“Old People are a Problem” – How Emyr Humphreys, Sebastian Barry, & Other Authors Write About the Old

Old Woman

Let’s look at some works about old people, by authors who won’t make you snooze off in your chair. In honor of the Hay Festival, the Library of Wales is offering free stories from Volumes I and II of Story, the Library’s anthology of the finest Welsh short fiction, during the month of May. We’re sorry to have discovered this a bit late, on Day 18, but think you’ll enjoy Old People are a Problem” by Emyr Humphreys, a sharp piece about a well-to-do Alderman who finds negotiating family relations -with his cantankerous 93-year old aunt, and his argumentative, activist daughter – much more trying than politics. When his elderly aunt refuses to budge from her crumbling cottage, crisis ensues.

Emyr Humpreys (1919-) is a prominent Welsh novelist and poet. Writing in both Welsh and English, he was a conscientious objector in World War II, did relief work in Egypt and Italy, and worked as a radio producer for the BBC. The recipient of many literary honors, he won the Wales Book of the Year award in 1992 and 1999.

Steve Dubé’s 2009 Wales Online article about Humprehy’s final book, The Woman at the Window, (published when the author was 90) is worth reading.  Dubé himself is author of Welsh Farming Life (Inside Out). This is the sort of book that might hold hidden gems, particularly for those with an interest in things agricultural. If you’ve read it, let us know your thoughts.

Back to old folks. Characters at either end of the age spectrum present a challenge to writers, and unskilled portrayals risk slipping into charicature. A segment of readers assume that everyone outside age 20-50 inhabits a universe of bland food and some form of incontinence, emotional or physical. Yet forging ahead against the barriers of ageist assumptions, (and perhaps handicapped by lack of personal experience of those latter decades), there are some writers whose older characters are not only psychologically plausible, but compelling to read about. It’s important writing, because it extends our imaginative realm beyond our own experience, and like all great literature, broadens our empathic capabilities.

For a great example, read Annie Dunne, Sebastian Barry’s beautifully crafted novel that takes place in Wicklow, Ireland, in 1959. Annie, who had lived with her now-deceased sister, but lost her lodgings upon her brother-in-law’s remarriage, is surviving in reduced circumstances on her cousin Sarah’s rural farm. The two elderly women eke out a subsistence living, with the occasional assistance of local laborer Billy Kerr. Given to misunderstandings and not un-founded fears, the reader is privy to Annie’s all-too-human musings about the circumstances of her life, and two challenges that occur during one summer: the arrival of her young niece and nephew, and the necessary, but intrusive visits of Billy. Annie disapproves of him:

“Billy Kerr would harass the deer if there was any to profit to himself in doing so, as he is a man without qualities. There is probably a Billy Kerr, or someone like him, in all human affairs. Otherwise all would be well, continually.”

And why is he coming around so much?

“I feel like a woman that has left her gloves on the bus, beautiful soft leather gloves on the Dublin bus, and does not know it immediately, but senses powerfully her loss. It is that I have left Sarah alone with Billy Kerr.”

Shocked, she comes to believe that Billy Kerr is pursuing the farm by courting the much older, but innocent Sarah. Living with Sarah is Annie’s last refuge from the dreaded County Home for the indigent. How to derail this conniving plot against gentle, fey Sarah, without jeopardizing her own precarious position?

Along with a series of complicated interactions with her niece and nephew (Barry’s ability to depict the psychological landscape of childhood, especially as it intersects with childless Annie’s, is superb), other worrisome domestic disasters occur over the course of the summer. At one point, Annie’s brother-in-law Matt, with whom she has a difficult history, accidentally ingests a thorn and ends up in the hospital:

“It will have been my butter he brought for his sandwich, the wrap of butter I gave him in friendship, with the thorn off a blackthorn tree in it, to keep it fresh.

Did I tell him there would be a thorn in the butter? I do not think so, and him in truth a city man, and so not expecting such an item.

God forgive me, he may think I was trying to murder him, if ever he finds out. Into my mind, I know not why, swims the picture of Cupid with his bow. But the thorn of a blackthorn bush is a poor dart for such a purpose.”

Annie’s reaction to this, and other trying situations, are  illuminated through Barry’s witty and insightful explication of her inner life.

For another discussion of Annie Dunne, as well as other Sebastian Barry Books, visit Kim Forrester’s comprehensive Reading Matters blog, which features much Irish literary fiction.

As an aside, we became curious about a detail in the novel, in which Annie places a thorn of the Blackthorn bush into butter to keep it fresh. We couldn’t find any other account of this practice, but plenty of notable stuff about the Blackthorn itself, and a rather interesting discussion about the risks and treatments of Blackthorn wounds (it may, or may not, involve a rare poison).

And along the way, we discovered a website devoted to Irish Culture and Customs, and there, Bridget Haggerty’s article Is Your Shillelagh a Sham? (A Shillelagh is a short, stubby blackthorn cudgel).

Continuing on our literary survey of old women, a visit to (a great source of free literature and verse) brought us to Padraic Colum’s 1881 poem,

An Old Woman of the Road

O, TO have a little house!     

To own the hearth and stool and all!      

The heaped up sods upon the fire, 

The pile of turf against the wall!    


To have a clock with weights and chains        

And pendulum swinging up and down! 

A dresser filled with shining delph,

Speckled and white and blue and brown!        


I could be busy all the day    

Clearing and sweeping hearth and floor, 

And fixing on their shelf again      

My white and blue and speckled store!   


I could be quiet there at night        

Beside the fire and by myself,        

Sure of a bed and loth to leave        

The ticking clock and the shining delph!


Och! but I’m weary of mist and dark,    

And roads where there’s never a house nor bush,     

And tired I am of bog and road,   

And the crying wind and the lonesome hush!    


And I am praying to God on high,

And I am praying Him night and day,   

For a little house—a house of my own—

Out of the wind’s and the rain’s way.


Other recommend books featuring older protagonists include:

Emily, Alone by Stuart O’Nan

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark

We’d love to hear of your suggestions, as well.

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