Author Q&A:
Sebastian Barry

Old God’s Time

Hero image

Recently retired policeman Tom Kettle is settling into the quiet of his new home overlooking the Irish Sea. For months he has barely seen a soul, catching only glimpses of his eccentric landlord and a nervous young mother next door.

Occasionally, fond memories return, of his family, his beloved wife June and their two children. But when two former colleagues turn up at his door with questions about a decades-old case, one which Tom never quite came to terms with, he finds himself pulled into the darkest currents of his past and of Ireland’s reckoning with child sexual abuse by the church and state.

Barry, born in Dublin, has twice won the Costa Book of the Year award and had two consecutive novels shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Old God’s Time is unsettling but humane.

Can you tell us how the idea for Old God’s Time formed in your head?
As a little boy, living in the turret flat of Queenstown Castle, the old house in the book, I peeked in through a half-open door at a large man sitting in a wicker chair, looking out to sea, smoking a cigarillo – just for a few seconds. He didn’t even see me. Sixty years later, after many decades of wondering how I could ever write about some of the things that have troubled me most as a human person and indeed a citizen, this unknown man took shape in the imagination as a means to do just that. For this I revere and thank him.

Tom marvels that his wife “could bring her soul along with her” after her trauma. Why can some people do that, do you think, when the light is snuffed out in others?
It’s not a measure of an individual soul when some are extinguished by trauma and some are not. Maybe Tom and June finding each other, when both have come through terrible childhoods, is crucial. To be loved, fully visible, wholly valued, is a type of rescue for them both. My own sympathy is with all survivors, whether “waving or drowning”. They are victims of one of the worst crimes, called commonly child abuse, but maybe is more accurately child rape, or attempted murder of a child. To me they are heroic figures in their essential struggle to remain in the world.

He can switch from despair to joy in a heartbeat and his memory isn’t always reliable. Is that part of the human condition or specific to his own circumstances?
Maybe both. He was given an honourable discharge from the army in the 1960s because of “gross stress reaction” or PTSD, he has served for 40 years as a police officer with a good heart, he has suffered personal tragedies. I wouldn’t want to be so discourteous to him as to diagnose him. But if any man on earth is entitled to a mind that is gradually becoming unmoored, it is my Tom. Yet he retains an essential clarity, in that he loves the world and, above all, continues to love his wife June, and simply longs to be with back with her, no matter how or at what cost.

“Which in killing had not killed. In exacting punishment had not punished,” you write. How far has the Irish legal system gone in providing justice for victims of church abuse who cannot find it any other way?
Not an inch really. It was the judiciary that sent children to these drear institutions. It was the police that brought you back if you ran away. It was society and the priests who told you you were the spawn of the devil and worthless. It is the current redress boards with their ranks of lawyers that humiliate and re-traumatise and disbelieve survivors. It is politicians who issue apologies and then connive in these humiliations. Lawyers are primed to disbelieve, when what is required is a hugely graceful and healing act of trust and love. It doesn’t happen.

The rain “lost heart”, the wind “pulled greedily” – Tom’s sense of place, Ireland’s east coast, is acute, rendered with almost human characteristics. How far does it chime with your own?
One hundred per cent. There is of course always something of yourself in your characters. My late mother also had an immense appreciation of life and the world, which seemed to carry her through her own vicissitudes. It’s one of Tom’s characteristics, actually, that made it more possible to write the book. I loved him for it really.

You have written books of poetry as well as novels. What’s the relationship between the two for you and does one inform the style of the other?
I don’t think I ever quite wrote actual poetry – it is the highest art! – but whatever measure I had of it I have tried to offer to my novels. It is really the discipline of being very precise in your descriptions, really noticing something, as if for the first time – if you can.

When we told Kathleen McMahon the other week* about the many writers from Ireland we’ve interviewed of late, she said: “I often joke that the market needs regulation – you should have to apply for a license to publish a book in Ireland… the standard is ridiculously high”. What’s it like to be part of a literary world in need of such regulation?
Very wonderful. As Laureate for Irish Fiction 2018-2021, I read as many as I could of all the new and current Irish writers. A golden age of Irish writing, truly wondrous. And I have robbed as much as I could from them!

You can read our interview with Kathleen McMahon about her novel The Home Scar in the Reading Room section of

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Author Q&A: Sebastian Barry

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.