Sebastian Barry: Troubles in the family

The Booker-longlisted author Sebastian Barry tells Leyla Sanai how his own ancestors' bloody history inspires his novels about Ireland's violent past

Hanging in the Dublin National Gallery is Sean Keating's 1922 painting An Allegory, showing a republican and a loyalist digging the same grave.

It sums up the internecine conflict of early 20th-century Irish history that Sebastian Barry's fiction explores. Much of his work is set around the 1916 Easter Rising and the subsequent signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Rebels fought for independence and waged war on those they perceived as traitors in loyalist organisations like the police or army.

Barry's latest novel, On Canaan's Side, which was longlisted last week for the Man Booker prize, deals – as did his The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty in 1998 – with individuals forced to flee. The exiled are a couple, Lilly and Tadg. Many of the book's characters have appeared in Barry's other work – Lilly's sister Annie in Annie Dunne; her brother Willie in the 2005 Booker shortlisted A Long, Long Way, and their father Thomas, based on Barry's maternal great-grandfather, a chief superintendant of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, in The Steward of Christendom.

In person, Barry is smart, affable, funny and eloquent, his speech punctuated by those evocative similes and metaphors that stop you in your tracks with their striking imagery and mellifluous poetry. I ask him about his characters, and how many of their stories are true.

"The three books are about great-aunts," he says, referring to Annie Dunne, On Canaan's Side and The Secret Scripture, the last of which was based on the sectioned wife of a great-uncle. "And two of them are sisters. So there's a DNA that binds them. Annie was the only one I knew; my beloved great-aunt who had a hunchback and didn't marry – it was ludicrous: it was from polio, but it was thought that she'd hand it on to her children.

"I invented Lilly's life but the events were based on truth. I met a cousin who told me about a great uncle of ours, Jack, who had come home from the First World War and joined the [Black and] Tans. There was an IRA ambush and the IRA suspected Jack had known about it and informed his father, the policeman. They put a death sentence on Jack. My great-grandfather was from the same area, so the IRA warned him that a death sentence had been put on Jack and Jack's friend. My great-grandfather managed to get his son out of Ireland, but Lilly was dating Jack's friend, so she had to go too. And in Chicago, my great uncle was shot. This was an immense event in my family, but no one ever mentioned it. The whole thing was covered over with a terrified silence. My great-grandfather probably died of a broken heart."

Barry's family history is the inspiration behind many of his novels, thanks to the stories that were passed on to him by his mother. But this caused a rift between Barry and his grandfather which never healed: later in our interview, he wipes away a tear when he describes his grandfather's anger at seeing such intimate family memories used in fiction. They never spoke again, despite the older man's attempts to make amends.

Nonetheless, this use of the real Lilly's life is important because it shows that extraordinary events – death threats and exile – occurred in Ireland at that time. Hopefully this will mean that On Canaan's Side is not subjected to the same criticisms received by The Secret Scripture, which the 2008 Man Booker judges said did not win because of the "implausibility" of its ending. Barry says that he has been careful, with this latest novel, to make the events not only plausible but real. So how does he feel about his Booker longlisting?

"It's lovely really, like a very well-chosen gift ... I was walking in the Wicklow mountains when my editor at Faber rang. It was a moment of pure happiness, plain and simple. If it's the circus, this is the one the writer wants to run away with."

On Canaan's Side is written in the first person, from Lilly's point of view. Is it difficult to inhabit the mind of an elderly woman, as he also did in The Secret Scripture? "The first thing I'm after is the broken music of the book," he replies. "I have a trust in waiting for that voice, that birdsong of the character. So you're in the dark with it – you're listening for that faint tune, like a broken-hearted bluegrass song in the distance, and the hope and prayer in the privacy of my own mind is that this is the authentic tune of the character. Woe betide you if you force it, and anyway, there's no point, because it will just become a wasteland before you, and every tree and flower will disappear off the ground."

I ask Barry about the mixture of tragedy and joy in his work. "On the one hand you have your children – and I look on my children and wife as a branch of my true work in this life – and on the other, you're dealing with this landscape of tragedy, like people's illnesses.

"That's what's saved me, in that tuppeny-ha'penny journey that no one gives you a ticket for, and indeed, with destinations you never planned to go to. What has kept me sane is things like my son Toby playing the piano at the age of six and composing at the age of seven. To be witness to that is obviously a joy. As Roseanne [in The Secret Scripture] would say: 'itemise happiness', because there's little of it. When you have it, record it, harvest it, store it up like a squirrel against the winter."

I ask how he made the grief in the novel so credible. Barry relates the story of his dear late friend Margaret, to whom he dedicated The Secret Scripture. "When she was very ill, her grandson, Erskine, who had been in the Irish Guards in Afghanistan, came home. But one day he hung himself. And Margaret said 'Why didn't he take me? I was ready to go.'" That was the most brave, the most terrifying thing I'd ever heard a human say.

"Although The Secret Scripture was given to her, to try and honour, in a small way, my friendship with and gratitude to her, On Canaan's Side was in a way her gift to me. Because having told me that, how could I not know the sorrow of Lilly? And she was saying it to someone with sons." He wipes an eye. "We had had no piano for a while, so Toby would go to her house to play the piano, and on the piano she had a photo of Erskine. So I'm looking at Toby, then Erskine – there was huge identification there."

Imbued with sorrow, joy, tenderness and also moments of great humour, On Canaan's Side is a luminously beautiful story that well deserves its place on the Booker longlist, and beyond.

On Canaan's Side, By Sebastian Barry (Faber £16.99)

"That hand in mine, that woundable hand, the woundable hand of every child, us moving through the gentle public gardens of Washington ... A woman approaching fifty, and a little neat boy with close-cut hair.

Our smiles mostly for each other, and every stranger a possible demon or bear, till they proved otherwise."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor