The Irish Quarter
"For my mother never made miniature legends of her life, and was singularly without stories, though I am sure there were things there to tell as good as my father's"
Sebastian Barry is one of Ireland's most distinguished contemporary writers. He has been short listed for the Man Book Prize. His novels are set in County Sligo. The Secret Scripture was my first work by Barry and it certainly will not be my last.
The novel tells the story of a 100 year old woman who has been confined for decades in a Sligo mental hospital. In her youth she was considered the most beautiful woman in Sligo. As I read this story I was glad I knew that women were, at one time in Ireland, sometimes placed in mental hospitals for adultery or because they were considered promiscuous. Men were not so treated. She lived through a very turbulent period in Irish history.
There are two narrators in this work, their stories were in counterpoint to each other. One of the narrators is the woman and the other is the doctor who is director of the mental hospital. She was a patient there when he started working there long ago. There is a lot to be learned about the sexual morals of Ireland in the period from this novel. The doctor is faced with a big problem. The state run mental hospital is closing down and he has to decide which of the patients are mentally fit to be returned to the community. One of his biggest concerns is what to do with the 100 year old woman who has been in the mental hospital for sixty years. He begins to have long conversations with Roseanne McNulty and he sees she is very intelligent, well read and he can find no reason she should ever have been in the mental hospital in the first place. Gradually through the two narratives we learn the life history of the patient and it is a heart breaking one. As we read the diary of the patient we learn of a father who died very young and a mother who withdrew into herself after his death. Declan Kiberd has stated that the central theme of Irish fiction is the weak or missing father and The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry deals brilliantly with this theme.
There is much, for me anyway, to be learned from this novel about life in Ireland. It is hard for an outsider to understand the tremendous hate that Irish Catholics and Protestants have for each other.
The Secret Scripture is brilliantly written, some of the passages were simply amazing in their depth and beauty. I recommend this novel without reservation.
|"I would like to see them try
to put me in a mental hospital!"