Bookworm: ‘Days without end’ by Sebastian Barry

‘Days without end’ by Sebastian Barry is his latest tale in a series of books about the McNulty family of Sligo. Set over various centuries on different continents these books examine various people in different generations of one family, and how they fare in the world. ‘The Temporary Gentleman’ was about Jack McNulty – working for the UN in Ghana in 1957, as he remembers his ruinous marriage to his fellow alcoholic Mai Kirwan (you can read my take on that book HERE… )

‘Days without end’ is set the previous century in a faraway land – the United States.

It is 1851. Thomas McNulty is a Famine orphan – his family starved to death in Ireland – who has survived the journey on a coffin ship to Quebec. Aged thirteen he has made his way south to Daggsville, Missouri, where he meets fellow orphan John Cole. They form a friendship. They are hired as ‘prairie fairies’ by a Mr Titus Noone at his saloon.  Dressing up as women, they offer dances to lonely miners and farmers, starved of female company in the frontiers of the USA.

By the age of seventeen they are no longer able to pass as women. So they enlist in the army and travel to the Oregon trail to California. Unknown to the two boys (and to this date denied in official records of the U.S. Army) their mission is genocide –  of the Native American population. This was a country with ambition. A country that was going places. Those pesky natives needed to be disposed of – they were regarded as relics of a useless time, offering nothing in the promised land of America.

McNulty does not question motives, he obeys orders. Having seen brutal poverty and Famine, he seems inured to horror. Except in his love for John Cole. The soldiers are now lovers. As they trudge with their battalion around Oregon, making meaningless treaties with the Oglala and Sioux natives – before invariably slaughtering them – they keep their love hidden.

Upon leaving the Army they travel with a Sioux orphan girl named Winona, back to Missouri where they recommence their theatre career – this time Thomas is a female impersonator. His beau – Handsome John Cole – plays his smitten suitor.

In this brave new world of America, war, destruction and chaos is everywhere, while the country is being built by slaves. The men find themselves back in the Union Army for the Civil War.

This book is strange and bleak and beautiful. Telling the tale of lives of such brutality ought to be depressing. The innocence and hope of McNulty is startling however.

He has no explanation for why his family starved, no justification for the genocide of the Native Americans, no opinion on the Civil War. He has his love for John Cole and that is all he needs. He knows that his is an officially worthless life. He’s Irish. In those grim times the Irish were the most worthless of the white people in the racial hierarchy of the time – without value, expendable. Unwanted except to fight the establishment’s battles – on opposing sides in the civil war.  Having escaped Famine, now they are now good for killing.

His love for John Cole gives him hope though. They don’t identify as gay – such a concept didn’t exist back then. His love is explained as being just right. In a world of such horror, murderous depravity and grinding despair that this pair could find each other, and raise a Native American girl is incomprehensible, but convincing.

It is a stunning book. Told in the first person voice of Thomas McNulty from Sligo, reading it is a horrible pleasure. Knowing that there will be little let up in the cruelty, but devouring each page, I was hooked on it.

Thankfully there are several other unread McNulty books in the Sebastian Barry collection.  I may have to investigate.



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