As Barry writes in his prose, as distinctive as it is beautiful: “Enough time goes by and it’s as if old things never happened. Things that were once fresh, immediate, terrible, going back to the time of the old god…” But old things can be recalled.
Barry is speaking from the “bee room” of his home in the Wicklow Mountains, where he has lived for the past 20 years. It’s an old vicarage, and the rectors used to hold their sermons together in its writing room, and lately the farmer who owned the house kept his bee-keeping equipment.
Barry had his daily run with his four dogs. “I could just run flat and [it would feel like] I would run in the mountains, but I try to run up sometimes, although running down is – it sounds pejorative – so much better.”
He thinks his knees are healthy because although he started football at the age of 38, he only played for three years on the team of Irish writer and poet Dermot Bolger. He quit when the twin girls he had with his wife Alison Deegan were little. “I was the last man. Was kept there to chop people’s ankles when the referee couldn’t see me.
Barry “emigrated to America” for his two recent novels, days without end And thousand moonsbut is back on home soil time of the old god. Kettle, named for the politician and war poet Thomas Kettle, whose work gave Barry the title of his booker shortlisted novel The Secret ScriptShe’s been with him since he was seven years old. Barry was with his mother, actress Joan O’Hara, and his sister in the Tower Flats of Queenstown Castle in Dalkey. Given the habits of little boys, he explored and discovered an annex and stuck his nose into it. He spotted a “big geek” in a suit sitting in a chair smoking a cigarillo and gazing out to sea.
“He stayed with me for 60 years, which in itself is very strange. And in a way it has allowed me – now the same age as the man when I saw him myself – to kind of slip into his body and talk about a lot of things that as an adult in my own life are really bothering me have and as a citizen of this country. My goal is to love my country and to love it you have to know it well and maybe forgive a few things.”
What you need to know is the harm priests do to children. “Just when you think it’s history and all over, here it comes in another big wave.” In recent months there have been more than 400 historic abuse allegations against more than 70 Spiritan priests at Blackrock College (“the Eton of Ireland, as they call it, God help us post-colonial idiots”) in Dublin. “It’s not like a bunch of bad apples in a keg. That’s a pretty stinky keg.”
Who was once the president of the school? Well, an Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid, who in time of the old god turned a blind eye to the abuse at the hands of two priests, Fathers John Byrne and Thaddeus Matthews, “two jackals in a stall eating little chickens. Dirty, relentless, useless men who never stopped in their evil.”
In real life, says Barry, Patrick Dunne, his grandmother’s first cousin – he wrote about the Dunnes in three of his novels – was auxiliary bishop of Dublin and brought a case before the archbishop, but they didn’t want to see it that way Criminal pessimism , which meant it had to be reported to the Vatican. It’s the Archbishop “who, to me, or to Tom, should I say, is the worst and greatest viper on the side of the road, ready to strike.”
“And you know all over the world that this became the modus operandi: say nothing,” says Barry. “Learning that your DNA makes that decision was the first thing that scared me to think about the whole thing, and that was 20 years ago.”
Barry has fond memories of Australia, not least his first contact through his aunt, former nun and singer Mary O’Hara, who sent him a toy koala from one of her tours. He still has it — “it’s very worn and a bit hairless” — and has always worried that it was made out of real koala skin in the ’60s.
It was the subject of his very first story, now in his archives at the University of Texas. In it, a koala falls from a tree and hits a panda on the head in the forest below. He’s come a long way in 60 years.
time of the old god is published by Faber & Faber for $32.99.
https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/sebastian-barry-and-the-difficulties-with-loving-ireland-20230312-p5crft.html?ref=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_source=rss_culture Sebastian Barry and the Difficulties of Loving Ireland