Annie Dunne

Annie Dunne

by Sebastian Barry


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"Annie's passionate observations and shifting moods-rendered in dense prose that's close to poetry-fuel this fine novel."—The New York Times Book Review

Sebastian Barry's latest novel, Days Without End, is now available. 

It is 1959 in Wicklow, Ireland, and Annie and her cousin Sarah are living and working together to keep Sarah's small farm running. Suddenly, Annie's young niece and nephew are left in their care.

Unprepared for the chaos that the two children inevitably bring, but nervously excited nonetheless, Annie finds the interruption of her normal life and her last chance at happiness complicated further by the attention being paid to Sarah by a local man with his eye on the farm.
A summer of adventure, pain, delight, and, ultimately, epiphany unfolds for both the children and their caretakers in this poignant and exquisitely told story of innocence, loss, and reconciliation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142002872
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/29/2003
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 442,361
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 - 17 Years

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One Oh, Kelsha is a distant place, over the mountains from everywhere. You go over the mountains to get there, and eventually, through dreams. *** I can picture the two children in their coats arriving. It is the start of the summer and all the customs of winter and spring are behind us. Not that those customs are tended to now, much. My grand-nephew and grand-niece, titles that sound like the children of a Russian tsar. My crab-apple tree seems to watch over their coming, like a poor man forever waiting for alms with cap in hand. There is a soughing in the beech trees and the ash, and the small music of the hens. Shep prances about like a child at a dance with his extra coat of bog muck and the yellow effluents that leak into yards where dogs like to lie. The children's coats are very nice coats, city coats. Their mother does not neglect the matter of coats, whatever else I could say about her. But they are too nice for a farmyard existence. We will wrap them in old brown paper and put them in the small blue cupboard in their room, and keep the moths from them as best we can. I herd the children like little calves through the lower leaf of the half-door and into the beautiful glooms of the kitchen. The big sandwiches lie on the scrubbed table, poised like buckled planks on blue and white plates. Words are spoken and I sense the great respect Sarah has for their father Trevor, my fine nephew, magnificent in his Bohemian green suit, his odd, English-sounding name, his big red beard and his sleeked black hair like a Parisian intellectual, good-looking, with deep brown angry eyes. He is handing her some notes of money, to help bring the children through the summer. I am proud of her regard for him and proud of him, because in the old days of my sister's madness I reared him. My poor sister Maud, that in the end could do little but gabble nonsense. The great enterprise now, with Trevor and the children's mother, is to cross the sea to London and see what can be done. There are ony stagnant pools of things to tempt him here in his own country, there is nothing. He has trained himself up by a scholarship and I can smell the smell of hope in him, the young man's coat. But his hope is proficient and true. I have no doubt but that he will find himself and his care a place to lodge, and fetch about him, and gain employment. He has his grandfather's wholeness of purpose, who rose from a common police recruit to be the chief superintendant of B Division in Dublin, the capital of the whole country. His father, Matt, Maud's husband, who as good as threw me from the house when finally she died, may drag his polished boots every morning from that rented house in Donnybrook to the savage margins of Ringsend, where he teaches painting and drawing to children who would as much like to learn them as to eat earwigs. Back and forth on that black bike with his winter lamp and ineffectual bell, thinking only of the summer when he can paint the midgy beauties of Wicklow, cursing his fate. But Trevor has the strength and purpose of another generation, with his red beard. He is kissing the children's heads now and saying goodbye, be good, see you in a few months. "Every day I will write to you," says the little boy, which is comical since he is too young to know his writing. But the father is not listening to the son, he is staring away into nowhere, distracted no doubt by all the things he has to do, the arrangements, the tickets, the prayers that I think will rise up unbidden, though I know he professes to be a Godless man, one of those modern types that would make me fearful if it was not him. "Every day, every day," says the boy emphatically. "I am going to press flowers for you all summer in my autograph album," says the little girl. "There won't be anyone to write their names in it down here." "Look after yourselves in London," I say to him. "And you need not for a moment worry about the children. You will have enough to do setting yourselves up." "As soon as everything's in place, we'll send for them," Trevor says. "Thank you, Aunty Annie. It's an enormous help." 'It's no trouble, God knows. We are lucky to have them" "Don't spoil them," he says. "We will not. But we will look after them, certainly." "Good," Trevor says, and kisses my cheek, and away with him out into the paltry sunlight. He doesn't look back, though the children rush to the door.    


