You could call his approach ‘novel’, the notion of hosting a book club at locations where people are temporarily constrained, but Sebastian Barry is no stranger to creativity.
The award-winning author of a string of successful novels and plays and Laureate for Irish Fiction, was in Cork University Hospital (CUH) where renal dialysis patients took part in his Life Lines Book Club. The book club is part of his public programme as Laureate and is focused on promoting Irish literature in less accessible venues, for instance the Central Mental Hospital.
Feedback has left him “overwhelmed” he said.
“As usual, just as the raising of children seems to involve you learning more from them than them from you, I think I’ve got far more out of it than people who come to the book clubs.
“I hope there is something in it for them as well, because it’s moved me, it’s overwhelmed me.
“I’m very affected by people that you meet in a semi-formal setting who will tell you something that by necessity is brief, but is the key to the door and the room of what they are and they will say something extraordinary,” he said.
Sebastian, from Moyne, Co Wicklow, said after “40 years of working for myself” he wanted to bring “whatever little thing I was in the world or had done in the world...to places where people were temporarily constrained, so whether that’s a prison or a mental hospital, just to go to your fellow citizens who could not come to you for a while”.
It was a “very simple idea” he said, “with magical results”.
Was the idea inspired by the experience of his own relative who was sectioned and put in a mental hospital in the west of Ireland as recounted in his prize-winning novel The Secret Scripture?
“I think it may be something to do with that, but also how assailed people are in a medical setting, how they are required to be so many things they don’t ordinarily, or should, have to be.
“They have to be courageous, face up to things. The courage of that, and not only that, but also the invisibility of it.
“One of the places I went to, they said ‘You know nobody knows we are here’ - some beautiful place with wonderful people and patients.”
Sebastian, whose Laureateship runs until 2021, said one African woman stood up and said “nobody realises we exist, we are thrown away”.
“And I just don’t believe in throwing away people. I don’t like when people are thrown away and my deepest suspicion is the one you throw away is the gemstone,” he said.
Joanne Lyons, the nurse who heads up CUH’s renal unit, said patients had been thrilled to take part in the book club and to meet Sebastian.
“They came in early to take part before treatment. And dialysis takes four hours,” she said.