Irish eyes are weeping
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