from sebastian barry’s costa-winning the secret scripture:
“My father was calling, calling, in enormous excitement in the towwer, “what do you see, what do you see?’
What did I see, what did I know? It is sometimes I think the strain of ridiculousness in a person, a ridiculousness born maybe of desperation, such as also Eneas McNulty – you do not know who that is yet – exhibited so many years later, that pierces you through with love for that person. It is all love, that not knowing, that not seeing. I am standing there, eternally, straining to see, a crick in the back of my neck, peering and straining, if for no other reason than for love of him. The feathers are drifting away, drifting, swirling away. My father is calling and calling. My heart is beating back to him. The hammers are falling still.”
Roseanne McNulty, a one-hundred year old woman residing in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital begins to write her autobiography, entitling it “Roseanne’s testimony of herself.” It details her life and that of her parents, in turn-of-the-century Sligo. She keeps her story hidden under the loose floorboard in her room, unsure as yet if she wants it to be found. The second narrative is the “commonplace book” of the current chief Psychiatrist of the hospital, Dr Grene. The hospital now faces imminent demolition. He must decide who of his patients are to be transferred, and who must be released into the community. He is particularly concerned about Rose, and begins tentatively to attempt to discover her history. It soon becomes apparent that both Roseanne and Dr Grene have differing stories as to her incarceration and her early life, but what it consistent in both narratives is that Roseanne fell victim to the religious and political upheavals in Ireland in the 1920s – 1930s (cribbed from wikipedia).
Roseanne’s Testimony of Herself
(Patient, Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, 1957–)
The world begins anew with every birth, my father used to say. He forgot to say, with every death it ends. Or did not think he needed to. Because for a goodly part of his life he worked in a graveyard.
That place where I was born was a cold town. Even the mountains stood away. They were not sure, no more than me, of that dark spot, those same mountains.
There was a black river that flowed through the town, and if it had no grace for mortal beings, it did for swans, and manyswans resorted there, and even rode the river like some kind of plunging animals, in floods.
The river also took the rubbish down to the sea, and bits of things that were once owned by people and pulled from the banks, and bodies too, if rarely, oh and poor babies, that were embarrassments, the odd time. The speed and depth of the river would have been a great friend to secrecy.
That is Sligo town I mean.
Sligo made me and Sligo undid me, but then I should have given up much sooner than I did being made or undone by human towns, and looked to myself alone. The terror and hurt in my story happened because when I was young I thought others were the authors of my fortune or misfortune; I did not know that a person could hold up a wall made of imaginary bricks and mortar against the horrors and cruel, dark tricks of time that assail us, and be the author therefore of themselves.
I am not there now, now I am in Roscommon. It is an old
place that was one time a mansion but it is all cream paint and
iron beds now, and locks on the doors. It is all Dr Grene’s kingdom.
Dr Grene is a man I don’t understand but I am not afraid
of him. What religion he is I don’t know, but he looks very like
to St Thomas, with his beard and balding crown.
I am completely alone, there is no one in the world that
knows me now outside of this place, all my own people, the
few farthings of them that once were, my little wren of a
mother I suppose in chief, they are all gone now. And my persecutors
are gone in the main I believe, and the reason for all
this is that I am an old, old woman now, I may be as much as a
hundred, though I do not know, and no one knows. I am only
a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like
a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone
in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in
my niche like a songless robin – no, like a mouse that died
under the hearthstone where it was warm, and lies now like a
mummy in the pyramids.
No one even knows I have a story. Next year, next week,
tomorrow, I will no doubt be gone, and it will be a smallsize
coffin they will need for me, and a narrow hole. There will
never be a stone at my head, and no matter.
But small and narrow are all human things maybe.
It is silence all about. My hand is good and I have a beautiful
biro full of blue ink, given me by my friend the doctor,
because I said I liked its colour – who is not a bad man in
truth, maybe even a philosopher – and I have a bundle of
paper that I found in a store cupboard among other unwanted
things, and I have a floorboard loosened where I hide these
treasures. I write out my life on unwanted paper – surplus to
requirements. I start with a clean sheet – with many clean
sheets. For dearly I would love now to leave an account, some
kind of brittle and honest-minded history of myself, and if
God gives me the strength, I will tell this story, and imprison it
under the floor-board, and then with joy enough I will go to
my own rest under the Roscommon sod.
My father was the cleanest man in all the Christian world, all
Sligo anyhow. He seemed to me all strapped about in his uniform
– not in any manner haphazard, but regular as an
account book. He was the superintendent of the graveyard,
and for this work he had been given quite a resplendent uniform,
or so it seemed to me as a child.
