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CUS Sebastian Barry Literary Award

The Sebastian Barry Award

The Sebastian Barry Award, running since 2012, is awarded annually to two students.

Named after past pupil, Costa Book of the Year winner (2008 & 2017)  and Laureate for Fiction Sebastian Barry, the prize celebrates excellence in creative writing. It is a highly contended award and the 2018-19 winner of the senior award was Maitiú Breathnach with his story "A House Torn Asunder"


"A House Torn Asunder"

Samuel Wilson’s early life was a most melancholy affair. Unfortunately in a profession like Psychiatry one encounters such cases rather often. Even in the womb  he had endured the full brunt of maternal intemperance and neglect. In fact he was lucky that the alcohol and cigarettes hadn’t done as much damage as one might have anticipated.


What followed was a childhood exposed to maladaptive behaviour, considerable familial discord and all manner of viciousness. It was hardly surprising that Samuel persistently harboured thoughts of how he might escape that miry dwelling. Such a place and its

inhabitants had long forgotten that we bear obligations to others and failing this we invite their degradation. For where and how  hey lived put themselves beyond the bounds of marriage, community and the Law. Despite all of his desires on this front to escape this inferno, it had long been etched into his very fabric. Some others, perhaps, would provide him with a measure of calm but no one would ever entirely relieve him. That had been decided years ago.


By his own account the friction with his mother was there even as a young child.


Given his age he was one given to sudden outbursts when he didn’t receive that which he desired. His mother often remarked  upon the burden being accorded to her in having to raise such a “foolish” and “pig-headed” child. She was beyond bitter if we are to believe Mr. Wilson’s recollection, something I’m inclined to do given substantiated accounts of her later conduct. Little in the way of positivity could be said in the way of the father either. Even then he was a curt and impudent fellow I’m told by a colleague who had encountered him all those years ago.


He too maintained little restraint on his admonishments and often verbally clashed with the mother. The first sign of something being awry came with Samuel’s continuous visits to the local GP. He often presented with symptoms that simply couldn’t be explained through the means of any medical tests. Yes this often happens in that an examination reveals nothing. The regularity however in which he presented to the GP and yet that nothing could be ascertained with certainty caused alarm. I heard through the grapevine that she could play her role most effectively on these occasions, earing the mask of the embattled and devoted mother.


On these excursions the impression of a mother dedicated to her son despite the tiresome living conditions around them was accorded to each and every responsible medic. There she was active on his behalf and all he would do was pout and brood excessively. Indubitably she had mastered this grand display of supposed affection and if anyone ever suspected her she could simply seek out another GP. As one would easily surmise Mr. Wilson’s years in primary school were characterised by absence and detachment, leaving him scant respite from a sinister mother. What is most remarkable is that his deeply entrenched yearning to leave his home (a term I use here in the loosest sense of the word) only made itself readily apparent upon his transition to secondary school.


One can recognise with ease just how much he came to revile school and all it entailed. A threadbare, gaunt figure as himself whose mind was often occupied elsewhere was a sure target for the schoolyard multitudes. Those leering figures demanded quite a lot of him. Undoubtedly it was red brick infamy that awaited this jumbling morass of sorrow each day. In all it seems to have been a school where teachers were resigned to be mere effectors of crowd control. Given that this particular school had such large numbers it would have been impossible for them maintain order through any other means.


That and they worked in a school situated in a catchment area where a significant number of their students were exposed to anti-social activity and familial discord on a regular basis. The records from the school demonstrate that he often failed to attend classes with no given reason as to why. In the course of my interviews with him he would tell me how he was given to explore the nearby deserted canals. He suitably relished the days when the fog came down over them in particular. For in this fog everything became distant and detached. The buildings became obscured, the others were non-existent and all sense all of direction was lost. Just for that brief moment he was to be forgotten by all around him.


