The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry, Faber, 320 pp, £12.99,ISBN: 978-0571215287
In his latest novel, The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry explores new territory, turning to questions of institutionalisation, sanity, madness, belonging and isolation. This choice of themes is apposite, in that last year Ireland signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Barry tells the story of Roseanne Clear, a young woman committed to a mental asylum for social rather than health reasons and discovered by relatives more than half a century later. Roseanne’s harrowing tale is one of destructive neglect, and in his novel we are reminded that there are no simple solutions for those in this situation; that undoing the wrong of unjustified institutionalisation is in itself insufficient for human happiness and realisation; that while the “bricks and mortar” of well-designed and accessible houses are essential, they will not provide the connectedness needed to maintain sanity or allow for independent living among those institutionalised for too long. The roof over our heads is important, but without children, parents, family, neighbours and the respect of the community, a house can be perhaps little more than an open prison.
The story of The Secret Scripture links again with the McNulty family of Barry’s 1998 novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and the main character, Roseanne, is a sister-in-law of Eneas. As in previous novels, Barry draws from the experience, characters and landscape of his own family background. In a recent radio interview with John Kelly, Barry linked the character of Roseanne with that of a great-aunt who had been committed to an asylum in the 1920s and was subsequently hardly ever mentioned in the family. When she was mentioned the comment was that “she was no good”. “Not that she was mad, but that she was no good.” Barry considered that the writing of the story might offer “some meagre recompense for the fate she suffered at my family’s hands”.
The novel begins by introducing us to its two main characters, Roseanne McNulty, now nearly a hundred years old, who has spent the last sixty years of her life in Sligo and Roscommon mental hospitals, and Dr Grene, the chief psychiatrist. The doctor has been directed to assess “inmates” of Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital for relocation to a new purpose-built unit or “into the community”, as the decrepit hospital is due for demolition. Rosanne is frail, but lucid and passionate in her descriptions of the characters in her life, as she begins to write her memories on pages which she hides underneath a loose floorboard in her single room.
Roseanne describes herself as “a songless robin – no, like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids”. She displays a keen understanding of the vulnerability that left her exposed to the tribulations that beset her young life and in looking back recounts how, in her youth, she had not learned to protect herself against this vulnerability:
The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was young I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortune; I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel dark tricks of time that assail us, and be the author therefore of themselves.
The novel offers two accounts of Roseanne’s life, as told in her own deposition, written in the last few years of her life, and in another version in the deposition of the local Catholic priest, Father Gaunt, written when she was committed to the asylum. Fr Gaunt, a cold and humourless misogynist, is the only character verging on the stereotypical in a novel otherwise populated by the sympathetic. He remains an ominous presence throughout Roseanne’s life: “Such a small, clean man when crossed was like a scything blade, the grass, the brambles and the stalks of human nature went down before him.”
The reader is initially torn between belief in one account or the other, as the version told in Roseanne’s deposition clashes with that of Father Gaunt. However, as the story unravels it appears more likely that Roseanne, now in her nineties and recounting her life through her childhood memories, protected at the time by concerned parents, is in places unreliable and that Fr Gaunt in “unburdening himself, as he might a sin” is telling the truth.
The main difference between the narratives revolves around the story of Rosanne’s father, Joe Clear, and his place in Independent Ireland. Roseanne describes her beloved father as a larger than life character, “a celestial-minded Presbyterian man, which was not a particularly fashionable quality in Sligo”. “He seemed to me,” she says, “all strapped about in his uniform – not in any manner haphazard, but regular as an account book”. In her memory the uniform relates to his job as caretaker in the local cemetery and she denies his involvement with the Royal Irish Constabulary. “It was very difficult to hear him say so casually that my father was in the police … It is a lie, and not a very pretty one. Such lies in the old days could get you shot.”
