Irish History Through a Lens Darkly

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry
It surprised me on first hearing that personal testimony in court cases is no longer considered reliable. But once I’d read on the subject and put myself though comparable memory tests, I became a believer.
Sebastian Barry, an Irish playwright and author with a Man Booker nomination to his credit, demonstrates just such an idea in The Secret Scripture. Here, he presents the story of a hundred year-old woman, Roseanne Clear, through the device of two accounts of her life. One account is Roseanne’s, the other is that of Father Gaunt, a Catholic priest. Actually, the book is meant to be a resolution of the two conflicting texts via a similar accounting by the narrator, Dr. Grene, a psychiatrist who has taken an interest in Roseanne late in her life.
Dr. Grene works in the Roscommon Hospital, a mental hospital soon to be closed and torn down. His job is to evaluate the patients and determine which are competent to return to society. Roseanne is one of these. Somewhat inexplicably, Dr. Grene takes an inordinate interest in Roseanne’s case. In digging into her life, he obtains Fr. Gaunt’s depiction of why he had long ago insisted that Roseanne was incapable of living the life of a normal Irish citizen.
In her turn, Roseanne has written in her account of her marriage to Tom McNulty, subsequently annulled by Fr. Gaunt. Roseanne, a beautiful woman in her early years, came of age as a Presbyterian between World War II and the earlier years of political conflict and consequent civil war in Ireland. The annulled marriage was by implication an example of heavy-handed attempts by Catholic authorities to assert their control during this time, not only politically, but by meddling deeply in the personal lives of the Irish people. Gaunt, in essence, banished Roseanne for political and social sins too complex to delineate here by having her committed to Roscommon, where she has spent most of her life.
In resolving Roseanne’s case, Dr. Grene himself becomes the surprising subject of Barry’s story near book’s end.
By presenting conflicting accounts of key events in Roseanne’s life, Barry reveals the vagaries of both long- and short-term memory, and by projection, the ways in which accounts of history itself become warped by memory’s limitations. This is an inventive and at times poignant device as it’s played out in Roseanne’s personal life.
Ordinarily, this is the sort of history-as-literature writing that I tend to devour. But my problem with Barry’s literary device here is that Dr. Grene’s role as narrator tends to be a too-visible intermediary in Roseanne’s story. Essentially, then, Grene and his narration act as a filter through which Roseanne’s and Gaunt’s accounts are revealed, and the effect on this reader was to distance the often-intimate story from its reading. I have to wonder if the story as devised might not be better adapted to the stage than the page.
Still, Barry’s writing is agile, and in places, where he allowed his prose to carry the story along, The Secret Scripture glows.
An aside: I’ve thought for a long time that, as the secular mentality grows and develops, distancing itself from religion’s formerly socio-political roles, literature becomes a more common form of morality-and-ethics-by-example device. Judging by the book’s title, I suspect Barry agrees.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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