A Man Trapped for Life on the Wrong Side
O'Farrell, Maggie, New Statesman (1996)
Sebastian Barry's award-winning play The Steward of Christendom took the plight of an ageing Catholic who'd been a policeman in 1920s Ireland. In republican eyes he has "fought" on the British side. After independence he has no place in the new Ireland; ostracised by his peers, he ends up in an asylum, where he attempts to reassess his unfortunate life. The character is said to be based on a relative of Barry's, and the idea of Catholics inadvertently ending up on the wrong side of the battle for Irish home rule is something he returns to again and again.
The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (Picador, [pounds]12.99), his first novel in ten years, is the life story of a young boy in Sligo. After drifting into the British merchant navy at the tail-end of the first world war, Eneas returns home to find that he is regarded as a pariah and that any conventional kind of employment is now closed to him.
He becomes, then, a "peeler" in the Royal Irish Constabulary, and the republicans put him on their blacklist. He is issued a death threat by his childhood friend and so must leave Ireland and become an itinerant wanderer about the world. He works on fishing boats, fights at Dunkirk, harvests grapes in France, goes insane in Sheffield, nearly gets killed on a brief sortie in Sligo, whereupon he leaves again to build waterpipes in Africa.
Eneas is a complex and tragic figure, at once deeply responsive and staggeringly naive. The whole course of his life is set by no more than a romantic teenage notion that France needs to be saved, and a vague adolescent overspill of early sibling rivalry. "Stymied", a word Barry often uses for him, could be his shibboleth: the repercussions of his unwitting actions mean that, like Hamlet, he is frozen into inaction by the fear that whatever he does could be wrong.
Even if you've seen his plays, Barry's dialogue will still astonish - it's dextrous, febrile and constantly challenging. He is a genius at showing the inching alterations, revisions and decisions that occur in conversation. …