Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry (1955), poet, fiction writer, and playwright, was a resident with the International Writing Program in the fall of 1984. He came to Iowa City with just his first novel, Macker's Garden (1982), and two poetry collections, The Water Colorist (1983) and Time Out of Mind (1983), published.

Iowa City turned out to be a stimulating experience for Barry, of which he testified in this correspondence:


13 May 1985

The Cultural Affairs Office,
The American Embassy
Dublin, Ireland

Dear Sirs,

I wish to thank you for your generosity in sending me last year as the Irish representative in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

Those three months and a half were an extraordinary and bountiful experience, and of lasting help to me as a writer, and as an individual in the world. I found the Program beautifully conducted and of true international worth. … I’m writing so not only to thank you, but also to urge you to ensure that an Irish writer can always go every year. America is a sort of second Ireland in many ways, if I may be so outrageously humble, and it is important that Irish writers can touch home in this way. … It is the only award of this kind in the world after all, possibly because Mr. Paul Engle and Hualing Nieh Engle are the only people in the world capable of such an imaginative and historic construction. They are people of vision and the Program will always be worth going to for Irish writers.


Yours faithfully,

Sebastian Barry


17 December 1985

Dear Paul and Hualing,

Thank you for your warming letter at Thanksgiving: we pagans still mess around only on the 25th, so all best and excellent wishes to you both.

The mad play that Hualing was adventurous enough to get a video screen for, opens in Dublin the middle of February, I anticipate a certain reluctance on the part of the populace to endure it, ditto the critics, but will sit it out in the knowledge the thing was written in a gentle place among gentle folk.

Iowa City, rather like parts of childhood, has become a lode of reference in matters of happiness, as in “This beer is not quite as nice as Iowa beer,” or “This room is not quite as exact as the Mayflower,” or “Decent people these, but not quite Eric Clemens, James Matthews, Steinun Siggurdardottir, Paulo Englissimo, Hualing Nieh, etcetera.” Which is as it should be.

I’ve been too jealous of my American memories to drop them into poems yet, but when Iowa City starts to build in any of my work, of course I’ll send such things on to you.

Meanwhile please know that I am always thinking of you both and your extraordinary acts and monuments, and cherish the hope that someday you will call a gathering of the clan, and we will meet again in your best of houses.


Happiness to you,



6 May 1987

Dear Paul and Hualing,

It was certainly good to talk to you both on the phone.

Here’s the clatter of verses to James, just in today. May it reach him in some form or other, even if just some stray note in his dreams.

The thought that I might see you in the autumn is a great thought. As soon as I slip into New York, and sober up from the flight, I’ll phone you.

A deal of the new novel, which I’ll send you when it’s ready (publication date in London is June 25th) happens in America. The fact tha Key West figures, and that I went down there that first week in November ’84 as part of your bounty, is not unconnected. Much thanks, as always!

All the very best,




Born in Dublin, Barry is the son of the late Irish actress Joan O'Hara. His maternal great-grandfather, James Dunne, provided the inspiration for the main character in his most internationally known play, The Steward of Christendom (1995). The main character, named Thomas Dunne, is the chief superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police from 1913-1922. He oversees the area surrounding Dublin Castle until the Irish Free State takeover on the 16th of January 1922. One of his grandfathers belonged to the British Army Corps of Royal Engineers.

Both The Steward of Christendom and the novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998) are about the dislocations (physical and otherwise) of loyalist Irish people during the political upheavals of the early 20th century. The title character of the latter (McNulty), for instance, is a young man forced to leave Ireland by his former friends for his political beliefs during the Anglo-Irish War.

Barry's novel, A Long Long Way, was shortlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize, and was selected for Dublin's 2007 ‘One City One Book’ event. The novel tells the story of Willie Dunne, a young recruit to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers during the First World War. It brings to life the divided loyalties that many Irish soldiers felt at the time following the Easter Rising in 1916. Willie Dunne, son of the fictional Thomas Dunne, first appears as a minor but important character in The Steward of Christendom. Barry's latest novel, The Secret Scripture (2008), won the James Tait Black Prize for fiction, the oldest such award in the UK, and the 2008 Costa Book of the Year. It was also a favorite to win the 2008 Man Booker Prize, narrowly losing out to Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger.

Barry's newest play, Andersen's English (2010), was inspired by children's writer Hans Christian Andersen’s stay with Charles Dickens and his family in the Kent marshes. Directed by Max Stafford-Clark and produced by Out of Joint and Hampstead Theatre, it toured in the UK from February 11th to May 8th 2010.

Barry lives in County Wicklow, Ireland.

Barry’s overriding concern is with recovering those parts of Irish history that have been forgotten or displaced by official, particularly nationalist histories. Drawing heavily on the experiences of his own family, his choices of subject matter, including most notably a long running interest in the displacement felt by Catholic middle-class loyalists in the early years of the Irish Free State, are often awkward and unfashionable. He has said that he didn’t intend to locate forgotten characters of history “But by the accident of being born in Ireland into families who had lived in Ireland through this past century, everywhere I looked I found people mired in history.” The Guardian (11 October 2008)


Barry’s preoccupation with the lost stories of Catholic loyalism in Ireland has proved irksome to some nationalist critics, and he has been seen by some as a historical revisionist operating through the medium of fiction. Though his work varies in form between novel, short story, drama and poetry, a device common to most of the texts is the weaving together of separate narrative strands and voices. This method of composition questions commonly accepted accounts of historical episodes and locates his work on the intersections between family and national histories, and fact and fiction. The frequent reappearance of minor characters from previous works as main characters in new works and vice versa, offers further suggestion that Barry’s writings constitute an ongoing, open-ended project, the creation of a polyphonic alternative history of Ireland through the excavation and reworking of fragments from family history.



The Water Colorist(1983)
Time Out of Mind/Strappado Square

Elsewhere: The Adventures of Belemus(1985) 

The Rhetorical Town(1985)




Macker’s Garden(1982)

The Engine of Owl-Light(1987)

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty(1998)

Annie Dunne(2002)

A Long Long Way(2005)

The Secret Scripture(2008)

Tales of Ballycumber(2009)





The Pentagonal Dream(1986)

Boss Grady's Boys(1988)

Prayers of Sherkin(1990)

White Woman Street(1992)

The Only True HIstory of Lizzie Finn(1995)

The Steward of Christendom(1995)

Our Lady of Sligo(1998)


Whistling Psyche(2004)

Fred and Jane(2004)

The Pride of Parnell Street(2008)

Dallas Sweetman(2008)

Varieties of Weeping(2009)

Tales of Ballycumber(2009)

Andersen's English(2010)



Text: Zlatko Anguelov

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