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Sebastian Barry Reads from The Secret Scripture

Irish novelist, playwright, and poet Sebastian Barry was recently chosen for the longlist for the Man Booker Prize for his latest book, The Secret Scripture. Dinitia Smith of the New York Times Book Review says his language in the book is “like a song, with all the pulse of the Irish language, a song sung liltingly and plaintively from the top of Ben Bulben into the airy night.” Listen as Barry reads the first chapter of the book.

The Ransom Center acquired Barry's archive in 2001. You can also listen to more audio clips, read an interview, and view photos from Barry's visit to the Ransom Center in 2006. He has also contributed to Writers Reflect on the Center's website.

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SEBASTIAN BARRY: This book, The Secret Scripture, has its basis in a very shadowy rumor that survived about one of my great aunts. And although the book is wholly invented, apart from that, it was important to me, to some degree, to attempt to rescue this woman from yet another great silence of Irish history. It's called The Secret Scripture because she is secretly writing an account of her own life when she is a great age in the mental institution where she's been put for the last 60 years. So, it is her own life and her own words. And I'll just read a bit from the beginning of a book.


Roseanne's Testimony of Herself

The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say. He forgot to say, with every death, it ends. Or did not think he needed to. Because for a goodly part of his life he worked in a graveyard.

That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me of that dark spot, those same mountains.

There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and many swans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.

The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, oh and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.

That is Sligo town I mean.

Sligo made me and Sligo undid me, but then I should have given up much sooner than I did being made or undone by human towns, and looked to myself alone. The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was young I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortunes; I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail us, and be the author therefore of themselves.

I am not there now, now I am in Roscommmon. It is an old place that was one time a mansion but it is all cream paint and iron beds now, and locks on the doors. It is all Dr Grene's kingdom. Dr Grene is a man I don't understand but I am not afraid of him. What religion he is I don't know, but he looks very like to St Thomas, with his beard and balding crown.

I am completely alone, there is no one in the world that knows me now outside of this place, all my own people, the few farthings of them that once were, my little wren of a mother I suppose in chief, they are all gone now. And my persecutors are gone in the main I believe, and the reason for all time is that I am an old, old woman now, I may be as much as a hundred, though I do not know, and no one knows. I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in my niche like a songless robin—no, like a mouse that died under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a mummy in the pyramids.