He had a barrel in the yard that gathered the rain and with
that he rinsed himself every day of the year. He would turn the
faces of my mother and myself to the wall of the kitchen, and
stood without fear of being seen among the mosses and the
lichens of the yard, stripped entirely, and laved himself mercilessly
in all kinds of weather, in the deeps of winter groaning
like a bull.
Carbolic soap, that would have cleaned a greasy floor, he
agitated into a suit of suds, that fitted him well, and he scraped
at his self with a piece of grey stone, that he stuck into the wall
in a particular niche when he was done – from where it poked
out like a nose. All this I saw by glimpses and quick turns of the
head, because I was a dishonest daughter in that way, and
No circus act could have pleased me in the same way.
My father was a singer that could not be silenced, he sang all
the songs of the operettas of those days. And he loved to read
the sermons of preachers long gone, because, he said, he could
imagine the sermons fresh for some vanished Sunday, and the
words newin the mouths of the preachers. His own father had
been a preacher. My father was a passionate, I might almost say
celestial-minded Presbyterian man, which was not a particularly
fashionable quality in Sligo. The Sermons of John Donne
he prized above all, but his veritable gospel was Religio Medici
by Sir Thomas Browne, a book I still possess in all the flotsam
and ruckus of my life, in a little battered volume. I have it here
before me on my bed, with his name in black ink inside, Joe
Clear, and the date 1888, and the town Southampton, for in his
extreme youth he had been a sailor, sailing into every port of
Christendom before he was seventeen.
In Southampton occurred one of the kingly or main events
of his life, in that he met my mother Cissy, who was a chamber
maid in the sailors’ boarding house he favoured.
He used to tell a curious story about Southampton, and as a
child I received it as the gospel truth. It may have been true for
One season coming into port he could find no bed in his
favourite house and was obliged to go further along the windy
wastes of terraces and signs, and found a lonely house with a
vacant sign stuck out to fish in customers.
In he went and was met by a greyfaced woman in her middle
years, who gave him a bed in the basement of her house.
In the middle of the night he woke, thinking he heard someone
breathing in the room. Startled, and with that extreme
awakeness that attends such panic, he heard a groan, and
someone lay on the bed beside him in the dark.
He lit his candle from the tinderbox. There was no one to be
seen. But he saw the bedclothes and mattress depressed where
a heavy person lay. He leapt from the bed and called out but
there was no reply. It was then he noticed also in his very
entrails a terrible sense of hunger such as had not afflicted an
Irishman since the dark famine. He rushed to the door but to
his amazement it was locked against him. Now he was greatly
outraged. ‘Let me out, let me out!’ he called, both terrified and
affronted. How dare that old hag lock him in! He banged and
banged, and finally the landlady came and calmly unlocked it.
She apologised and said she must have unwittingly turned the
key against thieves. He told her about the disturbance but she
only smiled at him and said nothing, and then went up to her
own quarters. He thought he caught from her a strange smell
of leaves, of underfloor and undergrowth, like she had been
crawling through woodland. Then there was calm, and he
snuffed out his candle and tried to sleep.
The same thing happened a little while later. He leapt up
again and lit his candle and went to the door. It was locked
again! Again that deep gnawing hunger in his belly. For some
reason, maybe because of her extreme strangeness, he couldn’t
bear to call the landlady, and sweating and discommoded he
spent the night in a chair.
When morning broke he awoke, and dressed, and when he
went to the door it was open. He took his bags and went
upstairs. It was then he noticed the decrepitude of the place,
which had not been so obvious in the kinder darkness of the
night. He could not raise the landlady, and with his ship due to
sail, was forced to leave the house without seeing her, throwing
the few shillings on the hallstand as he went out.
Outside in the street when he looked back he was greatly
perturbed to see many of the windowpanes of the house were
broken, and there were slates missing from the sagging roof.
He went into the shop on the corner to compose himself by
talking to another human person, and asked the shopkeeper
about the house. The house, said the shopkeeper, had been
closed up some years ago and was uninhabited. Ideally it
would be demolished except it was part of the terrace. He
could not have spent the night there, said the shopkeeper. No
one lived there and no one would dream of buying it, for the
reason that a woman hadkilled her husband there, locking
him in a basement room and starving him to death. The
woman herself had been tried and hanged for murder.
My father told me and my mother this story with the passion
of a person reliving it as he spoke. The gloomy house, the
grey woman, the groaning ghost swam behind his eyes.
