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“To every life an after-life. To every demon a fairy tale”: The Life and Times of an Irish Policeman in the British Empire in Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom*
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“To every life an after-life. To every demon a fairy tale”: The Life and Times of an Irish Policeman in the British Empire in Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom*
Barry , Catholic loyalism , Empire , Historical revisionism , Historiographical play , National history
  • I

    The purpose of this paper is two-fold: first, to trace the trajectory of Sebastian Barry’s dramatic works in terms of retrieving the hidden (hi)stories of his family members, and second, to analyze his most successful play to date in both critical and commercial senses, The Steward of Christendom, in terms of the tension or even rupture between Irish national history and the dramatic representation of it. If contemporary Irish drama as a whole can be seen as an act of mirroring up to nation, Barry’s is a refracting than reflecting act. Whereas drama in the south has tended to help, however inadvertently, consolidate the nation-state by imagining Ireland through its other (either in the form of the British empire or the Protestant Unionist north), Barry’s drama aims at cracking the surface homogeneity of Irish identity by re-imagining “ourselves” (a forgotten part of which is a community of southern Catholic loyalists) in all its plural difference and irreducible multiplicity.


    Unlike Stephen Dedalus who was desperately trying to awake from the nightmare called history, too many Irish dramatists have decided to stay in the bed of history, dreaming on. Lynda Henderson wasn’t the first or the last who has offered a trenchant critique of the Irish fascination with the past when she wrote in 1988 that “A concern for history is a perverse desire to remain fallen, to make no attempt to rise, to spend your life contemplating your naval.” “Too many contemporary Irish plays,” she went on to say, “bleat plaintively of old wounds” (18). Evidence seems to support Henderson’s sweeping argument and it would suffice to mention a few canonical works of contemporary Irish drama: Tom Murphy’s Famine (1968) that dramatizes the Irish potato famine, Brian Friel’s Freedom of the City (1973) which deals with the horrible events of Bloody Sunday, Translations (1980) on the mapping of Ireland by colonial forces and the loss of Irish language and Making History (1988) that focuses on the 1601 Battle of Kinsale, and Stewart Parker’s Northern Star (1984) which is about the 1798 uprising. One could even draw up a bird’s-eye view of Irish history by chronologically ordering the events that have been picked up by Irish dramatists.

    However, critics of the Irish preoccupation with the traumatic past may as well be reminded of Joyce’s little coda to the oft-quoted passage from Ulysses. When Stephen Dedalus retorts on Mr Deasy by equating history with a nightmare, the narrator slyly comments: “What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?” (42). History has proven to be a suffocating and divisive force, perhaps more so than ever, in post-Independence Ireland, and it is nearer the mark when the concern in contemporary Irish playwriting with history is understood as a collective response to, and a fight back against, history’s back kick.

    Henderson’s indictment on contemporary Irish drama’s penchant for history play is based on the conception of history as a series of sequentially ordered and distinguishable temporal entities, that is, on the clear distinction between the past and the present. Once this distinction comes to blur and it is admitted that concern for history stems from the desire to understand the nature of dilemmas and conundrums of the present and to resolve them, the Irish obsession with the literary representation of the historical past can be seen from a different light. Frank acknowledgement of the presentist view of history would lead us to see Irish history plays as more about historiography and less about history per se.

    According to Fintan O’Toole, a preeminent Irish cultural critic,

    Thus O’Toole contrasts the English history play with the Irish historiographical play and cites Sebastian Barry’s The Steward of Christendom as an extreme example of the Irish historiographical play in which “the border between the past and the present has ceased to exist.” O’Toole points to the differing attitudes that England and Ireland have each shown toward their pasts, whether respective or entangled. The postimperial sense of the radical disjunction of past and present, often accompanied by the wistful nostalgia for the former glory, gives the English an ironic self-assurance that their past is safeguarded from the ever-descending fortunes of their present. On the other hand, the postcolonial anxiety in Ireland to establish and verify a radical break between its past and present tends to backfire precisely because there exists profound continuities as well as evident discontinuities between its colonial past and its postcolonial present. Instead of attempting naively to represent history, Irish historiographical plays like The Steward of Christendom “offer a rich analysis of the ideological and psychological imperatives which control the ways in which history is remembered, transmitted and employed, and its potent power to whisper persistently (and sometimes perniciously) in the ear of the present” (Gleitman 219).