Excerpted from "Annie Dunne"
by .
Copyright © 2003 Sebastian Barry.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Annie's passionate observations and shifting moods-rendered in dense prose that's close to poetry-fuel this fine novel." —The New York Times Book Review

"A subtle but powerful novel of a spinster's life in the Irish countryside rises to great emotional heights...this is a deliciously poetic book." —The Washington Post

Reading Group Guide

How does one hold on to a world that no longer exists? Playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry explores this question in a poignant and exquisitely told story of innocence, loss, and reconciliation. Set in a rural section of Ireland known as Kelsha, "a distant place, over the mountains from everywhere," Annie Dunne tells the story of Annie and her cousin Sarah, aging unmarried women who live according to folkways that were already vanishing during the late 1950s when the novel takes place. Their great friendship is their most valuable possession, but Annie—hunchbacked and bitter over the way the rest of her family has treated her—lives in constant fear that it could be taken away. Quiet and intensely personal, Annie Dunne is both a story about and a meditation on the means by which we accommodate a world too big to understand. "Oh, what a mix of things the world is," Annie reflects, "what a flood of cream, turning and turning in the butter churn of things, but that never comes to butter."

One summer Annie's grandniece and grandnephew come to stay with her and Sarah. That same summer, a local handyman, Billy Kerr, begins to court Sarah and becomes more of a presence in the two women's lives. Through Annie's eyes we see the rhythms of their rural life—drawing water from the well, slaughtering chickens, harnessing their one pony—as well as the ways the encroaching modern world, in the person of Billy, threatens to change it. We also see her guarded hope for a second chance, in the form of the children, to make peace with the new times. The old ways are revealed through Annie's thoughts of her grandfather, a stern, "unseeing" man whose memory Annie reveres. But her grandfather's work, as a policeman for the English, is a clue to Annie's alienation from her proud Irish neighbors. As the novel—and Sarah's relationship with Billy—develops, this seemingly simple rural tale unfolds into a historical and romantic drama, with lonely Annie Dunne at the center of a fast-changing world. Annie's struggle to maintain the world just as it was highlights the book's broader theme of the collision between history and individual lives that plays out in even the remotest corners of the globe.

Annie Dunne is at once a love story of the deepest bonds between friends and a tragedy of a woman—"one of the most Irish fiction" (San Francisco Chronicle)—whose uncommon kindness is unacknowledged by the people she cares about the most. With Annie Dunne, Sebastian Barry achieves the rare balance of winning the reader's sympathy for a character as bitter as the crab-apples she loves, prompting us to ask vital questions about the many disparities between how we see ourselves and how the world sees us—and what those differences can reveal about the loves that sustain us all.



Sebastian Barry is a playwright, novelist, and poet whose best-known play, The Steward of Christendom, has won numerous awards and garnered international acclaim. His novels include The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty. Barry lives in Wicklow, Ireland, with his wife and three children.



How did you find the inspiration for the character of Annie Dunne? As a male writer did you find it challenging to "create" her? And as a male reader, who are some of your favorite female protagonists?

Twenty-five years ago the very first thing I wrote touched on Annie and her world, a world I had known myself as a small boy. It was only these years later, when I had children of my own, and having written both for the theater and the novel, that I tried the adventure of writing a story in her own words, her own particular language. The inspiration was a desire to draw her back in from the darks of history and time, so that this mirror or shadow of someone I as a child valued above all others might not be entirely lost. As a small child I loved the original Annie—I lived in her pocket, and in the pockets of her small cottage, so I felt at least I knew such a woman, like a spider perhaps "knows" the human room it abides in. Furthermore, to some extent, a person very like Annie "created" me in that I took my clue from her and have tried to live by her lights. A favorite female protagonist, as a male reader, would be perhaps Dorothea, the heroine of George Eliot's Middlemarch.

Annie acknowledges her changing world and thinks she "do[es] not know where this Ireland is now." Where is "this Ireland" now for you, and how might it differ from the one you knew as a child? How much of your own personal experience is woven into the narrative of Annie Dunne?

By an accident I have come back to live not far from Kelsha. I can see the mountain of Keadeen from my window. In some ways, nothing here has changed. In others, great barriers of darkness and not knowing close off the past. I don't mourn the loss of Annie's Ireland, a now strange and unrecoverable country, but she does. As I tried to write from inside her own mind, I wondered at her—how much of her grievances arise from a general sense of a sore journey, a life whose stray spark went unanswered and unnoticed. For myself, I felt a bitterness about Ireland when I started to write in the late 1970s. I thought it mean and unheroic. But a country, the idea of a country, may sometimes, as with Annie, be a picture, a simile, of a person's disquiet, a person's happiness or frugal grasp of it. I don't in retrospect think I was immune from this. There are undoubtedly millions of Irelands, as many as there are individual Irish people. A change has occurred in Ireland these last years when unimaginable prosperity has descended upon the country, a change as absolute as the change in the late fifties from cart to car, that carried in new things and erased many old ones, including a certain intimacy of language and the destruction of certain distances, house to house, house to village, village to town, old webs that got swept away but on which particular thoughts and images depended.

