An Irish Immigrant Fights On The Great Plains In 'Days Without End'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Irish writer Sebastian Barry just won the Costa Book of the Year Award for his new novel, "Days Without End." It's an award given to writers based in the U.K. and Ireland. He's the only author to have received it twice.
"Days Without End" follows the life of Thomas McNulty who flees the Great Famine of Ireland as a boy and winds up a soldier on the Great Plains of America fighting in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War. McNulty's plight was not uncommon for Irish immigrants of the 19th century. Many were conscripted right off the boat as the price of citizenship. McNulty finds companionship and love in one of his fellow soldiers, handsome John Cole. That part of the novel was inspired by Barry's son, Toby, who came out to him a few years ago while Barry was researching the book.
Barry dedicated "Days Without End" to his son. Sebastian Barry spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with a reading from the book. "Days Without End" is narrated by an elderly Thomas McNulty, recounting events from 50 years ago. Barry read this passage in character.
SEBASTIAN BARRY: (Reading) Chapter one. The method of laying out a corpse in Missouri sure took the proverbial cake, like decking out our poor lost troopers for marriage rather than death. All their uniforms brushed down with lamp oil into a state never seen when they were alive. Their faces clean shaved, as if the embalmers sure didn't like no whiskers showing. No one that knew him could have recognized Trooper Watchorn because those famous Dundrearies was gone. Anyway, death likes to make a stranger of your face. True enough their boxes weren't, but that was not the point. You lift one of those boxes, and the body makes a big sag in it. Wood cut so thin at the mill, it was more a wafer than a plank. But dead boys don't mind things like that. The point was, we were glad to see them so well turned out. I am talking now about the finale of my first engagement in the business of war. 1851 it was most likely. Since the bloom was gone off me, I had volunteered aged 17 in Missouri. If you had all your limbs, they took you. If you were a one-eyed boy, they might take you, too, even so. The only pay worse than the worst pay in America was Army pay. And they fed you queer stuff till you just stank. But you were glad to get work because if you didn't work for the few dollars in America, you hungered. I had learned that lesson. Well, I was sick of hungering.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: And that's Sebastian Barry reading from his new book, "Days Without End." Sebastian Barry, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BARRY: I'm delighted to talk to you.
BRIGER: Your book deals with the American expansion West, the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Why did you want to take on such a formative part of American history?
BARRY: Well, the whole adventure of these seven books, indeed, has been to try and go and find, if only in the imagination, these bits and bobs of my family, the people who weren't talked about, the people who - around whom a silence fell, whether for political reasons or because they went so far and never came home. And this was one person that my grandfather told me about when we shared a - a bed and a room when we were - when I was small in the 1960s in Ireland. And he'd tell me these wonderful stories, and this was a story he couldn't tell because all he knew about it was that a great-uncle of his had been at the Indian Wars. So that's where that started.
And I've been thinking about that for - well, nigh on 50 years. And what that means - and when I first heard it, I thought, well, I know what that means aged 8 because I've been to all the cowboy films up in the Adelphi cinema in Dun Laoghaire. So surely I do know what he's talking about. And that was a very exciting idea. But later, you wonder then about the sadness and the sorrow - historical sorrow of an Irish person, himself essentially a native person, an aboriginal person, by a great trauma having to go to America, joining an Army that was engaged in the destruction, erasure and removal of a people, the Native American people, not unlike himself. So that was one of the things. So my task was to follow, and in this instance, follow a person like that to America. But I have to say, it was a joyful undertaking.
BRIGER: And Thomas joins the Army. Was it common for Irish immigrants then to join the Army?
BARRY: It was almost absurdly common. I mean, not only then in the 1840s. But I was quite shocked just because I didn't know it. And maybe it is to some degree shocking, that just later on - because, you know, after - we talked about the million who died in the famine, the million who left. But in the next 20 years, another 2 million left, many, many, many, many hundreds of thousands for America. I mean, hundreds of thousands - the numbers are just staggering.
But if you were of military age as a young person, a young man, from Ireland getting off the boat in America, you were immediately put into the Union Army if you're - if you landed in a Union port, and vice versa in a Confederate. This was to earn your citizenship. I mean, this was something I simply didn't know. So a person who has lost everything behind him - his future, the people who loved him, the people he loved, his whole possibility of meeting some girl someday in a, you know, a hawthorn-strewn country road and marrying her and having his babies, and all the rest of it, gone for all eternity - is then put straight into a uniform, given a musket and told to go and fight for something he didn't understand. Was he even speaking English?
And secondly, in a country he knew nothing about - a total tabula rasa picture with nothing drawn on it. I mean, it is quite astonishing. But also for a novelist - I mean, for a human being, that's quite frightening. But for a novelist, of course, that's possibly, wickedly, a wonderful thing to think about and to try and tackle in a book.
BRIGER: And that's why, later on, when Thomas is fighting in the Civil War, there are companies of - there are Irish companies on both sides fighting each other in - in various battles...
BARRY: And calling out the same battle cries...
BARRY: ...As they come towards each other in Irish, you know, Faugh a Ballagh, Faugh a Ballagh. I mean, it's kind of magical and awful in the same moment.
BRIGER: But his...
BARRY: Crazy courage.
BRIGER: His first job, though, is to fight in the Indian Wars in the West. And...
BRIGER: ...They're clearing the land of Native Americans to make room for the expansion of the United States. And it's a terrible - and it's a brutal and bloody history. There's also some tragic irony that your Irish narrator's fighting it, isn't it?
BARRY: Yeah. I mean, I have to say. You know, I read for a year because, of course, you can't completely make it up. I mean, you need a thousand details that maybe are pebbles from a true shore. And to get those, you need to read. And sometimes when I was reading, you know, I must confess that I lost heart. And I thought, I just can't. I can't actually do this. I can't go there. It reminded me of when I was trying to write about the Irish soldiers in the First World War. And you read about the battles, and you just think, no, I can't do this.
I mean, when you get to Chivington - Colonel Chivington at Sand Creek massacre, and the terrible orders, and the terrible outcome, and the efforts of a man called Silas Soule - I tried to honor him by having him in the book with a different spelling - going to proceed against this colonel and then himself being murdered a week later. I mean, you begin to think, this history is too dark. This - I can't manage it. But there's a part of you also - as I say, that novelist part of you, that very, almost disreputable, suspicious character that lurks inside you - that also thinks, well, yes, but this is an incredible thing to even to try and get half right. Do you know?
I also - I think as - when I was very young, I did, you know, like a lot of young people do, I made a strong connection between myself - I'm in Ireland, of course, so it was quite ludicrous - and Native America. I grew my hair down to my waist when I was 19 at Trinity College the first chance I got. The only thing I ever played on the stage was I played - because of my hair, I was cast as Tonto, and some other guy, my friend, was cast as the Lone Ranger. That's as close as I've ever come to acting, and I was dreadful. I - but anyway, you can see that there was a sort of curiosity, and - about the whole thing.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Sebastian Barry, author of the new novel "Days Without End." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Sebastian Barry author of the new novel "Days Without End."
BRIGER: I was surprised at how much famine there is in the novel. I mean...
BRIGER: ...Not just in Ireland, but in the West among both the Native Americans and the soldiers. And then there's this haunting scene in a prisoner of war camp in the South during the Civil War where both the Union captives and their guards are all starving.
BARRY: Yeah. They, you know - some of these - I mean, if I had a private title it'd be "Book Of Revelations" for this book because all that astonished me. You know, as Irish people only reading Irish history, sometimes we think we have the copyright on hunger. And, you know - and in a way rightly so, but it is an illusion. I mean, we have the history of Bengal. We have the history of China. We have all these other histories of hunger.
But even in America, do you know if you were a group of Sioux people who decided to submit to the government and try and do what they were being asked to do, you know, first of all - the rations given to you were disgusting more often than not. But if they didn't arrive, you and your people were going to start starving out there on the plains. And that - you know, the word hunger - because Thomas has lost his family who have died on the stone floor of his house. His mother and his sister and his father have all died of hunger. So he knows what hunger is, so he notices hunger. And I was noticing hunger, as you say.
BRIGER: As you said before, Thomas McNulty's based on one of your ancestors. He's - and he said he's not the first ancestor you've written about. Why do you think you keep returning to the history of your family?
BARRY: I think it started in childhood where, you know, I was a little boy in love with my family and family members, my great aunt Annie, my - that I wrote a little novel about called "Annie Dunne" and my grandfathers (unintelligible). He was the - he was a major in the British army during the Second World War. He has a book called "The Temporary Gentleman." And my other grandfather and - who was a painter and nationalist who came out in 1916. So, you know, these were two grandfathers completely at odds historically in Ireland. But I loved - they were at odds, but I loved them equally. I mean, I loved them madly. I mean, I was in love with these people, and I wanted more of them.
BRIGER: Have everyone in your real family - cousins and stuff - always appreciated you making up family?
BARRY: Well, you know, what they haven't appreciated sometimes is the bits I haven't made up, the real bits.
BRIGER: The things you've revealed.
BARRY: Yes. And in that odd innocence, especially as a young writer where you just think it's a miracle you get a short story. And, you know, you're sitting as I was in Zurich writing it, and it all seems far away. But you're still only 22, and the person you're writing about is just back home in Ireland. And then when he reads the story - this would be my grandfather the major guy - you know, social things hit him hard, for instance, a story about me and him when I was a kid. I mean, these were stories - these were memories I treasured so much, you know, because he rescued me in my childhood.
He brought me West to see this family. If he hadn't done that, I wouldn't have anything to write about, so he gave me my world. But there was a little detail saying in the one story about his mother boiling mutton at the back of the house and how it distressed me as a little boy that was mentioned in the story. And, of course, for him that was an indication that he was poor and that she was poor. And that hurt him, and he was deeply hurt that I had actually written that.
So, you know, I didn't understand those things as a young man. We had a terrible row about it, and we never spoke again not because he wouldn't forgive me. It was because I was young and foolish and ridiculous. You don't realize how quick the years go, and I didn't speak to him really, and I regret that. But as recompense, I have tried to think about him every day, and, you know, cherish him in memory. That's all I can do.
BRIGER: Oh, that's sad that you didn't get to speak to him.
BRIGER: Well, one of the things that sustains him through all this carnage, and one of the most enduring parts of the book is the relationship that Thomas McNulty has with his lover handsome John Cole. And, you know, they maintain this clandestine romance as soldiers in the Army, and then they have a domestic life together. You know, I found it interesting that you decided to write a book about a gay relationship in an era where even that phrase would have been a foreign one. I mean, did you...
BRIGER: ...Did you have to research about what it was like to be gay in America in the 1800s? Are there any primary sources about that? Do you have to sort of read between the lines of diaries?
BARRY: Between the lines and maybe 10 feet under them because understandably it's not in the record. You know, I mean, it's often said that if you look for Jesus Christ in the historical record, there's two vague mentions of him there. That's it.
And for, you know - for living a life that is gay, as you say a word that didn't exist, when your whole purpose is to be at least discreet and protect each other and watch out for dangers, it's not going to be written down somewhere unless things go badly wrong. At the same time, there's a certain amount of record. And, you know, you read the - for instance, I wrote a play about Hans Christian Andersen - was sort of the same period in Denmark. Hans Christian Andersen - I mean, Hans Christian Andersen may have died a virgin, but he was certainly incredibly in love with a young Danish actor. And that's recorded, and he was in love with the son of his patron, Collin, and was distraught and almost self-destructive when he was turned down by this man.
And, you know - and from the beginning of time and that led me to think that, you know, being gay has been part of what we are as a human creature ever since the dawn of time. So where is the history? You get a lot of - a little bit of history from San Francisco in the 18 - up to 1863, for instance, when dressing as a woman was outlawed, of parties that were just for men, of events that were just for men. And in this world of America in the 1850s where there are no women more or less just about the West of the Missouri or the Mississippi, you know - it's well said in a book I was reading that men occupied not only public spaces usually occupied by women, but also domestic spaces which is a very interesting idea. But the immense discretion required, I mean, I - Thomas if I am putting him through anything - I think he put himself through all these things, but, say, as a writer putting him through these things - I thought if he has to go through the Indian Wars and the Civil Wars, you know, I was very relieved that he was able to get through that particular war of being allowed to be in love with John Cole and live a life with him and try to create a little family with the Sioux girl Winona. I mean, that also heartened me as a human person, the possibility of it, you know.
BRIGER: Right. They adopt a Sioux girl and have a family together. That's, as you say, very heartening. You mention cross-dressing, and that's something that plays a part in this book. The first instance of it is Thomas McNulty and his friend John Cole are teenagers, and they're starving. And they're trying to find work, and they come across a new saloon that's advertising for clean boys. What is the saloon looking for?
BARRY: And as John Cole says, well, we fulfill half of that requirement.
BARRY: And in they go, and it turns out Mr. Noon (ph), the saloon owner is just looking for boys who he can put the dresses on who will then very - chaperoned - in a very chaperoned fashion be available to the minors for dancing.
BRIGER: Right. Because this is a town with no women to dance with.
BARRY: With no women whatsoever. I think maybe the baker has a wife. That's about the height of it. I don't think she's going to be dancing with the minors. So I guess, you know, it's going to be people at the very end of the social order, two boys wandering in who have met only recently under a hedge in Missouri in a downpour.
I mean, at this point, Thomas is wearing a sack, so he doesn't even have clothes of any shape or form. They come in, and they get this work. And it's the first time I think you realize that handsome John Cole is handsome and that Thomas must be really, you know, a good looking person because they're able to pull this off, and it's their work. And it's - you know, what they say coming into town they would have been prepared to swill out sewerage. They would have been prepared to - even to stick knives into people if they could get away with it, you know, they will do almost any work. And they get this work which actually is a bit nicer than the other possibilities.
BRIGER: Is this based on anything historical?
BARRY: I certainly remember photographs of - I'm sure you're familiar with them - of men dancing with each other in the West because obviously in saloons, you know - because there's no women.
And one particular photograph I saw there were two or three boys doing the dancing, you know, with the men. I was a little bit - I mean, as a modern father, of course, I was a little bit alarmed by that. I mean, but there's no point being modern - modernly - if that's a word - alarmed by the past because it's just - it is a different country. Whether or not I read that it was actually a possible employment - but to my way of thinking, you see - I mean, this nascent America predicated upon such incredible violence, but also the possibility.
You know, the - my way of thinking if there wasn't a one instance of two boys getting a job dressing as girls to dance with minors in a town like Daggsville, I'd be very surprised with the great cornucopia of work in America. I mean, it might have died a death hours later, but I'm sure it must have happened.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Sebastian Barry, author of the new novel "Days Without End." We'll hear more of the conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Irish novelist Sebastian Barry. His new novel is called "Days Without End."
BRIGER: I read that when you were first working on this book, you weren't planning on writing about a gay relationship. What changed?
BARRY: Well, I couldn't have because I just wouldn't have known anything, but my lovely son, Toby, just a few years ago - he was only 16, and I was just beginning the book - became very, very unhappy. And, you know, when our young men become unhappy, you know, we've got to mobilize ourselves. You've got to really try and find out. I mean, in a way, you can't ask directly because that could be more distressing. You've got to be kind of super Sherlock Holmes of this unhappiness - could be something tiny, could be something huge.
Anyway, eventually on the advice of his elder sister, who is the flosser in our family, she sent him into us. Me and Ally - and my wife and Toby came in, and he said the thing is, dad, I'm gay. I was so profoundly relieved. I don't ever remember such a release of happiness because I thought, oh, God, is that the reason? Thank God you told us, and I said something bats to him, you know, absolutely nuts. I said, well, thank God, Toby, you won't have to go through this heterosexual nightmare we've been struggling with all our lives - something mad like that. And Toby laughed, and we laughed.
And I tell you, it was the beginning of a sort of university of information of observing him. I mean, he is a beautiful child, and he's a wonderful man. He's full of music. He's the most vital person you can imagine. And, you know, in his great kindness and empathy for his poor, ignorant straight father, he took it on himself to instruct me somewhat. And we sat through our 20 hours of "RuPaul's Drag Race" - though he could show me what was what. And, you know, and I had just thought recently if you wanted a reality TV star for a president, why didn't you choose RuPaul? I think she would have been a much better choice, but let's leave that there.
Anyway, Toby was magnificently informing, and I saw the nature of his love between him and his boyfriend. And I thought this is not something just to be tolerated. There's something to be revered, emulated, cherished, something we can learn from because the delicacy of their love it seemed to me at that age was far beyond the capability, oftentimes, of straight people who often - it becomes the battle of the sexes from the get-go.
BRIGER: Well, in 2015, there was a referendum in Ireland on whether to make same-sex marriage legal. And you wrote a letter to the newspaper The Irish Times in support of the referendum. I think you have the letter there. Could you read it to us?
BARRY: I will, and I just say I thought I had to do something. And it is the default action of the middle-aged, Irish-Catholic person to write to The Irish Times so that's what I proposed to do, and, you know - as if that could change anything, but, you know, maybe it could. But I had to read it out to him. So the only other time I've read this out is to Toby in my workroom when I wrote it to get his approval. And he wept, you know, and he's a very strong young man. He's very mensch-like. He never cries. And I thought, well, maybe it's all right then.
But anyway, here's the little letter (reading) sir, as the more than proud father of one shining person who happens to be a member of the LGBT community, I will be voting yes in the coming referendum. In that sense, it is a personal matter. I have read quite a bit in the papers about our new more tolerant society and that may be so, and, of course, it is a solid point of view from which to vote yes, but I don't see it as a matter of tolerance so much as apology, apology for all the hatred, violence, suspicion, patronization, ignorance, murder, maiming, hunting, intimidation, terrorizing, shaming, diminishment, discrimination, destruction, then yes intolerance visited upon a section of humanity for God knows how many hundreds of years if not millennia. My child will be just shy of 18 when the votes are cast, and therefore cannot vote himself. By voting yes, I will be engaging in the simple task of honoring the majesty, radiance and promise of his human soul.
BRIGER: We were talking about the referendum to make legal same-sex marriage in Ireland, and that referendum passed by, I think, over 62 percent of cast votes. And Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. Were you proud of your country then?
BARRY: Oh, man, I tell you. There was a funny moment in Philadelphia when I was doing an event with John Panvel (ph) who's, of course, a great man. And I had been in a bit of trouble in Ireland with a play. I don't need to go into it, but I know somebody in the audience said, well, how do you feel about your country now? You know, because there had been calls for Mr. Barry to - possibly to leave the country and all the rest. And I instinctively said, well, I love my country. See, I love my country because I know my country. I'm not loving unconditionally or blindly. I've tried to look into the whole matter, and I remain in love with this strange land and its people.
But at that moment - and it was, you know, the vote that really carried the voters were - was the vote of the innercity people of Ireland, who you might think to be quite conservative, but no. They, you know - on the news programs, they were saying, oh, no, yes, anyone - look, people should be able to do what they want now. It's time people were free of these sort of things, and it's totally unacceptable. And we're voting yes. I mean, when I heard that, I wasn't just proud of my country, I was crazy proud of my country.
BRIGER: Well, Sebastian Barry, thanks so much for joining us today.
BARRY: My great pleasure, sir.
GROSS: Sebastian Barry is the author of the new novel "Days Without End." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll look back on a chapter of paranoia and persecution in America in which the president, Congress, the courts and the press all played a part. My guest will be journalist Glenn Frankel whose new book is about the Hollywood blacklist and the making of the classic film "High Noon." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Kevin Griffin. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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