“In the middle of the lonesome town, at the back of John Street, in the third house from the end, there is a little room. For this small bracket in the long paragraph of the street’s history, it belongs to Eneas McNulty”
The first of the McNulty family trilogy opens in boyhood innocence and is then swiftly and contagiously wrapped in the religious, moral, financial and political shenanigans of Sligo now on the borders of north and southern Ireland, while the rest of the world is off to World War 1.
The scripting is not as sumptuously skilful here as in the later books – Scripture and Gentleman – but it is more of a film text, tackling its dramas head on. It is enmeshed in a period peasant brogue and Barry’s customary love of a phrase. The title can be read or spoken in different ways for each character in the novel.
Both mother and father McNulty – I have read the story is based around Barry’s grandfather Jack – are subtley, cleverly cast in different lights in different books. Over 16 years Barry has learned new skills.
Here he works hard, perhaps too hard, on the often unexpected hardships of the Irish diaspora, so there are some episodes which just seem to be saying see-how-tough-that-was, like in a western with too much fighting and plenty of opportunities cinema-wise for the hero to look meaningfully at the camera. Like in a western we have comrades on both sides of a conflict, we have much hitching up of the saddles for traveling, Irish style.
Is Eneas a coward or a victim or as in a Thomas Hardy novel just overshadowed by the unfair machinations of the world around him? Just fate? Whatever his is a human face “blown off the road of life by history’s hungry breezes”.
Eneas’s cause becomes a scream against the violent cliches of so called patriotism, notional freedom, of mad nationhood, of insane, unnatural injustices…and astutely Barry also manages to illustrate that his problems are not unique to Ireland.
Superficially people might suggest that this and Temporary Gentleman – tales of two quite different brothers – are just bookends to the centrepiece of Secrets but their contributions are in a different key and their rhythm and timing beautifully salient. The passing of the years, which might have been beyond one book, also brings with it new bouleversing judgements and realisations into the larger family even national drama.
The dialogue and the imagery as ever with Barry is wonderfully rich throughout:
“If a salmon senses the least scattering of dirt in his home river, away out maybe in the farthest skirt of the estuary, he will not deign to enter, or she. The salmon is as clean as a pig in its nature though unlike the pig it will not lie down in the dirt that men force on it.”