Not Even Past

British warships arriving at Donegal Bay during the Irish Civil War
Crowder/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
British warships arriving at Donegal Bay during the Irish Civil War, July 1922

In a novel by Sebastian Barry from 2011, On Canaan’s Side, a very old Irishwoman in America is writing her life story, a story of obscure survival through the dark, violent dramas of twentieth-century history, stretching back to “a thousand thousand moons ago, as one might say.” Among her memories are two images of tiny, utterly lost things. One is a string of pearls that belonged to her dead mother, given to her as a child by her father, which she broke: “The little cultured pearls poured out on the floor, and made a dash for the gaps between the floorboards.” A few were rescued. “The others must still be there, a queer memorial to me and my mother, in the darkness.” The other image is of a gigantic dust storm that struck New York in the 1930s, when she was there on honeymoon:

The storm blew its sorrowful dust about all day, covering everything and everybody. It must be still there, anciently, in the cement mixes of that time following, lying in the little lines of the sidewalk, deep in the very heart’s core of the citizens.

Broken vestiges, buried scraps, things which “must still be there” but have long gone unnoticed: Barry’s work disinters, sometimes after “a thousand thousand moons,” such lost histories. He often refers in his fourteen plays and eight novels, written over more than thirty years, to characters who think themselves of “no account in the world,” who are living “on the edges of our known world.” His people are the “nothing people,” the victims and survivors of war and famine and poverty, prison and incarceration, people who’ve had no voice and no acknowledged value. Another of his old Irishwomen, Annie Dunne, in the marvelous novel that bears her name, thinks of herself and her cousin, hidden away in their obscure lives, as being

like two spiders, in a dark corner of the world, things of no true importance…. But even the spider leaves a trace, a broken web blowing on the breeze. It does not need the notice of man. In its own manner it makes its simple statement, it writes its simple sentence and is gone.

Barry’s characters are scattered through the world, though they often hark back to one “dark corner” of it. They may come from Ireland or Africa or America, but, like Annie Dunne, most of them, until now, draw on or derive from the “forgotten hidden people” of Barry’s own family.1 They hail from rural Wicklow, or Sligo, or the Isle of Sherkin in County Cork, or Dublin. They appear and reappear as the members of two Irish families, the Dunnes and the McNultys. Through their…

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