A quiet Irish hero

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I just finished a strange and difficult book; wondrous, too. It is a novel published nearly 20 years ago — The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry. It is a long and arduous tale about an Irisher born in 1900 who lived through the troubles of Ireland’s independence from Britain, became a seaman in Galveston, TX, a policeman for the Brits in Eire, a soldier for the Queen in World War I, a farmer for a Frenchman, a ditch digger in Nigeria, the proprietor of a hotel for old sailors on the Isle of Dogs on the Thames in London. Eneas McNulty’s life was certainly varied, and he spent most of it confused; he never quite got what it was all about.

I think most of us don’t know what it’s all about; we just pretend and carry on. Some of us have work that makes us happy; some of us just work at something because we have to, usually work that came our way, fell in our laps so to speak. We live on until we don’t, hoping for the best along the way, no matter what plans we had or still have. That a writer can write a story about one man and tell the tale of most of us is the wondrous part.

It’s not all as bleak as it sounds, for we have family and a place to live, friends, pastimes and hobbies; always dreams. Marriages and babies are usually the goal, the carrying on of the race being our real reason for being here, although enough of us, like Eneas, neither marry or have children. It worried him most of his life that he never had a woman to call his own; he only came close, never quite to the altar. He did find a friend, though, and he and his African buddy Harcourt sustained one another into their dying days – “Yes, sir, it is a mighty thing to enjoy the fact of a friend in the world. A mighty thing…the living force of it.”

The book is dense with the bewilderments of Eneas being human. From the point of view of the drifting, forever innocent, friendly, forgiving and fearful Eneas, I came to think of him as a true gentleman, gentle in heart and action, living in odd places around the world with only good intentions, always longing for the rough town of Sligo on the northern coast of Ireland. He wanted his homeland and its people, even the ones who drove him away. He is rich in perceptions of the natural world but like us, dim in his ability to understand its inhabitants.

Because the author has that fresh way with words that only happens now and then, although often with the writers in Ireland, the unexpected phrase leaps off the page and flies into my heart. I dream about Eneas each night after I read the next chapter of his wobbly existence. Sebastian Barry has a profound sympathy for his character, and therefore for his reader. When he describes Eneas looking in through a window at his brother reading to his little girl, the author is after my tears —

“He sees his niece and his brother and feels the bareness of his own life….he is distressed at the empty rooms of his own progress in the world…. Here before him is the achievement of Jack…here is the child and the father and the book, here is the living scene more holy and sacred than any official ceremony, for which all wars are declared and every peace manufactured.”

The end of World War II author Sebastian Barry describes like this: “The atomic bomb brings the men home from every quarter of the earth because the war is not so much over as stunned back into history….” This to me is as good a thought written well that I’ve ever come across.

Lucky Eneas that his maker will describe him so kindly: “Lonesome days are nothing to Eneas McNulty. But here he is in his seventieth year, as hale as a nut, as fast-bottomed as a new bucket. His every gesture as easy-natural as a dancing man’s.”

When Eneas dies a hero (“Eneas listens intent as a watchmaker”), his sister meets him on his way to heaven and says, “Come in with yourself.” And he does, “bidding farewell to the lonesome earth…the hard sadness of leaving…but his whereabouts, his troubles, his sun-marked face, his songs are nothing now…the cloudy soul…redeemed.”

An interesting thing the author wrote at the end – “A real nation has to acknowledge also the section of itself that is murderous and dangerous and deeply uncivil….” – fits also for the individual. Eneas learned to forgive himself his own stupidity and dimness, and the man who dreamed him up hints throughout the book that all of us can.

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