It is obvious that Rosanne adores her father and he provides the colour in her childhood memories. He fills their small home with his presence and that of his prized possessions, his motorbike and piano, which take up the bulk of the living room space. When she learns to play the piano for him, he stands out in the centre of the floor, “with his hand idly perchance on the seat of his motorbike, the other hand in his jacket, like an Irish Napoleon and sings with utmost perfection”. “His voice entered my head as a sort of honey, that lingered there potently, buzzingly, banishing all the fears of childhood.” “My father’s happiness. It was a precious gift in itself, as perhaps my mother’s anxiety was a perpetual spanner thrown into her works.”
Her mother, “beautiful, neat, agreeable anid shining with her Southampton accent”, seems always in the background in the small house. She doesn’t appear to feature much in Roseanne’s life and after her husband dies retreats further into herself. Roseanne finds that she is looking for her mother in these memories and cannot find her. “She has simply disappeared.”
Rosanne’s mother had reason to be anxious. Fr Gaunt describes Roseanne’s father as a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary in Collooney, an exception therefore to the general practice of not stationing an officer near his home town. Fr Gaunt suggests there was an insidious intelligence-gathering aspect to Clear’s posting, his having the capacity to be
very aware of things happening in the town. Perhaps he was able to pick up information casually in a manner not open to a stranger. People might be more inclined to include him in gossip and rumour at the public house in the evening.
During the Civil War and after the disbanding of the RIC, Clear is given a job as caretaker in the graveyard, a position that is in the gift of the local priest. In Father Gaunt’s deposition he describes Roseanne, as a young child, witnessing a “strange burial” one evening “without priest or ceremony” and alerting her father to the disturbance. Clear has the coffin disinterred the next morning, with Father Gaunt himself in attendance. No body is found but a cache of arms, many of them police issue. Buried with them are notes of secret meetings and, as Fr Gaunt notes, “by some foolish miracle”, names and addresses, including those of some people wanted for murder. Fr Gaunt calls it a “wretched bonanza for the police”. Some of those named are arrested and one, called Willie Lavelle, killed while “evading capture”. All this causes “a subterranean furore in the circles involved in hiding the arms” and, it is suggested, is linked ultimately to the killing of Joe Clear. It also offers some explanation for the later isolation and ostracisation of the young Rosanne, alone in a community with no family connections left other than her mentally absent mother.
As Dr Grene digs deeper and becomes embroiled in Roseanne’s story, we start to get a clearer picture of the families and individuals forced to choose sides religiously, politically and personally in small town Sligo during the Civil War – or indeed come to terms with the sides they had chosen long before.
After her father’s death, which Rosanne describes as suicide, and her mother’s committal to the asylum, she is left alone and Fr Gaunt (in his own way taking her under his wing), makes efforts to draw her “into the fold” and to marry her off to a local widower. Rosanne rejects this offer, which displeases the priest. She experiences a period of relative freedom: “Happy. Just straightforward ordinary girls we were. We liked to bring as much despair as we could to the lads.” She finds a job in the Quaker-owned Café Cairo and lives for the dances in Strandhill on a Saturday night. “It mattered altogether that my father was gone, but somehow I was able to tuck that in under the pillow of my hair, to sleep on it as it were. I couldn’t help the happiness.” Rosanne’s relationship with Tom McNulty, an aspiring local politician from an up and coming Free-State Sligo family, initially takes a lighthearted course. That is, until Tom takes her to Dublin and finds a priest with whom he studied in UCD to perform a marriage, without Roseanne officially changing religion.
From this point she becomes the target of the all-powerful collaboration between the Irish mother and the Irish priest. She comments that she met “the world and his wife with Tom because he was a sociable man in the extreme, but it was actually some years before I was shown to the mother”. Although she has not met Mrs McNulty, she “always paid heed when they spoke of her, as a spy might pay heed to chit-chat in bars”, since she reckons she will need every scrap of information she can get if she is to survive actually meeting her. The encounter, when it comes, is described with flair, the smell of boiled ham that pervades the small house, the “few chairs and a sofa covered in a dark, dark red velvet … were so old and lumpy it was like things had died in them under the velvet and had become cushions of a kind. And everywhere the stench of the lamb.”
