A brief Irish history lesson and a progress-report on Sebastian Barry’s The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty

eneas mcnulty coverI read another of Barry’s novels back when PfP was in its infancy.  I reread my post recently and I said that we would be seeing lots of Sebastian Barry on the blog.  And now I’m finally getting back to him.  The Secret Scripture was published in 2008 and was sort of a loose sequel to The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.  It takes place in the same town of Sligo, and in a similar time frame.  The titular character even appears briefly in the second novel.  Our mental-institution bound protagonist Roseanne McNulty is even married to Eneas’s younger brother Tom for a time.    I’m about a third of the way through this book, and am having a somewhat difficult time with it.  There’s a lot of dialect in it, especially at the beginning, and I’m having a harder time with that than I usually do.  I don’t remember The Secret Scripture being as hard to get into.  Of course, this was his first novel, so there are bound to be some missteps along the way.  Also there’s a lot of Irish history that’s alluded to that I don’t know anything about.  I’m going to have to suck it up and read about it online because this problem is getting worse as I go through it.  The dialect part has gotten better as Eneas has become an adult—the early part where he is a child was more difficult.

Much as Roseanne McNulty is isolated from her home and family in The Secret Scripture, so is Eneas McNulty in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.  Roseanne isn’t moved far, just to the local insane asylum.  Eneas’s isolation is both geographic and emotional.  The story starts when he is just a boy and the only child in his family.  His father is a tailor, who makes clothes for the inmates at the mental hospital (I get the impression he isn’t a great tailor).  His mother is just lovely, though it seems that some of the local ladies do not think very highly of her.  His first isolation from his parents comes in the form of his three siblings: Jack, Young Tom, and Teasy.  Jack is five years younger than Eneas.  The next isolation comes when Eneas enters his early teen years and takes up with Jonno Lynch and his band of boys.  At sixteen, Eneas wants to join the Army and fight in the Great War in France.  His parents don’t wish for him to fight, but they compromise and he joins the British Merchant Navy and travels to far-off locales like Galveston, Texas!!  Later he comes home, and takes a job with the Royal Irish Constabulary, the British police force in Ireland.  It turns out that this choice was not a smart one on the eve of Ireland’s independence.  His partner, Doyle, is killed in front of him, and the IRA members who did it are later found dead.  The IRA assume that Eneas rolled on the perpetrators, though he didn’t, at least not as far as we know.  Jonno Lynch, his old friend, and now an IRA enforcer, comes to Eneas, who has since left the RIC, and says that he’ll get taken off the black list if, and only if, he kills the RIC man, known only as the Reprisal Man, who killed the two boys who killed Doyle.  He refuses to kill anyone.  Some time goes by Eneas meets a girl, Viv, on the beach.  She actually saves him after he steps on a piece of glass and cuts his foot badly.  Their romance is short-lived, unfortunately.  O’Dowd, the head IRA guy in County Sligo, and Jonno Lynch threaten Viv’s family, and that’s the end of that.  As Part One comes to a close, Eneas has been told by Jonno that he has till nightfall the next day to get out of Ireland and never come back, or his life will be forfeit.

I feel like Eneas McNulty’s name should be “Poor Eneas McNulty.”  Nothing good happens to him at all in the first one hundred twenty pages of this book.  And it’s only a little over three hundred pages.  I really hope things start looking up for him soon, or else this is going to be a very depressing one hundred eighty pages.

