July 30 2011: The master storyteller talks about Ireland’s troubles, the Queen’s supernatural power and the contentment of writing as a woman

Sebastian Barry is showing me around his garden, with its heart-stopping views over Co Wicklow, when he pauses beside an old, slightly bent concrete post. He leans down to look at a weathered carving of a naked woman displaying an exaggerated vulva and traces her face gently with his fingertips. The sheela-na-gig has, he explains, probably been on this gatepost warding off evil and death since medieval times. Ireland is littered with sheela-na-gigs, many of which are in churches, but still it’s slightly unnerving to find a quasi-erotic carving in the garden of a rectory.

He pulls himself up and pats Billy the dog’s short curly hair. “When we bought this place 12 years ago the outgoing vicar declared that reading books makes you less intelligent. There wasn’t much to say after that.” Whatever the vicar may have thought, this is the house in which Barry has done his best work. It’s where he wrote A Long Long Way, in which the young, romantic Willie Dunne went to the First World War and never came back. It’s where Roseanne McNulty — randomly imprisoned in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital for decades and heading towards her 100th birthday — and her psychiatrist Dr Grene both came to life in The Secret Scripture.

And, in his study at one end of this impressive house is where Barry spent six long months perfecting the first chapter of On Canaan’s Side and ten short weeks writing the rest. His new novel is a work of great lyrical beauty, a big-hearted story of another woman at the end of her long and difficult life. Without ego and with remarkable stoicism, Lilly Bere tries to make sense of memories, friendships, lovers and the recent death of her grandson Bill. If she were to have an X-ray, she wonders, “Would the machine see my grief? Is it like a rust, a rheum about the heart?”

The storytelling in On Canaan’s Side is seductive — Lilly flees Ireland for America in the aftermath of the First World War after her fiancé, Tadg Bere, is targeted by the IRA; she lives the rest of her life in a country that is changing in front of her — and the writing is so good that to appreciate it properly you have to stop turning the pages quite so quickly. Telling as it does the story of a woman who has lived through “four killing wars” and who loses all the men who mattered in her life, On Canaan’s Side is also desperately sad. I confess to Barry that it made me cry. “I’m disgracefully pleased by that. I’m happy to make you cry, but I don’t want to upset you.”

We have moved into the sitting room, where a fire crackles gently and books by the likes of Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Barry’s old friend Colm Tóibín surround us. The four dogs wander in and out; his wife of 25 years, Ali, makes supper; his three teenage children come and go. We sit facing each other on low-slung armchairs. Barry, now 56, is engaging and funny, with an easy charm he seems barely aware of. But there’s also a streak of melancholy not so far from the surface and when darkness sometimes clouds his handsome face he looks a little like Ted Hughes.

Barry has always been open about many of his characters being based on his relatives. His great-grandfather James Dunne, a police superintendent in the Dublin Metropolitan Police, inspired the central character in his 1995 play The Steward of Christendom. The title character in Annie Dunne is based on a beloved great-aunt. Willie Dunne, the young lad in A Long Long Way, is brother to both Annie and Lilly Bere. At one point Barry rushes next door to his study — which is crammed with history books and decorated with photos of his wife and kids — and brings back a faded black-and-white photo. “This is my great-grandmother Maud; this is probably Anne and this one or that one is Lilly!”

Was On Canaan’s Side inspired by the photograph? “Indirectly. There’s a central incident in the book about Lilly and Tadg that is based on a story I heard about my great-uncle. He came back from the war and studied medicine with lots of young chaps who were in the IRA. The IRA thought my great uncle had informed on them and a death sentence was put on him. He left for America and was later shot dead in Chicago by a hit man.”

Barry grew up in a Roman Catholic family in Dublin. His father was an architect and his mother was the actress Joan O’Hara. He says he had “elusive” parents — O’Hara rehearsed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin by day and played by night. “So I suppose I was the most thoughtlessly happy as a child with my great-aunt Annie. She used to live in Kelsha, which is very near here. I also have vivid memories of my grandfather, who lived with us in Dublin. My earliest stories were from him. He was the son of a tailor in the Sligo lunatic asylum who did well at university, joined the Royal Engineers and defused bombs all over southern England in the war.”

Even as a child Barry — who clearly remembers the day that he learnt to write his name when he was 7 but who didn’t read until the age of 8 — was aware that there was a habit in Ireland of burying stories away. “I knew for example that the Irish Civil War was never to be spoken about, but I was that inconvenient child who talked about everything. My books are inconvenient in a similar way; they are speaking out about things that might, in some sense, be better left alone.”

And yet Barry is not an overtly political writer. He is more interested in history, in the way we choose to remember the past and how we try to keep people alive by writing about them. “I never went to funerals as a child because I couldn’t accept that someone I loved had died. Children want to keep their loved ones alive by any means necessary. When I was about 16 my grandfather died and I wrote a sonnet called The Water Colourist [later published as a collection of poems]. I haven’t stopped writing since.”

Since he decided to write Barry’s focus has been on the 20th century. With Anne Enright exploring the impact of Ireland’s economic crisis in her most recent novel, The Forgotten Waltz, and sectarian violence ripping apart Northern Ireland once more, does he, too, not feel an urge to respond? He thinks carefully. “I actually think older history is next week’s history; we’re reading about the same tight little dervishes now as we were 100 years ago.”

Is he depressed by the recent riots and threats of a return to terrorism on English soil? “The few young people rioting in Belfast are of a generation that doesn’t remember the horror of the full-blown Troubles. Their disaffection is social rather than political. We still educate our children separately, for instance, a madness in itself. While most Irish people have the utmost respect for the Protestants in the North, the continuation of marches around July 12 is troubling.”

He sighs. “I pray that these are residual matters, though I believe the causes of the hatred in the North are deep, complex and all the more intractable for being counter-rational, mythic and born in the realm of the imagination. Likewise the majority in Ireland value and relish the new relationship between Ireland in general and Britain. Any threat, no matter how slight and unlikely, of violence in Britain is felt as a threat against well-loved neighbours and friends. Such is my belief. I may have it wrong of course. I am such a baby politically that I just want to go and say to the rioters, ‘Surely you don’t want to do this?’ ”

Barry may consider himself a “baby politically” and, certainly when it comes to writing, he is more interested in getting inside women’s heads. When I ask him about preferring to write as a woman, he frowns. “Now that you say it I think the only first-person narratives I’ve written have been as a woman. I am as content — probably more content — to write as a woman.” And he certainly has a tremendous female voice. Even critics of The Secret Scripture — those who considered Dr Grene’s voice to be weaker and the ending to be too neat — were mesmerised by Roseanne.

The Secret Scripture has now sold more than 750,000 copies, but writers always seem to remember the negatives; was Barry hurt by some of the reviews and by just missing out on the Man Booker prize? “The Booker is a form of sympathetic magic. But I lose count of the prizes awarded to The Secret Scripture, including the beautiful James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Costa Book of the Year.

“I probably should have been content to stop thinking about the ending on the first day and not the millionth day. But I’m a fatal worrier. And . . .” He pauses. “… my mother was dying in hospital as I was writing The Secret Scripture. At a certain point it hit me that she was actually my mother and I was her son. This was the person I’d had terrible rows with. And yet we were mother and son. I was sitting with my mother in hospital one day when I realised that Dr Grene was Roseanne’s son. I needed someone to look after her, to reward her for telling her story.”

Barry is tired — we have been talking for nearly two hours — and he leads me back to the garden. We chat about the recent state visits of the Queen and President Obama. “I wasn’t expecting her to be so … supernatural. There was something about her that made me understand why people used to go to war for their Queen.” He is uncertain about Obama. “I didn’t meet him; we were put into a kind of cattle enclosure near by. I’d rather he’d given a speech than been filmed in a pub having a Guinness; there isn’t a family in Ireland that hasn’t been destroyed by that very drug. Clinton was so heavily involved in the peace process; I’m not sure Obama has the same understanding. This is a tricky place to come and make a speech, and it shows.”

We pass the sheela-na-gig and lean on a nearby wall overlooking the Wicklow countryside, with its dozen shades of green and big bright summer sky. Barry points in the direction of Aunt Annie’s house. He remembers standing on the back step of the rectory 12 years ago and feeling that he knew the mountains; he didn’t at that point know Annie had lived so close by.

Is he, then, happy here? He laughs. “I’m a bit too jumpy for contentment. I have yet to master that particular skill.”

Billy the dog appears and leans casually against Barry. “I often say that I’m not a connoisseur of happiness, but I am happy here. I know I’m in the clover because whenever I go away I always love coming back.” He rubs Billy’s head, stares out across Wicklow and smiles.