Tom’s mother, termed the “real Mrs McNulty” by Roseanne, tries to be kind but “her voice was not so nice as her look” and when Tom’s father makes an effort to communicate through music the real Mrs McNulty makes a huh noise, gets up and leaves the room. While the mental illness of Roseanne’s mother is one concern, the “Presbyterian angle” is of course the problem. As Tom says: “Oh Jesus, I don’t think she’s ever had a protestant before set foot in her house, that’s for sure and certain. By Jesus.” Barry skirts the “issues” the Presbyterian side would have had with such an arrangement by the device of Roseanne’s lack of family or community ties. Tom sets up house with his wife in a small corrugated “shack” in Strandhill and in her words “kept her in quarantine till he could get his mother to relent in her hostility”.
The day that Fr Gaunt finds Roseanne talking to John Lavelle on Knocknarea Hill he has his ammunition, and by the time Jack, Tom’s brother, finally comes to talk to her the wheels of Catholic annulment are already turning to release Tom from a marriage unbefitting a man on the rise in the new Ireland. Jack says: “Go on Rosanne. The mother has spoken on this matter and there’s no going against the mother.” But when the process of annulment is in train, Tom, without a word to his wife, leaves and never returns to the house in Strandhill. The action seems out of character in a man who initially had the courage to bring Roseanne to Dublin and marry her against his mother’s wishes.
Roseanne is left adrift, again alone in the world, her father dead, her mother committed to the mental asylum, her marriage annulled and her husband gone without a word. She describes the pain of the sleepless nights after Tom leaves as a “cold creeping feeling … as if someone were opening the back of my grey matter with the sharp sharp blade of a tin opener”.
Barry’s novel is beautifully written, verging on the poetic, and its themes move constantly between personal histories and the history of a young emerging Ireland while in the process delving into the nature of sanity and insanity. Where his previous books can be seen as products of the “Troubles” and his rather partisan reading of them, this one is more a child of the “Peace Process”.
While an unsettling cynicism is directed at all the new players in the emerging Irish State throughout his first novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, Barry now seems to have moved on. However at one point, out of context in the general run of the story, Dr Grene acknowledges “the effort that was made in the twenties to include all shades of opinion in the first Irish Senate”, adding, however, that “it was an effort that soon lost heart”. He continues: “Our first president was a Protestant which was a beautiful and poetic gesture” but continues “we are missing so many threads in our story that the tapestry of Irish life cannot but fall apart. There is nothing to hold it together.” This seems to add little to the story or the novel in general.
In the book’s final pages Barry sets Dr Grene again musing on “the nature of history” and has him arrive at a depressing conclusion.
Is it only memory in decent sentences’ he asks, ‘and if so, how reliable is it? I would suggest not very. And that therefore most truth and fact offered by these syntactical means is treacherous and unreliable. And yet I recognise that we live our lives, and even keep our sanity, by the lights of this treachery and this unreliability, just as we build our love of country on these paper worlds of misapprehension and untruth. Perhaps this is our nature, and perhaps unaccountably it is part of our glory as a creature, that we can build our best and most permanent buildings on foundations of utter dust.’
But perhaps it is not such a depressing conclusion and suggests rather that Barry himself has agonised over the historic uncertainties in his narratives, the “treachery” and “unreliability” in these stories. Yet he sees “love of country”, “sanity” and “our best and most permanent buildings” emerging from this “memory in decent sentences”.
In The Secret Scripture, Barry has moved forward in his treatment of history and makes great efforts to be fair to all protagonists, even the young and ultimately heroic John Lavelle, the IRA man whose brother is shot by Free-Staters after the discovery of the arms cache by Roseanne’s father. Lavelle remains with the IRA after De Valera takes power and during the period of the Second World War is hanged for killing a garda; Roseanne’s husband, Tom McNulty, who parades through Sligo’s streets with O’Duffy’s Blueshirts and heads off to fight on Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War; and his brother Eneas, the ghostly character of Barry’s earlier novel, “who was only spoken of sideways” in the family, are all described in a deeply human light.
The character of Roseanne McNulty herself, a young, beautiful, passionate and uninhibited woman of Presbyterian background, reared without religion, admired by the local young men and watched as a danger to those same youths’ morals by the local priest, is exquisitely described.
The novel develops into a complex story of exile and repatriation, putting something of a strain on the credulity of the reader as Dr Grene’s delving unearths his own connection with the story he has been unravelling. The unlikely dénouement ties the characters of the story togetherand serves to emphasise the theme running through all their stories, that of the absolute need for human contact and belonging for the well-being and sanity of the individual in the world.
At the heart of this story lies the connection between society, community, circles of support of family and friends, and sanity. Those who, through choice of side, birth, death, chance or love, remain divorced from these connections court madness. People who do not or cannot take sides in a situation where taking a side is essential to the fabric of the emerging society are shunned by their families and communities and in the process, their country.
Dr Grene, himself an immigrant, now without family connections and dealing with the grief of his wife, Beth’s, death, finally understands how fragile is his own sanity. He hears voices at night alone in his house and is convinced it is his dead wife trying to talk to him. He is overcome with remorse at an old infidelity, “a foolish sixty-five-year-old man in his dead wife’s bedroom, gone daft from grief, looking as usual for forgiveness and redemption the way normal people look for the time”. In confronting his grief he gains a clearer understanding of the line between sanity and madness and knows that he has gained a clearer understanding of the people he is dealing with professionally.
I suspect it is hard to remember grief, and it is certainly invisible. But it is a wailing of the soul nonetheless and I must never again underestimate its acidic force on others. If nothing else I will hoard this new knowledge in the hope that when it passes I may still retain its clinical anatomy.’
The large institutions described in Barry’s story have not gone away and what he calls the “Thatcherite fashion” of emptying them, unplanned and unsupported “into the community” is not an answer to years of ostracisation and neglect. Where the basic need to forge connections with the community is not understood and communities remain hostile, the individual’s isolation can only be compounded.
Barry’s institution, as described by Dr Grene, has all the subtleties of institutionalisation in general, for staff as well as patients. He describes the attendants and nurses as having become “as much part of the building as the bats in the roof and the rats in the cellars”, and in another aside – that he is “not so great a fool as to think that all the lunatics in here are mad, or ever were, or were before they came here and learned a sort of viral madness”.
His description of the reaction of staff to a suspected rape of a patient is a stark reminder of the need for a regular, outside, objective eye on all closed institutions. The calling of a staff meeting to look into these kinds of events leaves staff terrified, as they always are at “events in the hospital requiring any sort of outside airing”. “The staff seems to gather together and roll itself into a ball, needles outward.”
In writing this book, Sebastian Barry has indeed offered the recompense he believed his family owed to his great-aunt. In Roseanne McNulty he has created a character who was and remains beautiful and who survives intact in herself, thinking more about the fate of the daffodils and apple trees in the demolition of the crumbling institution that has been her home for sixty years than any bitterness or vengeance. “My own story, anyone’s own story, is always told against me, even what I myself am writing here, because I have no heroic history to offer. There is no difficulty not of my own making.”
It is funny, but it strikes me that a person without anecdotes that they nurse while they live, and that survive them, are more likely to be utterly lost not only to history but the family following them. Of course this is the fate of most souls, reducing entire lives, no matter how vivid and wonderful, to those sad black names on withering family trees, with half a date dangling after and a question mark.
The Secret Scripture has moved a long way from the tone of Barry’s earlier novels. To this extent it can be read as a child of the Peace Process, and a welcome one at that. And in his admirable treatment of the life of Roseanne McNulty he breaks new ground. He has ensured that the story of the wild and unconventional, the beautiful and unconnected, sectioned for their refusal to accept societal norms in a world and a time that could not afford dissidence, will be more than “a black name on a withering family tree”.
Helen Lahert is Manager of Advocacy and Accessibility with the Citizens Information Board. She has responsibility for the development of advocacy services for people with disabilities nationally.