Sebastian Barry shines light on survivors of abuse in Ireland’s Catholic institutions

Sydney Morning Herald [Sydney, New South Wales, Australia]

May 12, 2023

By Michael McGirr

Old God’s Time
Sebastian Barry

Faber & Faber, $32.99

Every one of Sebastian Barry’s books has captivated me and held me in a kind of anxious thrall, waiting for characters to discover who they are. Barry is a genius for withholding truths even from the people who carry their burdens. Old God’s Time reaches another level. It has an unnerving and remorseless power. Even by Barry’s standards, it is a devastating achievement.

Very little happens for the first quarter of the book. That little is enough to create a tender space that will amplify the aching and tragic voice of all that is to follow. We meet Tom Kettle, a retired detective sergeant. For nine months, he has been living alone in a few rented rooms by the sea at Dalkey, listening to the wind and the birds while he smokes cigarillos. “To him this was the whole point of retirement, of existence – to be stationary, happy and useless.”

Tom seems to be affected by the early stages of dementia, and this makes him a compelling narrator. He can’t quite recall if his mother is dead. He hopes that she is. He knows that he isn’t waiting to get married, but his mind slips on its own ice and suddenly he is in the arms of the beautiful girl, June, who became his wife many years ago. Where is she now?

He can’t find his toothbrush and substitutes his finger to clean his teeth. He is disoriented even by the familiar. “A date in Ireland is a bothering thing,” he muses, his confusion leading to a deeper lucidity. Often enough, his thoughts, unencumbered by memory, land in profound places: “No one minds life as long as they are not trying to leave it. Nor death, as long as they are not dying.”

But Tom does have memories, and the reader is asked to walk a fine line between trust and distrust. Over time, it will become impossible to doubt him. He is not the unreliable narrator so often used in fiction. He is an utterly reliable non-narrator. He gets his own story out of himself like blood out of a stone. It is painful. The pain compounds across generations.

Barry skilfully used this kind of narrative tentativeness in The Secret Scripture (2008) in which Roseanne McNulty has been institutionalised for 50 years. She has compiled a secret memoir whose truthfulness is questioned by the novel.

The McNultys, a familiar family in much of Barry’s work, have a cameo in Old God’s Time. He has followed this clan across the world and over many decades. The importance of a Miss McNulty in Old God’s Time is the reassurance provided by the connection; that Barry knows this world, this community, is deeply invested in it and has heard its sorrows.

The Secret Scripture dealt with a unique and poignant story. Old God’s Time is much bigger. It chronicles the agony of an entire community and, with that, the loss of faith, or their faith, and the rise of their anger.

Both Tom and June were abused by priests. June had been institutionalised as a child without a family. During their courtship, she told Tom that she did not really know who she was. “There’s just no one for you to marry,” she says, poignantly summarising the annihilation she experienced. This, again, is hardly the case.

Barry brings two broken people together to make a wonderful whole. The damage done to them in childhood burns into the lives of their children, Joe and Winnie. Barry’s contempt for the Catholic culture that created such trauma is unmistakable. He is scathing of Archbishop McQuaid, who ruled over the Catholics of Dublin like a feudal potentate for decades after 1940.

Early in the novel two police arrive at Tom’s place. They are investigating the fate of the priests, Byrne and Matthews, who abused June. But Tom isn’t going to play their game.

There is a library of books about the dark side of Catholicism in Ireland. Old God’s Time is full of light. It loves and honours suffering people. The beauty of its language and depth of its storytelling create solace and release.

Michael McGirr is the author of Ideas to Save Your Life (Text).

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