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The Politics of Pity in Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way

Liam Harte
Affiliation:
University of Manchester in England
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Summary

Commenting on the inspiration behind his “ghost plays,” the Irish writer Sebastian Barry confessed: “I am interested not so much in the storm as the queer fresh breeze that hits suddenly through the grasses in the ambiguous time before it” (Plays: 1 xv). This remark nicely encapsulates Barry's imaginative fascination for the disregarged, the idiosyncratic, the uncanny. Little wonder, then, that his fiction and drama should be populated by characters who exceed traditional categorization. As Fintan O'Toole has pointed out, Barry specialises in “history's leftovers, men and women defeated and discarded by their times […] misfits, anomalies, outlanders” (vii). His particular affinity is for historically obscured individuals who, because of their personal choices, public duties or political allegiances, have been excluded from the Irish nationalist master-narrative. The biblical epigraph to his novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998)—“And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire”—speaks to the restorative and corrective impulses that undergird his entire oeuvre. Virtually all of the prodigal protagonists through whom Barry explores the themes of historical erasure and ambiguous belonging have their origins in his own family history, which he has recursively mined for transgressive forebears whose experiences he reimagines as both singular and representative, “exception[s] to a general rule of Irishness, but at the same time not as rare as one might think” (Kurdi 42). The most critically acclaimed of his “family of plays about a family” (Kurdi 42) is The Steward of Christendom (1995), loosely based on the life of his great-grandfather, a Catholic who rose to the rank of chief superintendent in the Protestant-dominated Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) during the 1910s. Although the opprobrium attached to this ancestor made Barry fearful of the consequences of wrenching him from “the dead grip of history and disgrace” (“Steward” ix), the elegiac drama he fashions transforms him into an unabashedly tragic figure, a noble survivor from “a vanished world” (Plays:1 246), the ghosts of which are his only companions in the nursing home where he languishes in his dotage. As a Catholic loyalist, Thomas Dunne found himself on the “wrong” side of history in the nationalist state that emerged from the rubble of revolution and civil war in 1922.

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Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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