Walking to school in the 1970s, Kevin Barry would step over gutters running red with blood. This was a decade before Limerick earned the moniker “Stab City” for its gang feuds and knife crime – which eventually escalated into full-on drug wars, with drive-by AK-47 shootings and hand grenades lobbed into sitting rooms. In Barry’s time, though, most of the violence was directed at livestock. Limerick was then known as “Pigtown”, with seven or eight slaughterhouses downtown, and the noise of their bloody business (“awful squealings as the pigs get electrocuted”) was part of the daily soundtrack. A magnificent river, the Shannon, ran through the city but, perversely, Limerick was built with its back turned on the water, while its streets streamed with blood.
Pigtown stayed with him. In his first novel, City of Bohane, a savagely funny dystopian western set in Ireland in 2053, the meat wagons carry “peeled heads of sheep, and the veined fleshy haunches of pigs, and the glistening trays of livers and spleens”.
A hundred miles and four counties north of Limerick, Barry, aged 46, is sitting in his writer’s shed. Out front is his home for the past nine years, a sturdy, two-storey former barracks for the Royal Irish Constabulary, built in the 1840s on the edge of the village of Ballinafad, in Sligo. The ancient stove is seeping warmth and well-being. He is measured and contemplative, quite different from the garrulous, high-energy persona I had encountered at literary events over the preceding six months, talking about his novel Beatlebone. There’s still an impishness in the eyebrows when a notion tickles him, but when the talk gets autobiographical and the years peel back, Barry’s volume level drops so low that he worries my dictation machine won’t pick it up. Outside, this Sunday afternoon in April has a damp chill familiar to the north-west.
Writers and tourist boards generally agree on the “untamed” beauty of Ireland’s western seaboard. From Cork in the south to Limerick in the middle to Sligo in the north, Kevin Barry has made it his territory, in life and in fiction – and he can tell you that the brochures aren’t always right. The narrator of his story “Fjord of Killary”, having recently turned 40, decides to flee the city and buy an old hotel on the coast, thus making a “new man” of himself: “I was thinking, the west of Ireland . . . the murmurous ocean . . . the rocky hills hard-founded in a greenish light . . . the cleansing air . . . the stoats peeping shyly from little gaps in the drystone walls . . .” But the ocean turns out to “gibber” rather than murmur. He has to listen to his young Belarusian staff “fucking each other at all angles of the clock”. And then he is subjected to a highly localised flood of apocalyptic proportions.
“If I had to describe the west of Ireland character in one word it would be ‘rattled’,” Barry says. “A bit thrown off your curves. There’s the huge fucking presence of this big, black, throbbing ocean, which has an extreme effect on our psychology. And the weather it’s putting across us all the time . . . it’s a fundamental part of what makes us who we are. It’s an extreme place.”
Barry lives on the edge of a four-mile-long lake, and it rains almost 300 days a year. He calls it “the Sligo swamp”. When I telephone him a few weeks later there is hail coming down the chimney. “You feel like you’re being assaulted by the sky gods,” he says.
In Barry’s fiction, everything starts with place. Exploring the north-west alone on his bicycle, he often picks up “reverberations”: human feelings that he believes have settled into the earth of a particular place. Sometimes they are benevolent. Often they are not. The Tajo Gorge in Ronda, Andalusia, sent him into the “absolute fucking pits” (he later learned that on this spot during the Spanish Civil War, 300 men were made to jump to their death). He never feels right around the Ox Mountains between Sligo and Mayo. Hills tend to trap bad vibes: in various stories they are “malevolent”; they “brood”, looking on, “unimpressed”. On a melancholy day they are “blue-bleak”; on a bad day, “like a crouched beast”, “devil-haunted”, or even “homicidal”.
It was just such an eerie, haunted feeling that Barry experienced on summer cycling trips around Clew Bay, an other-worldly flooded valley whose lopsided drumlin hills break the surface to form more than 150 islands. That feeling was enough to start him thinking about a story. And then he remembered a piece of trivia lodged somewhere in his brain: one of these islands was owned by a Beatle.
In 1967, Dorinish island, owned by the Westport Harbour Board in County Mayo, went up for sale. Someone saw an advertisement in a London evening newspaper and showed it to John Lennon, who was interested in his Irish roots (his great-grandparents emigrated from County Down to Liverpool in 1848) and had long wanted an island of his own. He sent the Beatles aide Alistair Taylor to the auction in Westport and Taylor returned with the deeds to Dorinish, for £1,550.
