One of my dearest friends lives not far from the iconic shopping strip in Maling Rd Canterbury, which is a most congenial spot for ladies who lunch and need a bookshop nearby. Over the years I have amassed a considerable pile of books from Tim’s Bookshop, and so it was that I had no shortage of titles to choose from for Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy from 746 Books. It was easy to choose The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry because I had just read his latest novel Days Without End (see my review) and couldn’t help but love it despite its confronting moments and unexpected setting in the American Civil War.
The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998) is the first in a series about the McNulty family of Sligo, and is followed in chronological time (if not in publication history) by The Temporary Gentleman (2014) and The Secret Scripture (2008), which I read in 2008, the year it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I realise now that The Secret Scripture would have resonated differently if (like everyone else!) I had read The Whereabouts first… and I also now realise that I read The Whereabouts with knowledge of the fate of one of its characters too. Ah well, I don’t think my reading of either was compromised by reading the books out of order, and I can’t wait to read The Temporary Gentleman as well.
The Whereabouts is a story of a lost man, his life destroyed by the tortuous politics of Ireland. It seems ironic now that the book was published in the same year as the Good Friday Agreement (1998) negotiated by Mo Mowlam, (a remarkable woman to remember on International Women’s Day). It seems ironic because the finale to the novel suggests that old scores are always going to be settled one way or another, and peace in Ireland is a very fragile thing indeed, though the Agreement has held so far for almost two decades…
Eneas as a boy feels an affection for France in peril from the Kaiser. He is too young for the trenches so he ‘takes the King’s shilling’ and joins the merchant navy, only to find himself rejected on his return, when the war finishing was only the signal to the hidden men of Ireland to brew their own war. Eneas finds that it’s a sort of sorrow to him that Jonno Lynch will not greet the old going-about companion of his boyhood.
But there’s worse to come in all manner of things. A long year passes, a long round of weather and eating his mother’s grub. Eneas roams the town asking everywhere and anywhere for a job and finds oh, kindness here and there, but mostly indifferent no’s and even aggression. And gradually Eneas understands that the little rebellion that took place just recent in Dublin and other points, with barely a flare-up in Sligo, barely a flash of fire on the hill, has done nonetheless a great altering in the hearts and minds of the townspeople. (p.54)
In the face of this hopeless unemployment, Eneas compounds what is seen as treachery by then joining the British-led Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC):
Eneas looks at it all with simple eyes and having no desire to loiter the rest of his days, joins at the hint of his Pappy the Royal Irish Constabulary. He’s not a complete eejit as Jonno may believe, he’s not the last innocent on earth. He knows why there are places in the peelers when there are places nowhere else. The RIC is composed no doubt of lost men, ordinary fellas from the back farms of Ireland, fools and flotsam and youngsters without an ounce of sense or understanding. And the legends of the RIC are all evictions, murders and the like, though many an Irish family was reared on those wages, and many a peeler was a straightforward decent man. Still, the word Royal is there before all, and they carry arms, and the top men are all out-and-out Castle men. But no matter. He can’t live a life to please Jonno Lynch, much as his heart is grateful for the adventures of his youth. Or he would lead a life to please Jonno Lynch if Jonno still had a grá for him, a friendly love for him. But he does not, clearly. And a fella must work, must toil in the dry vale of the world. (p.55-6)
Most of what Eneas does in the RIC is to mop up after reprisals.
Reprisals are daily sorrows, daily sad persons are found in ditches of a morning and no matter what allegiance was in their hearts at any daybreak. Because they are broken, bloody, vanished hearts, auxiliary and guerrilla alike. Eneas’s principal duty is the finding and motoring of these remnants back to the coroner’s premises in Athlone town. (p.58)
But when he witnesses the murder of a fellow-policeman called Doyle, and the King of the Auxiliaries … the man called the Reprisal Man despatches the executioners so promptly, Eneas is suspected of having identified them to the RIC. And he is a marked man after that, with no recourse but to flee his homeland. He leaves behind not only his parents and siblings, but also the love of his life, a girl called Viv. And it is Jonno who comes to deliver the message that unless he delivers the Reprisal Man to the guerrillas, the death sentence will be passed.
The novel then traces Eneas’s lonely life. Dreary work in the industrial north of England is followed by enlistment to fight the Nazis. In the confusion of Dunkirk he misses rescue, and miraculously serves out the rest of his war unmolested in a French vineyard. But his mental health is ruined by what he has witnessed and he’s fit only for labouring work in Nigeria, of all places, where an independence movement is wreaking similar havoc on long-held loyalties. He makes a friend, a ‘Negraman’ called Harcourt, and using a windfall they build a simple life together, bound by their shared loss of family and the possibility of ever having a family and children of their own.
Twice Eneas tries to go back home, to see his parents, to catch up with the adult lives of his brothers. But the hearts and minds of Sligo are intransigent. It is unbearably sad, and emblematic of the struggle to reconcile the combatants in the Irish Peace Process. My mother used to tell me that every Irish family had its tale of hatred and revenge, and ours does too. She didn’t want these stories passed on, because she knew the damage that can be done by hatreds stored from long ago.
Sebastian Barry’s Irish lilt is irresistible, but he evokes this tragic story without being judgemental or maudlin. He uses the imagery of plant growth and repair to great effect:
It is tasty work, the endless breaking of the soil along the rows of vines, the tying of new growth so there is no cramping or snapping, the quenching of the thirst that is like a star of need in each new grape. It is not like the growing of potatoes in the dark seams of lazybeds at home in Sligo. And Eneas feels his own father’s hunger for the health of flowers and plants in the old garden in Finisklin in his own blood now, giving a strength to his arms that is both tireless and tender. With everything changed about it, it is not unlike the fishing it seems to him, the same stopping, the same peering and care. The clay drinks the water he brings to it with almost a sigh, with almost words of thanks. (p.152)
Can there be redemption for anyone in a story of Everyman in Ireland? Reading The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty has made me wonder what kind of reconciliation processes have been put in place, in a country where any of us may yet sit next to someone with blood on his hands…
Author: Sebastian Barry
Title: The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 1998
Source: Personal library, purchased from Tim’s Bookshop (Maling Rd Canterbury) $22.95
Available from Fishpond: The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (where it now costs only $16.35!)