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."