".
"It's my first response, you might say, to our own emergency," Barry says. "Not so much in any way that Toby was gay, but that he was unhappy. Because I think when your young men or women are unhappy, you'd better mobilise yourself in some way and the only way I could do it is in my work."
On Blueberry Hill is a hard play to talk about, he says. "You very much have to receive it as you get it." Its two characters, Christy and PJ - played by Niall Buggy and David Ganly - have been in Mountjoy together for the bones of 20 years. Why and how they're together "is the play". One of them, an ex-priest, has "done something in that Oscar Wilde way: each man kills the thing he loves".
While he might not want to elaborate on the plot, Barry is visibly enthusiastic about On Blueberry Hill. Fishamble is the perfect company for him, he says, and Buggy and Ganly are exactly right for the parts. He's very happy to be working again with Culleton, who directed his play The Pride of Parnell Street in 2007.
"Jim is so ready," he says. "He's like one of those light airplanes; he can go anywhere at any time. Rather than a big heavy jet like the lovely Gate or the Abbey. You need a lot of fuel to get them off the ground."
Over sparkling water in the bar of a Dublin hotel, Barry pulls analogies like these from the air. Some are extended and more colourful and can seem tangential at first but, having gathered momentum, they circle back to make complete sense. It's exhilarating to catch such glimpses of his creativity at play. He quotes Plato as easily as he talks about his morning run, his freewheeling erudition as much a part of him as his sense of humour. Like his close friend the late Donal McCann, he doesn't hold with the word 'career' but early in his writing life he was also a poet and, like with his prose and some of his plays, his conversation has the rhythm and luminosity of good poetry.
There's a lovely capaciousness about him. Intellectual and instinctively literary, he also seems at home in the everyday, material world. He's dressed sharply, in a navy blazer and a light blue shirt - his glasses hang from the front of it. With his goatee and wavy, longish hair, he looks like a writer. Now 62, he references his age more than once; his days without end are behind him, he says.
He may not like the word 'career' but his is an unqualified success. Not only is he a masterful prose stylist, he also knows how to follow what he calls "the great imperative of theatre" - there's no room for a dull moment. He has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice, and Days Without End was on the prestigious competition's longlist but was not among the final six named last week. The book did win the Costa Award last year, making him the only novelist to have won the Award twice - the first win was for The Secret Scripture (2008). His most famous play, The Steward of Christendom, won several prizes including a Writers' Guild Award in the US.
The awards and shortlistings are "a joy", he says. "As a writer, as a human being, as a son, as a father, as a critter alive, as the consequence of a certain leap in Homo sapiens, supposedly brother and cousin to Australopithecus, to hear occasionally your editor - What is an editor? What is a book? What is a publisher? What is civilisation? - ring you up and say you're on the shortlist for the Costa..."
He rises to a crescendo, takes a breath. He was driving along a back road to Gorey, on the phone to his daughter, Coral - the MMA boxing correspondent for Metro Online - when the same editor at Faber rang to say Days Without End was on this year's Booker longlist.
He relishes these moments and has known their opposite: poverty, struggle and the occasional controversy, such as the one his play Hinterland - partly based on the life of Charlie Haughey - caused in 2002. If being in the running for the Booker brings a certain level of torment, "it's the best sort of torment going". But after 40 years of writing, he also takes a much longer view.
"At the end of the day, it won't amount to a hill of beans except obviously it's your relationship with your readers that matters. If people keep reading your books, that's a good thing. If they don't, that's also not such a terrible thing. You die and it all vanishes away and that's fine too. Why not? Since the whole kit and caboodle is going to vanish ultimately anyway, apparently, when the sun cools and all the rest of it."
Philosophical though he might be about prizes, his work obviously matters a great deal to him, but his cornerstone is clearly his family. He and Alison, a screenwriter, live in a restored rectory in the Wicklow Mountains. It's where they raised their children - Toby and twins Coral and Merlin. As he talks openly and movingly about parenting, the strength of his bond with his kids is clear. He used to bring one child at a time on his American book tours. "We'd never row or anything; it would be so lovely."
He didn't expect to be a father or married, he says, or even to make a living, and when his children were young he was usually there, working in the house. With the twins, it took "four hands to change nappies". The unconditional love of the young child for the parent, and vice versa, came as a "deep, deep shock".
"That is my wealth as a human being," he says. "On that my reputation rests as far as I'm concerned: the good word of my children, if I should gain it - and if I should lose that, I would have lost everything, ultimately."
From an outsider's point of view, it's difficult to see how he'd lose it. In the run-up to the marriage-equality referendum in 2015, he wrote an impassioned letter to The Irish Times ("the default reaction of the elderly, Catholic, white Irishman") in which he advocated a 'yes' vote, not as a "matter of tolerance, so much as apology". When he'd finished the letter, he asked Toby to read it. "He's a tough hombre; he's a considerable person and he cried, and I thought, 'Well, that's probably all right, then,' so we sent it off."
He loves the phrase 'gay pride', "but the pride given to you by your gay child is unquantifiable", he says. And he has additional reasons to be grateful to Toby - his son gave him something new to write about.
