Ir­ish eyes are weep­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IF the Ir­ish are sus­tained through tem­po­rary pe­ri­ods of joy by an abid­ing sense of tragedy (as WB Yeats sup­pos­edly claimed), the Ir­ish novel may just as read­ily be de­fined as a se­quence of mis­er­able events re­counted in beau­ti­ful prose. Se­bas­tian Barry knows the power of a tragic tale of ruina­tion and loss, es­pe­cially when set against that other hall­mark of re­cent Ir­ish fic­tion: the se­cre­tive his­tory of a proud fam­ily frac­tured by pol­i­tics.

It’s ter­ri­tory that’s ripe for mythol­o­gis­ing and nos­tal­gic sen­ti­men­tal­ity, nei­ther of which Barry is averse to. But it would be wrong to dis­miss this most re­cent in­stal­ment in his fic­tion­alised ac­count of his fam­ily’s colourful his­tory as mere lyri­cal ro­man­ti­cism.

The gen­tle­man of the novel’s ti­tle, tem­po­rary by virtue of his un­tenured com­mis­sion with the Bri­tish Army dur­ing World War II, is Ir­ish­man Jack McNulty. He is the son of Tom McNulty, whose bro­ken first wife re­counts her har­row­ing tale of be­trayal and aban­don­ment from the Sligo lu­natic asy­lum in Barry’s Man Booker Prize short­listed The Se­cret Scrip­ture (2008).

Jack is equally ca­pa­ble as his fa­ther of in­flict­ing dam­age on women, through a seem­ingly be­nign and eva­sive neg­li­gence. His un­cle is Eneas McNulty, whose ban­ish­ment from Ire­land for his be­trayal of fam­ily and na­tion is the sub­ject of The Where­abouts of Eneas McNulty (1998).

Barry’s achieve­ment is the an­i­ma­tion of an ex­tended fam­ily his­tory, with all its dark se­crets, to re­veal some­thing of a buried his­tory of Ire­land’s out­casts and mis­cre­ants who are silenced by the coun­try’s grand nar­ra­tive of re­silience in the strug­gle for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion.

It is 1957, and Jack McNulty has re­turned to Ghana where he has spent the best years of his life in ser­vice to the Bri­tish. In some­thing of a cathar­tic con­fes­sion, he sets down the events that have shaped his life in a daily minute book, “in­vok­ing the gods of truth’’ to atone for things he’s done or failed to do along the way. His has been an event­ful life by any­one’s stan­dards.

Join­ing the For­eign Of­fice as a young civil en­gi­neer in 1927 he lived the colo­nial life as a District Of­fi­cer in the then Gold Coast be­fore ris­ing to the rank of ma­jor in the Royal En­gi­neers dur­ing what was, for the Ir­ish, a for­eign war. He was tor­pe­doed off the African coast, led his men in com­bat through the Sa­hara, worked as a bomb dis­posal ex­pert in Eng­land, a sur­veyor in In­dia and a UN emis­sary in the nascent Ghana. To add to his mys­tique, he is a self-con­fessed bad man and chronic al­co­holic who may have been in­volved in gun-run­ning.

McNulty is the sort of man who car­ries pho­to­graphs of him­self to com­pen­sate for his short­com­ings and gilds the lily for the sake of a rip­ping good yarn. His story draws the reader along with a mo­men­tum that be­lies its ret­ro­spec­tion, yet be­neath McNulty’s self-ag­gran­dis­ing brag­gado­cio, there is a gen­uine re­morse for the dam­age he has in­flicted on those he loves most. At the heart of his story is the beau­ti­ful Mai Kir­wan and the tragic con­se­quences of her de­ci­sion to marry into the McNulty clan.

The Kir­wans were a cut above the Macs and the Os of the town. Their mid­dle-class as­pi­ra­tions were val­i­dated by a grand house and a her­itage sup­pos­edly linked to the kings of Galway. Mai was the favoured daugh­ter: re­fined, tal­ented and beau­ti­ful. Mar­ry­ing a loy­al­ist, al­beit a Catholic one, whose fa­ther held a job at the asy­lum, was noth­ing less than a be­trayal of class and pol­i­tics. The only con­so­la­tion for her par­ents is that they don’t live to wit­ness the de­scent into ab­so­lute ruin and de­spair that be­falls their daugh­ter.

If there’s some­thing of the colo­nial ad­ven­ture novel about McNulty’s heroic tales, Barry equally ex­ploits the pop­u­lar gothic ro­mance for Mai’s the­atri­cal de­cline. Her emo­tional and phys­i­cal col­lapse may be aided by al­co­hol and strait­ened cir­cum­stances, but it’s ul­ti­mately Jack’s self­ish dere­lic­tion that de­stroys her. And it’s his be­lated ac­knowl­edg­ment of this re­spon- sibil­ity, and his plea for for­give­ness from his daugh­ters in what is es­sen­tially a self-serv­ing mis­sive, that pro­vides the pathos of the novel.

De­spite Barry’s propen­sity to over-write, there is as much real emo­tion as false sen­ti­ment in the story and one can’t help but be moved by McNulty’s re­al­i­sa­tion of the depth of the love he has lost. As with The Se­cret Scrip­ture, where a found man­u­script gives voice to an other­wise silenced story, there is some­thing a lit­tle staged about McNulty’s minute book. But it’s an ef­fec­tive enough de­vice to carry the un­re­li­able nar­ra­tive that ques­tions some of the cer­tain­ties about Ire­land’s past by ex­pos­ing its ex­cep­tions. If it an­swers more to the needs of drama than to his­tory, it’s pos­si­bly a small price to pay for a com­pelling story laced with lyri­cal prose. Liam Dav­i­son is a Mel­bourne based nov­el­ist and critic.

Se­bas­tian Barry knows the power of a tragic tale

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