Out of History

Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry

by Christina Hunt Mahony (Volume editor)
©2006 Edited Collection 264 Pages
Series: Carysfort Press Ltd., Volume 227


Out of History is the first book to appear on the work of award-winning Irish author Sebastian Barry. Barry is recognized as one of Ireland's greatest living writers and his works now appear regularly on syllabuses in U.S.colleges, in Irish Studies and in Drama departments. This book, edited by Christina Hunt Mahony, presents twelve essays that trace the development of the writer's career and the individual achievement of his works, concentrating largely, but not exclusively, on the plays. The essays address Barry's engagement with the contemporary cultural debate in Ireland and also with issues that inform postcolonlal critical theory.
The essays in this volume include contributions from the most prominent of Irish Studies critics from Ireland, Britain, and the United States. Among the contributors are two prize-winning novelists, a historian and recent biographer of the poet W.B. Yeats, a former editor of Poetry Ireland, and several theatre historians and critics. The range and selection of contributors to this volume has ensured a high level of critical expression and an insightful assessment of Barry and his works.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Illustrations
  • 1 IntroductionChristina Hunt Mahony
  • 2 From Rhetoric to Narrative: The Poems of Sebastian Barry
  • 3 Transcending Genre: Sebastian Barry’s Juvenile Fiction
  • 4 ‘To have a father is always big news’: Theme and Structure in The Engine of Owl-Light
  • 5 ‘Everyman’s story is the whisper of God’: Sacred and Secular in Barry’s Dramaturgy
  • 6 Children of the Light amid the ‘risky dancers’: Barry’s Naïfs and the Poetry of Humanism
  • 7 ‘All the long traditions’: Loyalty and Service in Barry and Ishiguro
  • 8 Colonial Policing: The Steward of Christendom and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty
  • 9 Redressing the Irish Theatrical Landscape: Sebastian Barry’s The Only True History of Lizzie Finn
  • 10 Out of History: from The Steward of Christendom to Annie Dunne
  • 11 ‘Something of us will remain’: Sebastian Barry and Irish History
  • 12 Hinterland The Public Becomes Private
  • 13 ‘In the dank margins of things’: Whistling Psyche and the Illness of Empire
  • Bibliography of Works of Sebastian Barry
  • Contributors
  • Endnotes
  • Index


As the editor of Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry I would like to thank the publishers, Carysfort Press, in the persons of Dan Farrelly and Lilian Chambers, for fostering a thoroughly pleasant and productive working environment. Similar thanks, also, to Alan Bennis of Bennis Design, whose highly creative talent resulted in such an excellent cover design. Thanks to David McGonagle and Beth Benevides at The Catholic University of America Press, colleagues of many years with whom I forged a new professional relationship upon the co-publication of this volume.

Acknowledgement and thanks for permission to reprint photographs to - Amelia Stein, John Haynes, Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library, and to the Abbey Theatre, Out of Joint Theatre Company, The National Theatre, London and the Royal Court Theatre; and to Eire-Ireland for permission to reprint the essay by Elizabeth Butler Cullingford. My personal thanks to Graham Cowley, John Fairleigh and Max Stafford-Clarke of Out of Joint Theatre Company for helpful information on several occasions.

To Nora Mahony for help with indexing the volume and for tolerating a Dublin roommate for a term; to Robert Mahony for good-naturedly taking over the reins in Washington; to Lucinda Bray for supplying transportation and lodging; to Nicholas Grene and Bruce Stewart for practical help and inspiration; to Roy, Aisling and Nora Foster for London lodgings, and to all my excellent contributors. Most of all, my thanks to Sebastian Barry for his patience and good will, and, most importantly, for his artistry.

Christina Hunt Mahony

Washington and Dublin 2006

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1 | Introduction

Christina Hunt Mahony

Sebastian Barry was born in 1955 and therefore celebrated his fiftieth birthday shortly before this volume went to press. It is the first volume of essays on his work to be published, and seems a belated offering as such. The contributions reflect Barry’s achievement in various genres and highlight his unquestioned success as a contemporary Irish dramatist.

Barry began as a poet, and remains a poet. His earliest work, and that for which he is credited in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, published only a decade ago, is as a lyric poet. In The Water-Colourist (1983), The Rhetorical Town (1985), and Fanny Hawke Goes to the Mainland Forever (1989) the reader finds the seeds of his continuing life’s subject – an investigation of his family in its complex relationship to Ireland as an emerging and evolving nation. Peter Denman’s analysis of the poems provides the first comprehensive view of this work in its relation to the drama and the narrative prose which followed. Denman assesses the journeyman writer and noteworthy poet who began to be published at a very early age. The task of finding a voice is a prerequisite for a writer, and Barry found his early, making the decision to expand his work beyond the lyric parameters.

But Barry’s first book, and a continuing interest while he was beginning to publish as a poet, took the form of fiction for ←1 | 2→young readers. As Éilís Ní Dhuibhne remarks in her valuable contribution to our understanding of Barry’s development as a writer, Barry’s early juvenile fiction also yields thematic and linguistic threads which he will weave throughout his mature work. Macker’s Garden and Elsewhere: The Adventures of Belemus are the work of an author in his early twenties, close enough to the childhood adventures of the boys’ world he captures to write with a seeming ease, while appealing equally for an authenticity in the difficult task of writing books for the young which the adult reader can find equally rewarding. Macker’s Garden is an identifiably autobiographical work in its milieu and period, and shares with the much more fantastical Belemus a lovingly portrayed Dublin where adventures of a plausible or more highly imaginative sort are played against a real landscape of Dublin’s inner city and suburbs.

Bruce Stewart approaches Barry’s early move to narrative fiction for adults. His study of The Engine of Owl-Light benefits from their shared student experience and places this early prose work into the context of the maturing writer and his experimentation with multiple narratives and linguistic dialects both old and new. The ambition and scope of this early work proves a daunting read, and while the book is not entirely successful in its aims, it is more than sufficient evidence of a major writer in the making. Based in part on the same autobiographical setting as Barry’s children’s fiction, The Engine of Owl-Light journeys far into the colonial landscape and the underside of New World adventures undertaken by young male protagonists which reappear, transformed, in Barry’s prose and drama in more recent years.

David Cregan explores Barry’s maintenance of hope in his work for the stage, viewing it from a spiritual perspective removed from the confines of institutional religion in an Irish context. His choice to look first, and crucially, at the specifics of Barry’s stage directions for his plays, finds poeticism where we least expect to encounter it in a playwright. In Prayers of Sherkin and Fred and Jane, two early plays, the life in community is sensitively portrayed, and the heightened spirituality that is the aim of that life is signaled in the playwright’s specific ←2 | 3→directions for actors, directors and readers. From this starting point Cregan places Barry’s initial dramatic urge into a context that writes the past into a contemporary future. The latter play is unusual in Barry’s dramatic corpus in that it remains completely outside his familial project, relying solely on the community experience of religious orders, a context which is combined in the former.

Barry’s gentle character portrayals are unique in the harder-edged reality with which contemporary Irish writing must contend. It is a given that Irish society is riven with rapid changes, and is still reeling from the shock of these. It is the task of contemporary writers to record these seismic indications of cultural upheaval and to record that loss which is an integral part of change. Although Barry writes many characters who are Victorian in upbringing and whose world changed violently in the early decades of the twentieth century, he also creates others who dwell in an Ireland that is more recent, but still irrevocably gone. Barry infuses these with an innocence that can seem at first at odds even with the earlier reality of their lives. He makes his innocents credible by coupling their unshakeable belief in the goodness of others with their adherence to their own belief systems. Barry’s people don’t simply carry on and bear their burdens (which are at times insupportable) they can rise to moments of illumination and clarity which the more fortunate among us can envy. In my own essay, ‘Children of the Light amid the Risky Dancers’, I have argued that these are not exercises in fantasy nor escapism from existentialist awareness, but fleeting moments of vision which place human aspiration and endeavour in a broad, nearly cosmic, humanist perspective which is both historical and postmodern. Barry’s humanist naïf is best exemplified by the eponymous hero of The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), a homeless and condemned wanderer who journeys through the morass of much of the twentieth century peculiarly unarmed for the fray.

Sebastian Barry has been writing for the theatre long enough now that the need for the revival of some of his work for the stage becomes an issue. Anthony Roche makes an eloquent case ←3 | 4→for The Only True History of Lizzie Finn, a play which contains its own revivalist project by incorporating lost traditions of the Irish theatre within its structure. It is a play keenly aware of the theatricality of its subject. Lizzie Finn has a unique dual perspective – the rare contemporary Irish play which actually has characters on stage in both Ireland and in England. Although the Irish/English experience is the stuff of much modern Irish writing this dual perspective rarely gets an outing on the physical stage; and Lizzie Finn, with its contrasting elements of class, gender and political viewpoint, is a rich tapestry which incorporates elements of the theatre of an earlier era with those of today’s dramatic concerns and techniques. Lizzie Finn was produced for the stage in the same year as The Steward of Christendom, and the latter play’s runaway success overshadowed the particular contribution of Barry’s ‘theatrical’ play with its self-awareness and its active engagement in Irish theatrical history. The inclusion of its character Birdy Doyle, a tribute to veteran music-hall performer Birdy Sweeney, inscribes that tradition into the ‘legitimate’ theatre. Patrick Mason’s production of the play a decade ago also relied on dual perspective, as classes perceive each other across social and gender gaps.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2006. XII, 264 pp., 9 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Christina Hunt Mahony (Volume editor)

Christina Hunt Mahony, directs the Center for Irish Studies at the Catholic University of America, and is the author of Contemporary Irish Literature: Transforming Tradition.


Title: Out of History