In Days Without End, the relationship between Thomas and John Cole, and the young Sioux girl they informally adopt, is beautifully rendered. Though he's immensely likeable, Thomas occupies a morally ambivalent position, being both a witness to and a participant in massacres of his surrogate daughter's people. As is the way with so much of Barry's work, the story shaped itself around something he heard in his childhood.
Barry grew up in Dublin, mainly in Monkstown. His father was an architect - and drinker. His mother was the actress Joan O'Hara, a member of the Abbey Players, who appeared as Eunice in Fair City. As a boy, he shared a room with his maternal grandfather, who would tell him stories "with all the important stuff removed, all the secrets... but if my grandfather was leaving everything out, my mother was, in another part of the house, putting everything back in... There was enough going on in the family then that she could have been attending to, but she was very interested in the secrets of the past."
He talks about his childhood with a degree of reticence. Does he still hear his mother's voice telling the stories?
"You know, I'm sad to say I don't. That does genuinely make me sad because she is nine years dead." He stops to reflect.
"God forgive me, she would ring up, you know, my mother. This is the story of many a son. And I would know her stories, so I would know when she started on a certain track where she was going with that, so I would quietly put the phone down and do something more useful... and then I'd pick it up, I'd recognise where she was, so her voice was sort of perpetual... Do I hear her voice? Just in the sense that sometimes I wonder if she isn't still around somewhere, ready to ring. It hardly seems likely that Joan O'Hara is actually dead."
Several ancestors have featured in Barry's fiction as members of the Dunne and McNulty families and, in imagining the stories of their lives, he has often excavated neglected parts of Irish history. A comment about the incarceration of a great-aunt in a psychiatric hospital sparked The Secret Scripture. His storytelling grandfather is the model for Jack McNulty in his novel The Temporary Gentleman. The real Jack - Jack O'Hara - fell out with his grandson for taking true stories as raw material. Barry's father was also wary and once, following a funeral, instructed Barry's sister not to tell her brother about a piece of information they had just learned.
"The Pat Garrett school of literary criticism," he says. "And all very understandable and fine. I certainly was unstoppable anyway. That's the key to the whole thing: don't be stopped. Because God knows you could have a bag of reasons, you could have an elephant's scrotum full of reasons, not to do it but I never paid any heed to them."
When he discovered what his father and sister had learned at the funeral - a story about his paternal great-grandmother - he used it as the basis of his play Prayers of Sherkin.
The single-mindedness and arguably the courage with which he pursued his work are also evident in his choice of subject matter. He "certainly didn't want to go to the First World War in any shape or form," yet did so thoroughly and vividly in A Long Long Way. Like the earlier novel, Days Without End is epic in scope, the grace and lyricism of the writing in stark, unsettling contrast to the horrors described.
When his grandfather mentioned an ancestor who had fought in the Indian Wars, it stayed with Barry. As he researched that period of American history, he saw similarities between what had happened to the Native Americans and what had happened to the Irish during the Elizabethan Conquest.
"No nation is founded on much else than probably erasure and genocide if you look back far enough," he says, "but the extraordinary thing about America is that that's only in the 1800s."
He became friends with the writer and champion of Native American rights Peter Matthiessen, who sent Barry his book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. "What Peter was saying was that America may have great attributes or not - let's not use the word 'great' these days - but it should not forget what it's predicated on. And all the efforts that historians make - popular culture makes - to forget it, not acknowledge it, to change it, transmute it into something else like heroism or Custer's Last Stand are ultimately misguided... and you'd better acknowledge that your country was based on a grand larceny, a grand erasure of an entire world of people."
He thinks the legacy of the Indian Wars is that "a lot of Americans, in their psyche, have a feeling of 'the enemy in the trees'. And they see them everywhere. Now, it might be the Iranians or it might be the North Koreans, but it's that feeling that there's people in the trees who are going to come and swoop down on the farm."
Because of when it's set, as well as the sensitivity and raw intelligence of the narrative voice, Days Without End is extremely relevant to America today. Having thoroughly researched the Indian and Civil Wars, Barry found Donald Trump's pre-election rhetoric eerily familiar.
"Nothing he said hadn't been said before, but the difference is that few people were recognising the repetition of it. It seemed like he was saying something new but actually he's playing to a force that's been in American life forever."
In his view, Trump doesn't want America to be like the 1950s: "it's more 1840s, 1830s. Pre-Famine really would be ideal for Donald Trump, because it's before those pesky Catholic Irish hordes came and swamped across Canada and North America."
Trump wants to destroy, he says, whereas Thomas McNulty wants to create. As does he, though he's aware that language isn't sufficient to explain what happens when he writes. Receptivity is key. He remembers Seamus Heaney always being in position, "ready to receive the signals". The signal stopped for Barry for poetry, but he still doesn't write a word until he can see, hear and identify a character clearly.
"It's important to have all sorts of strategies to avoid the catastrophe of imagining for one second that you are writing it," he says. "That would be fatal."
And with that - having moved from Cromwell to Tennyson to the restoration of the old rectory, barely touching on his developing interest in quantum physics - he's off, late for a haircut.
'On Blueberry Hill' runs as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival from September 27-October 8 in the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire; see dublintheatrefestival.com