I just did some reading on Wikipedia about the Irish Civil War and the Irish War for Independence.  What a hot mess that was.  I wish that I could say I’m ashamed that I didn’t know any of the details of this terrible time in Irish history until now.  Actually, I’m glad I didn’t know them.  I wish I could un-know them.  It sounds like a terrible time.  And I’m not even sure whose side I should be on.  Obviously, I am in favor of Ireland being a country on its own.  But in the Civil War, I can see both sides.  These two sides were the pro-treaty forces and the anti-treaty forces.  The Anglo-Irish Treaty with Great Britain that ended the war for independence stated that Ireland would become a Free State (or autonomous dominion) within the British Empire, much like Australia and Canada.  Ireland would still recognize the king of England as head of state, but they would have their own government.  This treaty also kept Northern Ireland as part of the British Empire (which is what the majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted, regardless of what the IRA wanted).  This was seen as “good enough” for many Irishmen, but others would not give up on the notion of a true Republic of Ireland, independent of British rule, with the entire island united as one country.  I can see both sides of this conflict, I truly can.  I assume that the pro-treaty faction saw it as a means to an end.  They get the war to end, they have a measure of independence, and maybe down the line they can do better.  The anti-treaty faction, or the Republicans, obviously found this to not be “good enough,” and they turned on the pro-treaty faction, or the Free Staters.  I’m sure the anti-treaty faction saw the pro-treaty faction as compromising their beliefs and giving up on the dream of a true Republic of Ireland.  But the notion of that tiny island trying to fight off the entire British Empire just seems like an impossible task to me.  The pro-treaty forces seem like the sensible ones, and the anti-treaty forces seem like idealists, dreamers.  Possibly also unable to see the forest for the trees.  They were never going to win outright.  But I admire them for wanting to keep fighting.  The Civil War lasted just under a year, from 1922 to 1923, but the repercussions are still felt today, almost one hundred years later.  Until very recently (the 2011 elections) the two major political parties in Ireland were descendants of the pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces in the Civil War.

Poor Eneas McNulty got caught up in history, and all he was trying to do was make a living.  I guess the same could be said of most people.  It’s interesting to me that Eneas and his family have no particular political affiliation, at least not that has been made plain yet.  When the Anglo-Irish Treaty is signed, Eneas stands outside his father’s dance hall and watches the ocean.  “Freedom is a grand drink for the young.  Up in the dark town maybe, definitely, there are more vociferous mutterings, angry shouting, a sense of something far more invasive than freedom, of bitterness and hurt, betrayal—but here in the narrow realm of the young, Eneas understands well enough the jubilation and the wildness inside the hall.  He knows from the manner in which the newly arrived greet each other under the lights of the portal that the excitement is general.  He feels like a spy under the pall of night.  Therefore he alone weeps.  He can be neither happy nor bitter at the news.  It is not new for him, he cannot walk across to the lights, the word freedom playing on his lips, and smile at his fellow countrymen and women.  It is not to be.  He knows it.  But he may weep.  He is one of the fearing men.  He supposes there must be others like him all over Ireland, the boys of the black-lists.  Having seen the wickedness done and lived through it and seen men killed and one man murdered at his very side and lost his friend into the bargain he cannot stay in a place he can call home.  He will ask Viv to come with him, if she likes.  He must be wandering as a displaced man and wandering and never coming back and always maybe be telling strangers of his love for Sligo and never seeing Sligo again or taking her in his arms again, never seeing her gold and bloodred suns again, never hearing the laughter of those dancers, the mean all of three bob each to his father and the girlfriend free in.  He weeps tears and he supposes the salt sits in them from the blown tide (97-98).”

Sorry about the long quotation.  I thought this was an excellent example of Barry’s beautiful prose.  He started as a poet and his prose is so lyrical at times it reads like poetry.  Poor Eneas McNulty should have gotten to celebrate with all the other youths of Sligo that night.  But because he took a job (a job, he didn’t join a faction), all this is stripped away from him.  In 1921, he is only in his late teens/early twenties.  By rights he should be celebrating with his friends in his father’s dance hall by the sea, but he can’t.  He knows that his life in his home is over and he knows he needs to move on, but he just can’t, not yet.  His childhood best friend has to threaten to kill him and his girlfriend and her family one more time before he finally leaves.

And what’s going to happen next?  Stay tuned for my next post about The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty to find out!

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This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Jill, Sebastian Barry. Bookmark the permalink.

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