James Barry wrote a lot about death. He had somewhere between an inordinate fear and a marked obsession that runs pretty much continuously through the diary. Though he lived to be 87, he several times predicted his early demise. “I am considerably damaged” he wrote 46 years before his death, “and will feel the effects of it as long as I live, and I am of opinion that will not be long” (20 January 1860). He was sick often, and also seemingly slow to recover. Colds lasted for weeks and he had endless complaints about his stomach (“skitter” in his “pudding”), with many too vivid descriptions of what was emerging from his “port-hole”. But if he seems obsessive, we can’t really say he was unduly fearful. Death was everywhere in 19th-century Six Mile Brook. Babies died soon after birth; people were killed by machinery (he reported several threshing machine deaths); people drowned swimming in summer and falling through the ice in winter; and there was an endless stream of mysterious purported causes. Six Mile Brook was not insulated from the major communicative diseases, especially in tuberculosis. His wife Bell died of TB in 1883, as did four of her sisters, at least one brother, and probably her parents. And just locally and within the family, there were many other deaths noted in the diary ranging from his parents, Bell’s parents, their siblings, neighbours, and local notables in the news.
Barry’s typical response was detached, his comments often brutally cold. He was sometimes weirdly playful – “Old ‘Christy Gordon’ is Dead as a Herring – So be it, Amen” (2 January 1869) – and sometimes painfully detached – “Old Alexander McKay died last night. He was owing me 20s and will owe” (9 November 1849). He didn’t attend any of his siblings’ funerals, and it was his refusal to attend Bell’s mother’s funeral in the summer of 1867 that really marked the beginning of the slide in their relationship.
His responses to death were most often directly tied to his relationship with the deceased. That’s not surprising, of course, but the deaths provide interesting indicators of his emotional connections not just to individuals but also to people, their lives and life’s value. This is, I think, very much tied up with his spirituality – and the changing nature of his spirituality and his evolving position on Atonement – but I’ll leave that aside for today. What I will explore is his relationship to three deaths – Bell and two of her sisters – as a way of assessing how he thought about death and how emotion charged these thoughts in powerfully repressive ways.
Barry’s response to the death of Annabella in October 1878 illustrated his common detached position. In the months leading up to her death, he noted in passing her illness, occasionally commenting on her poor appearance, but the details were very scarce. When she died, the death simply was recorded, not unlike those of neighbours, often neighbours some distance away whom he barely knew. Annabella was his sister-in-law, a woman who probably held no great love for him but who visited regularly and cared for his children very often between 1868 and 1878. “Poor Annabella died this morning at 8 o’clock of consumption. Her troubles are over. I sold our cow to George McLaren from Pictou for $30”. The next day “they took Annabella away from here this morning to be buried”. If there was a hint of sorrow in acknowledging that her “troubles are over”, it was not enough to compel him to attend the funeral.
Barry had little good to say about any of the McLennans. Except Liza. It’s hard to know why precisely because he doesn’t say much, but her death certainly affected him in ways that few others did. Uncharacteristically, Barry offered numerous lamentations on her illness, and ultimately her death. He explicitly says she was the only one of the McLennans he liked. Indeed, he probably in some way loved her (though like his positive feelings for most other women, this too would surely have diminished with time) and expressed a genuine sense of loss. “Liza is getting still worse I understand. I do not see her, but it is not anything I have against her but the other curse [Bell] and the damned Rogers Hill Buggers [Bell’s family]. Poor Liza, if I could save her it would soon be done at any cost – even to the whole of my Kingdom.” (12/11/1868, emphasis in original)
This is a striking acknowledgement of loss and desire. Through most of Liza last months, Barry recorded occasional updates on her well-being. It was clear to him that she had TB – “Consumption is the complaint of their family” – and that she was dying. And yet there is not a single recording of an interaction with Liza, indeed of no one in the family except Josephine. “Liza is still here”, he reported on 3 November 1868, “but I do not see her. I hear that she is mending some”. Isolated in his own house, set apart from the McLennan sisters who came through the house in support of their eldest sister, Barry seems enamoured, perhaps yearning, but wholly aloof, his pride unremitting.
There are lots of other examples we could draw from, and not all female relations. He was certainly saddened by the death of Finlay McIntyre, a fiddler and friend from Truro for whom he had a deep respect, though not so moved that he travelled to attend the funeral. Of course, he attended very few funerals, and rarely offered any kind of explanation. Even he must have seen how weak was his plea that distance – 12 miles, less than the distance to Pictou, a route he often walked – kept him from the funeral of his brother William (30 June 1884). Nor did he attend the 1859 funeral of his eldest sister Julia. He didn’t even name her, simply noting “Old Widow McDonald, my eldest sister, died yesterday night”.
Bell’s funeral in December of 1884 stands out as a moment of fuller emotional expression and yet still fits his pattern of detached observation and deeply repressed emotion. In the months leading up to her death, Barry betrayed no sense of emotional pain. Bell and he had had no real relationship since 1868. For most of the period between then and her death in 1884, what he tells us about Bell is usually appended with something like “so I’m told” – i.e. where others have informed him of what is underway in his own house. My chapter on emotion and Barry explores this prolonged estrangement in more detail, but we can simply note that while he expressed much anger and resentment, there were moments too when we see hints of sadness.
Bell died on 4 December 1884. She was 58. Like her four sisters, a brother, and probably her parents, she died of tuberculosis. The symptoms began in the summer, and by early fall Barry knew the coughing indicated more than a persistent cold. But never did he drop the callous commentary on “the animal”, as he often termed her. And this continued even on the day of her death. “Poor ‘Crature’. She suffered greatly … and declined rapidly”. The next day he dressed the mill stones and dried 50 bushels of oats. Perhaps while he worked he contemplated his wife’s death and their long estrangement, but the man who often engaged himself through the diary offered us no sense of reflection.
Barry attended the funeral, though only “to keep people’s tongues quiet”. The procession began at the house and a “large number of people”, but not Barry, listened to their minister’s “loud Blather”. He then joined the procession, carrying Bell’s coffin 10 km on a neighbour’s sleigh to the cemetery in Rogers Hill. We can only imagine Barry’s thoughts, but in his cynical asides on the Minister’s blather we can see the extremes of his critical free-thinking mind and a long-standing anger. At the graveside, however, Barry demonstrated that there must also have been a profound sadness. Viewing the coffin being laid into the ground, Barry lost control of his emotions: “I broke down and had to retreat crying or sobbing in spite of all I could do”. But even here, in the midst of acknowledging his pain, he was unable to continue the story as one rooted in loss, but in his loss of control: “It was some time before I could regain my composure. Sad, sad, spectacle indeed”. For the only time in the 46-year-long diary, James Barry fully exposed a deep emotional pain. But it was not a state he could inhabit long.