Two things are quickly apparent as the novelist, playwright and poet Sebastian Barry talks to Seán Rocks from the stage of The Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire – he speaks every bit as lyrically as he writes and his work exists in a sort of Barryverse, where many things are interconnected. Barry is talking about his new novel, Old God's Time and the stage he and Seán are sitting on is not very far from where he grew up and from where the new book is set:
"The place where you tramp about as a kid never leaves you. And if people ask you where you’re from, maybe that’s where you’re from. The calf returns to where it got the milk, as it were."
Sebastian grew up on Longford Terrace in Monkstown, a little more than a stone’s throw from The Pavilion Theatre:
"We used to traipse around everywhere and, you know, get into all sorts of terrible mischief. I couldn’t, some of it’s so criminal, I couldn’t even confess it now because they might still come for me."
That may be why the new book has a Garda at its centre, or at least, an ex-Garda. When we meet Tom Kettle he's been retired from duty for almost a year:
"He’s been quite content to spend 9 months before the book starts in his annex flat in Queenstown Castle because – we don’t know this at the beginning of the book, at the end of the book we have a much better idea – he has some serious stuff to deal with and to process."
If the name Tom Kettle sounds familiar that’s because he’s named after the Irish poet Thomas Michael Kettle, who was killed in action on the Western Front during World War I in 1916:
"A very interesting figure in his day, Tom Kettle, the poet. He was also the best talker of his day – which is not something we say about people anymore – and wrote essays, was really a very brilliant person. And died on the Western Front. In a British uniform."
A few weeks before he died, Kettle wrote the famous poem, To My Daughter Betty, the last few lines of which will be familiar to Sebastian Barry fans:
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsmen shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
Thomas Kettle the poet, then, as well as supplying the title of Sebastian’s 2008 novel, The Secret Scripture, allowed Barry to better understand his protagonist, he told Seán:
"I thought if I called him Tom Kettle, I’d know him a bit better because I already had shaken hands with him over the trenches and over the years."
Old God’s Time’s Tom Kettle and his wife June are intertwined in ways that become clear in deliberately descriptive passages in the book, the writing of which had to be fairly traumatic, but the love Tom had for June buoyed Barry while he was working through it:
"The thing for Tom was that when he met this particular girl June, you know, it’s as if he never got over it. He married her. But they had things in common, which is often the case with people when they find each other. You might even discover only later that you have even traumas in common in your childhood that somehow allowed you to recognise each other. But in the making of the book, which obviously has its black darknesses, his love for June and his descriptions of June somehow kept me going, as if they were the song of the book."
Both Tom and June are survivors of child sex abuse at the hands of religious orders while they were in institutions and that whole vast awful topic is a subject that Barry describes himself as being "bothered and obliterated" by over the years:
"To me it is, in effect, to my legal mind, either a murder or attempted murder because what you do to the child is you take away entirely the road that was before them in their lives. You rescind their future. You cancel their future. And often times – and we never even hear about it – people who have suffered in that way eventually end up by exiting life well before their time, as it were. In other words, it sort of destroys time. It’s a murderer of time. It’s a murderer of a person’s spirit."
The wheels come off, is how Seán describes it, for Tom and his quiet retirement, when two gardaí call to his door to ask him some questions and maybe get some assistance from Tom. And he wants to help them, even while knowing what the fallout could be.
You can hear Seán's full, tremendous conversation with Sebastian Barry from the stage of the Pavilion Theatre by going here.
Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber.