Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture (2008)

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Information on the author:

Sebastian Barry, author of this year’s Man Booker Prize short-listed ‘The Secret Scripture’, was born in Dublin in 1955. He received some of his education at Dublin Trinity College. The ‘Secret Scripture’ is his fourth work of fiction and the second one to be nominated for the Man Booker Prize; the first novel to be nominated was ‘A Long Long Way’.

Textual analysis:

The Secret Scripture - A Summary

The novel, The Secret Scripture, is the story of Roseanne – a woman now nearing her hundredth birthday. At the time when her narration begins, she is a patient at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. Dr William Grene is the warden of this hospital, which was built in the late 18th century, and is to be demolished in the near future. Thus, Dr Grene is forced to assess all of his patients in order to decide who can be put back into the community and who will be transferred to the new hospital. Roseanne is one of his unresolved cases and even though he tries to make sense of what he can find out about her, it leaves him with more questions than answers. Whenever he comes and visits her, he does not dare to address whatever he has on his mind to ask her. Instead, their conversations are on mice, books and the change of weather. Dr Grene does not want to press her, when all the answers he craves lie underneath a floorboard in Roseanne’s room. Scribbled on a few used pages, Roseanne by and by gives a meticulous account of the events that led to her incarceration.

Growing up in an Ireland sometime between 1910-30 that was already divided, even if not yet politically, Roseanne faces several tragedies; First her father loses his job at a cemetery and has to take on the job of rat-catcher, then her mother – failing to cope with their poverty – has a nervous breakdown and never recovers and finally, her father is found dead in an empty house in Sligo – whether he killed himself or was killed cannot be established quite clearly. Suddenly, Roseanne, now a young woman, has to choose between an arranged marriage or an uncertain future where she is the decision-maker. She opts for the latter and with a bit of luck, she gets a job at the Café Cairo. The following years are a time of bliss, compared to her past and future. During her time as a waitress she makes friends, she earns enough to support herself and her mother and even enjoys dances at the weekends, when she and her friends go to the PLAZA at Strandhill. Tom McNulty, owner of the plaza and leader of the dancehall’s band saves Roseanne’s life one day, when she is out swimming in the sea and pulled into a current. She had seen Tom before at the café, but it is the day of her rescue that Roseanne and Tom speak face to face for the first time and they eventually fall in love. Tom’s father is the tailor, and his mother the seamstress, at Sligo lunatic asylum. The entire family is Catholic, whereas Roseanne has a protestant background. When Tom presents her to his family as his future wife, she is received rather coolly, particularly by Mrs McNulty, who has great expectations for her oldest son. However, Tom marries Roseanne nevertheless and the two of them move into a small house in Strandhill, near the plaza. They life is full of love, to the day when Roseanne meets an old acquaintance, John Lavelle, and is seen during this meeting by Fr Gaunt. Father Gaunt misinterprets the situation and tells Tom what he has seen. Roseanne, guilty of nothing, is forced to consent to an annulment of their marriage. Penniless, rid of society and mad with grief over the loss of Tom, she is left to struggle for life in the house in Strandhill. One day Tom’s brother, being in fact on the run, incidentally comes by Roseanne’s house. She invites him in and the two desperate characters end up making love. Eneas must continue his escape the following day, but soon after Roseanne discovers that she is pregnant. Unable to hide her ‘shame’ she makes one last attempt and begs Mrs McNulty for help, but she shows no mercy and sends Roseanne away. On her way back to Strandhill, a storm comes up and Roseanne looses her way. She ends up being in labour somewhere on the beach near Strandhill and with a last great effort gives birth to a little baby boy. On the verge of dying, her memories seem to blur. She can only remember that there was someone, and he took her baby and called an ambulance… Her next memory is that of Fr Gaunt visiting, and telling her something about ‘Nazareth’. It is all rather mysterious.

When the elderly Roseanne is unwell and needs to be taken to be taken to the intensive care unit of Roscommon hospital, someone puts her memoirs on Dr Grene’s desk. In the meantime, he decided to try and find out what became of Roseanne’s baby. He establishes that it was adopted by an Irish family, living in England. When he visits the convent from where the baby was adopted, he learns that the child concerned is, in fact, he himself. He travels back to Sligo, hoping to find his ‘mother’ Roseanne still alive; and she is. When they have their final conversation, he states that she was committed unjustly. He apologizes for not having looked into her case before and gives her back her freedom, while allowing her to stay at the new Mental Hospital – surrounded by the only people she knows.

Plot construction/Narrative technique

The story is written in two different voices; that of Roseanne Clear and Dr William Grene. They tell the story in alternating chapters. Roseanne’s part has the form of an autobiography, which is intended to be read (at first) by anyone who may find her writing. Later she addresses Dr Grene as a possible reader. Dr Grene’s part has the form of a diary. He gives an account of daily events related to his work, as well as his personal life. Both narrators have a limited point of view.

Primary Characters

  • Roseanne Clear – Protagonist. At the time of her narration, she is approximately 100 years old. She is a poor Protestant, who has spent the last 60-70 years living in a Mental Hospital.
  • Dr William Grene – Protagonist. At the time of the narration, he is in his early 60’s. He has been a member of staff for maybe 40 years. He was brought up as a Catholic in Cornwall, England. He belongs to the upper middle class.

Secondary Characters

  • Joe/Joseph and Cissy Clear – Roseanne’s parents; her father dies when she is a teenager. Her mother becomes mentally ill and is committed to a Mental Hospital. Joseph Clear comes from an educated background and possibly used to be middle class. However, he and his wife are dependent on Father Gaunt’s help and goodwill nowadays. They seem impoverished.
  • Frère Aloysius Mary Gaunt – he is a Catholic priest in Sligo and gave Roseanne’s father his job at the cemetery. He is also responsible for Joseph Clear being fired. He tries to arrange a marriage between Roseanne and Joe Brady. He sees Roseanne with John Lavelle and relates her alleged infidelity to Tom.
  • Thomas (Tom) Oliver McNulty – Roseanne’s husband. He is a Catholic, who works primarily as a musician at his own dancehall. He is very interested in politics though and gets involved in them, therefore. He belongs to the upper middle class.
  • Jack McNulty, sailor in the British Merchant Navy and has two university degrees. He is Tom’s younger brother.
  • Eneas McNulty (a policeman? p. 162); third son in the McNulty family. Eneas needs to leave Sligo for some reason, for he would be killed otherwise. He is the father of Roseanne’s baby.
  • Old Tom and Mrs McNulty – The parents of the McNulty brothers; particularly Mrs McNulty is strongly Catholic. They belong to the middle class.

Marginal Characters

  • Mr Singh, the former warden of Roscommon hospital.
  • John Lavelle, a fighter for Irish freedom in the IRA, who eventually killed a policeman and was therefore hanged by Albert Pierrepoint (hangman for the British government from 1932-55).
  • Willie Lavelle, John’s brother is killed early in the book by soldiers, who pursued him and other ‘fighters for the Irish Republic’.
  • Joe Brady, the replacement for Roseanne’s father, as superintendent of the cemetery. Father Gaunt had him in mind as a possible husband for Roseanne.
  • Mrs Prunty, owner of the Café Cairo and member of the Quaker church.
  • Chrissie, Roseanne’s friend at the Café Cairo.
  • Percival Quinn, the warden of Sligo Mental Hospital. He helps Dr Grene to get the necessary information in order to find Roseanne’s child.
  • Sr Declan, sister of the McNulty brothers. She was raised in a convent and later became a nun.

Marketing and Reviewing


  • Barry, Sebastian, The Secret Scripture. Faber and Faber Limited, London, 2008.
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