Reviewed by Mary McWay Seaman, Celtic Connection, December, 2008 Every so often, a literary jewel radiates beams of breathtaking, iridescent force. Sebastian Barry”s THE SECRET SCRIPTURE, with the heft and lilt of eloquent simplicity, is one such novel – a tale of mystery, love, war, repression and redemption spanning the last 100 years in Ireland. Roseanne Clear McNulty is a centenarian warehoused in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, a vintage institution scheduled for demolition. All patients are being assessed for relocation. As a young woman, Roseanne had been admitted to the Sligo Insane Asylum, which morphed into the Sligo Mental Hospital. Her diagnosis and her long-ago move to Roscommon are mysteries lurking within misplaced records. Sixty-five-year-old Dr. William Grene, Roseanne”s psychiatrist, struggles with her transfer, recognizing that many inmates “are not so much mad as homeless and ancient.” Considering the history of mental institutions, he notes that “no sensitive person would choose to be the historian of the Irish asylums in the first part of the last century . . .” Grene concedes that some patients “were incarcerated shall we say for social reasons, rather than medical . . . and continuing in this day and age to be held.” His evaluation of Roseanne is frustrated not only by missing files, but by her silence. Some local folks know Roseanne”s secrets, and one of them works on her floor. The story sings within a duet of dueling journals: those of Irish Protestant Roseanne and English Catholic Grene. Hers is secreted beneath the floorboards of her room, and his is a personal record apart from official paperwork. Roseanne on Grene: “The beauty of Dr. Grene is that he is entirely humourless, which makes him actually quite humourous. Believe me, this is a quality to be treasured in this place.” The doctor, a childless man with marital troubles of his own making, suddenly becomes widowed. His relationship with Roseanne, despite its perfunctory appearance, blooms into quiet friendship, “touched by a sort of benign lightning, something primitive, strange, and oddly clear.” Roseanne grew up as the only child of Sligo Presbyterians ” her father had been a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary and a cemetery caretaker demoted to rat-catcher after the Irish Civil War. As a teenager, Roseanne witnessed her father assisting anti-partition rebels in burying one of their fallen. She and her father were wrongly blamed for alerting the authorities when, at the rebels” request, Roseanne contacted a priest. Father Gault “was like a singer who knows the words and can sing, but cannot sing the song as conceived in the heart of the composer.” But Gaunt was “not one of those people that shy away from you when you need them, like many of his brethren, too proud to taste the rain in their mouths.” Part of Roseanne”s journal chronicles her convent school education, where the nuns “savage as they were, though they wielded sticks against us with every ounce of energy in their bodies . . . they were interesting women enough. But I must let them go. My story hurries me on.” Roseanne married a Catholic man, Tom McNulty, against the wishes of his family, especially angering his mother – a classic incarnation of the super-religious, self-righteous, autocratic matron of her place and time, albeit with irregularities in her own past. The McNultys ran a dancehall during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s in the heyday of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. In the words of Dr. Grene, “This is all long ago, in the savage fairytale of life in Ireland in the twenties and thirties, mostly, though the period of her [Roseanne"s] greatest difficulty seems to have occurred actually during the years of the emergency, as de Valera referred to the Second World War.” Depictions of “amon de Valera present an identity-politics profile extraordinaire. Dr. Grene eventually locates Roseanne”s file, rich with Father Gaunt”s accounts – accounts that differ radically from those in Roseanne”s journal. Gaunt”s notes reveal that Roseanne”s in-laws were employed at the Sligo asylum when she was admitted, and Grene begins to assemble pieces of a horrendous conspiracy involving kinfolk, church and state. Whopper-sized lies shout from the old paperwork, proving that Gaunt “betrays at every stroke an intense hatred . . . of women. . .” Furthermore, he regarded Roseanne”s “Protestantism as a simple, primal evil in itself.” The ghastly reach of a tyrannical clergy with fingers in every nook and cranny of politics, government, commerce, society, education and family life was a power “leading as day does to night to absolute corruption.” The perfect storm of intricately-crafted events leading up to the final travesty forms a singular, explosive piece of art. Roseanne consoles herself in her journal: “The real comfort is that the history of the world contains so much grief that my small griefs are edged out, and are only cinders at the borders of the fire.” However, one monstrous grief remains: it entwines doctor and patient as they wrestle to reconcile the irreconcilable on resplendent, aching final pages that are turned too soon.

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