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"The Secret Scripture," a novel by Sebastian Barry, Ireland's finest living writer

Updated on June 6, 2014
Sebastian Barry, Irish poet, playwright, and novelist.
Sebastian Barry, Irish poet, playwright, and novelist. | Source

Barry's fiction novels

Macker's Garden (1982)

The Engine of Owl-Light (1987)

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998)

Annie Dunne (2002)

A Long, Long Way (2005)

The Secret Scripture (2008)

On Canaan's Side (2011)

The Temporary Gentlemam (2014)

Have you read a Sebastian Barry novel?

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1955 -

With the recent death of Seamus Heaney, Irish poet, Sebastian Barry has forged ahead to the forefront as Ireland's best and finest living writer. He is an Irish playwright, novelist and poet, who began by writing poetry, then switched to writing plays, and now is writing novels. He is best known for his award winning novel, The Secret Scripture, which is the crowning achievement of his writing success.

This novel, as well as his others, illuminates the strong relationship between the individual and the historical, specifically the history of Ireland, during "the troubles" of the 1920's and 30's. He is known for his intense and dense literary writing style.

He is particularly interested in showing in his novels the political, religious and social upheavals that affected Ireland in the 1920's and 30's. He is a deeply Irish writer and shines a light on the dark days of Ireland's troubled past through writing fictional accounts of the lives if the common man and woman of those times.

Barry is thoroughly Irish, born in Dublin and whose mother was the late Irish actress, Joan O'Hara. He attended Catholic University School and Trinity College, Dublin, where he read English and Latin. He was also editor of Icarus, the Trinity College student magazine.

His academic posts have included:

  • Honorary Fellow in Writing at the University of Iowa (1984)
  • Villanova University (2006)
  • Writer Fellow at Trinity College, Dublin (1995-1996)

He began his literary career with the publication of Macker's Garden (1982), a novel, followed by several books of poetry and another novel, The Engine of Owl-Light (1987).

Then his career took off in another direction that of play writing. Boss Grady's Boys (1988) was his first play produced in Abby Theatre, Dublin, Ireland.

Next, his great-grandfather, James Dunne, was the inspiration for his most famous and internationally known play, The Steward of Christendom. Both this play and his novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty are about the dislocation, both physical as well as mental, of the loyalist Irish people during the political "troubles" of the early 20th century.

During the 1990's his novel writing came to the forefront and he has been concentrating on literary novel writing since then. Today, he lives in County Wicklow with his wife, actress Alison Deegan and their three children.

from The Secret Scripture
from The Secret Scripture | Source
Source

Awards for "The Secret Scripture"

James Tait Black Memorial Prize - UK

Book of the Year 2008 Costa Awards

Novel of the Year - Ireland

Choice Award - Ireland

Shortlisted for Man Booker Prize for Fiction - UK

Jessica Chastain will play the younger Roseanne in the film version.
Jessica Chastain will play the younger Roseanne in the film version. | Source
Vanessa Redgrave plays the older Roseanne in the film version.
Vanessa Redgrave plays the older Roseanne in the film version. | Source

The Secret Scripture

First of all, I loved reading this novel and it is an excellent example of his writing of the relationship of his characters to the historical time period 1920's-30's. The reader sees first hand the affects the political, religious and social upheavals had on the characters in his novel.

This novel was inspired by a story told to Barry by his mother about an old relative. He has said, "I felt almost duty-bound as a novelist to reclaim her and indeed remake her."

It is the sad, poignant and tragic story of Roseanne McNulty, the main character, who resides in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. Tragically, she has been a patient there for some sixty plus years. She is celebrating her one hundredth birthday and has decided to write her autobiography.

She has entitled it "Roseanne's testimony of herself" and keeps the previous pages she has written hidden under a loose foot board in the floor or her room. The autobiography charts her life and that of her parents living in Ireland in the town of Sligo at the turn of the 20th century.

The second narrative we read is by the sympathetic chief psychiatrist Dr. Grene who writes in his "Commonplace Book."

The mental hospital is to be demolished and Dr. Grene must decide which patients will be moved to the new psychiatric hospital and who will be released into the community. He must decided who suffers from psychoses and who does not.

Dr. Grene is particularly drawn to and concerned about Roseanne McNulty as he observes no psychosis in her and is puzzled as to why she has been ensconced in a mental institution for more than sixty years.

He views Roseanne as, "just a bit of paper blowing on the edge of the wasteland." She has no living relatives anyone knows of and she has no visitors. She has been alone and forgotten, a nobody, for more than sixty years.

When he talks with her about her past and why she was incarcerated in a mental institution for more than half her life, he notices she is forgetful and a bit confused about past events, common for someone of one hundred years of age, but certainly not anywhere near suffereing from dementia or alzheimer's disease. She shows no evidence of psychosis.

So, why has she been here for more than sixty years? Both Roseanne and Dr. Grene have conflicting stories as to her incarceration and her early life, so Dr. Grene sets out to find the truth - the facts of her time in the mental institution.

What is consistent about both their versions of her life story is that Roseanne fell victim to the religious, political and social upheavals of her generation in Ireland in the 1920's and 30'.

Dr. Grene comes to discover that Roseanne's unique beauty is what has done her in. She was too beautiful a woman if something like that can be.

Through the entries in "Roseanne's testimony of herself," and Dr. Grene's "Commonplace Book," Barry weaves a beautiful yet tragic story of Roseanne's life and how others judged her by 1920's and 30's standards of acceptable behavior and the cruelty of their actions against her.

There is a surprise ending and a twist that I will not reveal, and it is this ending that has confounded the critics. Many critics found the book ruined by the ending, may be thinking it was too cliche, but I did not. I thought the ending brilliant. It was totally believable to me and fitting and in keeping with the psychiatrist being drawn to Roseanne and his obsession with finding out her true story.

I highly recommend reading this novel and any others by Sebastian Barry. Through reading his novels, we learn of another important historical time in Ireland's history. And, what better way to learn it than through the wonderful characters he creates in his novels?

Actress Jessica Chastain has bought the rights to this novel and this June (2014) she and Vanessa Redgrave will begin filming the story of Roseanne McNulty in Ireland. It is to be directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan.

Chastain will play the young Roseanne and Redgrave will play the one hundred year old Roseanne. I can't wait to see the film.

Sebastian Barry's poetry

The Water Colourist (1983)

The Rhetorical Town (1985)

Source

Sebastian Barry's Plays

The Pentagonal Dream (1986)

Boss Grady's Boys (1988)

Prayers of Sherkin (1990)

White Women Street (1992)

The Only True History of Lizzie Finn (1995)

The Steward of Christendom (1995)

Our Lady of Sligo (1998)

Hinterland (2002)

Whistling Psyche (2004)

Fred & Jane (2004)

The Pride of Parnell Street (2008)

Dallas Sweetman (2008)

Tales of Ballycumber (2009)

Anderson's English (2010)

from The Secret Scripture
from The Secret Scripture | Source

© 2014 Suzette Walker

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    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Audrey: I am so glad you enjoyed reading this. This novel is quite interesting and well written. Thanks so much for your visit.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      3 years ago from Taos, NM

      Audrey: I just learned of him the last year or so. I have read several of his novels and they are all good. This is an interesting and well written novel.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      3 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      This is a fabulous review Suzette! I'm not familiar with this author. Thanks for introducing him to me. Voted up, interesting, useful and awesome. Will share.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      3 years ago from California

      I don't know this author, but this seems intriguing!

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Thanks so much Faith. Yes, I think the movie will be interesting. I understand they are just starting to film it now so you probably have some time to get the book read. LOL! I can't remember where I ran across his name, but again, when I checked out his books and his bio he sounded so interesting. So I am now reading several of his books. They are not scquals or prequals (sp?) but they are all inter-connected by certain characters in some way. Really interesting to read. Since I am by myself I have plenty of time for reading. LOL!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 

      4 years ago from southern USA

      Suzzette,

      Thank you for introducing me to Sebastian Barry's books! "The Secret Scripture" certainly sounds intriguing and my kind of book. I better hurry and read it before the movie comes out, which also sounds promising with a great cast.

      Up and more and away

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Mike: I know what you mean. I have a pile too. I think you will enjoy the book.

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 

      4 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      ok, I just purchased a copy online and will add it to the pile.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Mike: When I like a writer I really try to present him in a good light as I want to recommend good literary writers for people to read. I especially like him and I am in the process of reading several of his novels. I just recently ran across his name and googled it and found a mountain of great writings by him. I like to support contemporary writers as so much out there that is published is bologna. You guys here on HP that publish I put in the literary writing genre. Your writing is amazing Mike, and I like to support good writers. Thanks so much for stopping by and if you read his novels, I bet you will like them.