    With the six counties of North partitioned off and its Anglo-Irish Protestant constituency radically diminished, post-Independence southern Ireland has taken on a remarkable social and cultural homogeneity. As much burdened as any other society with class and regional conflicts and social stratification, the Irish society nevertheless exhibits “its social and cultural sameness” (Grene, Politics 242) underpinned by the intricate interplay between nationalism and the Catholic church. As Nicholas Grene points out,

    In his classic essay “What Is a Nation?” which is included with approval in Homi K. Bhabha’s Nation and Narration, Ernest Renan writes that “it is good for everyone to know how to forget” (16). He even goes further and maintains that “Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation” (11). When placed in the Irish context, Renan’s thesis on the nature of a nation enables us to see that not only for its creation but for its maintenance, the Irish nationstate (especially with its colonial past) needs to forget those citizens who do not fit comfortably into the national narrative and will keep on forgetting them.

    Thus echoing Renan’s thesis, the Oxford historian R. F. Foster pithily describes the independent Ireland’s policy toward the extent of Irish collaboration with the British imperial and war efforts in terms of “intentional amnesia” (Modern Ireland 472). Having secured the Home Rule Bill in 1914, John E. Redmond, the leader of the nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party, urged the Irish people to volunteer to fight on the British side. He believed that common sacrifice for the British war effort would create a new basis for Irish unity. Thousands perished in Somme and Gallipoli. Redmond’s decision was disastrous as his policy of imperial loyalty brought not home rule but the rising of 1916. After the setting up of the Free State, Irish soldiers of the British Army and police forces such as the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the DMP (Dublin Metropolitan Police) were largely written out of the story of Ireland and lodged hostilely in the popular memory as either British quislings or myopic opportunists.

    What distinguishes Barry’s dramatic project from others is that he puts into question the apparent homogeneity of the Catholic nationalist south by re-imagining “ourselves” rather than “the other.” Not all Irish Catholics were nationalists and many were pro-British. Furthermore, those Catholics who were pro-British were not necessarily native “collaborators” or national “traitors,” and even those who were disgracefully labelled as British quislings have the right to be seen from different perspectives than that proffered by the nationalist narrative. The “ourselves” re-imagined in Barry’s drama is more fractured than unified, irreducible in its multiplicity than acquiescent in its singularity. In other words, he attempts to dig a hole and create a rupture within the singular identity of Irish Catholics who have been constructed in the national historical narrative as the central actors and agents of the history of Irish liberation. Furthermore, those condemned as British quislings or native snitches-those “impure” and “tainted” elements to be erased from and written out of Irish national history-are not things, or more properly, people of the past: many in contemporary Ireland are their children, wives, relatives and friends. The problem of how to remember them, then, is not only a historical matter but, perhaps more importantly, a personal and moral one. Unfortunately, how to dis-remember them has been the main concern of official history in Ireland.

    Barry’s foremost literary concern has been to retrieve the lives of “history’s leftovers, men and women defeated and discarded by their times” (O’Toole, “Introduction” vii) and re-member those men and women who have been expunged from the imagined community of the Irish nation. Barry believes that if not fully to be reinstated in the national narrative, they should at least be given a lingering presence in it. If, as the subtitle of Christopher Murray’s standard history of modern Irish drama indicates, Irish drama is collectively understood as an endeavor to “mirror up to nation,” Barry’s mirroring act seeks not just to reflect but to refract, to challenge and subvert the border and idea of the nation which has been set and circumscribed by the nationalist narrative. Thus commentators like Grene understand the trajectory of Barry’s dramatic work in terms of “appending his characters’ stories to the received historical record as an imaginative and subtly revisionist addendum” (“Out of History” 168). From a broadly nationalist point of view, Elizabeth Butler Cullingford also aligns Barry with Irish historical revisionism: “Barry borrows the rhetoric of silencing from radical critics and appropriates it for conservative ends: his desire to give voice to the historically occluded native collaborator is a literary extension of the project of historical revisionism” (122). She goes on to accuse Barry of omitting and falsifying historical facts about Thomas Dunne, the semi-historical protagonist of The Steward of Christendom, with the consequence that the whole play is reduced to “a personal rather than a political crime: his cruel treatment of his daughter Annie” (127). As if anticipating the accusation levelled at him by critics like Cullingford, Barry has written that “Family history is just as unreliable and haunted as de Valera’s version of Irish history” (“Following” xvii). He goes on to say with a powerful rhetorical force:

    What concerns us is not so much the Irish historical debate between nationalism and revisionism as the popular perception of historical revisionism in Ireland. As one critic of historical revisionism writes:

    In his discussion of Barry in tandem with Frank McGuinness, Grene writes that “Barry and McGuinness in their different ways also seek to escape from the Manichaean construction of Irish history as us and them, or at least to explore imaginatively what makes them them” (Politics 245). There are signs, as we have already seen, that Barry’s project to transcend the imaginative contour of the Irish nation in which Manichean divisions-republican and unionist, nationalist and revisionist, Catholic and Protestant, green and orange, us and them, good and bad-abound, has already been categorized by some as the literary counterpart of historical revisionism. It is still too early to give a final verdict on how the public appropriation of Barry’s work has intersected and interacted with the popular image of historical revisionism.

    If Barry’s project is to “rescue figures adrift in history’s flood, and salvage a sense of belonging” (Foster, “Something of Us” 196)-or in Barry’s own words, “to wrench a life from the dead grip of history and disgrace” (“Following” ix)-that sense of belonging is doubly important for Barry because those figures to be rescued in history’s flood are his own family ancestors. Now an extinct race in Irish national history, the southern Catholic loyalists are, for Barry, those who occupy his family history, albeit secretly murmured at. Without these people, the playwright confesses, “I wouldn’t exist myself, a small matter in itself maybe but of some importance to me” (“Preface” xvi). Having started with fictions and made a name for himself as a poet, Barry wrote within a time span of ten years a series of six remarkable plays whose main characters evolve from some of his forebears.1 However, Barry’s plays can be called autobiographical only in the loosest sense, as they are “more in the nature of arabesques, or perhaps fugues, on autobiographical fragments than they are in any sense historical or genealogical” (Mahony 182). “Working from narrative scraps of stories, vignettes of forebears handed down by members of his family, or from his own experience,” the playwright, according to Christina Hunt Mahony, “takes outstanding imaginative leaps into the dramatic voice” (182).

    Barry must have gone through a series of horrific psychological pendulum in motion, swinging between the urge to pay homage to his ancestors through dramatic rehabilitation of them and the impulse toward the Joycean declaration of the artist’s freedom by publicly severing ties with his ancestors. Remembering the first time he seriously considered the shadow cast by his ancestral past on the future prospect of his writing career “in the cold light of 1985,” Barry confesses:

    There surely exists in these plays a powerful desire to come to terms with his own (ancestral) past, and by extension, an exhortation to come to terms with the past of the Irish nation that has been kept hidden by families like his, expunged from the nationalist narrative of Irish history, and ultimately forgotten by the Irish people. Thus, as Grene puts it, “To recall them [his forgotten forebears], or rather to re-imagine them, was also to re-imagine the larger history of the nation and the parts of that narrative that have tended to be forgotten or suppressed” (“Out of History” 168). This Barry attempts to do by seeking an understanding of the psychological, spiritual and political ethos of Catholic loyalism in Ireland without falling into trappings of the crude stereotyping of it which has been all too common among Irish nationalists.

    1They are Boss Grady’s Boys (1988), Prayers of Sherkin (1990), White Woman Street (1992), The Only True History of Lizzie Finn (1995), The Steward of Christendom (1995), Our Lady of Sligo (1998), all of which, except the last, have been collected in one-volume edition.


    The Steward of Christendom took the London critics by surprise in 1995 and became one of the most award-winning plays of the West End that season. Its success was repeated in New York in 1997, with Donal McCann again in the title role, a Dublin actor famous for, among others, his towering assumption of the role of Frank Hardy in Brian Friel’s Faith Healer. Robert F. Garratt’s pithy description of Barry’s novels captures the overall tenor of The Steward of Christendom equally succinctly: “retrospective in narrative form, psychological in method, historical in subject matter, all of which is framed by traumatic experience” (137). The play dramatizes the fate of a forgotten community of southern Catholic loyalists during the crucial period in modern Irish history from the Great War through the Easter Rising of 1916 to the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922, from around 1932 in the memories of Thomas Dunne. Dunne, a character based loosely on John Dunne, Barry’s maternal great-grandfather, is a 75-year-old former Chief Superintendent of the DMP-the highest possible rank an Irish Catholic could climb up to. Dunne was reputed to have led a police baton charge that killed four men in the Dublin Lockout of 1913, and was in charge of security for Dublin Castle, the bastion of the British rule in Ireland. He is also known to have been awarded a medal by King George V for successfully arresting the socialist union leader, Jim Larkin.