With Annie Dunne, as well as your previous novel (The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty), you manage to compress a lot of historical information into an otherwise fictional narrative. How did you approach these writing projects—with a desire to write about a specific historic event or an interest in a particular type of character?

At school I was reasonable at history but had a poor grasp of dates. At university I read Latin history and delighted in the comparative unimportance of fact, a tyranny that besets meaning, and the fullness and importance of style. One of my favorite Irish writers is the historian Roy Foster, for me the best prose stylist of my generation. Of course I could say that therefore, for me anyway, history has a fictional force, as does personal memory. Because both suffer from different modes of half fact, they acquire a battered truth, like old houses with the rot and insects teeming invisibly, assailed, but standing. Complicatedly enough, I don't really believe in the recoverability of historic events, but I do in the floating paintings and interior poems that they leave in their wake, the afterlife of facts and events in the human mind. I am interested in these burrs and thorns that gather in the clothes of individuals as they make their way through a life. But my main desire has always been to recover someone from the blank of official history, where their stories can't be written and, therefore, die away. I realize that in doing so in plays and novels, I have maligned them in the sense that I have fictionalized and made them up, though their origin may be in real people. So I have falsified them, often members of my own family, in order to perpetuate them. I am interested also not so much in a type of character, but in those individuals that stand in the memory, solitary and seemingly unimportant, against whom the years move like a black color to eradicate them.

Much of Annie Dunne's difficulties stem from her loyalty to English rule. Is Annie Dunne implicitly a political novel?

Annie, like us all, has been in history, in her own portion of it, so, yes, it is a political novel in that sense. But Annie's views are not my own. Annie's view of history, and she was given a glimpse of official history at the beginning of the last century by the accident of being a policeman's daughter, is based on her own prejudices. Mine is based on my prejudices! I grew up in a bohemian family—my mother was an actress and my father an architect and poet. My father especially I think thought history, politics, and to some extent even family, redundant and unimportant. I loved him, but I thought differently. I yearned for family but couldn't reach it. Outside of that, one grandfather had been in the British army in the second war, the other was republican by nature and had played some part in the rising of 1916 that he never made clear to anyone. This was just things as they were, unexamined. Later when I started to write it began to seem quite strange, and I became interested really in unspoken things, family members who didn't fit the bill of conventional Irishness. I married a Presbyterian woman by chance, and that was a further insight into the consequences of difference. Then you notice that the erased history might imply tracts of yourself were simply missing, crossed out. So when I had children, how was I to tell them who they were? I suppose Annie Dunne is part of this, the sorting out of people from history maybe, rather than in history.

There has been an increasing amount of interest in modern Irish literature in recent years. Frank McCourt, Roddy Doyle, Nuala O'Faolain—what is your concept of the "Irish writer"? Are you influenced mainly by Irish writers or do you look elsewhere for inspiration?

My heavens—the Irish writer. When I was starting to write you would go into a bookshop in Dublin, in Ireland, and there would be a dark section down the back of the shop, where you might find books by Irish writers. It was a kind of benign separatism in the minds of booksellers. But it seemed to imply that the real books were all the other ones that occupied the main shelves of the shop. Of course, all that has changed, and the lines and lines of Irish books are to be found just inside the doors—still separated off, now I think of it. Well, I don't know what an Irish writer is. Am I one? I wonder does any one of us survive any of the adjectives given us. Can a writer wax and wane in Irishness? Can he or she deny it, like Shaw tried to do, and Swift? The current success of Irish writers, of course may—like that other story of successes, history itself—hide and obscure, under its lights and processions, some of the grander reading experiences that cause no rumpus, especially among the poets. Or it may lead the adventurous into the byways. When I was in my twenties and living around Europe, I carried with me the Shorter Poems of Ezra Pound and other books, but I do not think I carried Irish ones, perhaps to my shame. But I sat in the Luxembourg Gardens and read the letters of Yeats and Joyce and wondered about them. There was a group of men there that played boule every lunchtime and every lunchtime I and a little man in a blue suit, possibly a tramp, certainly as poor as me, watched them. By the end of the summer he was playing with the rest, but I was still watching. Perhaps I wished more to be the tramp, an unpromising individual accepted into a motley group, than Yeats or Joyce. But that may be one definition of an Irish writer. I read Latin and English at university. Virgil, Tacitus, Plautus, Propertius, Catullus, Boswell, Herrick, Brontë, Trollope, Conrad—very useful in realizing that there is really nothing that new under the sun in literature. What seems important is for things to be noticed anew, as if they were new, as a child might do.

