Ciara Dwyer, ‘Why Irish author Sebastian Barry rejoiced when his son told him that he was gay’. in The Irish Independent (15 March 2017)

[Source: Irish Independent - online; accessed 15.03.2017.]

Writer John Banville said in a recent interview: “I have not been a good father. No writer is.” Sebastian Barry has a different take on fatherhood and his writing life.

Although he would probably be too humble to say that he is proud of his parenting skills, being a father has always been a big part of his life, and as a result, his writing life. They are intertwined, one enriching the other. Family is his core.

“I know that a publisher has to parade the fact that you were twice short-listed for the Booker,” says the 61-year old Dublin-born author.

”But you could say, he raised a family of three children with his wife,” he says referring to actress-turned-screenwriter Alison Deegan and their children - twins Coral, Merlin (24) and Toby (19).

The literary critic Cyril Connolly may have said that “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” but Barry’s life knocks that on the head. Not only has having children not deterred his writing, it has deepened it. In his novels, there is great compassion and a humane understanding of the world. It may have been in him, lying dormant but my guess is that having offspring unleashed it.

He once told me that fatherhood is not so much the most fulfilling thing in life but the most completing. “Because I’m a writer, I’m in the house all day,” he said. “It’s like being in the garden when the blue tits come back. They came back yesterday, these beautiful things and you’re sitting in the garden very quietly and they know you’re there. Sometimes fatherhood is like that. You see how beautiful they are. But there are also moments when they obviously love you, despite everything.”

Family is the key to Sebastian’s writing. It has provided him with inspiration for his novels. He has mined the lives of his ancestors, using their stories as a starting point. For example, his hugely successful play The Steward of Christendom was about his great-grandfather who was the last chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police with responsibility for Dublin and Dublin Castle. His last novel The Temporary Gentleman told the story of his grandfather’s temporary commission in the British Army during World War II, when he worked in bomb disposal.

His latest novel, Days Without End, began with his intrigue about a great-uncle who had served in the American Civil War. With that tiny nugget, off he went. The novel tells the story of Thomas McNulty, a Sligo-man who survived the famine ship from Ireland and signs up for the US army in the 1860s at 17. Along the way, he meets a young man, John Cole, who has also signed up. They go on to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. The savagery of the battle scenes makes for raw reading. But there are softer scenes in the story where we learn that Thomas and John have become lovers. The gay love story is about passion, but also family. They adopt a young Indian girl who becomes like their daughter. There is a great sense of family and the special love in that bond. In one memorable scene, they are in bed at night, holding hands and talking about the day. It is powerful in its simplicity.

Family life is always part of the conversation with Sebastian.
I first met him in 2005 when A Long Long Way, his novel about the Irish soldiers in World War I, was published. While writing it, he used to tell it to his children as their bedtime story. Each night they wanted to know what would happen next. Years later, he talked about driving them to school, giving them life lessons along the way, only to discover that they were completely zoned out, listening to music on their iPods. The years have passed and now the roles have reversed.

”Now they are giving me life lessons,” he says. “This is the topsy-turvy mystery of the whole thing.

He refers to the years when the kids were young.

”In our days without end, everything was good,” he says. “You had no idea of ending. The kids were eternal in some way and not only in the moments where you would long for it to be over, but in the moments where you were just thinking, this is the best thing ever. You do actually have the misunderstanding that it is eternal, that your days are without end. You think that you are teaching them things. I didn’t think I had that much to teach them. But I see now that it’s the other way round. That sounds like a truism but teachers say they learn more from their students than students learn from them.

“There is a lot to be said for that. Because you are looking at versions of your own childhood re-run and if anything, it is your responsibility to let them run their job in a safe environment. That seems to me to be the major achievement of good parents - just to keep your children safe; not only safe but that they have a sense of safety. And that they are not afraid. That’s the big thing because all of our miseries seem to stem from that and all our prejudices and all our violent hatreds seem to stem from fear, human fear.”

A few years ago, Sebastian was worried about his youngest, Toby.

“He was rather unhappy for a year and I was getting rather desperate,” he says. “It’s so worrying when young males in particular are struggling with low feelings. I was doing everything I could to try and sort it. Did he not want to go to piano? Have I done something wrong? What the f**k is wrong?”

Then Toby told the family that he was gay.

”We all remember the moment differently,” he says. “When we were given the information, as it were, I felt this bird being released into the sky. Freedom. I felt this is a good thing, this is joyous. This is him and this is a manifestation of the human spirit.
“I also made a crazy remark to him. I said, thank God you won’t have to deal with the heterosexual nightmare that we all had to struggle with when we were your age. I remember it. It was disastrous.”

I ask him to elaborate.

”Out of respect for the living, I don’t think I can,” he says. “The poor women who suffered, Oh my God.”

Was he a louser?

”No. But I wasn’t fit for purpose. I was only half-baked. I probably still am, but Ali puts a good façade on it.

”I was thinking that when I was his age, it was the battle of the sexes and you’re trying to accommodate it. It’s tempestuous and full of rows and terrible walkings-out and stomping around. Actually, I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of gays but at the same time, when I saw his relationship with his first love, as you might say; I’m not a scientist of human behaviour but from afar, this looked very rich and interesting to me. This is a resource of humanity. This is a very important part of being alive in the world. This isn’t something we should be tolerating, this is something we should be celebrating, as much as any form of love.”
How did he feel about it?

”It’s like your child says to you, ‘I want to be a rocket scientist and I want to go to Mars.’ You think, I hope he has a good rocket to go in. That’s the feeling.”

But then there is anguish all over his face as he tells me about how his son was mocked on a train in Ireland.

“He was travelling in great innocence and love with his beautiful young boyfriend and they kissed goodbye, as we do with people we love. Then some people - women and a young man - came over and shouted things at him. No-one else in the carriage helped him. When he got out, he was still getting this abuse along the platform (his boyfriend had got out at an earlier station). A woman walked beside him on the platform and offered him support but no-one in the carriage told those people to stop the abuse.”

No wonder Sebastian felt compelled to share his views with the world. A week before the marriage referendum, he wrote a letter to The Irish Times telling the world that he was the proud father of one shining person who happened to be a member of the LGBT community, so he would be voting yes. He saw voting yes as a matter of apology for all the hatred and violence which they had suffered down through the years. He wanted to “honour the majesty, radiance and promise of his human soul.” That letter was eventually read out in the Australian parliament.

”If I’ve done anything in my life, I’m really, really proud of that,” he says.

And in turn, Toby’s sexuality influenced Sebastian in his new novel.

”If you know of a great evil being brought to bear on your child, maybe you can work a sort of magic trick of showing a time unexpectedly in a country, which happens to be America, where it was possible to knock boots with your beloved friend and love,” he says.

At the moment, Sebastian and Alison are living in London for six months. Toby, the youngest, is in college now. So, instead of looking at empty bedrooms, the parents have flown the nest after the kids. The plan is to be closer to the centre of the film world, so Alison can pursue her screenwriting. She wrote the fine film A Little Chaos (it was directed by the late Alan Rickman).

She started writing it when she was pregnant with Toby but it took almost two decades to make. Now, she has more time to pursue her craft. Also, they want to be closer to their daughter, Coral, who is a boxing correspondent in London. Yet, Merlin is in Dublin. “We live in Harlesden, which is probably a bit like First century Rome. Everyone is there. All this horrible talk you get in England about immigrants, well we’re all here in Harlesden, lads. Come and have a look at us, the Irish and the North Africans. We are all trying to do our best and make a go of it.”

Not one to let life happen to him, Sebastian has always made his way, writing away. The idea of heading off to London for six months is typical of his pro-active ways. At 61, he could be living a cosy life in his Wicklow home, enjoying walks with his dog. But instead, as the kids left, it was time for a change for them too. “I don’t know where the transition takes place. Maybe it was on the boat, bringing all our stuff briefly to London for six months. That is the sort of thing that could have happened when I was 45.

”At 61, I’m very aware that it’s the age my grandfather was when I was born and my other grandfather was 53, so I can see that I’m grandfather material, whatever that comes to. It’s a bit frightening but at the same time, it’s an extraordinary ledge to be sitting on, looking out over the past and what you’ve been through. In a way, this book is a sort of celebration. You can read John Cole and Thomas as me and Ali in a way, because that’s what I think is important in a relationship, just lying on the bed, talking; the government of parenting. You’ve shown up and are so intertwined. After 30 years, I don’t think it could be anything but discourtesy of the gods to part you. But then you see so many of our friends ill and parted. You see the sundering, separation and sorrow. But then you also see the immense privilege that you enjoyed of being a participant, of living through your days that had no end and the immense satisfaction of that and the immense sense of achievement.”

He is delightfully ordinary about it too. He recalls a time when he forgot to pick up the kids while doing an interview. He had to bring the journalist in the car to do the late school run.

Sebastian is glowing with good health and is very trim.

What’s his secret? He tells me that he doesn’t eat sugar and he runs 5km every day. But I suspect the glow is from so much more. He is living a full life; being a father and husband, writing, working and making the time for all. Far from a hindrance, his family has been his fuel.

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