    Barry’s own ambivalence about having such a branch on his family tree began as a nagging doubt and eventually resulted in Thomas Dunne, a complex and satisfying character, and a willing victim of the system he so loyally served. Left with an inadequate pension, he is shunted back home to Baltinglass, a small town in south-west County Wicklow, after losing his position of power and authority in Dublin. Forced into a county mental asylum, he gets constantly harassed by the caretaker named Smith who doesn’t forget to show his great contempt for the ex-police chief under the British imperial rule, calling Dunne a “Castle Catholic bugger” and a “big loyal Catholic gobshite killing poor hungry Irishmen” (SC 9). However, Dunne is a proud old man who, at least to himself, has kept honor with an unflinching sense of loyalty and service throughout those particularly turbulent times in modern Irish history. He retorts upon Smith’s accusation, saying “Let them come and kill me if they wish. But I know my own story of what happened, and I am content with it” (SC 12).

    The cast of The Steward of Christendom includes Dunne’s four children (Willie, Maud, Annie, Dolly), Maud’s husband Matt Kirwin (Kirwin is a family name of Barry’s) and Mr. Smith and Mrs. O’Dea, who now take care of Dunne in the asylum in Baltinglass. It is 1932, just about a decade after the British turned over Dublin Castle to Michael Collins as representative of the Free State Government. Dunne is now 75 years old, but still sound. He is not particularly clean and wearing only long johns. The play consists basically of a series of powerfully lyrical monologues interspersed with the present scenes with the two caretakers at the asylum and the shadowy figures of his son and daughters flitting in and out like ghosts from the past. A Lear-like figure, with three daughters (only one, Cordelia-like Annie, staying with him after he lost his honor and glory) but no kingdom to lose and what’s worse, no kingdom to serve, Dunne suffers from a wild swing of mood, back and forth between fervent delirium and cruel sanity.

    Because of the cumulative effect of his having lost his beloved wife as a young man, and more recently a son to World War I, one daughter to emigration, and another to marriage, Dunne suffers a rather violent emotional collapse and is committed to the county mental asylum in Baltinglass. However, the breakup of the Dunne family is ultimately all his doing. Willie, his oldest child and only son, isn’t tall enough to be a recruit of the DMP as his father wishes, so he joins the British army instead to fight in World War I and gets killed. Maud, the oldest among the daughters, chooses to marry a man she met in the park not out of love but to escape from the troubled family, Dolly, the youngest, decides to move out of the country to get a housemaid job in Ohio. The remaining daughter, Annie, is the one who most fully inherits her father’s values and his sense of loyalty, and she endures three long insufferable years before she is finally forced to put him in the county home. Annie tells her father:

    The final breakup of the family comes when Dunne tries in vain to deny Annie the truth that he drove away even those neighbors who are sympathetic to his suffering: when Dunne tries desperately to deny what he has done, stuttering “I never did. We lived there like, like . . . ,” Annie answers helplessly, “Like, like the dead, Papa” (SC 37). As Dunne tries desperately to hold on to Annie by asserting his former glory and honor, he is answered with the cruel fact of life:

    Commenting on two of Barry’s most successful plays, The Steward of Christendom and Our Lady of Sligo, Scott T. Cummings sums up Barry’s dramatic trope:

    What Cummings calls a compelling and dizzyingly lyrical monologue indeed takes center stage in each act of The Steward of Christendom. In Act One, left alone after a series of persistent verbal persecutions by the nationalist Mr. Smith, Dunne begins his monologue which ends with a shocking revelation:

    The popular Irish image of Queen Victoria, as moulded by anti-colonial nationalists and imprinted on the popular consciousness later on, has been one of imperial suppression and domination, forever epitomized by “the Famine Queen.” However, contrary to what official history has to say, many Irish people of Dunne’s generation would have rather taken his confession for granted and found little surprising, not to mention shocking, in what Dunne has to say about the Queen. The shock effect that the monologue creates owes more to the fact that more than seventy years after the Irish independence during which official history-what Barry calls de Valera’s version of Irish history-has all but silenced and erased Irish pro-imperial manifestations, we witness on stage an Irishman confessing his deep, almost primordial love for the British queen. Ironically, Dunne’s love for the Queen and the nationalist hatred of the Britishmonarchy come from the same psychological reality of nineteenth-century Ireland. As one historian of nationalism and monarchy in Ireland during the reign of Queen Victoria points out,

    The Queen’s popularity among the Irish is substantiated, ironically enough, by the enormous hatred that Irish nationalists showed against the British monarchy.

    In Act Two, Dunne’s unflinching sense of loyalty to the British Queen is rather unlikely transposed onto the Irish rebel leader, who, in Annie’s more stubbornly anti-nationalist mind, “is no king either, begging your pardon. With a tally of carnage, intrigue and disloyalty that would shame a tinker” (SC 43). In another powerful monologue, Dunne remembers Michael Collins as he welcomes him on a cold winter day in 1922 to hand over Dublin Castle:

    As Cummings has pointed out, each of the two acts in The Steward of Christendom is built around such a “compelling and dizzyingly lyrical monologue.” However, they evince more than “the hero’s stubborn fortitude” as they do not just shed light on Dunne’s values and his psychological working. Perhaps more importantly, they convey successfully the sense that there is a definite correspondence and even continuity between the British imperial rule and the nationalist governance of the Irish Free State. The transition from one to the other is perceived by Dunne less as a revolutionary break with the colonial past and more as successive reigning over the Emerald Isle of two great leaders who are surely destined for glory. Although one passing and the other rising, Dunne clearly senses greatness in both Queen Victoria and Michael Collins which is a veritable object of his loyalty and service. Furthermore, the uninterrupted transition from Queen Victoria to Michael Collins as the site and object of Dunne’s allegiance and loyalty is not just psychological in nature but has its historical root. After all, the Treaty of 1921 between Great Britain and Ireland-out of which the Irish Free State came into being and whose chief Irish negotiator was none other than Michael Collins-provocatively required the Irish Free State to imbibe the relics of British constitutionality, particularly the oath of allegiance to the Crown by members of Dáil Éireann, the Irish parliament. The oath of allegiance was both nominal and emblematic.

    The tragedy for Dunne is that he fails to realize that, with the assassination of Michael Collins by those who were opposed to the Treaty and presumably by Éamon de Valera (Neil Jordan’s controversial 1996 film Michael Collins is unambivalent on this), the Irish nation-state has neither a need nor a place for his loyalty and sense of honor. Worse, the birth of the nation should not be tainted with “collaborators” and “traitors” that he has become now. A discombobulated man in and out of his sanity, Dunne doesn’t belong to either the asylum in Baltinglass or the outside world. He is even “an anomaly in the madhouse” (Meche 467). As O’Toole writes in his review of the play, Dunne ends up being “flitting in and out of lucidity, a man who cannot make sense of things because he himself does not make sense” (Critical Moments 150).

    At the familial level, Dunne’s inability to see himself being reduced to a pure anachronism, if not a public enemy, is played out in Annie who has stuck with her maddening father till the end with her own, unreciprocated sense of loyalty and service. Dunne is near the end of his life, and the greatest guilt and remorse that Dunne feels is toward his daughter, who has a life to live but who has neither means to live by nor a nation whose heart is large enough to accommodate her. Dunne’s attack on Annie with his sword that forces her to put his father into the asylum clearly echoes Fanon’s analysis of the connection between colonialism and mental distress that resulted in schizoid identity among French officers in Algeria. Furthermore, as Jude R. Meche astutely points out,

    It becomes a particularly poignant moment when Dunne confides in his caretaker Mrs. O’Dea and reveals his utmost regret. The sympathetic old woman tries to soothe the pain of her plaintive patient: “We all have our regrets, man dear. Do calm yourself” (SC 12).

