A Socratic Revelation: Sebastian Barry’s Roadmap to Understanding Identity

From Firenze University Press Journal: Studi irlandesi. A Journal of Irish Studies

University of Florence
4 min readNov 24, 2023

Andrea Ciliotta-Rubery, SUNY Brockport

The link between politics and literature proves foundational in the works of the Irish novelist and playwright, Sebastian Barry. While admitting that his “subject isn’t politics at all” (Barra 2014), there can be little dispute that thematically, his most acclaimed novels engage with the political events of the stories’ time period. Th rough the medium of historic memory, Barry allows his characters to encounter with the prescient political turmoil connected with the Anglo-Irish experience and subsequent crisis of identity. In her essay “Branded Ireland or Ireland branded? Versions of Irish Identity”, Rebecca Pelan suggests that Ireland has always had to “negotiate” its identity amongst competing views of self-explanation. Th e fi rst negotiation can be seen amongst the romanticized depiction of an idyllic, rural Celtic identity pitted against the harsh realism of Joyce and others who rejected this version with its “sentimentalization of failure” (2012, 5). Th e second negotiation of identity occurs amongst two competing narratives; fi rst, Ireland’s understanding of itself relative to its colonial past with England and next, with the view of Ireland as “homeland” by the Irish diasporic community in the United States (6). These phenomena, along with a long history of religious division, poverty and a short-term economic boom in the 1990s have further obfuscated a shared vision of Irish identity. While the intention of this essay is not to examine the various “negotiated” interpretations of Irish identity, it is meant instead, to look closely at how Sebastian Barry’s works uniquely effect the identity narrative within the Irish experience. First, it will draw brief attention to the initial impact of Barry’s works on their intentional gift of “voice” to those Irish men and women whose stories have been deliberately left out from the historic Irish narrative. Barry reminds his readers that without their inclusion, the concept of Irish identity will never be complete. Second, the paper will argue more notably, that Barry’s works do not develop nor promote any concept of Irish identity. Instead, it will argue that Barry offers a pathway or process by which an Irish identity may be discovered. This second argument reveals itself with a structural paradigm, reminiscent of the one provided by Socrates in The Apology, on how one comes to know one’s self. It is with the adoption of this paradigm or pathway, that Barry suggests how Ireland may best come to know herself.

  1. Omitted Voices

Barry’s works draw attention to parts of the Irish narrative that must be included in any formative understanding of Ireland’s identity. These parts, as Barry seems to suggest, are often parts left out; the disadvantaged few whose voice is absent from the predominant narrative of Irish history. This can be seen in his most celebrated work, A Long Long Way, which tells the harrowing tale of a naïve Catholic volunteer, Willie Dunne, whose time with the Dublin Fu-siliers is met with the unending carnage of World War I, along with the unforeseen contempt of homegrown Irish Republicanism. In the futility and confusion of this young man’s short life, Barry provides a testimony for the unsung bravery of those forgotten Irish Catholics who fought and died on behalf of the Crown, without recognition and with the disdain of fellow Irishmen back home. Similarly, his Secret Scripture gives testament to the many forgotten victims of Ireland’s asylum system, whose routine incarceration of morally “questionable” women has left a permanent stain on the reputations of the Catholic Church and Irish State for their complicity in such injustices. It is through Roseanne McNulty’s “Secret Scripture”, hidden under the floorboards of her asylum room, that her unsung story is hurled before the reader in all of its ugliness, preventing this and other stories from being excluded from the historic narrative of Irish identity. While critics have largely seen great value in Barry’s efforts to bring forth these forgotten voices, praising the lyric dignity with which he presents these remarkable characters, some have taken issue with the degree to which Barry enlists our support of these overlooked voices. In his essay, “The Politics of Pity: Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Wa y”, Liam Harte argues that Barry’s creation of such innocents as Willie Dunne and Jesse Kirwan was an intentional device to manipulate audiences to feel pity for these doomed characters, making their unnoticed sacrifice worthy of our memory:

Ideologically, however, Barry’s poetics of innocence seems to me to veer toward a rather heavy-hand-ed polemic, insistently promoting the message that these once-vilified volunteers should not be seen as tragic victims of historical circumstance, thus leaving the novel open to the charge that it refutes one partial version of history with an equally partisan rebuttal. (2014, 212).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.36253/SIJIS-2239-3978-14625

Read Full Text: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/bsfm-sijis/article/view/14625



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