Wednesday 9 July 2008

Confined woman

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

Roseanne McNulty has been confined to Roscommon Regional Mental Asylum for most of her life. Slowly, The Secret Scripture unfolds the story of her incarceration. Psychiatrist Dr Grene, unsure about ‘curing’ people, and even more so about the soundness of Roseanne’s diagnosis, tries to assess whether she is fit for release from his Victorian institution. Through the testimonies of both Roseanne and Dr Grene, a hidden history of Ireland unfolds, a history of Irish Catholic bigotry against a poor protestant family.

Roseanne is daughter of a good man, Joseph Clear, keeper of the graves in a Catholic cemetery, who also may have served in the Royal Irish Constabulary in Sligo. A group of young irregulars, opposed to the 1922 treaty with Britain, stumble into the family hut carrying a dead comrade, John Lavelle. The terrified Roseanne is sent to fetch the local priest, Father Gaunt, to administer last rites (though priests were forbidden to administer the last rites to IRA irregulars). The irregulars accuse Roseanne of betraying them to the Free State Army. Following Father Gaunt’s embarrassment, Roseanne’s father loses his job and becomes the village rat catcher. He is later found hanged, by himself or others, after a paraffin drenched rat causes a fire in an orphanage.
Gaunt then ‘arranges’ a marrage between Roseanne and a Free Stater, Tom McNulty, who develops fascist sympathies. This ‘mixed’ marriage takes place against the wishes of the McNulty family, who at a later climactic point in the story refuse to help Roseanne, turning her away in wind and rain. Gaunt, walking out with a group of priests, spots the young bride talking to Willie Lavelle, brother of executed John, who is taken with Roseanne’s great beauty. She is banished by her husband’s family to the isolation of an iron shack at the edge of the sea. Gaunt arranges with the Catholic authorities for her marriage to be annulled on the ground she is a nymphomaniac, and he schemes to imprison her in a mental institution. When crossed, Roseanne says that Gaunt, ‘was like a scything blade, the grass, the brambles and the stalks of human nature went down before him’. She says of herself, ‘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 ... they are all gone now’.
The character of Roseanne is based tangentially on one of Barry’s great aunts, who similarly disappeared into an institution, having somehow transgressed the rigid codes of Catholic Ireland. In one way, says Barry, The Secret Scripture is a final breaking of the long familial silence that enshrouded her. ‘I once heard my grandfather say that she was no good….that’s what survives and the rumours of her beauty. She was nameless, fateless, unknown. I felt I was almost duty-bound as a novelist to reclaim her and, indeed, remake her’.

But the story is so bleak that even Barry wants to diffuse its radical truth, as he ponders the accuracy of any written history.

‘Most truth and fact offered by these syntactical means is treacherous and unreliable. And yet I recognise that we live our lives, and even keep our sanity, by the lights of this treachery and this unreliability, just as we build our love of country on these paper worlds of misapprehension and untruth. Perhaps this is our nature, and perhaps unaccountably is part of our glory as a creature, that we can build our best and most permanent buildings on foundations of utter dust’.

However, all this relativism does not resolve the killing machinations of Father Gaunt, and behind him the Catholic Church, in his damning document that leads to Roseanne’s confinement: ‘It is really a remarkable piece of work, clerical, thorough and convincing. It is like a forest fire burning away all traces of her, traversing her narrative and turning everything to ashes and cinders. A tiny, obscure, forgotten Hiroshima’.
‘Roseanne is just a bit of paper blowing on the edge of the wasteland.’

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