The Barnes & Noble Review
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."
...a wonderfully strange book by a fine writertoo 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
. . .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
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.
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
. . .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.
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 whomhis boyhood friend Jonno Lynchdedicates 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.
Read an Excerpt
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
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
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
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
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.