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  • Colonial Policing:The Steward of Christendom and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty
  • Elizabeth Cullingford (bio)

In his play The Steward of Christendom (1995) and novel The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), Sebastian Barry has attempted to do for the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary what Frank McGuinness did for the men of the Ulster Division at the Somme: explain and justify Irish loyalty to the British crown (Grene 35).1 In each work Barry gives center stage to an Irish policeman who served an empire that could no longer reward or protect him once Michael Collins had taken over Dublin Castle. Thomas Dunne and Eneas McNulty are loosely based on members of Barry's own family, whose gapped and fragmentary history left their descendant free to reimagine their lives. The decline of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy is by now a well-worn literary trope, but Barry examines the demise of a less fashionable group, the Catholic loyalists.

When Arthur Griffith wanted to castigate Yeats for bringing policemen into the Abbey Theatre during the 1907 Playboy of the Western World riots, he rewrote the beginning of the poet's political manifesto, "To Ireland in the Coming Times":

Know that I would accounted be
True brother of the D.M.P.

(qtd. in Cullingford, Yeats 64) [End Page 11]

To accuse a fellow-nationalist of consanguinity with the Dublin Metropolitan Police was the ultimate insult, much nastier than the epithet "West Briton" with which Molly Ivors discomfits Gabriel Conroy in Joyce's "The Dead." Barry says that in the 1980s he was ashamed to admit that his great-grandfather was the last Catholic Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, because he was "a figure to bring you literary ruin. What price my credentials as a real Irish writer?" (Barry, Papers). Nevertheless, by the time he wrote The Steward of Christendom in the mid-nineties, Barry was ready to exorcise the "demon," to "wrench a life from the dead grip of history and disgrace" and proclaim his blood kinship with that "disgraceful man" (Barry, Papers).

Similarly, the original of Eneas McNulty was "my great uncle who did something . . . terrible by joining the RIC," and therefore belongs to "a censored past . . . and a country whose history is erased" (Meany). Barry borrows the rhetoric of silencing from radical critics and appropriates it for conservative ends: his desire to give voice to the historically occluded native collaborator is a literary extension of the project of historical revisionism. Both the play and the novel represent the internal or literal exile of former policemen who find themselves without a place or a narrative of identity in de Valera's postcolonial Ireland. Are they traitors to their country? Was their service to law and order an instrument of colonial oppression, a genuine ideological commitment to empire, or simply a means of economic survival?

The Steward of Christendom, which achieved international success and gave Donal McCann one of his most memorable stage triumphs, is a memory play set in 1932. The central character, Thomas Dunne, now confined in the county home in Baltinglass, recalls incidents from his childhood, his family life, and his professional career as a policeman. (Barry notes that he had an elderly relative who suffered from Alzheimer's disease; his re-creation of some of its symptoms is compelling.) Unable to distinguish between past and present, Dunne is visited by the ghost of his dead son Willie, who served in the British Army and died in the trenches of World War I, and by the younger selves of the three daughters with whom he has always had a troubled relationship. According to Barry, [End Page 12]

This play is about his own true journey to freedom, many years after the Irish freedom which he rejected, an old man in extremis, a Royalist, a loyalist, a Castle Catholic, a father, a grandfather, a bare forked man, the steward of a lost Christendom, a hidden Christendom, Catholic Unionist Ireland of long ago.

(Barry, Papers)

Here Barry alludes to Lear's characterization of man as "a poor, bare, fork'd animal" (King Lear III.iv.107); in the play Dunne's resemblance to Lear positions him as...


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