Barry, Sebastian 1955-
BARRY, Sebastian 1955-
PERSONAL: Born July 5, 1955, in Dublin, Ireland; son of Francis (a poet and architect) and Joan (an actress; maiden name, O'Hara) Barry; married Alison Deegan (an actor), May 4, 1992; three children. Education: Trinity College, Dublin, B.A., 1977. Hobbies and other interests: Horses, American pool under Irish rules.
ADDRESSES: Office—27 Longford Terrace, Monkstown, Dublin, Ireland. Agent—Curtis Brown Ltd., 4th Floor, Haymarket House, 28-29 Haymarket St., London SW1Y 4SP, England.
CAREER: Writer. Honorary fellow in writing at the University of Iowa, 1984; writer-in-residence, Abbey Theatre (member of board of directors), Dublin, Ireland, 1990-91, and Trinity College, Dublin, 1995-96.
AWARDS, HONORS: Irish Arts Council bursary, 1982; BBC/Stewart Parker Award, 1988, for Boss Grady's Boys; Writers' Guild Best Fringe Play award, 1995, Critics' Circle Best Play award, and Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize, both 1996, and Ireland Funds Literary Award, 1997, all for The Steward of Christendom.
Macker's Garden (novel), Irish Writers' Co-operative, 1982.
The Water-Colourist (poetry), Dolmen Press (Portlaoise, Ireland), 1983.
Time out of Mind (short novels; contains Time out ofMind and Strappado Square), Wolfhound Press, 1983.
Elsewhere (novel for children), Brogeen Books/Dolmen Press (Portlaoise, Ireland), 1985.
The Rhetorical Town, Dolmen Press (Portlaoise, Ireland), 1985.
Fanny Hawke Goes to the Mainland Forever, Raven Arts Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1989.
Prayers of Sherkin; Boss Grady's Boys: Two Plays, Methuen Drama (Portsmouth, NH), 1991.
The Only True History of Lizzy Finn; The Steward ofChristendom; White Woman Street: Three Plays, with introduction by Fintan O'Toole, Heinemann Press (Portsmouth, NH), 1995.
Plays (includes Prayers of Sherkin, Boss Grady's Boys, and others) Methuen Press (Portsmouth, NH) 1997.
The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Thorndike Press (New York, NY), 1999.
Hinterland, Faber (London, England), 2001.
Annie Dunne, Viking (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to anthologies, including The Anthology, Co-op Books, 1982; Ireland's Living Voices, Rainbow, 1985; and The Inherited Boundaries: Younger Poets of the Republic of Ireland, Dolmen Press, 1985. Contributor of poems and short fiction to periodicals, including Irish Times, Irish Press, Cyphers, Paris/Atlantic, Tracks, Poetry Ireland, London Magazine, Stand, and Literary Review.
SIDELIGHTS: In his first decade as a playwright, poet and novelist Sebastian Barry became a new and respected voice in Irish drama. But even Barry himself dismisses the label of "Irish writer" as too confining. Indeed, wrote Fintan O'Toole in an introduction to the 1995 anthology of Barry's plays titled The Only True History of Lizzy Finn; The Steward of Christendom; White Woman Street: Three Plays, while the dramas seem "utterly Irish," they "also acknowledge the terrifying truth that Ireland is not a fixed place." In such works as Boss Grady's Boys and the award-winning The Steward of Christendom Barry explores his country's heritage and examines the impact of British rule in Ireland. Through it all, the playwright "employs an extremely personal voice, particularly in his evasion of conventional conflict-driving narrative and the main stage of history and contemporary politics," according to Margaret Llewellyn-Jones in a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay.
"Although Barry's plays may seem to some observers to allude to Irish canonical drama," Llewellyn-Jones explained, she added that "their fluid form and introspective elements disrupt the conventional realistic structures" typical of earlier Irish plays. In Barry's dramas, misfits take center stage. Such characters imbued with what Llewellyn-Jones called "ambiguous identities," are the focus of themes that involve "the spiritual journeying of individual human beings rather than overtly ideological issues."
Barry's reluctance to present the "typical" Irish point of view can perhaps be traced to his youth as a citizen of many countries. He was born in Dublin in 1955 to a bohemian family of actors and writers. A traveler's lifestyle took Barry from his B.A. at Trinity College to France, Switzerland, England, Greece, and Italy before the young man settled at the University of Iowa on a writing fellowship. Returning to his homeland in 1985, Barry found that "none of the available identities of Irishness seemed to fit," as he wrote in a memoir excerpted in Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Since I was now to be an Irishman, it seemed I would have to make myself up as I went along." To Llewellyn-Jones, this attitude "suggests two key elements in Barry's plays: the exploration of his wider family and ancestors as a means of clarifying his identity, and the elliptical relationship of personal memory to history that permeates his work and makes it different from that of Irish dramatists such as John Millington Synge, whose poetic style is often compared to Barry's."
After affiliating with Dublin's Abbey Theatre—where his mother, Joan Barry, was a featured actor—Barry completed his first full-length play, Boss Grady's Boys, which premiered in August, 1988. In his introduction to Prayers of Sherkin [and] Boss Grady's Boys, Barry acknowledges writing the latter play "to repay a human debt to a pair of real brothers in a real corner of Cork, where I had lived for a while in 1982." Boss Grady's Boys concerns itself with two brothers, aging and unmarried, living out their days together on a farm. Mick, at sixty, is concerned about his elder brother, Josey, who may be displaying the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. Josey rants at length about a horse in the rain, or about a long-deceased dog; he thinks the boys' dead father will return from a fair. "I throw stones into the poor man that echo with a deep, lost sort of echo," says Mick at one point. "I love him, I love his idiocy."
The action in Boss Grady's Boys revolves largely around the brothers' remembrances—real or not—as compared to the reality of their poverty-stricken present. For example, "the brothers' repressed sexuality is shown in two encounters with girls, and it is not clear whether these scenes are fantasies or actual happenings in the past," as Llewellyn-Jones wrote. The brothers engage in reverie about the larger world as well: "Mick's memories of meeting Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins creates the impression that the brothers' forgotten lives, like those of others in their rural community, are marginal to history." Lyn Gardner, reviewing Boss Grady's Boys for the London Guardian, wrote that its "prose leaks poetry and it quivers with luminous intensity."
In 1990 Barry premiered Prayers of Sherkin, a play set on a remote, tightly knit 1890s island community with characters based on the playwright's forebears. The heroine, Barry revealed in a preface, is modeled after his great-grandmother, Fanny Hawke, who left the security of her family to settle on Sherkin Island. In the play, Fanny is one of the few residents of marriageable age; conflict arises when she chooses Patrick Kirwin, who not only lives off the island but is also of Jewish heritage. Marrying outside the community would bar Fanny from Sherkin Island permanently. While "other writers might have made the religious conflict central," noted Llewellyn-Jones of Prayers of Sherkin, "Barry emphasizes that reconciliation and forgiveness are essential."
Following the play White Women Street, Barry produced his most notable drama to date with his fifth play, The Steward of Christendom. Again the playwright reached into his family's history to create a character, in this case Thomas Dunne, head of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP). "An Irish organization devoted to the British crown," as Greg Evans explained in his review of The Steward of Christendom for Variety, "the DMP found itself on the wrong side of history and its countrymen when Irish revolutionary Michael Collins rose to power in the early 1920s." This political shift leaves Thomas Dunne reviled; as the play opens, he is depicted at age seventy-five as cast-off and destitute, living in a mental asylum, a "Lear in long johns," to quote Newsweek reviewer Jack Kroll. Like Shakespeare's King Lear, Thomas has a tempestuous bond to his three daughters and ruminates about his past and his pride at his old position of authority. Also similar to Lear, noted New Republic reviewer Robert Brustein, "Thomas's madness is informed by deeper insights into the human condition than those of the sane. His 'sleepy sleepy' ramblings have some of the visionary power of the sleeper in [James Joyce's Finnegans Wake]."
While some reviewers expressed mild criticism, The Steward of Christendom opened to generally exultant notice and marked a turning point in Barry's career. The play won several awards and the production toured the United Kingdom and the United States, exposing Barry's work to new audiences. In 1998 he completed the play Our Lady of Sligo. The lead character, Mai O'Hara, is Barry's maternal grandmother, an aging woman dying of liver cancer but still possessed of the spirit of a young girl. "Mai died before Barry was born, and he knew of her only through the traumatised tales his mother told him," noted John Cunningham in a Guardian article. Mai's husband, Jack, also provided Barry with insight about the couple, both of whom were born English and lived a middle-class life under British rule in Ireland. "Barry, a Catholic married to a Presbyterian, makes the case for inclusiveness," added Cunningham.
Though parent-child relations and Irish-English conflicts are explored in Our Lady of Sligo as they were in The Steward of Christendom, Llewellyn-Jones described the more recent play as "less overtly political" than its predecessor. In a review for the Guardian, Michael Billington also compared the two plays, stating that Mai, like Thomas Dunne, "is blighted by events. He was a loyal servant of the British . . . she is a member of the Catholic middle class at a time when they are being marginalised by the new Free State. But Dunne's tragedy arose from a peculiar mixture of his private life and public role; with Mai it is harder to feel the oppressive weight of history." "This is a play in which a sense of national failure is reflected in a sense of private bankruptcy," declared London Sunday Times critic John Peter. "Barry understands how intensely aware people are, in nations with a history of oppression and exploitation, that they carry the burden of their race."
The acclaim heaped upon The Steward of Christendom and Our Lady of Sligo stood in sharp contrast to the criticism awarded Barry's next play, 2001's Hinterland. A controversial project from the start, the drama is based on the life of Irish nationalist Charlie Haughey. A former architect and real-estate broker, Haughey entered politics in 1957 as a member of Fianna Fail. He rose to the post of minister of finance, but was dismissed for allegedly running guns for the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He regained power as Taoiseach—prime minister—of the Republic of Ireland, but by 1992 his political career was over due to successive scandals. In Hinterland Haughey—the character Johnny Silvester in Barry's play—is presented as a man defeated, "holed up in a Georgian mansion, broken, angry, but still vainglorious," according to John Peter in a London Sunday Times review.
Peter was not alone in calling the play a disappointment; "windy and indigestible" is how Charles Spencer described it in a Daily Telegraph assessment, although Spencer added: "It pains me to write this way, because Sebastian Barry is one of Ireland's finest writers." Maintaining that his aim was not to "expose or hurt anybody," Barry told London Sunday Times interviewer Michael Ross that the backlash against Hinterland took him by surprise: "If it was prizefighting—which putting on a play often seems like—it was a [knockout] in the first round. I feel that if I was a Russian writer in those circumstances 30 years ago, I'd be in Siberia or dead. Every emotion one could go through, I went through. I didn't find any of them particularly useful."
As a novelist, Barry has found a measure of success matching his work as a playwright. Reviewing Barry's 1998 novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, a Publishers Weekly contributor noted that "Barry brings all the attendant skills [of a playwright] to this stunning novel, with its evergreen theme of the parallels between a personal life and the political life of a country." The novel's title character is a boy who fights alongside the British during World War I, and finds himself a pariah in postwar Ireland for having done so. To New Statesman critic Maggie O'Farrell, "Eneas is a complex and tragic figure, at once deeply responsive and staggeringly naïve." She added that while some of the book's plot points are lacking, Barry's theatrical leanings serve his novel well: "Even if you've seen his plays, [the author's] dialogue will still astonish—it's dexterous, febrile and constantly challenging."
The 2002 novel Annie Dunne was similarly well received. "No one in Ireland can convey despair better than Sebastian Barry, and considering the hometown competition, that's a remarkable distinction," commented Ron Charles. In his Christian Science Monitor review of the novel Charles went on to say that "there's plenty of his signature despair in this new little masterpiece . . . but the emotional range is far broader, and the sparks of delight and love that shot through his previous work are given more oxygen here and encouraged to burn." Annie is a spinster, a sad fate for an Irish woman in the late 1950s. As a protagonist, though, she "is not a sweet, affecting woman," says Charles. "In fact, she's an unpleasant, cranky old hag." (She is also a daughter of Thomas Dunne, the disgraced ex-officer of The Steward of Christendom.) Anne lives with her single cousin, Sarah, until that existence is threatened by Sarah's potential love interest in the form of Billy, a farmhand. While Eamonn Sweeney, reviewing Annie Dunne for the Guardian, pointed to lapses in Barry's form and dubbed the book one "in which nothing happens many times," other critics found more to recommend in the novel. A Publishers Weekly reviewer, for instance, found it a "compassionate portrait of a distraught woman" and "a masterful feat of characterization." A writer for Kirkus Reviews called Barry's novel "tone-perfect and powerfully engaging."
In summing up Barry as a playwright and novelist, Llewellyn-Jones said that his works place him "as a key figure in the current renaissance of Irish drama. Barry's elliptical approach to history, which celebrates humanity through moments of grace and redemption, has an intensely lyrical, poetic quality that merits status within the Irish canon."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 245: British and Irish Dramatists since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Atlantic Monthly, September, 1998, review of TheWhereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 138.
Back Stage, February 7, 1997, David Sheward, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. 48; June 2, 2002, Diana Barth, "Our Lady of Ireland," p. 41; April 6, 2001, Victor Gluck, review of Boss Grady's Boys, p. 45.
Booklist, July, 1998, review of The Whereabouts ofEneas McNulty, p. 1855; February 1, 2002, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 925.
