When I embarked upon this journey of visiting novels that I’d missed the first time, I expected to read a lot of literary clunkers. I have. But I also uncovered the occasional literary gem: Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, Nella Larsen’s Passing; and Muriel Spark’s The Prime Of Ms. Jean Brodie. Sebastian Barry’s The Whereabouts Of Eneas McNulty is another underrated novel that missed my radar when it was published in 1998. When I finished reading the Connell, Larsen, and Spark novels, I decided not to return to the well to read other works by the same authors. Too much to read, too little time. But Barry left me wanting more, and I’ve added two of his other novels to my TBR list.
Eneas is a casualty of the Irish War of Independence. He’s a simple fellow. His parents and siblings have their secrets but Eneas wears his heart on his sleeve. He joins the British merchant marine, romantically believing he’s doing his bit to save France from the hardships of WWI. Eneas has his adventure but he returns to an Ireland in which shady IRA operatives, including Eneas’ friend Jonno, are now at the top of the food chain. Eneas’s affiliation with the British destroys his job prospects. He’s left to sign up with the Royal Irish Constabulary, Britain’s armed police force which has been assigned to wrestle with the IRA guerillas. “A fresh recruit by the wisdom and mercy of headquarters in the Phoenix Park is never let serve in his own town and especially so the new world of guerrilla war and reprisal, for a policeman is a target now, like one of those wooden ducks in the fairground going round and round on the wooden hill. Every recruited man is suspected by both sides of informing….” Eneas’s role is to pick up the corpses after the night time reprisals. Polarization breeds suspicion and rumor. IRA honchos incorrectly believe that Eneas revealed the identities of two IRA assassins killed by the Black and Tans, Britain’s auxiliary army. The RIC ousts Eneas because it’s too dangerous to retain him. The IRA blacklists him, and he can’t get a job. Eneas innocently asks to be removed from the blacklist. The price: to kill the Black and Tan leader. Eneas refuses. In his eyes, the IRA’s soldiers are murderers. When independence comes, an IRA directive forces him to leave Ireland on pain of death. Jonno becomes the IRA enforcer charged with seeing the directive carried out. Eneas “has heard that Jonno is a most boisterous hero now, excitable, passionate, and dangerous.”
So Eneas becomes a wanderer, leaving behind his home, his family, his girlfriend. He becomes a fisherman off of England’s northern coast. He joins the British army at the start of World War II, becomes stranded at Dunkirk, and works on a French vineyard. He chances a return to Ireland, but Jonno demands his departure. Seeing his brother and niece, Eneas tastes the emptiness of his own life, “he is distressed at the empty rooms of his own progress in the world. No children, no wife, no picture house where human actions unfold and are warmly enacted,” Eneas heads to Nigeria to become a digger on a British canal project. He stays in Africa until his new mate Harcourt finds that he’s been placed on a Nigerian blacklist because he has worked with the British. Eneas and Harcourt open a lodging for retired sailors on the Isle of Dogs. After a few quiet years, the Troubles begin in Ireland, and the IRA hunts down Eneas again, insistent upon erasing old debts.
Eneas’ life ends with a selfless act. Whether it’s unadulterated humanity or a cry for connection is unclear. Perhaps it’s both.
Barry asks enduring questions. For one, is there room for innocence and humanity in a violent, cynical world? Eneas is unable to connect dots. When he joins the RIC, he doesn’t see that there will be a reckoning if the IRA wins. Eneas’ saga is another tale of a road unwittingly taken crushing a life. In the same way, Eneas continues to picture his mother as the dancing companion of his childhood. He’s unable to grasp that she is a mistress of manipulation, who has arm-twisted his younger sister Teasy into becoming a nun, forcing Teasy to lead her own unhappy cloistered life–Teasy’s prison is a convent, Eneas’ has no walls– and maneuvered an unwanted daughter-in-law into an asylum, a Catholic solution for removing inconvenient wives.
Barry traces Eneas’ journey in incandescent prose. He breathes life into even the minor characters, Eneas’s siblings, girlfriend, and the many others he encounters on his journey. We feel Eneas’ loneliness, are overjoyed when he finds companionship and are overcome when he achieves redemption. Discover Sebastian Barry, and give him a second, third, and fourth chance.