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  • Provoking Forgiveness in Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture
  • Tara Harney-Mahajan

Sebastian Barry's works are preoccupied with reviving the lost, or deeply unpopular, stories of marginalized figures embedded in Irish history. "History," in this particular sense, comprises the commonly received understanding of the outcome of past, often traumatic, events; Barry resurrects marginalized figures from the past to underscore that there seems to be no place for their stories in the present. Indeed, Fintan O'Toole notes that Barry returns again and again to "history's leftovers, men and women defeated and discarded by their times . . . misfits, anomalies, outlanders," yet these characters all seem to possess "an amazing grace."1

The entangled concepts of memory and history are figure prominently in many of Barry's novels and plays. In his first novel, The Engine of Owl-Light (1987) memory is, as one critic notes, "the pervasive and the most vital theme in the novel."2 In Barry's 1995 play The Steward of Christendom, set in 1932, Thomas Dunne lives his final years in an asylum, put there by his daughters; he is increasingly unable to discern between the past and present. For Thomas, his madness is defined by his inability to keep his memories at bay. Thomas's memories incessantly recur in such a way that the present is the past and the past is the present. The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998) novel, focuses on the memories that cannot be forgotten: Eneas McNulty must live his life in exile because of his anti-nationalist activities leading up to the Irish War of Independence.3 In Barry's 2002 novel Annie Dunne, set in the 1950s, the unmarried and aging Annie reflects on her life and struggles with the rapidly changing Ireland, desperately clinging to the tenuous foothold she has managed to secure for herself on the farm of [End Page 54] her similarly situated cousin, Sarah. Annie's fears infuse the novel, and her only relief comes when she remembers the past or in her interactions with the young children she looks after during the brief summer in which the novel is set.

Though Barry is preoccupied with memory throughout his oeuvre, the theme features most conspicuously in The Secret Scripture (2008), where the relationship of history, memory, and forgetting is complicated in new ways through the story of an elderly woman, Roseanne Clear. The novel takes place in present-day Ireland where, after spending sixty-five years in various asylums, Roseanne begins to remember, write, and share her tragic story. Roseanne was incarcerated in the first of several mental facilities in 1942, just after the birth of her "illegitimate" son, who was immediately taken from her. When the novel opens, Dr. Grene, Roseanne's longtime physician and her main confidante throughout the novel, has been tasked with assessing patients that have been under his care (and in care well before his arrival at the mental facility) for years, as the patients are in the process of being moved to a new facility. Roseanne represents a tricky case as Dr. Grene fears that she was a victim of a certain time in Ireland when women were admitted to mental facilities not for health reasons, but for reasons of social control. He must now assess Roseanne's mental state, a step that he admits should have happened long ago. In a plot twist that has been widely criticized as melodramatic and implausible, it is revealed at the end of the novel that her son is, in fact, Dr. Grene.4

Roseanne reveals her narrative slowly and unreliably. Her memory often fails her, and she repeatedly contradicts herself without necessarily realizing the contradictions. Despite these challenges, which Roseanne is aware of at times and not aware of at others, she maintains an unflagging desire to write down, finally, her story. Roseanne's motivation for sharing her account stems from what Barry presents as a human need to strive for immortality, despite the obvious futility of such a goal; creating a record of one's life to be shared and passed down attempts a form of transgenerational immortality. In Roseanne's case, the authorities that held sway in her younger...


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