Sebastian Barry in Conversation with Joseph O’Connor

Laureate for Irish fiction, Sebastian Barry, visited UL last Thursday. He spoke in conversation with head of Creative Writing MA and bestselling author, Joseph O’Connor, at the Irish World Academy of Music & Dance.

The evening involved a reading from Barry’s novel, Days Without End; a historical book full of lyrical language that won the Costa Book of the Year award and was inspired in many ways by his Grandfather. This reading was an intense theatrical performance as he brought the words to life for the audience.

Sebastian Barry has written many novels with the powerful first-person voice, including The Secret Scripture. In adapting or finding a strong voice, he spoke of the importance of listening to the stories of those around us, and noticing how one story can often be told with different perceptions; this divides character.

Barry and O’Connor spoke about how their personal lives can inform but also disturb their writing. According to Barry:

“The first rule of a novel is to be beautiful”.

He claimed knowing too much about something can often be dangerous or limiting with fiction writing as it’s important to also break beyond what we know. Both O’Connor and Barry spoke about the ‘impossible freedom of the theater’ and recalled on their own experiences visiting the Abbey Theater. Growing up, the theater was a dominant part of Barry’s life and thus impacted his style of writing largely. 

Alongside his writing, they discussed all he has done in the community since being appointed ‘Laureate for Irish Fiction’ by President Higgins. He spoke of his involvement with migrant communities, as his aim is to bring his stories and book clubs to those who can’t come to him.

He described his experience working with prisoners in Mountjoy, and those in mental hospitals in Dublin. The saddening heartfelt words he heard from one lady were:

“No one knows we’re here.”

This sparked conversation about refugees in direct provision centers, communities Barry aims to share his book clubs with. As discussed, it’s important to know and have access to marginal groups so even if we can’t make a difference, we can have a better understanding.

Melatu Uchu Okorie, author of ‘This Hostel Life’, spent seven years in direct provision and spoke of this on a podcast with Sebastian Barry.  Melatu’s book was chosen for UL’s 2019 ‘One Campus, One Book’ and she’ll be visiting the University this Wednesday the 13th of March.

The evening drew to a close pondering today’s young generation and how unique styles and themes are emerging from successful young authors. Both O’Connor and Barry agreed that young people in Ireland have set a high standard for first novels. The discussion ended on the concern that burdens many writers of financial struggle, on which Barry commented:

“How do artists survive their poverty? Mysteriously, mysteriously.”