Lennon visited that same year, spending a couple of hours on the island, enquiring about drainage schemes and drawing up plans for a fantastical house. In the summer of 1968 he returned briefly with Yoko Ono, arriving on Dorinish by helicopter after a night at the Great Western Hotel in
Mulranny (a night that may or may not have involved him singing Irish rebel songs and giving the first public playback of a new Beatles song called “Revolution”). Three years later, having got no further with his plans to build on the island, Lennon offered Sid Rawle (an Englishman known as “the King of the Hippies”) the opportunity to establish a free-living community there. The Diggers, with their tents and vegetable patches, lasted a year and a half. And then the story fizzled out.
Except, Barry thought, what if it didn’t? What if, in 1978, Lennon had returned to Clew Bay to spend three days on his island, to “scream his fucking lungs out” and clear his creative block? Beatlebone, Barry’s second novel, published last autumn, imagines he did just that – with the complicating factor that Lennon has no idea how to get there, or which island is his.
“I thought maybe I’d do a little radio documentary or write an essay or maybe a short story,” Barry recalls – “and eventually I found myself one dark, fateful morning scribbling down lines of dialogue and I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m going to do this as a novel, aren’t I?’ That was terrifying. He’s such an iconic figure, to plonk him down in one of your stories unasked . . .” Still, he thought it could be done in six months. Four torturous years later, with his shed buried under 400,000 words of abandoned drafts, he had a novel of 50,000 words. He knew it was finished when he returned to his desk one day and found a black lizard crawling over the text: in gratitude, he wrote a lizard into the story. This is an example of the “occurrences of sympathetic magic” that Barry looks for in a project. “If they don’t come I believe myself to be in trouble.”
The final version of Beatlebone is in nine parts: one section reads like a radio play, others are close to stream-of-consciousness, and two-thirds of the way through the book Barry coolly presents a vivid, non-fiction, first-person essay about the creation of the novel and his own unsettling experience on the island. A month after publication, Beatlebone won the Goldsmiths Prize, established in 2013 in association with the New Statesman to reward innovative writing: “fiction at its most novel”.
A more timid novelist might have skirted around Lennon, looked at him through the eyes of the people he encounters and left him, respectfully, “unknowable”. Barry does the opposite. “I kept thinking of a deep fat fryer with a bubbling cauldron of oils, and that was the inside of Lennon’s head, and I was going to lower the reader down into it.” Barry’s Lennon is funny, stubborn, scabrous, tender, sentimental, “haunted by his own self”:
Love, blood, fate, death, sex, the void, mother, father, cunt and prick – these are the things on his mind.
How many more times are they going to ask me come on The fucking Muppet Show?
Watching talk-show clips from the 1970s, Barry realised that Lennon’s “mood is so capricious that he will go from very light and charming and funny one moment, to, half a sentence later, paranoid and dark and quite spiky”. In 1978 the man was 37 and a global star, but Barry approached his character by thinking about who Lennon was at 17, “before that whole great maelstrom of fame. He was just an art-college kid in Liverpool, down the pub. A bit shouty. Quite cool.”
The more Barry reveals of himself, the more the distance between him and Lennon seems to recede. He, too, was a working-class, arty, cocky teenager, precociously interested in music, living in a city that erred towards the lairy, especially on a Saturday night. At 17 Barry – who had already been through his Jackson Five stage (his first record purchase, aged five or six) and his mod phase (aged 12-13, he listened exclusively to the Jam for 18 months) – was a devotee of David Lynch and the Velvet Underground, had 18 inches of backcombed hair and wore a poncho. You sense that young Barry and young Lennon would have hit it off.
Barry grew up with three sisters and a brother: he was the youngest by six years and so, in the classic way, became “a wiseacre, a joker, just as a means of getting attention”. Their street exemplified the “heavy Catholic breeding” of the time: their neighbour on one side had seven children and the other four, so between the three houses there were 16. The noise was constant; they were out morning to night.
The popular mood in Limerick then was pro-republican. Barry wrote in a recent essay that at his secondary school, “classroom support for the IRA ran at 100 per cent”. He went on marches for the hunger strikers. Bobby Sands, who died aged 27, after 66 days without food, “occupied a place I would say precisely commensurate with that of Bob Marley: legends”.
His father was “quite a devout Catholic” but turned a blind eye when Barry shirked Mass. Having started out as a carpenter with the railways, the senior Barry was “the classic working-class chap who took night classes”. He moved into insurance, and when Kevin was two the family left their council house for a private house on a private estate. His parents supported the (then left-leaning) Fianna Fáil and took the Éamon de Valera-founded Irish Press. Other than newspapers, the reading matter was more or less confined to biographies of jockeys. Barry’s abilities, though, were noticed early on. “I was always told the same thing by my English teachers: that I wrote ‘off the cuff’. They used to always use that phrase precisely – which meant, I guess, naturally.”
“Whatever it is that you’re most scared of surfacing in your work,” Barry writes, in the essay chapter of Beatlebone, “you can be sure that it’s nearby.” Lennon’s mother was killed when he was 17; hit by a car driven by an off-duty policeman. Kevin Barry’s mother, Josephine, died when he was ten. In thinking about Lennon, Barry cannot keep his own loss off the page. And so, for the first time in his career, he finds himself writing – two short, abrupt paragraphs – about his mother. Saying more about the experience, even now, does not seem easy for him. He tells me that she died of a sudden heart attack. But his thoughts keep looping back to his work.
“I was coddled from the trauma of it, to some extent, by the fact of having older sisters who immediately went into matriarchal mode around me. It’s amazingly common with writers and artists, the early loss of a parent, and it does seem to cause some desire to create in response to it.” He remembers discovering “with a happy jolt”, as a Saul Bellow fanatic in his twenties, that this hero of his, too, had lost his own mother young (she died when Bellow was 17). And he is certain that it shaped Lennon’s art. “It’s awful to say you wouldn’t trade it. But I’m sure it’s a fundamental reason why I’m a writer. And I like what I do.”
In December 1980, a few months after Barry’s mother died, John Lennon was shot at the entrance to the Dakota building in New York. Barry was 11, buying sweets at the corner shop, when he saw a newspaper headline. He felt it keenly, as a second loss.
Barry has a work ethic that is partly built on guilt. Every morning, seven days a week, he takes the three steps from his back door to his shed, sits at his austere steel desk, and writes, preferably in longhand. He likes to do this when he is still not properly awake: “You’re not too self-conscious and you can just kind of scrawl, and get the weird stuff from the back of the brain out on to the page.” He claims that he operates a successful mental trick by telling himself that God doesn’t turn on the internet until noon, but then confesses that he will still do the “walk of shame” back into the house, upstairs, to check his phone a couple of times a morning. He once worked out that he checked his email about 150 times a day. Pre-wifi, he used to access the internet using a dongle; he resorted to locking it in the car outside.
Barry is an obsessive self-editor. He felt that Beatlebone was starting to work when he introduced the character of Cornelius, a local Irish fixer, whose bizarrely comical-philosophical exchanges with John form the engine of the book. They read like Barry at his most brilliantly off-the-cuff. But he revised these conversations 60 or 70 times each, acting them out in his shed, returning to them in different moods and at different times of day.
It is when editing this way that he feels “useful”: “I feel like I have a trade. The sculptor has a block of stone and you’re just cutting away to find the shape that’s in there.” To get 5,000 words he will write 12,000 and then cut. Only one or two out of every ten short stories he writes will make it out into the world.
There is a strict system (in keeping with his search for “sympathetic magic”) determining where each project belongs. On the desk in his shed is a play called Night Boat to Tangier, a commission for Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, about an Irishman in Spain searching for his daughter, who has run off with “a band of crusties”. Barry is increasingly drawn to drama, which doesn’t rely on the tedious scaffolding of prose fiction. He shows me an A4 pad on which he has drawn stick men in an attempt to make the page his stage.
Upstairs inside the house is another neat and narrow desk, this one with a view over Lough Arrow, and the beginnings of a short story handwritten on a yellow legal pad.
“Updike had four desks,” he says, a little enviously. “He had a journalism desk, a criticism desk, a poetry desk . . . I admire that. I like writers who get their work done.” It took Barry a while to settle at the desk – roughly a decade – and thinking about his unsteady twenties has given him a guilt complex. He is making up for lost time.
Aged 19, in 1988, Barry enrolled at the University of Limerick to do the only arts subject they offered, European studies. Two weeks in to the course, he was offered a cub reporter’s job on the Limerick Tribune, and became the university’s quickest ever drop-out. He attended court sessions and council meetings: the insight into the runnings of a city was later invaluable when he was writing City of Bohane. His ear for comic dialogue was fine-tuned by listening to the local officials argue the days away, in the “flat, nutty, a hundred miles per hour” Limerick accent.
“You’d have particular councillors who would be larger-than-life characters – and great speechifiers – in their own minds. Shannon Airport was always a big issue: the US military were stopping there during the Gulf War. There were huge pro- and anti-war factions in the council, but then you’d seamlessly move on to the fucking pothole situation on O’Connell Street. It’s a comic and common Irish delusion that even in a small place you’re at the centre of the universe.” Ireland’s cities do not lack confidence. In 1919 Limerick briefly declared itself a Soviet state.
Before starting university, Barry had spent a summer with friends in London, staying in a squat off Tottenham Court Road. It turned out to be the second summer of love. “We went over with our Leonard Cohen cassettes and came back as full-on acid-house devotees with our bright orange jeans and bowl haircuts, and suddenly on acid and Ecstasy.” On his return, he busied himself introducing Limerick to house music and organising raves in the countryside (where he encountered the west of Ireland’s community of freaks: hangers-on from the Lennon era of Diggers and screamers). Barry belonged to what he calls the “stoner entrepreneur” school of business. He returned to London in the 1990s and set up a stall at Camden Market selling house and hip-hop mixtapes, recorded by a friend from New York pirate radio stations. At three for £5, they made “an absolute fucking fortune” as he did his best to ignore repeated summonses from Westminster Council.
In 1992 Barry moved to Cork and started freelancing for the local papers. He wrote a comic Saturday column that made him “world-famous in Cork”. Through the 1990s, he lived at roughly a dozen different addresses in the city. In an essay in April’s New Irish Writing issue of Granta magazine, he recalls one house in which his bedroom looked out over an expanse of countryside. Lads would go “lamping” there: hunting rabbits by night, in old Volkswagen Beetles with high-powered headlamps “and an extra seat strapped to the bonnet for the shooter”.
I’d lie there in the winter nights and listen to the gunshot blasts and watch the icicles
form inside my window frame. There was no central heating. I had sleeping bags, blankets and coats mounted a foot thick on top of me. I was determined to be to Cork what Saul Bellow had been to Chicago but it wasn’t working out so well. Not least, perhaps, because of the amount of hash I was smoking.
The cocktail of drugs, dance music and American literature was a potent one. Barry became the “nightclub correspondent” for a listings magazine – he didn’t see daylight for months on end. On Barrack Street he had “some of the most intense hallucinations of my life: I thought I was a traffic light”. He was devoted to Bellow and Don DeLillo and “very cheesed off with Irish literature”, which seemed uninterested in the language and life of the city. His own 4am writing sessions produced “moon-shot prose” that invariably lost its gleam by sunrise.
And then, one day in August 1999, walking on the beach in west Cork, Barry gave himself the mother of all motivational talks. “I said to myself, ‘Are you fucking serious? Are you actually going to commit to this?’”
Barry refers to this as his “writer’s birthday”. He gave up much of his freelance work and followed his girlfriend Olivia Smith, a legal scholar, to Edinburgh (they married much later, in 2010). He stuck to his desk, even though it felt as if he was “writing into a void”. He published a short story, “Miami Vice”, about a reluctant wife-swapper, in a 2001 anthology, but it was a further six years before his first collection was put out by an independent imprint, Stinging Fly. There Are Little Kingdoms was a startling and funny take on Ireland’s “townie” mentality, its settings neither urban nor rural, but belonging to what the author calls “the third sex”, its tone best described by Nabokov’s phrase “laughter in the dark”.
In a high-risk handbrake turn, Barry followed up his sketches of town life with a novel offering a retro-futuristic vision of a city in the west of Ireland riven with gang warfare, dressed in zoot suits, speaking in a bastard Irish pidgin and set to a dub reggae soundtrack. Barry can talk Joyce and Beckett with the best of them, but his deepest influences come from the films he fell in love with as a teenager – the strange visions of David Lynch and Wim Wenders – and, in the case of City of Bohane, box sets such as HBO’s Wild West series Deadwood. “I robbed so much from it,” he says, “they could almost have sued me.”
Little Kingdoms had helped him win Ireland’s prestigious award for young writers, the Rooney Prize for Literature, but City of Bohane upped the stakes, taking the little-known but highly coveted International IMPAC Dublin Award, which, at €100,000 (over £79,000 at today’s exchange rates), is a considerably fatter envelope than the Booker. The villagers back home in Sligo (he moved there in 2007) hadn’t been sure what to make of Barry. “What is it you write, exactly?” the postmistress had asked him. But when he returned after the announcement, there was bunting up in the village. It turned out they had a writer of stature in their midst.
When Barry feels creatively stuck, usually around 4pm, he takes a ritual walk down to the lake. Having talked enough, we leave the shed and tramp out together into the damp afternoon. The cows in the field across the road eyeball us: if we were in a Barry story they’d possibly have murderous intent. On one side of the path we pass a cemetery with a romantically ruined church; on the other is a megalithic burial tomb. Death is all around, and it is oddly comforting. The lake is fringed with golden reeds and a little, dirty slick of oil shimmers by a jetty. Lough Arrow has the highest incidence of UFO sightings in Europe (thanks mainly to one diligent spotter, the late Betty Meyler) but Barry has never seen one. Nor has he picked up any particularly troubling “reverberations” – though the area has suffered violence. In the 1920s the IRA torched the roof of Barry’s barracks. Courteously, the republicans had given the RIC officers a week’s notice.
Birdsong surrounds us. Barry tells me that the lake gets curlews, sparrowhawks, choughs. A wren sitting on a stone wall, he says, is a gorgeous thing. A magpie attacking a young hare – which he has witnessed – is spectacular. A crow down your chimney, and in your bedroom, is horrifying. (“I did not cover myself in glory,” he says, which means his wife caught it while he hid under the duvet.) That progression – from the slightly twee rural image of a wren on a wall to the comic terror of battling, hungover, with a demented, feathered home intruder – strikes me as a good illustration of the off-centre nature of his fiction. When I call Roddy Doyle, the author of The Commitments and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, at home in Dublin, he tells me that Barry’s work is “so utterly Irish and rejecting it at the same time. The classic geography is there: the coastal features, the small town, the farm, the pub. He has all these postcards at his disposal. But he gets a marker down and draws his own things on the postcards. He scrambles what’s expected. The small towns are still there – but now there’s wifi. I think Kevin got there before a lot of people.”
There has been much talk recently of a “new wave” of Irish fiction: writers such as Sara Baume and Colin Barrett who have been nurtured by the country’s fertile microclimate of journals, prizes, festivals and small presses. Asked about the boom by the Guardian last year, Barry expressed pleasure that a sense of radicalism is starting to re-emerge: “We should always remember that being innovative and wild and not afraid to go completely fucking nuts on the page is what built [Ireland’s] reputation in the first half of the 20th century.” Some think it was the financial crash of 2008 that re-energised the scene, the money-hungry boom having neutered artistic ambitions. But Barry, who did his hardest, loneliest graft in the Celtic Tiger years, should take some credit. He showed how you could write against the grain and get away with it.
The sky has cleared and the afternoon makes a bid for freedom. As we circle back towards the barracks, a rainbow appears, one end plunging into the middle of the lake. “When I get back here,” he says, “there’s a sense of the breath slowing down again, and a calm, and it definitely feels like a benevolent place.”
It’s what Lennon may have been looking for on Dorinish – a placid solitude that he could puncture with his primal screaming, learnt from Arthur Janov in California. (The bruising song “Mother”, with its roaring coda, emerged from their sessions.) When Barry went to the island, he screamed, too, in a half-serious way, but so far that has been his only experiment with therapy. “I’d love to go but I won’t. The worst thing that could happen would be if they fixed me. If I was suddenly perfectly stable and rational I’d never write another fucking word again.”
The risk of retirement or Zen retreat is small. He is about to start work on a sequel to City of Bohane, and the first novel is in development for television. There are three plays in various states (they will start to emerge later this year) and a screenplay about a down-on-their-luck trainer and jockey who are a father and son. He has the second volume of his annual literature and arts anthology, Winter Pages, to compile. There are stories to grapple with and
sympathetic magic to summon.
“I have this hysterical nervous energy – mad fucking jangly nerves – which turns out to be very useful for keeping a load of balls in the air,” he says. “You just have to keep moving. If I stopped I’d be fucked.”
“Beatlebone” will be published in paperback by Canongate on 30 June
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain