‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry   (2014) – 307 pages

“After all the world is indeed beautiful and if we were any other creature than man we might be continuously happy in it.”  – Sebastian Barry,  ‘The Secret Scripture’



At one point Jack McNulty, our main guy in this novel, is in the army and assigned to the bomb disposal unit in London during World War II.   He has the job of defusing undetonated bombs which the Germans had dropped.  The men who did this dangerous explosive job were naturally called ‘Temporary Gentlemen’.

It is now the 1950s.  Jack McNulty is living in a small apartment by himself on the Gold Coast of Africa in Ghana as he recounts his life back in Ireland.  The novel alternates between short scenes in Ghana and Jack’s memories of his youth in Ireland.

 “Was there really such happiness?  There was, there was.”

 As a young student Jack met Mai Kirwan in Galway.  She is a local beauty, ‘a fierce gaiety to her every move’.  Mai is the love of his life, and they marry.

Alcohol plays a major role in this sad Irish story as Jack is a guy who drinks too much and bets on the horses.

 “How is it that for some people drinking is a short-term loan on the spirit, but for others a heavy mortgage on the soul?”

So far I’ve read three previous novels by Sebastian Barry, ‘A Long, Long Way’, ‘The Secret Scripture’, and  ‘On Canaan’s Way’.  I consider him one of the finest novelists writing today and will always read his novels.   Barry has a dexterity with words, a sense of the music of language, which places him above most other novelists.

I realize I’m being terribly unfair, but there is one defect for which I’m always on the lookout especially in novels by Irish writers.  That is excessive sentimentality.  Maybe it is because I’ve been stuck in too many Irish pubs on too many St. Patrick’s Day nights listening to dreadful renditions of ‘The Unicorn’.  Not being Irish myself, why should I care any more about the Irish than about anybody else?

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ does not escape that cliché of an Irish man crying in his beer.  That seems to be the sad story of Jack McNulty‘s life.   It would be difficult telling his story without getting maudlin.

But Sebastian Barry makes his characters come alive, and if you haven’t already read dozens of other similar novels, you will get caught up in Jack McNulty’s story.  I preferred ‘A Long, Long Way’ and ‘The Secret Scripture’ because they didn’t seem so stereotypical, but ‘A Temporary Gentleman’ is a strong moving novel nonetheless.


10 responses to this post.

  1. (To a lilting Irish ditty)
    LOL Oh dear, oh dear,
    Irish sobbing in their beer
    Does nothing for this reader here
    I think I’ll skip this one, no fear!


    • Hi Lisa,
      That is a cute little Irish ditty. When it comes to sentimentality, I’m terribly strict with the Irish. My ancestors are German, so there is not much reason for sentimentality there. Fortunately my ancestors left Germany in the 1840s to escape the military.


  2. I love Sebastian Barry, but usually put off his books till they’re in paperback. Yes, I recently read a dramatic Irish book by Maggie O’Farrell, and I have to wait a bit to tackle another. The Irish ARE very sad, aren’t they? But Barry has humor, too. Thank God!


    • Hi Kat,
      Yes, a lot of Irish writers are sad, but I can think of a few that are not. Molly Keane, Flann O’Brien, and Maeve Brennan are very humorous, but I suppose they are sad some of the time too. Kevin Barry isn’t too sad. Then there is Jame Joyce. Deep down, I love Irish fiction, sentimentality and all.


  3. I haven’t read Barry yet, though I intend to as some of his work sounds genuinely excellent. The issue with this one for me is that while I do in fact have some direct Irish family, along the years I’ve picked up an allergy to Irish miserabilism and while this clearly isn’t of the “Mammy beat me then Uncle Sean who went into the priesthood tried to fiddle with me” school, I can’t live with the beer-crying.

    As for the idea that the Irish are sad, with due apologies to Kat that’s nonsense. There’s actually statistics on stuff like rates of depression, suicide and so on. Ireland has a troubled history and so many of its writers choose to engage with that, which is natural enough. It doesn’t mean there’s some sort of genetic sentimentality.

    I recently read Anne Enright’s Forgotten Waltz which features such happy things as marital infidelity and economic collapse, but still wholly fails to fall into the Irish miserabilist trap. It’s an Irish novel, but it’s not an “Irish novel”.


  4. Hi Max,
    It is not the Irish miserablism that I object to; it is any whiff that Irish life is somehow more precious than anyone else’s that I find offensive.

    One amazing book I’ve read and soon will be reviewing is called ‘The Good Life Elsewhere’ which is about the people of Moldova’s attempts to get out of their country somehow, someway. It is a riot and refreshing to read about people who have no sentimentality whatsoever about their country.

    I read Anne Enright’s ‘The Gathering’ but haven’t gotten to ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ yet.

    I do like well-done Irish literature. ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’ by Flann O’Brien is in my top ten list of novels of all time.


    • There’s a world of great Irish literature, absolutely, most of it avoiding any sense that being Irish is somehow special and magical and involves being oh-so-sensitive. I’ve a huge dislike of the idea that Celts are somehow more in touch with the spiritual or feelings or whatever, it’s patronising nonsense and speaking as one of the Scottish variety of Celts suggests to me that someone’s never been down a Glasgow pub on a Saturday night.


      • Hi Max,
        That would be a great book comparing Irish literature to Scottish literature or just comparing the Irish to the Scots. They both seem to get their power by not being genteel English.
        Though I’ve never been in a Glasgow pub on a Saturday night, I have read a lot of wild Scot fiction. Irvine Welsh, James Kelman. Especially remember this one called ‘Movern Callar’ by Alan Warner.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: