Award winning Irish novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry was in New York last week to read from his latest novel “The Secret Scripture” at NYU’s Glucksman Ireland House, and to announce his new play “The Pride of Parnell Street” will be produced in New York in July.
Alongside his forthcoming production at the 59 East 59 Street Theatre, Barry had another reason to celebrate this weekend -- on Saturday “The Secret Scripture” won two top awards at the Irish Book Awards ceremony, held at the Mansion House in Dublin.
Barry’s novel won in the two categories in which it was nominated, Irish Novel of the Year and the RTE Radio One’s Tubridy Show Listeners’ Choice Award.
But Barry isn’t resting on his laurels. Next up is “The Pride of Parnell Street”, his touching love story that tells of two working class lovers living in the midst of the dramatic changes wrought by Celtic Tiger Ireland.
Set in September 1999, on the eve of a new millennium, the play tells the story of inner city Dubliners Joe and Janet, whose marriage has collapsed after a violent domestic attack and the death of their eldest son. It’s dark material, but in Barry’s hands it’s also thoroughly uplifting.
“Many of the scenes in 'The Pride of Parnell Street' were based on things we saw or heard about in the years when we lived in Dublin’s inner city,” Barry told IrishCentral.
“There’s nothing in the play that isn’t part of the seven happy years we lived there. When we were there it was like a book. The gentrification was starting, but it was still a kind of dangerous place. It was very raw.
“It was the red light district of Dublin where the descendents of all those working ladies lived and where English has been spoken for 1,000 years. I was writing about that from the outside in.
“At one point I even contemplated buying a house on North Summer Street, but one of the locals warned me off it. Don’t be coming up here, he said, you’d only be attacked.”
As it turned out, Barry didn’t buy a house there, but he and his family rented one in the area for seven years. And in that time he became fascinated with the people who lived there and the colorful way they expressed themselves. “English has been spoken in this part of Dublin for 1,000 years and so it was not imposed on us here, we’ve owned it that long,” he says.
The local kids, he discovered, did grow up on the streets, and if you politely asked them not to walk over your car they would oblige.
In the play, Ireland’s loss in the World Cup in Italia ‘90 leads to an outbreak of domestic violence in the local community. Divested of the triumphs on the football field, the locals are forced to recognize the poverty of their own circumstances, and many lash out.
“When you live in a district you become part of it. It becomes your country. You hear about your own people, win or lose sometimes. The next day after the match, and this is a fact, there were a lot of women down in the shelters.
As nine years pass, neither of the main characters’ love for the other diminishes, though Janet grows in strength (“I didn't go back like the other women done”) while Joe is on a destructive path that sees him lose his family, liberty, dignity and finally his health.
Clearly “The Pride of Parnell Street” is a more challenging work than the usual Irish fare on, and it will be interesting to see how American critics and audiences respond to a play this rich in language and metaphor that has already wowed critics in Ireland and Britain.
When the highly anticipated second New York Irish Theatre Festival begins its run in September, Barry may well take the prize for best Irish playwright, too.