Dabbling in the gene pool

Sebastian Barry's 1990 play 'Prayers of Sherkin' makes its British debut next week.
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Sebastian Barry has mellowed since I first met him a dozen years ago, then a poet and author of short novels. At 41, still tall and youthful- looking with thick hanks of jet black hair, he hasn't lost his introspective wariness or wry verbal play-acting; yet, after a decade of imaginative memory-plays - all based on half-forgotten ancestors - the spectacular success of The Steward of Christendom has turned his life around; transporting him and his young family from a basement flat in Dublin to a salubrious semi-detached dorm-estate on the big-sky coast of County Wicklow, outside Greystones. "It's amazing that you can build a house out of words. I tell you, I'm a man in shock," he laughs, contentedly enough.

Although sniffing from a head cold, he graciously allowed himself to be dragged out into the back garden, where the sun provided a suburban idyll of birdsong and alarming bumble-bees, drugged by the chill of early summer. His wife, actress Alison Deegan, was napping upstairs, only weeks away from delivering their third child. The four-and-a-half year old twins - Merlin (male) and Coral (female) - had been "banished temporarily" for The Interview. They were off with his mother, the magnetic actress Joan O'Hara who, with Alison, has premiered two of his plays at the Abbey, including, in 1990, Prayers of Sherkin, which Peter Hall's company opens next weekend at the Old Vic with Catherine Cusack, Julian Glover and Stanley Townsend.

"Of all the plays that didn't make it to London," says Barry, "Sherkin is more a paradigm of possibilities. It was important to do it before I entered family life, a rites-of-passage thing. The depth of emotion involved was essential, that feeling between father and daughters, between family members. It's a calling to children, really..."

There are obvious overlapping concerns, but the real / imaginary world of Sherkin is a far cry from The Steward with Donal McCann's unforgettable performance as the incontinent old dotard, abandoned to memory and piss- stained long-johns in a forgotten cell in a country home; a perfect Beckettian instrument for some of Barry's bleaker musings on mortality and loss. Weirdly, The Steward was inspired by his sudden double-fatherhood at the age of 37, as much as by his great-great-uncle, the former Dublin Metropolitan Police chief who handed over Dublin Castle to Michael Collins.

Set in the 1890s, Prayers of Sherkin takes on another ancestor who has fascinated Barry since childhood: his great-grandmother, Fanny Hawke. It's a simple, charming, home-spun but finely-worked, affectionate piece about the last family of a dwindling Protestant sect, living on the windswept Sherkin Island, off the West Cork coast. "The origin of it was that my father and sister were at a funeral of one of my innumerable great-aunts, and my sister was told not to talk about this woman who had married - out of her culture - to my great-grandfather, a lithographer in Cork. My father didn't know much about her, because his father had never spoken of her, his own mother. But I wonder what happens to people when you don't speak of them. Can you retrieve them by an act of the imagination...?"

As usual, Barry eschewed direct research for remembered childhood curiosity and anecdotal crumbs. "Even for The Steward, I didn't go to Dublin Castle until last year, with the director of the French production. And there was the name on the book, all the positions the man occupied, but I'm more interested in the fragments that survive in the realm of secrecy. Facts - which are unprovable anyway - can overwhelm the imagination - they sort of demand to be included. In a way, a writer's research is all done between the ages of zero and four, when you're the real scientist of life - gathering things with great ease, which is the whole secret..."

There was certainly a bohemian backdrop to Barry's own childhood. Apart from his mother in the Abbey, his uncle was a sculptor-drifter; his aunt, a singer; and his paternal grandfather, a painter (Barry constantly compares his writing to painting). Indeed, his father, before he became an architect, had been a poet, yet that remains a distant relationship - "it's a great sadness when you don't see the person closest genetically to you, especially if you're reinventing your family. For him, there was the Sartrean, existentialist stuff going round Dublin. It might have been grand then, but it's a hopeless basis for a child to get a grip upon the world."

In the early days, the family moved around before settling in the grand Victorian environs of Longford Terrace in South Dublin. From there, the young Sebastian read English and Latin at Trinity College Dublin, before embarking on early writings, including his 1986 novel, The Engine of Owl- light. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that he found his true metier in the Abbey where his mother still worked; where he found champions such as the novelist (and Abbey board member) Jennifer Johnston; and where his first three plays, all directed beautifully by Caroline Fitzgerald, were first seen: Boss Grady's Boys (1986), Prayers of Sherkin (1990) and White Woman Street (1992), which opened first at the Bush Theatre in London.

But it was Max Stafford-Clark's production of The Steward, playing to 100,000 people worldwide, that rang up the most important accolades in London, Dublin, Australia, New Zealand and New York, and netted him all the best-play awards (Critic's Circle, Writer's Guild, Lloyd's etc). Mind you, it hasn't been entirely plain sailing since in his home town. Another play, The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, written back-to-back with The Steward, but premiered later on the Abbey mainstage, was howled down by critics. "It was a penitential experience. It all happened three weeks after The Steward reopened in London, so the contrast really called upon my deeper reserves. It was monumentally confusing."

Barry still stands by the play - preferably as a simpler, 90-minute piece - but has long since moved on. He has just completed his first novel in 10 years, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty - already bought by Picador and sold on to Germany, Holland and Viking-Penguin in the US. The subject: "God bless him, a great-uncle of mine who disappeared after the Civil War, no doubt for good reason. It's all totally invented, because he didn't leave any trace, a glorious blank canvas for whatever it is, a dreamworld." Also belted down is a new play, Our Lady of Sligo, about his mother's mother - again commissioned by Max Stafford-Clark's company, Out of Joint, (which toured The Steward), featuring Sinead Cusack.

In the meantime, he happily pats the Methuen book of his past five plays, re-combing strands of his past. "Ten years in 301 pages, it's frightening. But it mirrors the 10 years Ali and I have been together, and the plays are a flustered attempt to create a sense of family, because my own family wasn't interested in the past. Certainly my own father, who seemed to feel there was no Irish history before 1950."

After a while, the future, in the form of his own unruly babas, erupted on to the scene, sending the two dogs and the Cartoon Channel into hyperdrive. Back-chatting easily with their cheek and curiosity - they've impudently picked up his taste for playing with well-worn phrases, as though constantly trying to wring new irony from them - he abstractedly whiled away the time with them, as his wife and mother traded conversation in the kitchen.

"I couldn't do it," he admits, fielding a baby-shoe encrusted with dogshit, "unless I had an impossible licence from my family. I have a single-mindedness which borders on the criminal. If you look at some writers, you get a sense of people abandoning everything in order to concentrate - Jesus, it's horrific. You see it again and again, so many bloody lonely writers, but it doesn't have to be such a lonely task..." He sighs: "but you have to be dandy on your feet at the same time"n 'Prayers of Sherkin' opens on Monday at the Old Vic, London SE1 (Booking: 0171-928 7616)