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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

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)


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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