The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty

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Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as "the finest book to come out of Europe this year," The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty is acclaimed Irish playwright Sebastian Barry's lyrical tale of a fugitive everyman.

For Eneas McNulty, a happy, innocent childhood in County Sligo in the early 1900s gives way to an Ireland wracked by violence and conflict. Unable to find work in the depressed times after World War I, Eneas joins the British-led police force, the Royal Irish ...

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Hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as "the finest book to come out of Europe this year," The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty is acclaimed Irish playwright Sebastian Barry's lyrical tale of a fugitive everyman.

For Eneas McNulty, a happy, innocent childhood in County Sligo in the early 1900s gives way to an Ireland wracked by violence and conflict. Unable to find work in the depressed times after World War I, Eneas joins the British-led police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary—a decision that alters the course of his life. Branded a traitor by Irish nationalists and pursued by IRA hitmen, Eneas is forced to flee his homeland, his family, and Viv, the woman he loves. His wandering terminates on the Isle of Dogs, a haven for sailors, where a lifetime of loss is redeemed by a final act of generosity. The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty is the story of a lost man and a compelling saga that illuminates Ireland's complex history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
August 1998

In his gloriously poetic and deeply moving first novel, acclaimed playwright Sebastian Barry charts the star-crossed career of Eneas McNulty, a peripatetic Irish everyman who survives the First World War only to become a living casualty of Ireland's struggle for independence. Cast out of the political book of life and condemned "upon pain of death" to spend his days in exile, Barry's eponymous narrator travels the world from Galveston to Dunkirk, from Nigeria to the remote Isle of Dogs, hounded by IRA assassins and the irresistible siren song of his homeland.

Eneas is born with the century, a few generations too late to inherit the position and respectability of his namesake, a well-to-do Sligo butter exporter. His father sews clothing for the madmen at the local lunatic asylum and on the weekends plays music in a small dance-hall orchestra; his mother, though burdened with a secret shame, is a "dixie" of a dancer who turns jigs on the hearthstone for her son's amusement. Despite the family's pinched circumstances, Eneas escapes the brunt of the now-infamous miserable Irish Catholic childhood and grows to a gentle, if slightly oblivious, adolescence in the company of the "captain of his boyhood," Jonno Lynch.

Eneas first earns Jonno's friendship with a well-timed word of warning that allows Jonno and his wild boys to escape the wrath of the local Presbyterian rector, whose orchard they were plundering. For an all-too-brief season of mischief-making and welcome camaraderie, Eneas finds acceptance among the gang. ("No treasure in life beyond pals," hisfathertells him, words that will echo poignantly in the years to come.) But Jonno, an orphan who has spent his childhood in the cold embrace of foster care, goes "serious on the world" at a young age and gradually leaves Eneas behind as he ventures out in search of "shillings and employments." Abandoned, and feeling something of the unexplainable attraction the men of Sligo have always held for the land of France, Eneas enlists to fight in the European war. But due to his age and the lateness of his decision, the closest he ever gets to striking a blow for France is service aboard a British Merchant Navy vessel assigned to the port of Galveston, Texas.

At war's end he comes home with the thought of patching the "rip in his head where Jonno Lynch's friendship once was," but Jonno has allied himself with the republican cause and can no longer afford to be seen with any eejit simple enough to fight for the hated English. Nor can Eneas find "a niche in the world of Sligo to slot himself back into — not just a niche for living, but a niche of time itself." Desperate for work, Eneas naively worsens his position by accepting the smart black uniform of the Royal Irish Constabulary at a time when the word "royal" is as welcome on an Irish tongue as "ordure." Barry's perhaps surprisingly evenhanded portrayal of the reviled Black and Tans ("many an Irish family was reared on those wages, and many a peeler was a straightforward decent man") reflects one of the central themes of his acclaimed theatrical productions — that of "trying to tell the stories of those who had been allowed to fall into silence or over whom, for what ever reason social or political, a cloth of silence had been thrown." And Barry should know: His own great-grandfather — who served as the model for Thomas Dunne in Barry's play "The Steward of Christendom" — served in the Dublin Metropolitan Police during the Irish Rebellion.

For months the only police action that occupies Eneas is the daily carting away of the bodies offered upon the altar of Irish independence. But after witnessing the cold-blooded murder of a fellow officer and being implicated in the savage reprisals carried out by the hated Auxiliary Force, Eneas is cashiered from the RIC for his own health. Back home in Sligo, the IRA sends none other than Jonno Lynch to give Eneas the opportunity to clear his name. All that is required of him is one simple act of murder, a token of good faith, the fabled opportunity to die for Ireland. "This is a grand thing," Jonno tells him, "this is like Cuchullain and the like, you know, and Ferdia, and fighting, and Ireland, and freedom." Eneas, now an old man at the age of 22, declines this honor, though the alternative is banishment upon pain of death. If murder is the price of citizenship in the new Irish state, then he is truly a man without a country. In a prescient moment, Eneas understands that "surely, just the same as England, this useless war will take away all the good young men, or the hardiest, and leave only the astutest killers. Those that have stalked most expertly, murdered most adroitly, the very dancing men of murder."

Eneas's long years of exile begin with a stint on a North Sea fishing trawler; then, with the onset of the Second World War, he is given a second chance to fight for France. Miraculously delivered from the maelstrom on the beach at Dunkirk, he passes the rest of the war in the ruined vineyards of an addled old Frenchman, literally harvesting the grapes of wrath. A brief visit to Sligo at war's end is sufficient to confirm that his death sentence still stands, and once again, Eneas sets out just ahead of the dire men in the long black coats, this time to dig irrigation ditches in Nigeria. There he meets a kindred soul in Harcourt, the son of a blind piano tuner and a man of education and cultivated tastes. During the war, Harcourt was stationed in Dublin as part of British military intelligence. But upon his return to his native Nigeria he finds that Lagos, too, is full of men who want "that big thing you have in your sweet country, and I'm talking about independence. And those sort of men don't like my father's sort and they don't like me. Death-threats are all the fashion in Lagos, let me tell you."

Lagos, Sligo — Harcourt casually remarks that they are simply permutations of the same word — a coincidence, perhaps, but ominous nonetheless. Whether in the Balkan states or Ireland, Nigeria or Southeast Asia, the old colonial regimes are toppling in a worldwide convulsion of nationalism. The reader gets the distinct impression that Barry has weighed the human cost of modern nation-building in the balance and found it a poor bargain. Ultimately, nations, states, and political factions have no demarcation in Eneas's atlas of the heart; human relationships, such as the lifelong friendship Eneas forms with Harcourt, are all that constitutes "home."

Aoibheann Sweeney
. . .Barry's sweet, lyrical pitch never falters; the novel has a bold measure of old-fashioned blessedness. . . .Barry vividly creates Eneas' warm humanity. . . .[his] happy childhood provides a momentary glimpse at the stark, troubling contours of Ireland's somber history.
New York Times Book Review
Thomas Flanagan
...a wonderfully strange book by a fine writer—too ambitious, perhaps, at times too portentous about history and Ireland, but in these times ambition is too rare to require apology.
New York Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Known in England as a playwright ('The Steward of Christendom'), novelist and poet, Barry brings all the attendant skills to this stunning novel, with its evergreen theme of the parallels between a personal life and the political life of a country -- in this case the fiery history of 20th century Ireland. Eneas McNulty is born in 1900 in Sligo, the eldest child of a dancing mother and a musician father. By the age of 10, he has forged a magnetic bond with his chum Jonno Lynch, an orphan and Eneas' lifelong opposite. WWI is the pivotal event in Eneas' life; he loses his footing and never regains it. Driven by a vague dream of fighting in French fields, he enlists in the British Merchant Navy and finds himself in Galveston, Texas, hauling machine parts. He returns home to find post-war Ireland in political turmoil and economic dire straits. Jonno, who has devoted himself to the 'world of shillings and employment,' won't acknowledge Eneas because of his connection to the British. After a jobless year, he signs up with the Royal Irish Constabulary, which cements the community's conviction that he's a British loyalist. To take his name off the 'black list,' Jonno and his crowd demand that Eneas become an assassin against the RIC. While Eneas doesn't fear his own death, he can't kill anyone else. And so his permanent exile begins. He works as a herring fisherman in the North Atlantic, joins the British army for WWII, digs a canal in Nigeria, opens a hotel for homeless veterans in London's Isle of Dogs. Eneas is in many ways an Everyman in this century of the migrant and the dispossessed, but Barry is careful to intersperse flashes of humor as well as moments of bone-deep longing in his protagonist's bleak odyssey. Work and the rare moments of fellow-feeling it produces are Eneas' solace as even his memories of home are salted with the menace of the men who've vowed to hunt him down. Barry's lyric prose, astute use of detail and poignant insight are a fit match for his tragic theme of an innocent buffeted by history.
Library Journal
Irish author Barry, perhaps best known on this side of the Atlantic as a playwright, brings beautiful and poetic language to bear on a painful and unsettling part of Irish history. Eneas McNulty, a Sligoman, sets out at a tender age to save France at the outbreak of World War I. After spending the war with the British Merchant Navy, he returns to Sligo, joining the Royal Irish Constabulary at a time when Ireland has begun to fight for independence. Eneas is tragically apolitical, but his presence in the Constabulary is noted by Sligo rebels and in particular by his boyhood friend Jonno Lynch. He is offered a chance to remove himself from the rebels' blacklist but at the price of becoming an assassin. When he refuses, he must flee, and so begins his life of wandering--through England, France, and Africa. His thoughts of home never desert him, but neither does the specter of the men in dark coats who have placed him under a death sentence..-- Dianna Moeller, WLN, Lacey, Washington
Aoibheann Sweeney
. . .Barry's sweet, lyrical pitch never falters; the novel has a bold measure of old-fashioned blessedness. . . .Barry vividly creates Eneas' warm humanity. . . .[his] happy childhood provides a momentary glimpse at the stark, troubling contours of Ireland's somber history. -- The New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker
The eponymous hero of this novel is an Irish odd man out. Born into pinched, eccentric circumstances in Sligo, at the turn of the century, Eneas innocently enlists in the Royal Irish Constabulary during the Troubles and becomes a marked man for life. Pursued by his best friend turned I.R.A. enforcer, he finds nomadic work as a herring fisherman in Scotland, a volunteer soldier at the retreat through Dunkirk, a canal digger in postcolonial Nigeria, and, finally, as the proprietor of a doss-house for homeless men on the Isle of Dogs. Although Eneas will leave no trace on the record of the century, he grown into an unforgettable Everyman, thanks to Barry's fine bardic voice, which is tinctured with humor and compassion.
Kirkus Reviews
Another Irishman's reimagining of classical epics some 75 years after Joyce's Ulysses gives impressive depth and pathos to this first novel from the versatile writer best known for his recent play 'The Steward of Christendom.' Barry's eponymous hero is 'exiled' from his home in Sligo when a passion for the culture of his beloved France inspires him to enlist in the British Merchant Navy (in 1916). But Eneas is shipped instead to Galveston, Texas, and his disillusionment increases when he returns to Sligo to a traitor's welcome. Making matters worse, he joins the Royal Irish Constabulary and is subsequently marked for execution by his homeland's revolutionaries, one of whom—his boyhood friend Jonno Lynch—dedicates himself to pursuing the vagrant Eneas. The elusive wanderer's travels then take him to England, France at last (where he literally labors in vineyards), furtively back home to visit his subdued (though still loving) parents and sister Teasy (now a cloistered nun), and, most interestingly, to Nigeria as another World War looms. But Lagos, as Eneas ruefully notes, a near anagram of Sligo is also haunted by 'Deathly, killing, seducing politics,' though there is the lifelong friendship Eneas forms with Harcourt, an epileptic native Nigerian with whom he'll eventually be reunited when at last, in his 70th year, he returns to Sligo to await the carrying-out of the sentence pronounced on him decades before.