Boston Herald, March 19, 1999, Terry Byrne, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. 7.
Christian Science Monitor, August 13, 1998, Ron Charles, "Dreaming of a Forbidden Home," p. B5; August 28, 1998, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. B12; August 22, 2002, Charles, "Turn of the Shrew," p. 15.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), March 5, 2002, Charles Spencer, review of Hinterland; March 6, 2002, Michael Billington, review of Hinterland, p. 23.
Economist, June 13, 1998, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. S17.
Guardian (London, England), March 14, 1998, Lyn Gardner, "Apocalypse Plough," p. 7; March 25, 1998, John Cunningham, "My Family, the Outcasts," p. 14; April 18, 1998, Michael Billington, "Conversation Piece," p. 7; March 5, 2002, Billington, review of Hinterland, p. 14; June 8, 2002, Angelique Chrisafis, "The Hay Festival," p. 6; June 29, 2002, Eamonn Sweeney, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. 27.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2002, review of Annie Dunne, p. 897.
Library Journal, June 15, 1998, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 104.
New Republic, April 7, 1997, Robert Brustein, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. 28.
New Statesman, February 27, 1997, Maggie O'Farrell, "A Man Trapped for Life on the Wrong Side," p. 49.
Newsweek, February 17, 1997, Jack Kroll, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. 68.
New York, February 3, 1997, John Simon, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. 49; May 8, 2000, J. Simon, review of Our Lady of Sligo, p. 74.
New Yorker, October 2, 1995, John Lahr, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. 106; November 9, 1998, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 103.
New York Review of Books, summer, 1999, Des Traynor, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 157.
New York Times, January 19, 1997, Matt Wolf, "It's Ancestor Worship, but of a Dramatic Sort," p. H20; January 22, 1997, Ben Brantley, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. B1; February 2, 1997, Vincent Canby, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. H4; May 10, 1998, Benedict Nightingale, review of Our Lady of Sligo, p. AR9; April 21, 2000, B, Brantley, "One Life's Restless End," p. B1.
New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1987, Lois Gordon, review of The Engine of an Owl-Light, p. 24; October 18, 1998, Aoibheann Sweeney, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 26.
Observer (London, England), March 15, 1998, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, June 8, 1998, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 46; July 1, 2002, review of Annie Dunne, p. 53.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 9, 2000, Steven Winn, "Actors Fly, but 'Andersen' Remains Earthbound," p. B1.
Spectator, September 16, 1995, Sheridan Morley, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. 50; March 9, 2002, Toby Young, review of Hinterland, p. 59.
Sunday Times (London, England), March 1, 1998, Lindsey Duguid, "The Wandering Years," p. 3; April 26, 1998, John Peter, "The Year of Our Lady," p. 20; January 6, 2002, Peter, "Fast Forward 2002," p. 8; February 10, 2002, Karina Buckley, review of Hinterland, p. 29; March 10, 2002, J. Peter, review of Hinterland, p. 16; June 9, 2002, Michael Ross, "The Anguish That Led to Hinterland" (interview), p. 4; July 28, 2002, Peter Parker, "The Farmer Wants a Life," p. 44.
Theatre Journal, May, 1997, Joan Fitzpatrick Dean, review of The Steward of Christendom, p. 233.
Time International, March 18, 2002, James Inverne, "Tragedy or Farce?," p. 68.
Times (London, England), May 21, 1997, Jeremy Kingston, "Devotion, Love, and Sects," p. 41; February 12, 1998, Roy Foster, "Rescued from the Ruin of Tenderness," p. 40; April 18, 1998, Benedict Nightengale, "Hearts of Darkness in Family History," p. 21; June 1, 2002, George Brock, "Country Stife," p. 19.
Times Literary Supplement, September 28, 1984; June 6, 1997, Maggie Gee, review of Prayers of Sherkin, p. 21; February 20, 1998, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 23; March 22, 2002, C. L. Dallat, "Hiding behind the Outskirts," p. 19; May 10, 2002, C. L. Dallat, "The Maiden Aunt," p. 25.
Variety, January 27, 1997, Greg Evans, review of TheSteward of Christendom, p. 87; October 9, 2000, Dennis Harvey, review of Hans Christian Andersen, p. 36.
Wall Street Journal, July 24, 1998, Richard Tillinghast, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. W10.
Washington Post Book World, December 6, 1998, review of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, p. 10.
Washington Times, April 15 1998, Nelson Pressley, "A
State of Insanity in 'Christendom,'" p. 11.*