- 18 Dec 17
With a cluster of awards to his name, novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry is one of Ireland’s most successful writers. This year saw him win the Costa Prize for an unprecedented second time with his most recent novel, Days Without End. But there has been considerable turbulence along the way for a man who is completely committed to the precarious world of literary creativity. Depression, gay rights and repealing the eighth are all on the agenda, in a powerful and moving interview. By Jason O’Toole
We here at Hot Press were not the only ones in Ireland celebrating a 40th anniversary in the publishing game this year: 1977 was also when Sebastian Barry started seriously bashing away at the keyboard of his battered old typewriter, harbouring dreams of greatness too.
2017 turned out to be another memorable year for one of our greatest living writers: back in February, he became the first ever novelist to twice win the Costa Book of the Year for his superb novel, Days Without End. He was inspired to write the insightful novel about a gay character after then his 16-year-son Toby came out to him.
The Dublin-born writer, who now lives in the wilds of County Wicklow, hails from a creative clan and could’ve ended up going down a number of different artistic avenues. He 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.
In his student days at Trinity, Barry was always passionate about music and dreamt of following 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 those in the vanguard of the Folk Revival.
But Barry 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.
Jason O’Toole: What do you make of Hemingway’s famous saying that the best training for a writer is an unhappy childhood?
Sebastian Barry: It’s essential. I don’t see how you could get your ticket franked for the job without it. I think that’s the experience of a lot of writers. Well, certainly this writer.
You once hinted at a “darkness” in your childhood during an interview with the Guardian, but didn’t expand.
I don’t go into it, not because I wouldn’t be happy to talk about such a thing, but whenever I sat down to write something there’s always this shadow book – the marriage of my parents – and I’m always sitting down to write that book, but I never do.
I would have to wait for people to sadly pass away, but maybe I would have to pass away myself! So, it would be a truly posthumous book because the author himself would be posthumously writing it! It’s not only the impossible book but it’s the impossible subject for many families. The thing that’s almost impossible to talk about – and maybe there isn’t even a lingo for it, there isn’t even a language, words don’t even exist yet really to talk about properly – is the trouble that happens within families. The greatest trouble for an ex-Catholic, or as they call it, a recovering Catholic, like myself, is that commandment: honour my father and my mother. It’s an atrocious and ill-advised commandment. And yet it haunts us all. It’s very hard to talk negatively about one’s childhood.
There isn’t really a tradition of a writer hammering their parents in Irish fiction.
Not only that but in Irish literature – apart from the very great John McGahern who did go after his father, long after his father was dead, in his fiction and memoir – there is an elevation of the parent. It is because we are in a predominantly Catholic country. You get those wonderful poems by John Montague or Seamus (Heaney) about his mother. I feel such a wretch for not being able to share in that. I literally envy people who have had and have always had a close relationship with their parents.
Did your parents spend much time with you as a kid?
My mother was a famous actor and she was very busy. In the old days, in the Abbey, you rehearsed during the day and played something from the repertoire in the evening. So, you were literally never home. The business of being a parent is being at home. My good father would stray off in the evenings to do whatever he did, as a man about town. We were a little bit unguarded. That’s as far as I’ll say. And that created a sense of danger for us. We didn’t feel safe when we were kids. And my own experience as a father, I was trying to give them a sense of safety – that’s why we bought this house here in the mountains – to try to guard them.
Your mother worked with you in later life on one of your plays. I heard it was an uneasy experience.
We weren’t right together. Something had a thorn at the roots of everything and we didn’t know how to fix it. We weren’t the gardeners of that sorrow. We all think we speak English in Ireland – and sometimes we mourn that – but sometimes parents and children may seem to be speaking the same language but, in effect, you’re not. Almost every word you’re using has a different meaning for your listener. If you’re estranged from you’re parents, even the moment they try to say they love you can be vexed, because the child is stupefied by not hearing it. So, to hear it is almost a moment of resentment.
Was the resentment ever eased in your mind?
We were a bit messed up together. At the same time, I revered her. She was the most magnificent grandmother. The kids adored her. When I was a boy she was a terrific entertainer of her children. And that was all true. And it remains even more true now that she’s gone. Just the last years were very complicated. So, as you can see, I’m saying two things at the same time, but isn’t that how we talk about a lot of things? I think about her a lot. I remember the day she died.
How did you feel when she died?
It wasn’t a moment of sorrow. I thought she’d gone away, like Billy the Kid. Pat Garrett hadn’t got her. She’d got down into Mexico and she’s free. I had a sense of her scooting around the galaxies and having a lovely time. It was a relief for me to feel that she’d been just let go, because her body was closing down and she was in those awful chains of illness. I’ve seen the sorrow of people when they lose their parent and it’s not regretful, it’s a total feeling of loss because the relationship was so good. I always say to them, ‘This is terrible. And this sharp pain will pass. But I do envy you your sorrow, you know?’
Was there closure?
You know in plays where you get to these resolving scenes? Many people never get to those scenes. I often thought with my mother it was tragic really, when you think she was an actress and had often played those scenes in many an Irish play where there’s a reconciliation. And the audience can go home feeling that life is worth it, hard as it may be. I tried to stir her towards them. Because she probably knew the lines from some ghastly play by somebody or other – even myself! – but she didn’t. We never got to speak them. It’s important to speak them. A person of good heart knows that.
You describe your father as a ‘man about town’. It sounds like he was a drinker. Was that part of the problem?
That’s always a problem. My mother had come out of an alcoholic family: her father stopped, but her mother died of alcoholism. She died of liver cancer when she was 53. My father’s still alive. He’s 87 this year. But, yes, there was a lot of drinking in his generation and he partook in it. I don’t know how you separate that out from parenting, but I didn’t think he managed it, ultimately. It can be very destructive. If I was an advisor to parents, one of my commandments from on high (laughs) would be: give up the sauce in the years where you’re parents. So, to answer your question: yeah, that did create a certain amount of trouble. But there’s lots of things you can survive. I’ll throw in that as well.
Did you ever suffer from depression?
I was very seriously unwell – and it’s worth talking about. I so admired Prince Harry for coming out and talking about these things. We’re obliged now to be open about these issues. Because it’s so incredibly painful. If your friend had a gaping wound, or the knee was shot out of him by a bullet, you’d rush in to help, wouldn’t you? And bind the wound and bring them to hospital. But mental pain is invisible. People might say, ‘Snap out of it’. But it’s such an enormous pain. People don’t get it. People need to get it.
When did depression first come to a head for you?
In ’99, I was at the end of an American book tour. By the time I got to San Francisco – it sounds like a song. It was a terrible year where my poor brother, who was 13 years younger, had become mentally unwell and he had to be briefly sectioned. And Donald McCann died. It was one of those years and I didn’t deal with it very well. A book tour is very weakening in every way. I really had a meltdown in San Francisco. I suppose I – because we’re all so ashamed of these conditions – should’ve rung somebody and said, ‘Will you come and get me?’ Or, ‘Can I book in somewhere?’ But I didn’t: I struggled on. I wasn’t sleeping. And that level of suffering, no one can tell you unless you’ve had it yourself.
You can’t describe it. It’s as if somebody has poured acid into your brain and melted it. All the resources that you used to have, tiny little things like coffee in the morning, nothing works – there’s no taste in your mouth. I had that for about seven months.
It’s not called the black dog for nothing…
The black dog, exactly. You’re probably too young to have read Beano. There was a wonderful story in those comics. I can’t remember what it was called: they lived in a man’s head and they stirred him around. It’s like some bastard has got in there and killed all the good-hearted preachers in your head and he’s taking over and driving – and you want to get him out. Maybe a witchdoctor! A witchdoctor would work just as well for some people, I think.
What finally helped you?
My doctor said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you. We can try Prozac. I think it is anxiety and it is very painful. You’re 44-years-old, why don’t you try running every day?’ We were living in Mayo at the time. Running in Mayo on those hills, almost anything was better than running (laughs). It was a great cure (laughs).
Do you keep it up?
I run every day, every city I’m in. I’ll get up at six to do it. If public schools are an evil in England – I don’t know if they are or not – at least the motto is true, ‘Mens sana in corpore sano’: A healthy mind and a healthy body. There is a truth in that.
Did you try meds to deal with anxiety?
Well, let me be really honest about it: I did try Prozac for a couple of weeks.
Why did you stop?
I started to feel a bit high. I don’t really drink, so that was bizarre. I didn’t feel very sober, strangely enough. I rang Ivor Browne. He once gloried in the title of chief psychiatrist of Ireland, which I think is wonderful and amusing. And I said, ‘I’m not functioning at the minute anyway, but this is even worse’. I was in great distress. He was very concerned. I just wanted to be able to do something; for instance, like go walking with the babies, or whatever you’re supposed to be doing with the children. And he said, ‘You work out a lot of your stuff in your work. Come off that Prozac and do the running intensively. And see where that gets you. And see if you can get back to work. And maybe that’s your balance again’. So, that did work for me. Different things works for different people.
Prozac unfairly gets a bad rap…
Donal McCann drank because he was very depressed. He told me, ‘If I had Prozac when I was a young man I would never have bothered drinking’. That was the power of that amazing drug. It literally freed Donal from his particular demon. Some people worry that if they take Prozac it’ll affect their creativity – it’s a load of bunkum. Donal did his greatest work as a sober man. Ivor said when somebody’s in crisis it’s very important sometimes to make interventions that are highly medical. And also incredibly valuable is a doctor who knows about it and can fine tune things. But look at the outcome: for people to be restored. And, even if one is a little bit vulnerable the whole bloody time, not to be pitching over that goddamn cliff every so often is an immense advantage.
It sounds like Donal’s death hit you very hard?
It was a rather Greek experience. He brought a little bit of me into the underworld with him. I had to go and retrieve it. I had to bring myself back into the world. I had three small children, so it was an utter emergency and a disaster. And my wife, of course, was probably terrified, if she would ever admit the word.
And then you had to go through that all over again when you and your wife’s friend Alan Rickman died.
The Gods are either really stupid and don’t know what they’re doing by taking these people, or are really astute and want these beautiful examples of humanity around them. So, they take them young. Like Alan Rickman, our other great friend. He was the total opposite of what you might expect a great star to be: a very thinking man, rather like Donal. And he worshipped Donal. And Donal hugely admired him.
It’s almost unimaginable to think that they could actually leave the earth. I mean, where is that door? How does that happen? And that does engender anxiety because all the things that had you moored, that you didn’t even know where mooring you, like a ship doesn’t know that there’s two ropes at the stern and holding it to the key, but if you take the ropes away it soon finds out. It’s like that, isn’t it? You feel literally unmoored and you’re drifting off, and there’s no sailor onboard to help you.
Starting out, was writing a form of therapy?
It wasn’t therapy: it was like when the hawk goes down for the mouse, that feeling of doing totally the thing that you could do. Even if you could do nothing else, at least this one thing you could do gave you that shot of joy.
You were the editor of the student mag during your time at Trinity.
I know on my Wikipedia page they mention that, and I often see it cropping up in things, but it was really nothing to write home about. I did one issue of Icarus. I outraged my fellow editor to such a degree that she detached from the project. I wasn’t a great editor in any sense, in that I was already alienating my co-editor. I loved doing it, but it was only one issue. That was my glorious career (laughs).
What was university like for you? Were you off boozing and chasing women?
I was very odd. I was a bit of a curiosity, old fashioned: a young person that acts like an old man. Also, I wasn’t particularly sound, I would say, in the ways that are properly understandable coming out of that childhood. I was a bit rattled. So, I took refuge in certain attitudes, which I regret now. I was fairly arrogant. At the same time, if you’re going to be a writer, you do need to have an enormous self-belief and that can come across as arrogant, even to yourself. It’s very necessary. I’m not as arrogant as I was in my twenties – it’s beaten out of me (laughs). Actually, now that you mention it, they were lonely years at Trinity – until I met somebody right at the end of college. And then we lived together for a couple of years.
Was she your first serious girlfriend?
She wasn’t actually. My other rescuer (laughs), my first girlfriend – again they come to me like Gods in memory – was probably 13 and I was 14. We were together for four or five years.
How old were you when you lost your virginity?
I can’t remember (laughs)! That probably doesn’t speak well for the occasion! And what is virginity anyway? I actually don’t remember. It was probably around 16. But that’s good. It’s the right age. I’m a bit worried for people who say earlier or later, because both of those things can be a bit dicey riley.
After Trinity, you moved to Paris with your girlfriend.
We were there for half-a-year and then we went to Hampshire. It was that very pathetic life where you’re wandering around broke. I was literally a kept man. And very happy to be so. There was that glory of getting up in the morning and start a short story on my Olivetti Traveller Deluxe and by evening you’d have seven or eight pages of a story. I mean, such excitement and pleasure. And this lovely girl was very interested in that and hugely supportive. Although it was all a bit kind of vulnerable and mad as well, that was the compensatory thing.
Didn’t you meet your wife because you asked her – a total stranger – for a loan?
I don’t know how true it is anymore! She has her version of it, I’m sure. Well, I had this lovely friend in Dublin, Roger Doyle. We knocked around together intensively. I was writing and he was composing. He had a theatre company and he would get CVs – and one of them he opened it in front of me and this picture fell out, which I looked at in his hall and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s trouble!’ It was the first same thought I had when my first son was born: ‘This is wonderful. There’s trouble’. She was incredibly beautiful. Truly beautiful. She was gorgeous. And, you know, most men think they’re not worthy of a really beautiful woman – that’s the truth of the matter, and that’s what I always used to think. If she was beautiful and sane there was no chance!
So, what happened next?
A couple of days later I rang Roger and I said, ‘You wouldn’t have a lend of a fiver?’ A fiver was a lot of money in those days. I wanted to go to Tobin’s. He said, ‘I don’t have any money. But Allison Deegan is here’. I said, ‘Who’s Allison Deegan?’ He said, ‘You saw her picture the other day’. I said, as if I could see your picture and meant I could say the following, which was: ‘Well, ask her (laughs)!’
So, you really did have the audacity to ask a total stranger for a fiver?
It was a kind of a joke. So, my whole happiness is actually based on this moment of levity, you know? And he said, ‘Ah, ok. Alison, do you have a fiver?’ And I could hear her distantly on the other side of the room: ‘Yeah!’ Like really dubious: What the hell is this? Because she was just coming to meet him for work and she’s getting this weird (request). And he said, ‘It’s Sebastian Barry: do you know who that is?’ And she said quite crossly, ‘No!’ Anyway, we arranged to meet in Bewley’s and she would give me this fiver. I think I was two hours late! And they were coming back down the stairs because they were leaving. She was very angry because I was late.
She was probably wondering what the hell she’d gotten herself involved in.
She thought she had fallen in with two lunatics. She possibly did in my case! I hope I said I was sorry. Anyway, she gave me the fiver. And then I can’t remember how it happened – this is ancient history – the Pink Elephant was a nightclub and Roger went there with people, so he brought me that evening. And she happened to be there and we arranged to meet.
The big question is: did you pay her back?
I never directly paid her back. I hope I have in some form or other given her good interest on her fiver. A life out of that moment of daftness really: ‘Well, ask her?’
I was reading an interview with Allison in which she said that the first time she met you was like a chemical attraction.
(Surprised) Did she? God bless her. She’s in France. She’s on the way home. Now I’m looking forward to her coming back (laughs).
Your aunt Mary O’Hara was a huge singer back in the day.
She was so gifted that at 17 – at 17 now – she had her own BBC series. She became incredibly famous. She had this most amazing voice and extreme gift. When she sings Archie Cooan (Ardaí Chuain) in The Quiet Land O’ Erin she holds a note for about, well, it sounds like a minute-and-a-half. I remember her doing that in concert and smiling right through the note. Very, very beautiful.