Eneas' story, which climaxes with a surprising fulfillment of the violent fate he has long expected, is crowned by a complex and honestly earned vision of 'redemption.' And Barry tells it in a gorgeous, mellifluous rush of passionate language that often alludesspecifically to Virgil's Aeneid (it's especially tempting to view Harcourt as a male counterpart of Aeneas' beloved Carthaginian queen Dido) while accommodating both magnificent invective ('You low dog on all fours, you poor fighting pup with your tail bitten off by a tinker at birth') and sorrowfully lyrical meditations on the ruin of Eneas' country and people. One of the best novels out of Ireland in many a year.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780140280180
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 8/28/1999
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 185,861
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 7.76 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His plays include Boss Grady's Boys (1988), The Steward of Christendom (1995), Our Lady of Sligo (1998), The Pride of Parnell Street (2007), and Dallas Sweetman (2008). Among his novels are The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), Annie Dunne (2002) and A Long Long Way (2005), the latter shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. His poetry includes The Water-Colourist (1982), Fanny Hawke Goes to the Mainland Forever (1989) and The Pinkening Boy (2005). His awards include the Irish-America Fund Literary Award, The Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize, the London Critics Circle Award, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize, and Costa Awards for Best Novel and Book of the Year. He lives in Wicklow with his wife Ali, and three children, Merlin, Coral, and Tobias.

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First Chapter

Chapter One

IN THE MIDDLE OF the lonesome town, at the back of John Street, in the third house from the end, there is a little room. For this small bracket in the long paragraph of the street's history, it belongs to Eneas McNulty. All about him the century has just begun, a century some of which he will endure, but none of which will belong to him. There are all the broken continents of the earth, there is the town park named after Father Moran, with its forlorn roses -- all equal to Eneas at five, and nothing his own, but that temporary little room. The dark linoleum curls at the edge where it meets the dark wall. There is a pewter jug on the bedside table that likes to hoard the sun and moon on its curve. There is a tall skinny wardrobe with an ancient hatbox on top, dusty, with or without a hat, he does not know. A room perfectly attuned to him, perfectly tempered, with the long spinning of time perfect and patterned in the bright windowframe, the sleeping of sunlight on the dirty leaves of the maple, the wars of the sparrows and the blue tits for the net of suet his mother ties in the tree, the angry rain that puts its narrow fingers in through the putty, the powerful sudden seaside snow that never sits, the lurch of the dark and the utter merriment of mornings.

    At twilight his father stands beside him at the window, a low man in his black clothes and his white skin pale and damp like a dandelion under a stone. He is showing Eneas the ruins of the Lungey House at the end of the yard, an old jumble of walls and gaps, with brickwork about the empty windows, the rest granite and bluer shale.

    `Never forget the people that went in and out of that place in their time,' says Tom his father, `because, Eneas, they were your own people, and wore the better clothes and were respected. They had plentiful carriages and were respected. People with your own face' -- and his father's neat fingertips touch the top of his head -- `that sent butter down the fiver and out into the wide ocean to Spain and Portugal where cows are scarce.'

    Their own circumstances are pinched, that's the truth. Tom rises with the lark if there ever were a lark in John Street and off he goes with a dapper air to the lunatic asylum to stitch suits for the madmen. That is his father's work. And his mother too once entered there each day, to be a seamstress to the distressed women. And that was how they met, over their needles and thread, and Eneas is the fruit of their union. A sort of child thrown together out of oddments, lanky, only later to find good muscles pile on his bones, but weak at five.

    He does not believe so much in the old butter exporters but he believes in the black rooks, craws his mother says they are but he does not think she is right, that call the Lungey House their home and screech and bawl like winged babes in the old sycamores above the Presbyterian graves. An old sycamore is a lovely thing with the bark gone to elephants, as ruckled and rough as elephants. He believes in the gangs of wallflowers that take over each summer, and on a rare day in the wild kids that go along the walltops heading for the orchard of the minister. He believes in those children and some day they will call to him and he will follow. Some day he will be famous for his friendships or so he believes. No treasure in life beyond pals, his father decrees. He will be heroic and carry the round red apples off into the town in his best gansey, that his grandma Mrs Byrne created -- created, says his mother -- out of an exhausted shawl, and the people of Sligo will admire him for it, the boys of Sligo anyhow.

    He sees the wild boys go by the house too, at the front, his own thin and narrow house on John Street and he longs, he longs to open the door and fight them and win his place among them, but he is lanky and weak as yet. The day of strength has not yet come. But it will. He likes the soft face of the leader boy that is called Jonno. He hears the other boys calling Jonno's name in the dusk of the autumn when the apples are ripe and the minister not guarding his possession. He longs to call out Jonno's name through the dusk and be one among many, with torn ganseys and trousers too big, all hand-me-downs from their brothers.

    Those days will dawn he devoutly believes and he practises his fighting in the back parlour with the dog Tam. He wrestles with Tam beside the autumn fire and his mother laughs and urges him on. She lifts her black skirts and dances suddenly on the hearth, throwing back her little head, and dances, and Tam goes spark crazy and jumps almost over her head. And the lamb stew boils on the stove with a slightly evil air, mutton really, and Tam is hoarse from barking now, and Eneas is not truly the victor yet.

    His mother is a dixie, a lovely dancer, she bangs her shoes on the big black stone of the hearth, where the Spanish gold is buried snugly. The Spanish ran around Ireland in a filthy storm in lovely ships and fetched up among McNultys who ate them, his mother says. The hearth, that is where she tells him that story and all the stories, and dances for him. She is as daft as the dog, he knows. She put dresses on the lunatic women. And the old dames half dead in the beds, lying doggo for decades and decades, in turn, in thanks, in sisterhood, put little seams of daftness into her, little cross-stitches and patterns. She sat under the early windowlight stitching in her youth, in the asylum, before his father stole her away. Isn't she dour too, a deal of the time, dour as a fallen loaf in a cold oven, a disappointed loaf? But when the spirit strikes her, fires through her, when some surge of delight infects her, up go the skirts and out the short legs and there is dancing to beat the band.

    Tom is often gone for days over to Bundoran or such places with his little orchestra and he plays for the holiday folk and the townspeople letting off steam after the long weeks of work. He plays waltzes, polkas and foxtrots and lately he has been giving them a touch of the new music, the ragtime and the like, that the Negramen of famed America play, because there is a call for it, a call. His father gets in the music in exciting batches, it comes from New York and Galveston, passing the Azores through the light-filled summer storms, the music purposefully silent in the little folded books, waiting for landfall on the Garravogue, waiting for Tom McNulty. But he has the older music too, and the Irish, so you might get a touch of Carolan, Strauss and New Orleans' finest in the one night in the lobby say of the Grand at Bundoran. He goes off winter evenings with his piccolo, his violin, his wooden flutes and oftentimes his cello, and he is not heard of till Monday. He might come in Monday itself early, five or six, long before the milkman's cart, and have a few mugs of strong tea, and then be gone up to the asylum as right as rain as if he had spent Saturday and Sunday in his doss.

    `And how is it, Pappy, that you're not weary?' Eneas asks him, the pair of them sitting together at the scrubbed kitchen table, the loud clock hurrying on above the stove. Eneas's own eyes are heavy as bullets. He looks in astonishment at his father, with the brightened face and the drumming hand beside the mug, and the neat feet tapping the floor beneath, his smiles cracking his face like a rip in a cloth. And Eneas rose from his tight sheets because he can never resist the lure of his father's noises below him, but he is nevertheless pole-axed with tiredness.

    `Life, Eneas, life keeps me awake -- don't it you? Here, boy, let me play you a tune I was given last night, by Tom Mangan of Enniscrone ...' And he's reaching again for the tin whistle.

    Eneas likes that father of his. He has a rake of friends. There is fellas calling for him all hours. Fellas that want to give him that jig out of North Sligo maybe, for a Yank come home that wants to hear it the one more time. Or now and then a wedding arrangement is made on the doorstep, and Eneas's father Tom will play you through the streets of Sligo, from your house to the church and back again, if you have but twelve bob and three shots of Scotch. His great ambition is to have his dancing hall in the fabulous glooms of Strandhill.

    Doesn't he rent a garden over in Finisklin, just under Midleton's hazel woods that used to be coppiced, but have been left to chance now with the coming in of foreign timber? There's more muck comes up the Garravogue in ships than goes down in the dredgers, his father avers. His garden is the mighty spot. It was a big square of wild grasses and meadow-rue and heart's-ease, eyebright and strawberry clovers till Tom went in there with his spades and his plans done out on rasher paper and dug the whole thing. And it isn't long while you're digging till it's dug though you might think it would take an age, just looking at it first, the peaceful neglect of the place with the sombre old walls and the locked iron door that used to lead into Midleton's. He put seventeen cartloads of dung into the black soil the first year till he had his compost going off the vegetable peels and the leavings of tea. Eneas played the while on the little space of grass that was left for his sole use, and his father dug till nightfall and the sprinkle of Sligo stars came out above their heads. The minute, the second he ates a bit of clay he is heartily smacked for it -- so he keeps to the patch of grass after that playing with a handy weeding trowel and maybe truth to tell giving the isolated sniff despite himself. Over the seasons ensuing his father sets in a mighty system of paths with sacks of cinders bought from the laundry, from fuel that had done the convent's water heaters. He rakes them out and his son Eneas trots along the paths gratefully, not in any way eating the alluring cinders. In go the hollyhocks and the peonies and the hebes and the blue hydrangeas, in splendid great rows, and the sweet pea along Midleton's wall and he has a few young pear trees in a warm and windless corner. One spring at last after much asking a fella comes up from the lake with big flat stones worn by the lapping of waves and there are five steps down from the pears in the passing of an afternoon. That is a great day for the garden.

    At night he is brought back to the little back bedroom with the dark blue linoleum through the nuns' field gone dark with a pitch darkness that no child could like, hand in hand they go, gaining the little house at last, and enjoying the spot of supper in the lamplit parlour at first, and then away up to bed like a ghost, his mother after scrubbing at his nails fiercely, as tired and contented as humankind may be.

    These are the ancient days when his father plays the piccolo and his mother dances for him and he sits on the hearthstone smiling crazily at them, smiling, smiling, his face opened by that smile, such an honest happy smile, cracking his face like a miniature of his father's, generous, amazed. When in truth the world is simple with pleasure, and precise, and he hears the boys calling Jonno in the dusk and thinks of the apples going off in the ganseys as the light fails in the arms of the sycamores.

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Interviews & Essays

Welcome to the author auditorium. We are extremely excited to welcome author Sebastian Barry, who will be joining us live from Ireland to discuss his new book THE WHEREABOUTS OF ENEAS MCNULTY.

Moderator: Welcome Sebastian Barry! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this afternoon. How is everything in Wicklow, Ireland?

Sebastian Barry: Hello, and glad to be talking to you. Everything is fine here in Wicklow as it happens, after weeks of rain. A light clear evening, a pigeon on the roof opposite, and the little Sugarloaf mountain with no hint of cloud. Aside from that, I have just put my year old baby to bed and there is a terrific and helpful silence -- he's a talented baby!

Tim from New York City: How many people in Southern Ireland really went and fought in WWI? Did you research this type of thing?

Sebastian Barry: Hello, Tim. A great many, in their thousands, and a great many never came back. I don't have the exact figures. You have to remember at that time Ireland was still British, although 1916 happened right in the middle of the war, causing extraordinary confusion to many an Irishman fighting in France. One body of men was actually heading off to France that Easter morning when the rising broke out. and they were directed back into the city to fight the rebels. Times of momentous bravery, confusion and trauma. After the war it was difficult for people to publicly grieve for their lost ones, and so a huge silence enveloped them. from XX: Was there any particular inspiration behind the story of this novel?

Sebastian Barry: Indeed and there was. For the past ten years I've been writing a series of plays about people in my own family who for one reason or another were rarely spoken of, and covered over. Because of their religion, say, or their politics. In a way it has been a process of inventing a family, in the upshot, because when a person has been consigned to the difficult dark of such a silence, his traces disappear quicker than most. I wrote a play initially about Eneas McNulty, who has his origin in a great uncle of mine who did something foolish and unwise in the Twenties and , so my grandfather used to tell me, had to leave Ireland under pain of death. As far as I knew he died on the Isle of Dogs in London in the Sixties. My grandfather went to find his brother and traced him to an old hotel there. His brother wasn't in. but my grandfather was told to come back the next morning. He did, and found the hotel burned to the ground. My grandfather was of the opinion that either his brother had thought he was a man come to kill him from Sligo, or some other thing, and had burned the hotel to cover his tracks. Or that indeed he my grandfather had been followed from Sligo, and his killers had done his brother in and dumped his body in the Thames. Such a story as you can imagine, placed into the mind of a child, had a fierce fascination for me.

John from How do you think the writing process varies from writing a novel compared to writing a play? Which do you prefer?

Sebastian Barry: Hello, John. Good question. Well, perhaps in the end plays and novels come out of the same river, but are different fish. To tell you the truth, I would have been quite happy to write Eneas McNulty as a play, and did so. It was a pretty bad play! Then I was trailing my pencil at him, and got a few pages of something or other -- somehow this something or other grew and grew and I started to recognise it as a novel. I'm afraid Eneas McNulty wanted a novel. I think he favours the form! You can get a play fished, caught, landed and eaten in a couple of years. This novel took a long long time. In the beginning I wasn't convinced of the wisdom of it, but Eneas grew on me. So I don't know exactly what the difference is. As a matter of fact, I think they are both pretty mysterious pursuits. I'm of the opinion, right or wrong, that forms, novels and plays and poems and such, are very much pre-writing things, long long before writing. Maybe even before Homo Sapiens Sapiens. How about Homo Sapiens. Well, who knows? Which do I prefer? When something's going well, when that horse breaks forward into a gallop suddenly in the making of something, and you have to hold on and not let your neck get snapped, I don't think I mind what it is, play or novel. But plays have given me a world, a web of extraordinary friends, and a living.

Mike from Do you switch your novels any when writing to an American audience? How much do your books vary in Irish form versus American?

Sebastian Barry: Hello Mike, well, what you over there in the Viking edition is the same as the one Picador did for this side of the water. Having said that, my editor at Viking was a bit of revelation to me. I was anxious in fact to have the same version both sides of the water, for some reason, and even the same title. There was some question over that title in America, let me tell you! But my editor was very wise and let things go their own way. There were a few things about Irish politics she asked me about and in fact it helped me to clarify things in the book generally. Her involvement in the book, though at a late stage, was crucial -- magical even. The whole dimension of publishing the book in America has I confess fascinated me. I am a great fan of Melville and what Melville it seems to me bequeathed to American novelists was that clear-headed and mighty ambition, that American novels still embrace. Maybe what I mean is that there is perhaps no such thing as Irish form as separate from American form. Well, there is, strictly speaking, of course, but there is a collusion there, between things American and things Irish, for historical reasons. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain the complete comprehension on all sides for the great Frank McCourt.

Bryan Sullivan from Denver, CO: Good afternoon Sebastian, what is your take with everyting that has been happening in Ireland over the past couple of weeks?

Sebastian Barry: Hello, Bryan. It has been the best of times and the worst of times. I tried to put into words something of what I felt about the three boys burned in their beds, for an op-ed piece I did for the New York Times. It was a sad few hours of writing. And yet, even with the bomb today, that mercifully killed no one, but injured about thirty and destroyed the centre of an Irish town, there is real hope. I don't mean hope without force behind it. By chance I was at a dinner the other night and John Hume was there. He is a man exhausted by the trials of the years, who has clearly taken into his own body the horrors of these years, like Ghandi himself. But he is there, still alive, still thinking. Never before surely has the British administration been so benign, so desirous of peace. President Clinton himself when he came over injected a powerful message into the situation, and Senator Mitchell has played his hand like a master. There seem to be good men and women at the top, there is certainly a multitude, all the peoples of Ireland, North and South, who want their peace. Who want to stroll in the streets of the town in the evening and be bothered by ordinary things, and feel the joy of ordinary things. I rest my faith in those people. I think they will carry this island to the realm of peace. The violence still being visited on people seems to me to be the work of people addicted to violence. Peace for some people is very, very frightening, the end of things as they know them. But they too are Irish people, and the peace must be for everyone.

Max from St.Louis, MO: Who are some contemporary playwrights or authors that are big in Ireland that you can recommend that don't quite have the name recognition here in the United States...any you can recommend?

Sebastian Barry: Hello Max. One of the best playwrights in Ireland, on God's earth for that matter, is a Wexford writer called Billy Roche, maybe you have heard of him. He was the bee's knees and the cat's pyjamas you might say in London and Dublin just a couple of years ago. One of the mysteries of the world is his work never made it to New York. Actually your question opens up a whole mystery, why some things reach America and some don't. Another writer is Dermot Bolger, very well known here, a writer from Finglas originally. Did his book The Journey Home reach America? I don't know, perhaps. It is a masterpiece. Tom Murphy is a playwright of the stature of Brian Friel. Michael Hartnett is a poet of poets. Irish writers sometimes aspire towards America in a very interesting way, very different say to how they may think about England, although England can seem important to an Irish writer. America is like going home to a place you have never been. Maybe it is because of those millions that suffered in Ireland and went there, and a book desires to follow them out and provide some reading that might be both strange and familiar.

Sharon from NYC: Have you read either of the McCourt brothers' book? What is your take with the fascination with the topic here in the States?

Sebastian Barry: Hello, Sharon, nice to talk to you. I have been reading Frank McCourt's book for the last weeks, it is by my bed. You can only take a book slow if you have three young kids, and his book makes a tremendous slow read. I haven't yet seen Malachi McCourt's book because it won't get here for another while, but I've seen a documentary about the the brothers and their family. Frank McCourt has sold over four million copies in the States, as you know, and that's some fascination. The fact is, it 's a very special book and extremely well written. I have a feeling that if he had happened to be Chinese and was decribing a Chinese childhood, it would be just as devoured by readers. But of course, Irish America, let's take a risk and say the soul of Irish America is a hardy soul, but a wounded one. Most of Irish America fled from hunger, poverty, indifference, oppression of one kind or another. That soul needs to hear certain old musics, certain old tunes, not sentimental as such, but elemental, with all the strange importance of unimportance. Frank McCourt is in the possession of such songs.

Nate from Does Sligo really exist?

Sebastian Barry: Yes, indeed, although you may mean it philosophically. Maybe philososphically it exists too, just. My Sligo is a very strange town, a Sligo of the twenties and thirties as I received it through the endless stories of my mother, who was from there. I only visited. As a child, I was fairly certain Sligo could not possibly exist as she created it for me, but now I'm not so sure. Anyway, touristically speaking, Sligo is in the North West of Ireland, part of the Republic, but only thirty miles from the border. It's very beautiful, almost unnecessarily so -- see the poetry of WB Yeats.

Bryan Sullivan from Denver, CO: Are there many autobiographical elements to the character of Eneas?

Sebastian Barry: Less so than I thought there would be, and maybe I was most happy about that. It is difficult to extricate a novel from the life of the writer, but unless the jury of the Gods say otherwise, I think I managed with this. from xx: Did you come across any cases similar to Eneas' situation prior to writing or while writing this novel?

Sebastian Barry: Out there somewhere in the dark and bright of the world there is a whole raft, a scattered tribe of men like Eneas, I am sure, from the twenties right up to the present. God give them quiet sleep.

Moderator: Thank you Sebastian Barry! Best of luck with your new book--THE WHEREABOUT OF ENEAS MCNULTY. Do you have any parting thoughts for the online audience?

Sebastian Barry: It was my great pleasure. My parting thought -- only that this novel took ten years to write, and I suppose it must be ten years now before I get the chance to do this strange and pleasurable thing a second time. The pigeon I referrred to at the start stayed a mighty long time -- but he has just flown away. Good night and God bless.

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Reading Group Guide

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty

In the years between 1916-1922, when southern Ireland was on the verge of gaining its independence, there were the nationalists—men and women who fought side by side to gain Ireland's freedom from Britain—and there were the Crown forces—made up of soldiers, the Royal Irish Constabulary, and, later, the hated Black and Tans. And there were also men and women who were ill-prepared or unwilling to live political lives: people who refused or were unable to take sides and, as a result, were shunned by their families, communities, and their country. Sebastian Barry's The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty is the story of one such man, of good intentions and their sometimes disastrous effects, and the struggle between the personal and the political. And it is the story of a man exiled from a country that bewilders and rejects him, but which he loves nonetheless.

Eneas McNulty is born in the first year of the twentieth century in County Sligo in the west of Ireland. The earnest and hard- working McNulty family is caught up in the politics of their homeland. Eneas' sister, Teasy, prays on her knees for the Irish nationalist Michael Collins. Even his younger brother Jack—who will soon wear a British uniform—understands the unwritten code of politics around him. But in Eneas, Barry has created the ultimate innocent who becomes overwhelmed, perplexed, and finally accused by his surroundings and the people that inhabit them. In a world of hard men, he remains a kind of experienced child. It is this lack of guile that will be his downfall, but it is also the richness of Eneas's perspective, despite the harsh reality of the world around him, that will be his redemption.

After a stint with the British Merchant Navy, Eneas returns to a post-World War I Ireland that is—unbeknownst to everyone—poised on the brink of civil war. Desperate for work, Eneas finds there is little to be had and the only job open to him is as a policeman in the Royal Irish Constabulary: a catastrophic decision in the political climate of the times, where other men are becoming another kind of soldier, dark and intent on Irish freedom. Eneas's accidental proximity to the murderous Black and Tans puts him on the IRA's blacklist for the rest of his life. Jonno Lynch, Eneas's closest childhood friend who is now increasingly involved with the local revolutionaries, delivers the death sentence. When Eneas witnesses his sergeant's murder, he is abandoned on all sides, simultaneously let go from the police force and asked by Jonno to assassinate a key member of the Tans called the Reprisal Man. Refusing to kill a man and therefore giving up his only chance at getting off the blacklist, Eneas knows he must leave Sligo—and the people who love him—forever. He works on fishing boats in Northern England, fights after his own curious fashion in France as a soldier in the British Army during World War II, and finds his lowest days in Africa with his Nigerian friend, Harcourt. No matter how far he goes, however, at the back of his mind there is always the menace of the dark-coated men who would prefer him dead. Even so, he twice returns to Sligo, unable to resist the pull of home and the hope that time has erased his death sentence.

At the age of seventy, he heads for the last haven of sailors and wanderers, the Isle of Dogs, and opens a hotel with the self-exiled Harcourt. Northern Ireland's troubles have just begun, thereby reactivating old blacklists and old men. One final time, Eneas faces his childhood friend, Jonno Lynch, and the struggles and conflicts that have unwillingly shaped his flight. And so it is here that he ends his wanderings, "alone, hated, but human on the raveling road," neglected by history but redeemed by the tragic beauty of a final act of selflessness.

A Conversation with Sebastian Barry

It has been many years since you last wrote a novel, and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty comes on the heels of much success as a playwright. What prompted you to return to the novel? Are there benefits to writing in this form that you feel aren't achieved as effectively when writing for the stage? Do you plan to continue with both literary forms, or to focus on one or the other?

While I was writing plays over the last ten years I had not given up on the novel form. It had rather given up on me! In the late eighties I wrote a long book which I put away quietly in a drawer. . . Then I was going to write a play about Eneas McNulty, and did so, but the play didn't work. Slowly it began to take shape as a novel, almost without me realising it. So you might say this novel appeared quite mysteriously and choice didn't entirely come into it. The crucial aspect, I think, that prevented it being a play was that Eneas McNulty has a sort of silence and confusion at the heart of him. As I usually write plays in long speeches, this was awkward, because Eneas did not want to speak in that way. The interior world of the novel, the descriptive and psychological world, was more suitable for the painting, you might say, of Eneas McNulty.

   I will write another novel as soon as the gods allow, or whoever is in charge of these things!

Besides the hero's name, there exist parallels between Eneas McNulty and Virgil's wanderer, Aeneas. Mindful of Joyce's use of Homeric myth, did you approach this technique with trepidation, or did it seem naturally appropriate for the telling of Eneas's story?

Actually the background of the Aeneid is quite informal, in that, yes, I read Latin at University years ago and read Virgil carefully, and of course as an Irish person it interested me how the Roman writers had absorbed the Greeks and turned them to their own imperial purposes, as you might say. All our founding myths in Ireland have been based on revolutions and new beginnings and I suppose I wanted to write a book that had as its shadow the reverse of that, a kind of unfounding myth, if there is such a word. An anti-epic with an ambiguous hero. Because we have had in Ireland in recent years to try to accommodate the two traditions, Nationalism and Unionism (those who want to keep union with Britain), in order to create a new ground for a new beginning. Because when we have concentrated on either one or the other, terrible exclusions and murders have taken place, and unendingly. By writing this shadowy great-uncle of mine back into the book of life, I was trying to put something back on the balance. Because if we exclude a part of ourselves, even a disreputable or reprehensible part, we by extension exclude and erase a part of the family, and by further extension a part of the nation. The miraculous fact is Ireland no longer wants victory of one over the other, Nationalism over Britishness, in general terms, but only peace, ordinary peace.
   When I was looking for a name that I could use in my book, I was having difficulty finding something. One night I was watching television and on the news was an account of a car accident in the midlands. One of the witnesses was a local man and his name appeared briefly on the screen. . . Eneas McNulty. It surprised me that the name Aeneas had survived in Ireland, but when you consider the old hedge schools, whose penniless masters spoke more Latin and Irish than English, perhaps it's not so surprising. It seemed the right name for an Irish wanderer. But as you can see, these informal parallels are a world away from Joyce, who modelled his book so intently and masterfully and artfully on the Greek structure.

The New York Times has said that the protagonist was inspired by your great-uncle. Could you briefly discuss his life and how it haunts the novel?

I was told as a child about him, Charlie was his name. He had disappeared in the twenties or thereabouts because of something he had done to earn himself some kind of death threat. It was all kept very vague in the telling, as you might expect. In the sixties my grandfather, his brother, tracked him down through the records of the British Army Pensions Office, to a hotel on the Isle of Dogs in London. When my grandfather went there he was told that Charlie did live there, but was out that day, and to come back in the morning. Next morning my grandfather duly returned, but found the little hotel burned to the ground. He assumed that Charlie had taken flight when he heard "a man from Sligo" was looking for him and burned the hotel to cover his traces. Or indeed my grandfather feared he might have been followed from Sligo by his brother's enemies, and that they had caught him and killed him. Either way, he never could find any trace of his brother again. My grandfather died some years later. Just in the week I finished the book, my aunt rang my mother to say that she had received an unexpected bequest—a few pounds from Uncle Charlie. He had just died in an old people's home in London. For a moment I entertained the notion that he might have been transmitting his story to me as he lay dying, but perhaps that is merely fanciful.

Early in the book, you recreate the mood of a people on the brink of a civil rebellion, and capture emotions and conventions that, while perhaps appropriate in those volatile times, seem unduly harsh to today's readers. Was this familiarity with the ethos of that time a natural product of growing up in Ireland, or was it something that required research in order to accurately depict the mood of the period?

I began to first think about the period when I was writing my play The Steward of Christendom, which is about a policeman in the Dublin Metropolitan Police at that time, which, unlike the Royal Irish Constabulary, was unarmed. I grew up myself in the sixties and seventies, in a middle-class suburb of Dublin, where very little of contemporary matters reached us. It is one of the strangenesses of modern Ireland that the great trouble and tragedy of the North of Ireland after 1969 took a long while to penetrate many minds in the South, and indeed for many years people tried to put it to the back of their minds even when it did. It was all happening to Them, up There. The victory of recent years is that we now think of events like the overwhelming bombing at Omagh as happening to us, to everyone on the island.
   So you might say my own understanding of the North came late, but when it did come, it burned in deep. Furthermore, in 1974 in Dublin there was a dark day of car bombs, when about twenty-eight people, ordinary shoppers, were killed. All of us in the city that day experienced just a fragment of what the people in North endured day in day out. Added to this, my own reading in the history of the war of independence, and then the civil war that came quickly after it, shocked me in some permanent way. The civil war was a time of exceptional savagery, and our history books at school didn't dwell on this less admirable period. But the wounds of that time still informed everything about modern Ireland. Any news story you might have read about Bosnia is well-echoed in the history of the Irish civil war, things done to each other by people who a year before had been fighting side by side for freedom. It seemed to me that to erase the memory of the civil war was also an erasure of part of oneself, and again of nation. A real nation has to acknowledge also the section of itself that is murderous and dangerous and deeply uncivil, for completeness if for nothing else.

The book speaks eloquently on the ramifications of the politics of unrest on individual lives. Was this a case of the writer's environment simply manifesting itself in his work, or was it an end you hoped to achieve when you began writing the story of Eneas McNulty?

The actual story of Eneas, as it unfolded, consistently surprised me. It interested me greatly that he was on the "wrong" side of official history and yet might be an innocent man, enduring the punishments and exclusions of the guilty. It's hard for us now to realize that before independence everyone in Ireland was born British, and that the police force and the army had a history of hundreds of years, and were manned largely by Irishmen and Catholics to boot. That history is much more complicated and even unsolvable and more relentlessly meaningless in some ways than we would like. It was an act of foolishness and shortsightedness on Eneas's part to join the police when he did, but at the same time the police had provided a refuge and a living for many an Irish family. All such have been demonised by official history, understandably, but Irish history is an extraordinary tapestry of light and shade. It is not a clear-cut cartoon of Cops and Robbers, Cowboys and Indians, Goodies and Baddies, Heroes and Traitors. It's all mixed and tumbled together; and in a way, this fact, which bedevilled us for so long, may in the end prove our salvation.


  1. Eneas is dogged throughout his life by the collapse of his friendship with Jonno Lynch and the fallout that accompanies it. How does their relationship change throughout the course of the story? In what ways does it remain constant? How does their relationship fit or defy our conventional notions of a hero/villain relationship?
  2. Avenue 1 1/2, Galveston's red light district, makes a deep impression on Eneas, despite the brief amount of time he spends there and his apparent rejection of the pleasures it offers. What does the area represent to Eneas, and how does this contribute to our understanding of his character?
  3. Eneas and his friend Harcourt are described as "scraps of people both, blown off the road of life by history's hungry breezes." Consider their relationship—what they have in common and how they differ. In what ways do Sligo and Lagos share for them a similar appeal, as well as similarly insurmountable obstacles?
  4. Roseanne, Eneas's sister-in-law, is a mysterious character with whom Eneas seems to share a deep but elusive connection. What does she represent in the story, and what does her relationship with Eneas tell us about him?
  5. The clothes one wears, and the people who produce them, are important concepts in the book. There are vivid descriptions of men in dark coats; Eneas's father is a tailor by trade; and much is made of the blue suit that Eneas dons late in the story. How does the author's use of the clothing motif contribute to our understanding of the characters, and the changes some of them undergo?
  6. The archetypal wanderer, Eneas McNulty has "longitude and latitude written in his bones." He spends an extended period of time in a number of places, but is always driven on again by circumstance. Consider his time spent in Galveston, France, and Lagos. How does each location provide elements of home that Eneas longs for? What does each location lack? In what ways is his home on the Isle of Dogs different from his previous stops, and how is it an appropriate final destination?
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  • Posted May 31, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A tense and compassionate story of a victim of circumstances

    If you know the Sherlock Holmes story "Valley of Fear" you will think that you understand the dilemma of Eneas McNulty, who is sentenced to death by members of a ultra-nationalist group in his hometown of Sligo. But Conan Doyle sees the Irish as temperamentally prone to violence. Barry understands the traumas of Irish history more clearly and more compassionately. His writing style, which uses third person narration, follows the thoughts and feelings of his protagonist as he struggles to comprehend the life seemingly dealt to him by some evil genius. Despite his suffering, Eneas is wonderful character, honest, humane, ultimately wise. As in his other books, Barry connects the plight of the Irish to those of other colonials allied or resisting British rule. Here our wandering Irishman bonds with men inhabiting the bars of Galveston, the fishing boats off the coast of Scotland, and the canal digging operations of Nigeria. His adventures only intensify his desire for a wife and a home. Eneas's journey challenges any easy definition of home and country, self and other. It is existentialism with a heart--a story for our times.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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