- 14 Jun 17
Sebastian Barry is one of Ireland’s most important writers. With the Costa Book Award under his belt for an unprecedented second time, he is appearing at the Hinterland Festival in Co. Meath, run by RTÉ’s Myles Dungan, later this month.
We here at Hot Press are not the only ones celebrating a 40th anniversary in the publishing game: 1977 was also the year that the award-winning author Sebastian Barry started seriously bashing away at the keyboard of his battered old typewriter. He too was harbouring dreams of greatness.
“Happy Birthday!” Sebastian gave a shout out to Hot Press when we caught up with him recently, as he soaked up the rays on a glorious summer day in his garden at the family home in Co. Wicklow.
Barry – who’ll be celebrating his 62nd birthday shortly – hails from a creative clan and could’ve ended up going down a number of different artistic avenues. The Dubliner first toyed with the idea of becoming a painter, when his grandfather took him under his wing as a young boy and taught him about watercolours and acrylics.
Barry might also have followed in his famous mother’s footsteps and trodden the boards of the Abbey Theatre. In later years, before her death in 2007, his mother Joan O’Hara was best known to younger viewers for her role as the busybody neighbour, Eunince Dunstan, in Fair City. But to our more mature readers, she’ll be fondly remembered as one of the finest stage actresses of her generation. And, in later life, she actually starred in her son’s stage plays.
Barry was always passionate about music and equally could’ve followed his aunt Mary O’Hara into showbiz. The soprano and harpist had the world at her feet, back in the so-called good auld days. She performed at the likes of Carnegie Hall in New York, before retiring in 1994. In his memoir, the late, great Liam Clancy wrote about how she was a major inspiration to the those who were in the vanguard of the Folk Revival.
But Sebastian decided to follow in his father’s footsteps instead, and to try his hand at writing. He started out as a poet, moving on to short stories and plays – before eventually establishing himself as one of Ireland’s leading contemporary novelists.
“Dublin of the ‘70s was a strange city. I and others like me made up a generation that kept trying to leave and kept trying to come back. I was very aware that Hot Press was the New Testament of Irish music of the time,” he recalls.
Sebastian was so skint as a struggling writer that he couldn’t afford to buy Hot Press every fortnight. But he remembers how his close mate, Roger Doyle – who would go on to establish himself as leading composer in both theatre and film – was always found clutching a copy, from which he could nick a read.
“I was permanently broke!” he laughs at the recollection. “My lovely and brilliant friend Roger Doyle, then a band-member morphing into a magnificent composer, paraded through it.”
On one occasion, Sebastian was so broke that he gave Roger a buzz to borrow a fiver to go boozing. Roger didn’t have two pennies to rub together either, but his friend Alison was in the flat with him at the time. And a brazen Sebastian – who had never met her – half-jokingly asked his mate to check if she might have a bit of spare cash. Alison thought Sebastian had some neck, but agreed to meet him in Bewley’s to give him a lend. And one thing, as they say, led to another. He had just met his future wife, Alison Deegan.
Alison herself would go on to become a very successful actress and later a successful writer. She is perhaps best known for her screenplay for the movie A Little Chaos, which starred Kate Winslet and the late Alan Rickman, who also directed the film. In the process of the long journey from page to screen, Rickman struck up a close friendship with Sebastian and Alison.
Sebastian jokes that he actually never gave the money back to his wife! Thankfully, the best-selling author isn’t short of a few bob these days. It’s been an amazing year for Sebastian, who made history back in January when he become the first ever author to scoop the prestigious Costa Book of the Year award (and the £30,000 prize money) for a second time.
Sebastian won the award for his superb novel Days Without End, which he was inspired to write about a gay character, after his then 16-year-old son Toby came out to him. But Sebastian had no expectations of winning because he was forewarned that nobody is ever bestowed with the award twice. “It was nearly the first instance of a posthumous winner – I got such a fright!” he jokes.
Sebastian is between projects at the moment and reveals that it will probably be next year before he stares at a blank page again, in an effort to conjure his next magnum opus. But in the meantime, Sebastian’s legion of fans will be able to rub shoulders with him later this month, when he appears at the Hinterland Festival in Kells, which runs from June 22-25.
“A good literary festival receives you as a tired creature and puts you out on the road again the other side, renewed and surprised. I have just done the Hay and Bath festivals and had that grand experience,” he tells Hot Press.
“You bump into friends and fellow writers, who are also in that peculiar pre-performance state. Some friendships can be entirely conducted through festivals. The writer is a solitary soul in need of socialising like a bad-mannered dog – so it is all beneficial.”
There’s a stellar line up at Hinterland this year: the film director Stephen Frears, the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, Deirdre Purcell, Patricia Scanlan, Ryan Tubridy, and Paul Howard, who recently wrote a biography about the tragically short life of the Guinness heir, Tara Browne – the inspiration for The Beatles’ "A Day in the Life".
Sebastian is clearly looking forward to the event. “Many good festivals are good because there is a radiant soul at their centre – in the case of Hinterland at Kells, the soul in question is Myles Dungan, who as an historian has opened with his golden key many old locks in the Irish story, in particular the First World War. And as a broadcaster, he has helped to keep the levee of art complete and whole, to stop the deluge that people like Trump would probably welcome,” Sebastian points out.
“People like Myles have increased in importance by a multiple of ten in this new and threatening world. If you look at the programme, there are many delights, some of them very promising in their sprightly wickedness. The great Diarmaid Ferriter, for instance, will be very interesting on that dangerous man, Archbishop McQuaid.”
Put the date in your diary: Kells, June 22-25. Hopefully we'll see you there...
For further information about Hinterland Festival log onto hinterland.ie.