Sebastian Barry, Irish literary Laureate, is in London to promote his first play in a decade. He didn’t plan on leaving it so long, he insists; it’s just that finishing the play — On Blueberry Hill — took longer than he’d planned. How long? Most of the decade, he confesses. At one point progress was so slow that he wrote to his agent and offered to pay back the advance. ‘God knows, money is tight enough already in theatre without me taking it for not writing a play,’ he says.
In his defence, Barry has been rather busy, publishing no fewer than three novels (including the Costa prize-winning Days Without End) in the time it took to finish one play. Why did On Blueberry Hill take so long then? Is it that he finds novels easier to write, or does he just enjoy them more? Neither, he says, insisting that, despite any statistical evidence to the contrary, he’s actually come to prefer writing plays to novels.
‘I’m a prose writer who grew up in the theatre,’ he says. His mother, Joan O’Hara, was a stage actress who went on to star in one of Ireland’s longest-running soap operas. ‘As a young child I just assumed everyone’s mother was an actor,’ he says. ‘I was shocked when I went to school and found that they did other things, like minding house.’
He speaks of his admiration for the actors he’s worked with on previous plays — Claire Bloom, Donal McCann and Sinead Cusack. Did he never want to act himself, I ask. His live readings, some of which can be found on YouTube, are brilliantly flamboyant, with Barry — a six-foot-something mountain of a man — unable to resist the temptation to put on bombastic accents or segue into Irish folk ditties. Are they the trappings of a frustrated thespian, or just a man trying to make book tours a bit more fun? The theatricality is deliberate, he admits. When you spend years watching actors, he says, it’s hard not to pick up a trick or two.
It wouldn’t be the first time Barry has taken inspiration from his family members. The vast majority of his novels are lifted from family folklore. He tells me about his two grandfathers: one a staunch nationalist who hated all things English; the other a Sligo Irishman who ended up serving in the Royal Engineers during the second world war. ‘Both were completely Irish,’ he says, yet they trod different, and seemingly irreconcilable, paths. One of the fondest memories of his childhood was seeing them shake hands, having bonded over their affection for him.
The stories keep coming. There’s the great-uncle who fell foul of the IRA and ended up being murdered in Chicago (‘followed there by Michael Collins’s associates’). The great-grandfather — an Irish Catholic — who headed up the Dublin Metropolitan Police during the troubled Easter Rising period. ‘The family was so ashamed of him that nobody marked his grave,’ he says. You can understand why Barry uses these stories — if he didn’t, they’d likely be pinched by somebody else.
Is there anything autobiographical in On Blueberry Hill? Yes, he says. His mother — albeit indirectly. On paper, it’s an all-male play, with everything taking place in a single prison cell shared by two men, Christy and PJ, who pass the time by swapping stories from their past. Many of these memories are actually Barry’s own, in particular Christy’s stories about his mother. ‘It gives you a wonderful sense of freedom,’ he says, to interrogate your own past through fictional characters.
Before On Blueberry Hill came to London, it opened twice in Dublin — once in the city’s Origin Theatre and once in the very prison in which it is set. There was no stage to speak of, he recalls. Just a small room and 40 inmates — not all of them enthusiastic. ‘One man said, “I’m not watching a play about homos!”’ he says, launching into one of those impressions again. ‘The next day he was telling his English teacher how glad he was that he stayed and watched it. That’s the greatest compliment you can receive as a playwright.’
Speaking of great compliments, how did it feel to receive the Irish Laureate? He’s a great admirer, he says, of Michael D. Higgins (‘If only we were so blessed with our Taoiseach as we’ve been with our presidents’). Did it help Barry to make peace with his own Irishness — a subject with which he’s wrestled for much of his writing career? ‘Of course in a moment like that you’re going to be seduced into feeling pure citizenry,’ he says. Yet he still bristles at being labelled an ‘Irish novelist’, insisting he doesn’t really speak the language of Irishness.
Is there even an ‘Irish canon’ anyway, he asks. ‘Our writers are like the old Irish kingdoms: they don’t really talk to each other unless they’re shouting abuse. People talk about traditions in writing, but when you look at what they call Irish writing, it’s basically a bunch of mavericks doing everything they can to get away from each other. Look at Samuel Beckett. Look at Synge. Look at Joyce running off to Zurich.’
He remains drawn instead to outsiders like himself, he says. One of his best friends is the historian Roy Foster, who has spent much of the past 30 years skewering the follies of Irish nationalism. Their friendship echoes that of Ian McEwan and the late Christopher Hitchens: an admiration for each other’s work, yes, but the distinctive whiff of ideological kinship too. Foster, he says, has been as influential on his thinking — certainly on the question of Irishness — as Yeats. Barry’s eyes light up when he talks of him.
He beams, too, when he talks about being back in the West End. ‘When I heard the play was transferring I felt a happiness outside of any professional intent,’ he says. Two decades ago he was writing plays to pay the bills; now it’s something to savour and enjoy. Just as long, that is, as he can keep making time to do them.
On Blueberry Hill runs at Trafalgar Studios until 2 May.