‘It’s as well there was room with us the next time you were in
port, then, Joe,’ said my mother, in her most neutral tones.
‘By God, by God, yes,’ said my father.
A little human story, a sailor’s story, that somehow had still
bound up in it my mother’s contrasting beauty, and the enormous
lure she had for him then and always.
For her beauty was that darkhaired, darkskinned Spanish
sort of beauty, with green eyes like American emeralds, that no
man can protect himself against.
And he married her and brought her back to Sligo and there
she lived her life henceforth, not bred in that darkness, but like
a lost shilling on a floor of mud, glistening in some despair. A
more beautiful girl Sligo never saw, she had skin as soft as
feathers, and a warm, generous breast all new-baked bread and
The greatest joy of my young life was issuing forth with my
mother into the streets of Sligo at dusk, because she liked to
meet my father on his way home from his work at the cemetery.
It was only many years later when I was more grown
myself that I realised, looking back, that there was a certain
anxiety in that going forth, as if she did not trust time and the
ordinary way of things to bring him home. For I do believe my
mother suffered strangely under her halo of beauty.
He was the superintendent there, as I said to you, and wore
a blue uniform and a cap with a peak as black as a blackbird’s
This was at a time when there was the Great War and the
town was full of soldiers, as if Sligo itself were a battlefield, but
of course it was not. It was but men on their furlough we saw
there. But they had a great look of my own father, what with
the uniforms – so that he seemed to pop up everywhere in
those streets, as my mother and me were walking, myself looking
out as fiercely as she for him. My joy was only completed
when at last it turned out to be him, coming home from the
cemetery in the dark evenings of winter, as might be, skittering
along. And when he spied me he would be playing with me
then, larking about like a child. And many a glance he got, and
maybe such action didn’t go with his dignity as superintendent
of the Sligo dead. But he had that rare ability to let things ease
in himself in the company of a child, and be stupid and gay in
the parched light.
He was the keeper of the graves, but he was also himself, and
in his peaked cap and blue uniform could guide a person to
whatever plot held relative or friend with solemn dignity
enough, but alone in his graveyard house, which was a little
temple made of concrete, he would be heard singing wonderfully
‘I Dreamt that I Dwelt in Marble Halls’ from The
Bohemian Girl, one of his favourite operettas.
And on free days he went out on his Matchless motorcycle
to race along on the devious roads of Ireland. If the winning
of my mother constituted a kingly event, the fact that he in
one great year of fortune, around the time of my birth, raced
the short course on the Isle of Man, on his lovely bike, coming
in respectably in the middle of the field, and not killing himself,
was the source of constant memory and joy, and I am
sure consoled him in his concrete temple in the dreary
stretches of an Irish winter, surrounded as he was by those
My father’s other ‘famous’ story, that is, famous in our tiny
household, happened during his single days, when he was
more able to get himself to the few motorcycle meetings of
those times. It happened in Tullamore, and was a singularly
He was going along himself at a great rate, and in front of
him was a long wide hill, leading down to a sharp turn where
the road met a domain wall, one of those high, thick stone
walls built during the Irish famine indeed, as a sort of useless
labour to keep labourers alive. At any rate, the racer in front of
him, tearing down the hill and picking up an enormous head
of speed, instead of braking seemed even to accelerate at the
opposing wall, and finally, in a horrible clutter of smoke,
metal and a noise as of cannons, struck it mercilessly. My
father, peering out through his dirty goggles, nearly lost his
grip on his own machine, such was his horror; but then saw a
sight he could not and could never explain, which was the
rider rising as if on wings, and crossing the huge wall in a
swift and gentle movement, like the smooth glide of a seagull
in an upwind. For a moment, for a moment he thought
indeed he saw a flash of wings, and never could read in his
prayerbook again about angels without thinking of that
Please do not think my father was dissembling, because he
was quite incapable of that. It is true that in country districts
– even in the towns – people like to tell you they have seen
wonders, such as my husband Tom and the two-headed dog
on the road to Enniscrone. It is true also that such stories are
only effective if the teller feigns absolute belief – or indeed saw
such wonders truly. But my father was no magician of lies and
My father managed to slow his motor-bicycle and stop, and
running along the domain wall, found one of those fanciful little
gates, and pushing the rusty iron, hurried in through nettles
and docks to find his miraculous friend. There on the other
side of the wall he lay, quite unconscious, but also, and my
father swore to the truth of it, quite unharmed. Eventually the
man, who happened to be an Indian gentleman who sold
scarves and other items out of his suitcase all over the western
seaboard, awoke, and smiled at my father. They both mar-
velled at this inexplicable escape, which not unnaturally was
the talk of Tullamore for years after. If you ever hear that story,
the teller might give it the title of ‘The Indian Angel’.
Again my father’s curious happiness was most clearly evident
in the retelling of this story. It was as if such an event were
a reward to him for being alive, a little gift of narrative that
pleased him so much it conferred on himself, in dreams and
waking, a sense of privilege, as if such little scraps of stories
and events composed for him a ragged gospel. And if ever
there were to be written an evangelical gospel of my father’s
life – and why should there not, as every person’s life is said to
be precious to God – I suppose those wings merely glimpsed
on his friend the Indian’s back would become more substantial,
and things merely hinted at by him would become in the
new telling by a second hand solid, unprovable, but raised up
even higher into the realms of miracle. So that all and sundry
might take comfort from it.
My father’s happiness. It was a precious gift in itself, as perhaps
my mother’s anxiety was a perpetual spanner thrown
into her works. For my mother never made miniature legends
of her life, and was singularly without stories, though I am sure
there were things there to tell as good as my father’s.
It is funny, but it strikes me that a person without anecdotes
that they nurse while they live, and that survive them, are more
likely to be utterly lost not only to history but the family following
them. Of course this is the fate of most souls, reducing
entire lives, no matter how vivid and wonderful, to those sad
black names on withering family trees, with half a date dangling
after and a question mark.
My father’s happiness not only redeemed him, but drove
him to stories, and keeps him even now alive in me, like a second
more patient and more pleasing soul within my poor soul.
Perhaps his happiness was curiously unfounded. But cannot
a man make himself as happy as he can in the strange long
reaches of a life? I think it is legitimate. After all the world is
indeed beautiful and if we were any other creature than man
we might be continuously happy in it.
The principal room in our little house, while already of narrow
dimensions, we shared with two large objects, viz. the aforementioned
motorbike which had to be kept out of the rain. It
lived in our living room a quiet life as one might say, my father
being able from his chair idly to run a chamois leather over the
chrome when he wished. The other object which I want to
mention is the little cottage upright piano, which had been
bequeathed him by a grateful widower, as my father had dug a
hole for this man’s wife at no charge, because the circumstances
of the bereaved family had been straitened. So one
summer night, soon after the burial, the piano had arrived on
a donkey and cart, and was carried in with smiles and embarrassed
happiness by the widower and his two sons, and placed
in our tiny room. The piano had possibly never been worth a
great sum, but it had a most beautiful tone for all that, and had
never been played before it reached us, in as much as one could
surmise that history from the state of the keys, which were
pristine. There were scenes painted on the side panels, of
places which were not Sligo as such, most likely being scenes of
an imaginary Italy or the like, but might have been all the
same, being of mountains and rivers, with shepherds and
shepherdesses standing about with their patient sheep. My
father, having grown up in his own father’s ministry, was able
to play this lovely instrument, and his delight as I have said was
in the old operettas of the previous century. He considered
Balfe a genius. As there was room for me beside him on the
stool I soon by grace of my love for him and my own great joy
in his ability began to pick up the rudiments of playing, and
slowly progressed to some real accomplishment, without in
any way feeling it was an effort or a trial.
Then I could play for him as he stood out in the centre of
the floor, such as it was, with his hand idly perchance on the
seat of his motorbike, the other hand in his jacket like an Irish
Napoleon, and sing with utmost perfection, or so it seemed to
me, ‘Marble Halls’, or the other gems of his repertoire – and,
for that matter, those little songs called Neapolitan, which of
course were not as I thought in memory of Napoleon, but
songs invented in the streets of Naples – songs now in exile in
Sligo! His voice entered my head as a sort of honey, that lingered
there potently, buzzingly, banishing all the fears of childhood.
As the voice rose up, so did all of him, arms, whiskers,
one foot swinging a little over the old carpet with its pattern of
repeating dogs, his eyes brimming with a strange merriment.
Even Napoleon might not have scorned him as a man of elevated
qualities. At such moments he exhibited a most beautiful
timbre in the quieter passages of songs that to this day I have
never heard outmatched. Many fine singers made their way to
Sligo when I was a young woman and sang in the halls under
the rain, and for a few of the more popular sort I even played
piano accompaniment, chopping out the notes and chords for
them, more of a hindrance than a help to them perhaps. But
none seemed to me to equal the strange privacy of my father’s
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