St Roseanne of Sligo


Some quick thoughts on The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. I enjoyed this immensely and I was blown away with some of the writing. I was initially wary since I thought it would be too close to The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. An old woman locked up in an Irish mental institution which is closing down and the question becomes: how and why did she get there? There’s also the parallel story of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, and their stories weave closer together as the novel progresses.

One of the many joys of reading is working out how the plot will develop and I was very happy that I managed to guess the twist from some distance out. That’s masterful writing from Barry because he sows those innocent-looking almost throwaway ideas which then germinate in your mind.

One of the things I liked about this novel was the way it plays with memory and story-telling. You realise about halfway through that Roseanne McNulty (the mad woman in the attic) is an unreliable storyteller and there’s the back and forth between her account of her childhood (growing up in Sligo at the time of the troubles, with a reclusive mother and a father who was a gravedigger) and that of the cruel priest Father Gaunt. There’s also the power of the Catholic church, the political and social unrest and then the beauty of that part of Ireland. The description of the poor, slightly mad, isolated and pregnant Roseanne standing on the beach at Strandhill with the sensory overload of the German planes right overhead was wonderfully evocative:

The lights widened and grew taller, and then it was roaring, gathering and gathering, and then it was what looked like the edge of a flying carpet of monsters, and then that noise had grown into an enormous waterfall, and I was looking up, indeed like a mad woman, certainly feeling as mad as a hatter, and fuller and fuller, bigger and bigger came the noise and the lights, till I could see the round bellies of individual parts of it, and metal noses, and gigantic whirrings, and it was airplanes, dozens of them … something out of Revelation … (p.243)

You get the idea of the very close, lyrical descriptive writing which Barry uses. The Irish Independent says:

“Barry is an unrivalled chronicler of lost lives … He has imagined the life, thoughts and feelings of Roseanne with such extraordinary empathy that she comes to seem a much-loved intimate of the reader.”

If the book drags in parts and a bit in the beginning, then the last third more than makes up for it. Getting to the end I went straight back to the beginning to see how differently I viewed Roseanne’s descriptions in the light of my subsequent knowledge.

I suppose there were aspects of the novel that troubled me. Roseanne is a wonderfully-evoked character but part of me baulked at yet another description of a seemingly powerless woman who is abused by the system. I wondered why she didn’t just run away. Was her life really so constrained that she had to stay locked up for almost all of her life? Perhaps there’s something about the male author and the powerless female character which makes me suspicious. But the main male character is equally powerless in his own way, so I guess it evens out. But the question remains for me: where are the ‘good’ (as in nuanced and empowered) female characters? Roseanne becomes a bit of a saint as the novel progresses, which naturally makes me suspicious. I think if I had to choose between this and Esme Lennox, I’d opt for Maggie O’ Farrell’s book. But I heartily recommend this one. It’s brilliant.


6 Responses to St Roseanne of Sligo

  1. litlove says:

    Interesting – I loved The Vanishing Act, and wondered how similar this would be. As for female disempowerment, alas, it is easy to see how it happens between the economic and psychological axes of repression. Would this woman have had any money to subsist on, if she had run away? A profession or trade by which she could earn money? Someone generous enough to keep her? Would she even have been able to buy or rent property alone? In France, a married woman couldn’t have her own bank account until the 70s. But more repressive than this is the issue of social horizons. If a woman is brought up to envisage marriage and motherhood as her only career, how can she think outside the box to other possibilities? Rather in the way that you described how violence is woven into the male mentality in South Africa, so passivity and apathy used to inhabit the female one. Doesn’t mean everyone will react that way, but it can be a powerful influential factor. Of course I say all this not having read the book, which may draw on a completely different ideological context!

  2. Pete says:

    Litlove – I think you’re right about women’s social and economic horizons in those days. The alternative for Roseanne would have been life on the margins or running away to Dublin. She was a waitress before she met and married Tom but then is ostracised by his family when she befriends another man. Father Gaunt assumes the worst and the marriage is annulled. Tom’s family pay for her groceries at the store but she is effectively cut off and all alone. Anyway, very interesting novel and there are quite a few parallels with Esme Lennox but this one is broader in scope.

  3. seachanges says:

    Yes, I agree with Litlove: we tend to forget how quickly a lot of our (female) lives have changed and how powerless a lot of women used to be even in so-called ‘advanced’ western societies. We now have mobile phones, bank accounts, independent jobs, and a whole raft of gizmo’s that help us be independent and in easy contact with the outside world. That was not the case and I only have to think of my own mother who at one point tried to run away from a very unhappy marriage at the time, but her mother told her to go back as she ‘had made her bed’…. There was no sympathy, let alone help. But I agree with you that this kind of acceptance now almost seems impossible to believe.

  4. I tend to agree with you Pete, though Litlove is also right on the button with the practical and psychological barriers to independence. I think what I would miss in the passive portrayal of women is the nuanced resistance that people who are powerless have exerted all through a variety of situations of subjugation even when running away isn’t possible or is unthinkable.

  5. doctordi says:

    I think I’m going to have to write a story about a mad MAN in the attic… it’s always a woman.

  6. Pete says:

    seachanges – Very interesting re your mom. I’m always fascinated in the generational effect – from grandmother to mother to daughter. But I’ll refrain from any pop-analysis here 😉 Personal power is also (for me) an endlessly diverting subject.

    Lilian – Exactly, and I think that’s what I would have loved to have seen more of in Seb Barry’s book. The novel is very well done (perhaps the best I’ve read this year – although my memory is shocking so I probably say that about every book) but I would have loved to have seen more of the middle bit of her life and how she resisted.

    DoctorDi – I agree, why is it always the women who get locked up for being different? Men on the margins are more scary (violent, out of control) but I would be interested to follow up this idea.

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