As both a novelist and a playwright, do you find yourself treating your native Ireland alternatively as a landscape and a character? For instance, at one point Annie muses over "the broadening cheer of light when [she] walk[s] out into the morning yard." Then, as the description continues, the grass itself "becomes bright and separate, like a wild claw...shouting with green, the lighting in life." Can you tell us a few words about the use of personification in Annie Dunne?

The personification of Ireland of course is an old tradition, and indeed the old woman, or "the hag" as the term went, often stood for Ireland in poetry, even as late as Yeats. But I don't think I was after such a thing. Ireland as a landscape and a character...that's an interesting notion. I don't really know the answer. Sometimes, either in accusation or praise, it is said that I write poetically, but the truth seems to me to be that I listen for how the characters speak and try to be faithful to that, wherever it leads. Robert Frost said that dangerous thing: that he looked after the sound and let the sense look after itself. I suppose as a child I could make no distinction between inert matter and things with a beating heart and have held on to that ignorance. After all it is the apprehension of a person of their surroundings that makes up the material, the banner and the inner pictures of a life. Annie lives in a rich world, in the sense that it has daily sights to see that she approves. Such I suppose is the wealth of people that have few coins, the coinage of things as they are, as they show themselves, like those small animals that are familiar to country people but are like revelations, revenants and miracles to city people, or used to be.

You said that The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty began as a play that slowly took shape as a novel. What was the genesis of Annie Dunne? What are you working on now—and in which genre are you writing?

I did think of Annie Dunne as a play, but in fact I had already written it in a sense, my first play being about two brothers living on a small farm, Boss Grady's Boys, in 1988. Then there was that story begun twenty-five years ago, in the voice of the little boy. But that wasn't the right way to do it. Kelsha has lain behind a number of other books and plays, especially The Steward of Christendom, where Annie herself appears as a young woman. A book may have a reason more than a genesis, and the desire to write Annie Dunne finally came out of a time a few years ago when a great friend died and a brother fell ill, and I wished, I think, inasmuch as one knows these things, to recapture something of a haven, a place where there was a measure of nurture, even of family, though entirely temporary and erased. Where the soul of the one and the spirit of the other would find rest. Of course a book cannot do these things. But I felt that Annie was my only accomplice in the effort, and though she was distrusted and even disliked by adults in general, yet she, or at least the woman I had in mind and have carried in mind all my life, could love a child, and practiced that love faithfully and without stint when her brief time was given her. At the minute I am just beginning a book set during the First World War. Oddly enough, it is about Annie's brother Willie, who died in Flanders. It's a long way back to go—wish me luck. And good luck to you!


  • Looking at a crab-apple tree, with its "generous, bitter arms," Annie Dunne thinks "this is the happiness allowed to me" (p. 43). Why does Annie identify with the crab-apple? How does Sebastian Barry use the hills and trees of Kelsha to describe the people who live there, especially Annie?
  • "Poor Annie Dunne" (p. 20), the villagers say of Annie, referring to her once-influential family. How does Annie's sense of herself as fallen in social rank influence her relationship with her cousin? And with Billy Kerr?
  • "There is not much between the characters of Billy Kerr and Billy the pony" (p. 33), thinks Annie, and yet although we see Billy through Annie's eyes as a foolish lout, the events of the story suggest another side to him. How do Billy's actions—both kind and cruel—contrast with Annie's description of them?
  • Annie often refers to bones—her "old Kelsha bones" (p. 38), "the field sticks of my bones" (p. 40), her mother's "long set of bones" (p. 64). What does this reveal about Annie's sense of the essence of people?
  • "We are blessed in the company of these children," thinks Annie, "it is our chance" (p. 7), but Sarah describes the children as "shadows," into which she can't see (p. 77). How do Sarah and Annie relate to the children in different ways? Do the children come between them?
  • "The world of my youth is wiped away, as if it were only a stain on a more permanent fabric," thinks Annie. "I do not know where this Ireland is now" (p. 95). Annie Dunne is a novel about the loss of old ways, but by referring to past times as a place, how does Annie complicate conventional notions of nostalgia?
  • History looms behind Annie's memories, especially that of the revolutionaries who ended English rule in Annie's Ireland. Annie scorns them for having done so, but is her hatred political, or does it come from deeper, more personal emotions? What symbolic role do the historical figures Michael Collins and Eamon De Valera play in Annie's view of her own life?
  • What is the difference between Annie's relationship with her niece and with her nephew? How does the boy become a confidant of Annie's? Why does she describe him as "sean-aimseartha, an old fashioned child" (p. 119)?
  • How does Sarah's and Billy Kerr's "understanding" threaten Annie? Sarah and Annie are as close to each other as two people can be, but they see their relationship differently. What does Annie's "marriage of simple souls" (p. 127) mean to Sarah? What prompts her to put it at risk for Billy Kerr?
  • "You are surrounded by things you never notice," Annie's brother-in-law, Matt, tells her (p 156). Since we see the world through Annie's eyes—ever observant of the land and of Sarah, neglectful of changes in society—it is late in the book before the scope of her alienation from her surroundings emerges. Who is Annie in the eyes of those around her? What explains the great divide between Annie as she sees herself and the Annie whom others see?

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Annie Dunne 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
oldblack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a story about an aging single woman (Annie Dunne) who lives in rural Ireland with her slightly younger (also single) cousin. The woman's grandchildren come to stay with her for a while. The story is mostly slow-paced with an introspective narration by Annie. I really enjoyed reading this because I could relate well to Annie's thought and feelings, and because Sebastian Barry creates such a wonderfully real atmosphere. There are some beautifully touching scenes and marvellously vivid pictures. This is my first book by Sebastian Barry and he has jumped straight onto my "Favourites" list!
niteswimming on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a book tailor made for the hesitant reader of fiction whose first love is the well-written memoir. A meld of lyrical prose artfully describing the sense of place, rural Ireland, and time, the summer of 1959, and a character brought fully to life from love and memory.Annie Dunne at sixty, and not possessing wealth or beauty, has entered a time of life when a narrowing of options and possibilities make the impact of the decisions of others on her life unbearable. Her fear over the lack of control she has over her destiny complicates her relationships with everyone around her, even and including the great-niece and great-nephew for whom she has deep affection. As her fear grows about losing the security and enjoyment -- despite the hard physical work -- of her life on a small farm owned by her cousin, Sarah, I was starting to wonder if her interpretations of the people around her were distorted by her current fear and the residue of past slights and injustices. She saw almost everything through a lens of uncertainty and anger. Added to this was a heavy weight of guilt with regard to her inability to care for her father in his last days. It turns out that the doubt about the coherency of Annie's perceptions were unfounded.This book is so beautifully written that it's not possible to select just one or two favorite passages. It is one long favorite passage. But, here's a bit from the end that speaks to our desire to leave behind a legacy of some sort. Something that says our lives had meaning:"But, although it will be winter soon, the wind of friendship will blow eternally from the south. And even after we have gone, something of that friendship will surely linger hereabouts. We will survive in the creak of a broken gate, the whistle of a bird, the perpetual folding and unfolding of the blossom of my crab-apple tree, a thousand little scraps of crinoline fiercely crushed and fiercely released." pg. 227
thomasandmary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very disappointing read.
debs4jc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This introspective, dense novel features the inner musings of an Irish spinster. She lives with another spinster as sort of a bond servant on a farmstead in the Irish country side. Two children somehow related to her come to live with them for the summer, and their arrival plus the unexpected attentions of a local handyman upset Annie Dunne's world. The action is limited to everyday occurrences however the language is very descriptive and might appeal to those who like slow-paced character focused novels.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You star out nekid in the middle of a forest with no clothes, food, or shelter. No nothing. Survive a month, forest at jee res 5. River at tud res 3 and 2. Signups at turn k res 1.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think Sebastian Barry is truly a literary master. Through Barry, you know his characters so well. Annie Dunne thinks just exactly as a senior woman thinks. The story is so good, but putting the story aside, his characters are spot on!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sebastian Barry's novels will surely be read for many a year. He takes us into the thoughts, reminisces, judgments and soul of his character, in flowing, perfect prose tinged with Irish English. Annie Dunne and her cohorts use Irish idioms and grammar, of course, as they are not only country dwelling, but still living the way they were brought up to from 1900, with values, beliefs, and, yes, griefs all colored by those years. Annie and Sarah, who live and work together, in 1950 live as rural Irish did in the 19th century: a pony and cart for transportation, bread baked by them, never bought in a store. Even the butter is churned by hand! But there are sorrows, regrets, drama, and fears in this life. Barry has done a remarkable job of creating an authentic woman's voice
Anonymous More than 1 year ago