He thought himself most at home in that murk and gloom, for it provided him another realm to elope to and a semblance of determination to leave home. His mother by then positively terrified him, particularly when she insisted he eat or drink something or other. His childhood had taught him to be particularly wary in this regard. The father at this stage had also become increasingly absent. As per Samuel’s account he would often fail to arrive home at night. It was this point in time which also marked the mother beginning to interact with peculiar men. Samuel often refers to the first time he encountered one of these Lotharios when he arrived home from school early one day. It is apparent that he detested the way in which this man smiled at him, with a faint threatening glint in his eye.


From what I gather Samuel’s delusions began to first manifest themselves extensively shortly after the previous instance. By this

stage he was fourteen and on the cusp of doing his Junior Cert. The mother’s relationship with the father had long since culminated and the strange men continued to visit. For some nights he began to camp out in an abandoned building by the canal. He still emphasises to me how he would hear voices coming from rooms in his house he knew to be empty. The unknown entities that would rumble and roar in the attic he habitually mentions also still perturb him. In his own mind only by fleeing to the  comforting fog of the canal could he elude such things.


The fixation remains there that the house itself and its very walls were entities which sought to make him ill, as if it had a life of its own. He asserts that the mother at this point in time often threatened to harm herself should he abandon her completely. Samuel also maintains that her emotional outbursts on this front became significantly more pronounced in response to the increase in his disappearances.


When officials would come to the house regarding Samuel’s attendance it is apparent from the reports that I have received that she

portrayed herself as the overwrought mother, struggling to engage with a malcontent of a child. The return of her overbearing disposition no doubt exacerbated his eagerness to finally leave “home” for good. It was only but shortly after this that a confrontation of lasting impact would transpire, which had the consequence of my coming to be familiar with Samuel’s case.


As he now sits before me a month after the incident in question it can occasionally be somewhat difficult to discern what occurred

from his perspective. His manner of speech and the regular disruption to his thoughts is a further impediment. Neither am I helped

on the account that he is convinced that I’m planning his imminent demise and that any new faces on the ward are surely soon to-be accomplices in the act. A great deal of the paranoia regarding his mother is still there.


For instance he labours under the belief that his current stay with us is a punishment that has been accorded to him by the mother.

It seems that his well-founded distrust of his mother resulted in unfounded fixations, verging on the realms of the pathological, which in turn led to a physical altercation. Undeniably Samuel endured significant rough treatment in his younger years, something which no doubt would have caused immense rage to accumulate, all delusions aside. However as is apparent from the Garda report it was his delusions which were pivotal to the escalation of the conflict. He still mentions the beastly things he believed to be lurking in the attic. The constant murmur in his head had also insisted to him that ifhe didn’t strike out at the mother that very instant something dreadful would befall him.


It is always a sorrowful sight to witness just how distressed and perturbed Samuel is by his auditory hallucinations. The one thing

that he derived a semblance of satisfaction from this dreadful occasion was that he was finally away from the mother. Indeed we

still aren’t entirely certain how his case will proceed forward, given her egregious neglect and remarkable failure to engage with her maternal obligations. Undoubtedly he will have to be separated from her indefinitely however I foresee considerable conflict onthis front. Samuel’s deep rooted inclination to leave home certainly will have been realised in the most strained of manners!

I often wonder where exactly lies thecause of Samuel’s ingrained malady. Perhaps it had always been there since the pregnancy,

with irreversible damage having been done to the developing foetus. This malaise which proves so potent in depriving people of

their clarity of thought remains a perplexing enigma.


Over the years I have encountered quite a number similar to the case of Samuel whose circumstances have greatly exacerbated their symptoms. A multitude of the mothers and fathers ilk have also presented themselves to me. The catastrophic love affair characterised by transient fixation, complication and eventual breakdown is often to their fore. The entire case of Samuel really makes one contemplate how so many others are out there, desperate to depart a dysfunctional home and how their plight is often unknown to any outside authority.


While neither psychiatry nor the passage of time can entirely obliterate memories of what must have felt likes aeons for those earning to leave “home”, prompt action is imperative in such cases. Yes, I often pensively consider what is in the realm of  possibility to offset such tragedies before they reach the full extent of what was endured by Samuel Wilson.


Maitiú Breathnach 2019

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