She famously walked away from it all to become a nun.
Her husband Richard Seling had Hodgkin’s Disease – and he died after about 18 months of marriage. So, they never had a bloody chance. She completely lost heart. And she was deeply religious even as a young woman. So, she didn’t just become a nun, she founded an enclosed order. I really loved her when I was a child. I thought she was the bee’s knees.
Why did she leave the Order?
She’s stopped singing. And it was as if because she’d stopped singing she’d started to get unwell. And, after maybe a dozen years, she simply had to sing to live. She might disagree with me, but that was my interpretation of it. And she came out. Now, that was like 1973 or ’74. And when she came out she had literally never heard of anyone in the ’60s.
So she hadn’t an iota about The Beatles or Dylan?
She’d never heard of Bob Dylan! I remember playing her Bob Dylan. She had actually been on the moon! ‘What’s that? It’s like a very old man singing’. I said, ‘No. He’s 19. This is his first album’. She barely knew who The Beatles were. It was quite extraordinary. It was surreally fantastic. It was like a magic realism trying to talk to her about these things.
Did she like Dylan?
I worshipped at the altar of Dylan. I was very distressed when she didn’t care for it.
She became mega famous again in the 1970s and ’80s, but walked away from it again.
She stopped because she hated performing. She said, ‘My voice is still good – I’m going to stop now.’
It’s funny that you played Dylan for her considering he cited the Clancy Brothers – who’d actually had collaborated with your aunt – as a major influence.
Exactly. When I published A Long, Long Way, which obviously is from the song, Liam Clancy came down to an event in Galway for the festival, for the book. I was absolutely thrilled. He spoke so highly of Mary and had known her very well in the ‘50s.
Did you ever dream about becoming a musician?
I wanted to be a singer. I could play the guitar really well, but I couldn’t compose.
You’re basically a rock star in the literary world these days. You made history this year by becoming the only ever novelist to win the Costa Book of the Year twice.
Isn’t there an Oscar Wilde quote: ‘To lose it once is understandable, lose it twice sounds like carelessness’? Whatever the opposite of that would be. I was told that you can’t win it twice.
So, if you weren’t expecting to win it, you mustn’t have been nervous at the ceremony?
I thought I was going to faint – I was so stressed. But when I got down to the floor and I saw the other writers there, and having been told you couldn’t win it twice, I suddenly became quite the opposite: I felt lightheaded in a happy sort of way, rather childish actually feeling of I can’t win it twice, so it’s fine.
You gave a humorous acceptance speech.
The first thing I said when I got up was, ‘You nearly had your first posthumous winner because you gave me such a fright!’ It was intensely happy, almost dangerously happy, because it’s a feeling of release again of being catapulted, of just being manumitted. It’s hard to say what the experience is, but it’s also that when you’ve been through being a parent and you’ve been in the highs, and the lows and you’ve done your stupid running because you’re half-bonkers, and all the rest of it – all those things become gathered in a little maelstrom of happiness. It’s like not only an award for your book, but a little reward for being alive. Writing books is probably not in the scheme of the universe a very important thing to do. But in that moment it seems like the loveliest, brightest, most bedecked circus you could ever be in. The bearded lady is kissing you, the strongman is lifting you up – it’s lovely.
Days Without End is an extra special book for you because you took inspiration from your son coming out as gay.
Yeah. I was going to write this book anyway, but it coincided with a rather difficult time when Toby – he’s at Maynooth studying music – became a bit depressed. I could see that he was suffering, even if, thank God, moderately. But still that’s a serious business. And I live in a part of Wicklow where there has been a number of absolutely unimaginable tragedies of young men taking their lives. So, when it happens obviously all parents will then mobilise themselves, they will try to find out what’s the cause. Now you’re in a realm far beyond language, or ever attaining the language to describe it. So, I moved everything around. Was it his piano studies bothering him? Was it girl trouble? What could it be?
It was obviously a very difficult time…
We weren’t sleeping, Ally and me. It was a terrible time. He was suffering. And I was terrified. Eventually, he spoke to his sister Carol, who said, ‘Toby, just go in and say’. So, after this period of silent suffering he came in with the immense courage required of all young people who have to go in and say something that is not just grown-up but is a sort of immensity all in its own category. And he said, ‘The thing is, Dad, I’m gay’.
How did you feel?
The sense of relief when he spoke was so profound. A deep-rooted sense of relief. And I praised his valour. And I made it my business to try to understand as a stupid straight man what this could be. I studied as much as I could. He told me everything he could. We sat and watched RuPaul. It was a PhD in being gay and the professor was my son. I was just about to start the book when all this was happening. I didn’t put it in the book, the book drew it into itself in a magical way. Partially because Toby had released us from this crashing worry and it was the beginning of a renewed happiness for him, I wrote that book with a sort of almost unlikely happiness. It was one of the experiences of my life really. It all comes from him, so I dedicated it to him.
You wrote a letter to The Irish Times supporting same sex marriages.
I wrote a little letter because he wasn’t 18, so he couldn’t vote. I wanted to help if I could, so I wrote a letter. The default reaction of the middle class Irish male is to write to The Irish Times in a moment of emergency (laughs). He said to me, ‘Dad, if this isn’t passed I don’t think I can live in Ireland’. So, there was a lot at stake for me. I mean, maybe he’ll go anyway, but I didn’t want him to go for that reason because I would’ve been so ashamed of my country I probably would’ve had to go too. Certainly, I would follow where he was going, that’s for sure. But, anyway, the people of Ireland passed it.
What was Toby’s reaction to the letter?
He did shed a tear. I thought, ‘If I can make Toby Barry cry maybe the letter’s okay’. So, we sent it off and it went viral, which is rather magical. This letter went to many corners of the earth. It was read out in the Australian parliament by the leader of the opposition, because Australia hasn’t quite got there yet with this matter.
Did Toby ever experience any nasty homophobic jibes?
He was on a train somewhere down the country. And his lovely boyfriend Jack was getting off the train, so they kissed goodbye, as you do with your beloveds. And three or four sons of bitches – I think it was three women and a boy, sitting beside him – seemed to think they had the license to mock him and intimate him because of this kiss! Instead of reverence and happiness to witness such a kiss between two human persons, this was their reaction!
What ran through your head when Toby told you?
I did want to go and find them and beat them with a stick, rather than remonstrate them with words. That’s how I felt, I have to be honest. I was afraid it would pitch him over back into this really terrible misery. But it didn’t. He was resourceful. He mobilized himself. But I could see it had truly hurt him.
It’s appalling that anybody could act like that in a so-called civilised society.
It is literally a crime. It is a hate crime. I hope it’s in the legislation. I imagine it is. Would you let anyone say anything to your child to dismay them in the great innocents of being 16? Would you do that? Would you allow that for any reason? So, why would you either allow it in this case or even engage in it. It’s a form of criminality to do so. These incidents of human love are so important that they must be held up. We must hold it up to children in school and everywhere else that this is a great state of being and it has to be celebrated. And if anyone feels otherwise there should be a law passed that they immediately (shouts) shut up (laughs)!
I interviewed the Primate of All-Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin in Hot Press last year and he basically suggested that being gay is not a sin but the act of homosexuality is a sin. Isn’t that a load of medieval nonsense?
Yeah. Shut up! We do admire him and he said some good things. But, in this instance, I respectfully tell you to (shouts) shut up already (laughs)!
Could you see yourself writing a similar letter to The Irish Times in support of taking the Eighth Amendment out of the Constitution?
I certainly could. It’s not just that every woman’s body is their own concern, which is beyond dispute, it’s that every woman alive is the concern of all the other people around her to assist in the decisive and difficult business of being alive. Happiness is to raise each other up. And when you’re cast down by an emergency to feel yourself being lifted by the arms of the people who love you.
That priest saying what he said to you, I mean, how dare he involve himself in the love of my son? I’m trying to keep expletives out of these responses. But how dare he even think for a moment, or try to get a picture in his head of what that might mean, and to tell us what he means when he knows not only nothing about it but he’s trying to impose his murderous ignorance on somebody else – and he’s supposed to be a caring priest! How dare he trot out his nonsense. I’ve been at the coalface and I can tell him what he’s saying is potentially murderous.
Speaking of murderous behaviour, some theatre-goers and critics wanted to kill you – you got a lot of flack over the Charles Haughey play, Hinterland. I read you felt like leaving the country at the time.
No, I was told to leave the country! I certainly felt like leaving the country, but also told for a change (laughs), in a letter to the Irish Times. You see, it is the default mode of protest. It doesn’t really matter if the play was good or bad – it was more the nature of the reaction: because it was just a play and plays have a right to fail. But this was very little to do with theatrical terms: this was a reaction. Mr Haughey was still alive; his wife was still alive. So, it’s something that moves into a realm.
How did you feel being at the centre of such a maelstrom?
It was very frightening. Of course it would be. Naturally it would if people are talking about suing you, especially if it’s a former prime minister. It was sort of a thing I had to process. It was very strange experience and very surreal. And it was something to do with what are the boundaries of literature, how free can you be? Can you write about anything you want? Can words talk about anything? And the answer seemed to be for a lot of people: No! There are boundaries.
And are there?
I do think that as long as the writer’s heart is true there is no boundary to it because if there is, then you’re starting to move into a realm actually that I think Donald Trump would rather like. It was an attempt to say that this had crossed some line, but in literature there are no lines. And societies at various times have tried to draw lines for us. You have to be very careful with all that and, I think, the best role is just let it be; let there be a total freedom of speech and the written word. That’s what I would conclude from it. But it’s almost as if it happened in another time or another life, in a funny sort of way.
I wouldn’t envy you going though such an experience…
It doesn’t toughen you up because you can’t be toughened up as a writer. It does create extra resilience, if only to say to yourself, ‘Even with this I’ll go on’. It’s nice to find that within yourself the ability to go on. And then a few months later I published a little book called Annie Dunne, which was received in a lovely way. What can I say about that?
Nobody’s asked what was your deep-rooted motivation for wanting to write this particular play in the first place?
Hinterland was an effort to write about my father by not writing about him, pretending it was somebody else, because it’s not a portrait of Haughey at all. It’s certainly not a portrait of the late Mrs Haughey because the woman in that play is inept attempt to portray my mother. But, anyway, for the purposes of social survival you probably are safer in some ways writing about the past, or what seems to be the past.
Any plans in the pipeline for a movie adaption of Days Without End? They’re going to make a film out of Days Without End, I hope. They’re just doing the contract at the minute. They haven’t quite announced it.
Are you mapping out a new book?
I’ll read for a year now and then, hopefully, in another year, I’ll get going on something that’s as structured as I can make it. I’m sure it’ll be a novel of some sort – if I’ve ever written a proper one!
You swore blind you’d never do another play, but you had one on at the Dublin Theatre Festival.
Although I swore that I would never write another play, I did just very naturally. It’s called On Blueberry Hill, like the Fats Domino song.
What’s it about?
Let’s go see it together and you tell me.
What advice would you give to young writers?
In a funny way, young writers don’t need advice because they cannot stop themselves doing it. They’re unstoppable. In a way, if you need advice you’re in the wrong profession (laughs). Because it’s a mystery. A young writer, young painter, a young composer will, by definition, be not only unstoppable but probably beyond advise. Because it’s not a sensible undertaking.
Hopefully every parent now who is told that their son or daughter is gay knows how to deal with it and will be happy and exult and give praise. But maybe it’ll never be true when a son or daughter comes to a parent and says, ‘I want to be a writer (laughs)’! Maybe running for the hills is the proper reaction, or some form of therapy for the poor child! Because, obviously, the poor child has gone mad and wants to throw their lives into the flames of the uncertain!
Sebastian Barry was speaking to Hot Press as part of the Hinterland Festival.