In the army, you meet a dozen men a month come from Ireland, but you never hear them talk about them much. You know an Irishman because he has it written all over. He speaks some other way, and he is not a great man for a haircut generally, and there’s something about an Irish when he’s drinking that just ain’t like any other human being. Don’t tell me an Irish is an example of civilized humanity. He may be an angel in the clothes of a devil, or a devil in the clothes of an angel, but either way you’re talking to two when you talk to one Irishman. He can’t help you enough, and he can’t double-cross you deep enough ever either. An Irish trooper is the bravest man in the field, and the most cowardly. I don’t know what it is. I’ve seen killer Irishmen and gentle souls, but they’re both the same. They both have an awful fire burning inside them, like they were just the carapace of a furnace. That’s what being an Irish does to you. If you cross an Irish for half a dollar, he’s going to burn your house in revenge. He will work at that till he drops dead from the desire to do you mischance. I was never no different neither.
–Days without End by Sebastian Barry
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
Days without End is a historical fiction novel about Thomas McNulty and John Cole, two American soldiers in the Indian Wars and later the Civil War, as they come to terms with the brutality and violent racism they witness during their time in the army. Thomas McNulty is an immigrant from Ireland, having fled the potato famine in his teens and joined the army for reliable income. During his time in the army, he meets John Cole, a fellow gay man, who is one-quarter American Indian. After a particularly unforgiving attack on an Indian village, Thomas and John take in a young Sioux girl named Winona, calling her their daughter, and attempt to live a life away from the violence they experienced.
Days Without End is obviously a somewhat unconventional read for St. Patrick’s Day, but St. Patrick’s Day has always felt a little unconventional to me anyway – given its religious association in Ireland, it has always seemed a little strange to me that in America, it has become a day to celebrate Irish pride – even among the non-Irish – with drinking. One of the early appeals with Days Without End for me was the narrator: a young Irishman who has recently arrived in America, who must face all the horrific violence of America in the 1800s. His recent immigration gave Thomas the ability to observe and comment on the things he saw, while still allowing him to participate. This was such an interesting perspective, and Thomas really shone through with a strong narrative voice while still remaining timid about his political opinions. So many terrible things happened during this time to people of color, and while it frequently hurt my heart to read about it, I was still able to get through it due to Thomas’s firm anchor in the narrative. Many historical fiction novels gloss over the Indian Wars, or try to romanticize the fights, but Days Without End looks unflinchingly at the violence, describing in detail the acts committed against women and children, the blood lust of many of the American soldiers, and the gore left behind after those acts. At the beginning of the novel, Thomas does not hold himself apart from these attacks – he participates in them, though he is horrified by his own actions, and he offers little excuse for himself and his comrades in arms. Reading these passages left me deeply unsettled, but I was glad for the chance to do so – few novels that I have read are so honest about this time in history.
Despite the frequent focus on the Indian Wars, I do still feel like this was a good read for St. Patrick’s Day. Thomas’s personal history was brutal in its own way, and much was still made of Thomas’s immigrant status. There are of course many Americans today with Irish ancestry, including myself, and it was interesting to read what Thomas’s life was like, having suffered through the potato famine, losing his entire family in an epidemic, traveling to America in the bows of a ship fraught with illness and starvation, and then still facing discrimination once he arrives.
Days Without End did present a complicated timeline, as the author covered about twenty years of action. However, some of the pacing proved rather problematic. I often felt myself losing track of the timeline, only to find myself disrupted with a “two years later”. I wish that the passage of time had been worked into the action rather than having the action suddenly disrupted by large leaps of time described as being uneventful.
In all, I will give Days Without End an 8 out of 10. There is a lot of beauty in this – complex characters, beautiful writing, and difficult topics that offer a lot to consider. While I think that the gore is necessary, given the subject manner, I do think that it will turn away a lot of readers, and the pacing did occasionally detract from the narrative.