It’s a chilly afternoon in the tiny hamlet of Moyne, an hour and a half outside of Dublin, and Irish writer Sebastian Barry is in the converted 19th-century rectory where he’s been living for the past 20 years. “I’m sitting in the place where the rector used to write sermons to castigate his parishioners,” Barry says via Zoom. “And now I’m in here doing these books.”
One of Ireland’s most acclaimed literary figures, Barry is a poet, playwright, and novelist, twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, who served as the laureate of Irish fiction from 2018 to 2021. His novels, all loosely interconnected, explore Irish history and the author’s ancestral past. They’ve sold more than 350,000 copies worldwide, according to Viking, his publisher, and have been translated into nearly 40 languages. His ninth novel, Old God’s Time, due out in March, concerns a widowed, retired police officer who’s reluctantly pulled into the murder investigation of a Catholic priest accused of abusing kids.
The book’s protagonist, a keeper of secrets, was inspired by a man Barry saw in 1964, when he was nine years old and living near the coast. “One day, while wandering around, I looked in through a door, which you’re not supposed to do as a child, and there was a man sitting alone in a wicker chair, looking out at the sea, smoking a cigarillo,” the author remembers. “He looked infinitely content. I never saw him again, but for the next 50 years I wondered what he was doing there. I thought maybe he was a retired person. And now that I’m supposed to be a retired person—though, of course, writers aren’t allowed to retire—it struck me, I wonder if he’d give me a book.”
Born in Dublin in 1955, Barry didn’t begin to read and write until he was eight years old. “Once I learned, there was no holding me back,” he says. “I was like a wild pony. I was gone, reading everything.”
His childhood was tumultuous and frothy with drama. “My mother, a theater actor, and my father, an architect, were self-absorbed and narcissistic,” he says. “It was a bohemian household, and I thought everyone’s mother went out in the evenings and came back late. I was surprised that other mothers stayed home. They obviously should be going to the theater. I thought the stage was another version of reality, which is a lovely mistake to make for a writer. And my father had a wild life—womanizing and the rest of it. There was an unmoored quality to the house, and it got progressively worse. I mean some parts were pacific, an ocean of good things, but there were these bloody islands of nastiness, and they have to be reckoned with.”
Barry studied English and Latin at Trinity College in Dublin and, upon graduating in 1977, started writing fiction because he couldn’t find work. “We had heard of jobs in Ireland in the 1970s, we knew they existed somewhere in the world, but there weren’t any here,” he recalls. “It was either leave the country or sit in a room and write.”
By then, the author had become a collector of family lore. “My mother told terrifying stories about her childhood,” he says, “and my grandfather was the best entertainment channel you could access.” Barry’s father was emotionally distant and “reluctant to have anything to do with his family, and even on walks would walk far ahead of us,” but his doting aunt, the inspiration for the 2002 novel Annie Dunne, was a guiding light. “The way she spoke was a physical thing. You could nearly see her dialogue—it occupied space. She was like my creative writing teacher.”
Paul Slovak, Barry’s editor at Viking, praises the author for the beauty and poetry of his language and for his ability to dig into the recesses of the human heart. “Sebastian has a gift for image and metaphor,” Slovak notes. “The voice, the cadence, it’s masterful. His books rise to great emotional heights and there aren’t many writers who can match him.”
Natasha Fairweather, Barry’s agent at RCW Literary, calls Barry a “total writer” who lives and breathes his work. “He’s a genius, I think,” Fairweather says. “He throws the most terrible trials at his characters—childhood trauma, sexual abuse, warfare—and yet his love of humanity and belief in the power of love make the experience of reading his books deeply satisfying and redemptive.”
The past has occupied Barry for four decades—memories and the act of forgetting are themes in his work—and thinking about the past has made him more connected to the present. “Death is a moment, but it’s one of countless moments, and I’m interested in all the other ones as well,” he says. He doesn’t like goodbyes and never attends funerals—he didn’t even attend his parents’ services when they died. “The whole box thing doesn’t lead to a lovely feeling of gratitude. Our dogs are in the orchard, that’s as far as I can go for funerals. I suppose perhaps I’m dreadful. But one must own one’s dreadfulness. That’s another lesson that you learn in life: be the outlaw you are.”
Irish writer Colm Tóibín has been friends with Barry since the 1980s. “There was a moment when I wasn’t in good shape in the ’90s, and Sebastian would drop by with this extraordinary chocolate roulade that he’d make,” Tóibín recalls. “He’d say, ‘I’m not coming in, but here’s this cake.’ He’s supportive and constant, and he represents something really important in Ireland.”
The witty and jovial Barry—he’s very funny in conversation—has been married for more than 30 years to screenwriter Allison Deegan, about whom he gushes and with whom he shares three kids. Writing about his ancestors reminds him of the importance of showering one’s family with love. “Even if you don’t have a talent for it, love fiercely,” he says. “It’s not enough to safely trickle along and get by. Love fiercely even if it’s inconvenient.”
When he’s not writing, Barry likes to run on the mountain near his house to clear his head. “It’s about two kilometers up and two down,” he says. “Up is the suffering of life and down is the happiness. I’ve never experienced a runner’s high, but I do it because I think you should be flinging your old corpse up and down the hill. It’s good medicine.”
As the interview comes to a close, Barry hears a voice in the next room and smiles. “My wife just came home,” he says. “Now we’ll have a negotiation about who’s cooking dinner, and, later, we’ll put the heater on and read books and feel lucky.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.