    Drawing on the two monologues, Grene argues that “In The Steward Barry seeks to re-write the traditional nationalist version of Irish history as a tyrannically patriarchal colonial power oppressing a feminized Ireland from the viewpoint of a man who sees his role as servant of a protective matriarchy” (Politics 253). This may be true for Dunne who bemoans the passing of the Victorian rule, as beautifully expressed in the first monologue. However, by the time we reach the second monologue, there has definitely taken place a subtle but sure change in the way Dunne perceives of the nation and his role in it. Instead of being a male lover to the feminized nation, Dunne now sees himself as a father of the infant nation or a new-born son of the patriarchal nation.

    Underneath the dazzling surface of all this metaphoric flourishing, Barry seems fully aware of the lost possibilities for Dunne and post-Independence Ireland that stem from counterfactual historical understanding. The nationalist logic of the Irish policemen as the quislings of the British state in Ireland came to emerge fully during as late as the Irish War of Independence (1919-21). Nonetheless, this logic has been inscribed in the (later) popular image of the force, and it has also become a mainstay of cinematic portrayals of the conflict between the police force and the IRA, as in Ken Loach’s moving yet highly problematic The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). Truth to tell, many Catholics were, naturally enough, grateful for the protection the police force, as an agent of the law, accorded. More pertinent to the drama of The Steward of Christendom, “it is not difficult to imagine,” as Matthew Kelly suggests, “had the Home Rule campaign succeeded, the RIC evolving into a force broadly acceptable to the majority of Irish Catholics” (237). Therefore, Dunne’s self-perception of being the father and the son at the same time to the new-born nation is not as self-ingratiating or self-deceptive as it may seem.

    In J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, Christy Mahon comes into a shebeen, claiming that he murdered his father, which earns him an unlikely heroic status. His subsequent triumph in the races only helps confirm his status. He is about to marry Pegeen Mike when Old Mahon turns up, wounded by his son’s loy but alive. Christy turns panicky at the sight of his father: “It’s the walking spirit of my murdered da!” (48). Mischievous village girls try to put their hero in women’s dress while Pegeen beats him with the turf. Dethroned, Christy is back to his former self as seen at the beginning of the play, to what Pegeen calls him: “a Munster liar, and the fool of men” (76). The humiliation instantly reinvigorates him and in the final reversal of fortune he triumphs over his father by words: “Go on, I’m saying.... Not a word out of you,” which Old Mahon accepts “With a broad smile” (84). Deed failed Christy but word succeeds him. Christy becomes a hero again and this time he will go “romancing through a romping lifetime” (84). Christy’s comic triumph is Pegeen’s tragic loss: “(breaking out into wild lamentations) Oh my grief, I’ve lost him surely. I’ve lost the only playboy of the western world” (85). Thus sounded the death knell of Cathleen ni Houlihan, that Yeatsian mythic personification of Ireland and thus began the breakup of Irish national identity as the freedom fighter whose willing sacrifice turns the old, strange and mournful woman into “a young girl” with “the walk of a queen” (Yeats 28).

    At the end of The Steward of Christendom, we witness something akin to the Syngean resolution of the father-son relationship that has been achieved not by murder but by words. The 75-year-old Dunne recalls a day of his childhood when he has found, to his horror, that his beloved sheepdog killed a sheep and ate it. Afraid of his father’s rage, he runs away deep into the woods with the dog. When they are found, the young Thomas expects the death of the dog and his own punishment. To his great surprise, however, his father

    This moving reconciliation between father and son is rare among Irish plays, and “may well be the only positive representation of a father-son relationship in the canon of contemporary Irish drama” (Roche, Contemporary Irish Drama 236). When this reconciliation between father and son is metaphorically extended to that between the former Dublin policeman and the newly born nation-state, it is difficult to say who is father and who is son. Is Dunne a father who is willing to embrace an infant nation with so much blood behind him, or is he a son who is exonerated by the forgiving patriarchal nation from his wrongdoing? Either way, the truth is that the Irish nation has refused to lend a hand to this father/son who is drowning in the flood of history. It is Barry’s literary project to offer that which de Valera’s official history has singlehandedly failed to offer: reconciliation between public history and personal memory, forgiveness between father and son, and continuity between the nation’s past and present.

    Barry attempts to achieve with his stories what de Valera has failed to achieve with his history. In The Steward of Christendom, it is the sacrificial death of Dunne’s son, Willie, which works as a major catalyst to achieving reconciliation and forgiveness between the loyalist Dunne and the nationalist Smith. The bipolar opposition set at the beginning of the play between Dunne and Smith dissolves into genuine sympathy that gets established between them by the end of the play. At the very beginning of the play, we see the 75-year-old Dunne spinning a stunningly lyrical passage out of a child’s muttering that echoes Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

    Dunne’s poetic reverie, however, is abruptly stopped by “A sharp banging on the door” and Smith’s rude calling of “Wakey, wakey” (5). From this ensues a series of confrontations between them, or more to the point, a series of verbal abuses heaped on Dunne by Smith. However, by the time we reach the end of the play when Smith offers to read to Dunne the only letter sent by his son Willie from the trench, something akin to the profound mutual acknowledgement that takes place between Hamm and Clov in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame has been achieved between Smith and Dunne: as he finishes reading, Smith says “That’s a beautiful letter, Mr Dunne. A memento. A keepsake” and adds “Good man, good man” as he is ready to leave (SC 58). It is important to notice the change that has occurred in Smith’s designation of Dunne: at the beginning of the play, Smith contemptuously named Dunne “A big loyal Catholic gobshite” (SC 9) and now he calls him “Mr Dunne.” And yet, as he goes out, Smith locks the door, symbolically representing the nationalist need for incarcerating and suppressing less patriotic concerns. Dunne’s impending death therefore “represents not only an end to earthly suffering but also a release from national history and, conceivably, the dawn of a new era” (Cummings 295). Cummings speaks of Barry’s plays “insinuat[ing] a national eschatology, not the end of the Irish state but the end of the beginning of the Irish state” (295). The Steward of Christendom dramatizes precisely that moment of “the end of the beginning of the Irish state” during which Thomas Dunne begins the end of his life as an Irish policeman in the British empire.


    Writing of the popularity of The Steward of Christendom among Irish audiences, the author of a chapter on “Contemporary Drama in English” in the massive Cambridge History of Irish Literature wryly comments:

    This view concurs with Cummings’ rather cynical summary of Barry’s dramatic trope mentioned before. Barry’s case, with a similar detour, for example, that Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa took for its success at home-a modest reception at Abbey, successful runs at London and New York, a triumphant return home-perhaps shows how fragile and insecure the Irish themselves are about their Irish identity, especially when that identity is nation-bound and state-oriented.

    Barry has been walking tight on the loose rope. Even expressing a personal admiration for revisionist historians such as Foster, as Barry does (“Introduction” xv), is still considered in Ireland a dangerously delicate matter of political prudence. Nor does the story of the fortunes and misfortunes of the Dunne family end with The Steward of Christendom. On the contrary, Barry’s literary project of digging holes and making ruptures on the levelled surface of national history-of endowing “every life” with “an after-life” and “every demon” with “a fairy tale”-has been an on-going and ever-expanding one. He has subsequently published two novels, Annie Dunne (2002) and A Long Long Way (2005). Annie Dunne traces the afterlife of the eponymous character, Thomas Dunne’s Cordelia-like daughter, after she left her father in the asylum in Baltinglass. A Long Long Way gives a most fully rounded and moving picture of Dunne’s son Willie who had only a marginal presence in The Steward of Christendom, flitting in and out of Dunne’s faltering memory. Indeed, Irish identity and the Irish nation sit next to each other quite uncomfortably in Barry’s project.

  • 1. Barry Sebastian. 1997 “Following the Steward.” The Steward of Christendom. P.vii-xxi google
  • 2. Barry Sebastian. 1997 “Preface.” Plays: 1. P.xv-xviii google
  • 3. Barry Sebastian. 1997 The Steward of Christendom. google
  • 4. Cullingford Elizabeth Butler. 2006 “Colonial Policing: The Steward of Christendom and The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty.” Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry. Ed. Christina Hunt Mahony. P.121-44 google
  • 5. Cummings Scott T. 2000 “The End of History: The Millennial Urge in the Plays of Sebastian Barry.” A Century of Irish Drama: Widening the Stage. Ed. Stephen Watt, Eileen Marie Morgan, and Shakir M. Mustafa P.291-302 google
  • 6. Fennell Desmond. 1994 “Against Revisionism.” Interpreting Irish History: The Debate on Historical Revisionism. Ed. Ciaran Brady. P.183-90 google
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