It's funny how the writer in person rarely marries with the notion of the writer you've created in your head.
I've been a long-time admirer of Sebastian Barry, having read all of his novels bar one (which I'm saving up), and I had envisaged a quietly spoken, shy retiring type. But in person, or at least on stage at DublinSwell last Friday night, he was larger than life, with a big booming voice and a confident swagger.
Of course, Barry is also a playwright, and I imagine he's trod the boards a few times, either in the process of writing his plays or helping to stage them, so performing his work in front of an audience, whether real or imaginary, probably comes quite naturally. I found that I couldn't take my eyes off him, and the voice, well, the voice boomed across the auditorium and held everyone in its sway.
Barry chose to read an excerpt from his 2005 Booker shortlisted novel A Long Long Way, an extraordinary tale about a young Irish soldier caught between two wars -- the Great War and the Irish War of Independence. It is heart-breaking in places, one of those stories that leaves an indelible print on the memory.
Hearing it being read out loud was an astonishing experience. Barry chose the scene in which the young Willie Dunne returns from the battlefields of Belgium, still covered in mud, grime and lice from the trenches, and presents himself to his father, a much-respected member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, based in Dublin Castle. His father is a strong, proud man, not prone to shows of emotion.
In the scene he shoos Willie's younger sister away, and proceeds to bath his son, dousing him in hot water and scrubbing away the evidence of war. It is one of those quintessential scenes, that is tender without being sentimental, emotionally moving without being mawkish.
Barry reads it in a loud, strong baritone. He does the voices of the characters, even when there is no dialogue, so you get the full effect of who is thinking what, in particular the father, who is grappling with the realisation that his son has gone to war and experienced unimaginable things he will never truly know about.
It concludes with father and son gently embracing, but in that one embrace there is more than words can say, and Barry leaves it there, abruptly, while the audience, 2,000-strong, gives an audible groan of disappointment, as if to say, don't go, keep reading, we're listening and we want to know what happens next...
My reviews of Sebastian Barry's novels can be viewed on my Sebastian Barry page.
For further literary events in Ireland, visit the Dublin UNESCO City of Literature website.
I travelled to Dublin and attended this event as a guest of Tourism Ireland.