By Alexandra Goldsmith
Booker Prize winning Irish novelist, playwright, and poet, Sebastian Barry only knew one sentence about his ancestor, Thomas McNulty, when he decided to write a novel about him. His newest fiction novel, Days Without End, is an account of how McNulty, a Civil War soldier and former Irishman, finds solace and intimacy in another soldier during the tragedies of war.
“In my effort to retrieve my ancestor from the dead cold hands of history, and because I only had half a sentence about him,” Barry told his audience at Politics and Prose Bookstore, “I had to concoct a biography for this man. And that’s what you can do with a book. When you don’t know anything about someone you can only give them the little things out of your own life.”
Barry’s novel explores the national and personal identity of Irishman McNulty, who travels to America in search of new beginnings in the 1850s after losing his family to the Irish famine.
The novel is written entirely from McNulty’s firsthand perspective, a decision Barry said he made to counteract Ireland’s tendency to edit history to appeal to the public eye.
“This isn’t written in grand English. This is written in the broken mouth, broken back, and broken hearted English that Thomas has achieved in his life,” Barry said.
Barry said his motive for writing Days without End was to capture the fear, anger, and desperation struck in the hearts of foreign civil war soldiers, who could only acquire American citizenship through serving for the union army in the Civil War. Barry noted that in leaving their homeland, foreign soldiers also left behind their identities, or “the books” of their lives in a sense.
“These were young men who lost everything behind them in Ireland. Their entire narratives, the books of those individuals were rescinded and canceled. So maybe what explains the extraordinary scenes of violence in the Irish-American story in that time was how incredibly angry those men must have been,” Barry said.
For historical accuracy, Barry references in his book the severe starvation and famine that affected soldiers during the Civil War, an aspect of warfare he found jolting. Barry read a passage where McNulty goes buffalo hunting, a life-risking task soldiers often performed to provide provisions for hungry troops.
“Blooms in my head the picture of the troopers roasting her and cutting great steaks out of her, the blood running down the meat,” Barry read as Thomas McNulty. “And now we have drawn a bead on that cow, and I fire, and the lovely orange flame shoots the bullet forth, and the burning black steel is absorbed into her shoulder. My heart swells. My pride explodes in my chest. Down, down she goes, a blaze of gust and power, and she takes fifteen feet to reach a stop. Must have pierced her heart. That’s a dead buffalo.”
Days without End is a Civil War novel, but it is also a personal story of parenthood, acceptance, and love, drawn largely from Barry’s own experiences. Inspired by and dedicated to Barry’s son, Toby, who came out as gay to Barry at the age of 16, the novel narrates McNulty’s relationship with his lifelong lover and companion, John Cole.
“Writing this book happened as a sort of answering of a signal from my last child, Toby, who was going to university at the time. One night my son came into our (Barry and his wife’s) room after months of being unhappy and said, ‘the thing is dad, I’m gay.’ And if a big hand had reached in and taken lead off my back, I could not have felt freer. And he looked free as well.”
Barry described his relationship with his son after this discovery as both transformative and informative. Barry said the notion in Ireland that gay people should be tolerated as opposed to welcomed was a harmful viewpoint and a disfavor to all humanity. He aimed through his novel to dispel the taboo nature of being gay and instead celebrate it as a timeless, wholesome, and perfectly decent way of life.
“These two men are in love with each other in a way that’s hard to describe now because the word ‘gay’ didn’t exist then,” Barry said. “What they are is sort of originals.”
Parenthood is also a recurring theme in Barry’s novel. In fact, he refers to the title, Days without End, as a phrase (often used by McNulty) to describe a time in life when one’s in the throes of early parenthood and acclimating to being depended on. “They are the high days of your life,” he said. “They are the paradoxical time.”
Barry read a passage about Wynona, a young girl McNulty and Cole rescue and take in as their own during the war, who often awakens from nightmares. “Sweet little face, cool as a melon when you hold it in your hands and kiss her forehead,” Barry read as McNulty. “You could expect a child who has seen all that to awaken in the night, and she does. John Cole is obliged to hold her trembling form against him and sooth her with lullabies. Then he lies on her bed and she pushes in tight against him like you might imagine bear cubs do in the winter hide. Tight in like John Cole was that bit of safety she is trying to reach, a harbor.”
These tender moments echo Barry’s experiences with his own children, and serve to soften the blow of the novel’s civil war carnage.
Barry’s book has been lauded for its historical accuracy and honest portrayal of humanity during the Civil War. Through his use of tone and language, Barry said he aimed to portray McNulty as a real 1850s Irishman turned American.
“It is my belief as a writer after forty years,” Barry said, “ that if you can discover the syntax of a person, the person can be made to reappear in the world. Just as they say that our brains are full of a hundred trillion synapses, and there’s no such thing as color and sound and we just have receptors that interpret various waves, I think similarly with a novel you can do something to the synapses in the brain and bring that person before you in a way that is as real or maybe more real than supposed reality.”