    • mckbirdbks profile image

      mckbirdbks 

      4 years ago from Emerald Wells, Just off the crossroads,Texas

      Hi Suzette, You never fail to amaze me. You present this writers career with such compassion for the subject. I have been a life long reader, yet it is obvious that I did not find all the gems there were.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      parwatisingari: Thank you so much for stopping by to read this. I am glad you enjoyed it and found him interesting. I think you will enjoy his writings. Thanks so much for your comments. Most appreciated.

    • parwatisingari profile image

      parwatisingari 

      4 years ago from India

      I am a avid reader, thanks for introducing another author particularly in genre that I love reading.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Nadine: This novel is available on Kindle as that is where I read this novel. I love historical fiction and it is so interesting to see the religious, political and social side of Ireland in the town of Sligo during this time period. I was really surprised by the book. I have not read a Bryce Courtenay book, but I will look into this author also. Thanks for mentioning him. I appreciate your comments and visit. Thanks so much.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Jackie: I am pleased you enjoyed the review. I sorry that you are so busy that you have no time to read. Reading is such a luxury in this busy day and age. But, I know you have a loving family to take care of which I am sure you do so well. Thanks for taking the time to read my review. I am fortunate to be retired from teaching and now I do have the time to read. It is wonderful. Thanks for your visit Jackie and I appreciate your comments.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      shanmarie: It is quite interesting and it is a heart-breaking story. If this truly happened to a relative of his, with no embellishment, then this is a tragic story. I hope you read it and share your thoughts about it sometime. Thanks for your comments. Most appreciated.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Thank you, Bill. Yes, do check this out. I think you will enjoy his novels. I just recently ran into his work and have just discovered him myself. Thanks so much for your comments and visit, as always, most appreciated.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      travmaj: I wasn't too familiar with him until recently. I forget how I ran across him, but his bio piqued my interest so I read this first novel. I do want to read more of his books. I, too, am looking forward to this adaption to film. I love Vanessa Redgrave and anything she is in is usually stellar work. Thanks so much for your comments and for your visit. Most appreciated.

    • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

      Suzette Walker 

      4 years ago from Taos, NM

      Rachael: Hi. I was not familiar with this Irish writer until recently. I forget now how I ran across him, but his writing is wonderful. He seems to stick to the 1920's - 30's and WWII era of Ireland as he writes. It found his book fascinating. I believe the film is just starting to be filmed so it may be a year or two before we see it at the movies. Or sooner, who knows? I do like to see how books are adapted to the screen and the film should be able to follow the book as written. I hope there is not too much of a difference. By the looks of your name and Irish writer seems just up your alley. I hope you enjoy him as much as I have. Thanks so much for your lovely comments and your visit. Most appreciated.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 

      4 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      What a great review. I,m going to see if i can get it for my kindle. I love learning about history of any kind through reading Novels. For that same reason i read most of Bryce Courtenay,s books

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Sounds very interesting and although I will be perfectly honest that I have no time to read this; at one time I most certainly would have. It is my kind of story; or so you have made it seem. Very good review!

    • shanmarie profile image

      Shannon Henry 

      4 years ago from Texas

      Sounds interesting! And maybe heart-breaking if this is indeed the true story of his relative.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great review, Suzette, and thank you for it. I will check it out.

    • travmaj profile image

      travmaj 

      4 years ago from australia

      Suzette-I'm ashamed to say I am not familiar with Sebastian Barry's work -I shall certainly be reading this book and thank you for brining it to my attention. Look forward to the film too, great cast, Vanessa Redgrave work

      is always compelling. Voting

    • RachaelOhalloran profile image

      Rachael O'Halloran 

      4 years ago from United States

      Hi Suzette,

      I am a reader but I have not read Sebastian Barry's books. Your review makes me want to run right out and acquire every one of them. Although I try to read a book before I see the movie version, if the movie version is said to have followed the book very closely, then I don't mind seeing the movie first. But I hope I'm not too late to get it bought, read and enjoyed before the movie is made.

      Thank you for introducing me to this writer who I do believe I'm going to find very enjoyable. Voted up and shared.

      Rachael

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