‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry – The Cruel Past


‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry   (2016) – 259 pages

In his newest novel, ‘Days Without End’, Sebastian Barry turns his eyes on the United States. Barry has been capturing much of Irish social history in several of his novels through the exploits and tribulations of various members of the McNulty and Dunne families.  In this new novel Thomas McNulty winds up in the United States after leaving Ireland as a young teenager after many in his family have starved to death in the Irish potato famine in the late 1840s.

His first job is as a dancer in a mining camp town in Missouri.  There is a shortage of women in the town, so the bar owner has these two young boys dress up like women and dance for the miners.  The other boy dancing, John Cole, becomes the love of Thomas McNulty’s life.

“You had to love John Cole for what he chose never to say.”    

After the boys grow too old to play passable women, they join up with the United States army to fight Indians along the Oregon trail.  Some of the soldiers in their unit have a rabid hatred for any Indians, all Indians.  There are scenes where the soldiers commit atrocities against villages of Indians, murdering the women and children when the Indian men can’t be found.  ‘Days Without End’ is not a novel to make you proud to be a United States citizen, just the opposite.  The novel is not like the heroic United States history stories I read when I was young; if anything this novel is anti-heroic.

“Everything bad gets shot in America, say John Cole, and everything good too.”

And then we move on to the Civil War, and Thomas McNulty and John Cole are fighting for the Union Army.  Many on both the Union side and Rebel side are young poor Irish immigrant guys, cannon fodder.

On and off the battlefield they witness atrocities committed against black people.  In one horrifying episode victorious Rebel troops line up all the soldiers in a black company who had already surrendered, more than a hundred, along a ditch and shoot them all.  The guys wind up in the Confederate prison in Andersonville where conditions are gruesome enough for the white soldiers, but the Rebels don’t feed the black soldiers there anything at all.

Atrocities against Indians, atrocities against black people.  It used to be that the United States was usually depicted as a shining beacon of liberty and hope.  Not anymore.

“The world got a lot of people in it, and when it comes to slaughter and famine, whether we’re to live or die, it don’t care much either way. The world got so many it don’t need to.”

I did have problems with the writing style of ‘Days Without End’.  The entire novel is written as the diary of Thomas McNulty, and it is written in a kind of diary shorthand.  Some of the paragraphs are up to three pages long.  I suppose this is not unusual for first-hand accounts, but it does make reading the novel slow going.   The other complaint I have is that there are no new or original insights into this violent cruel past of the United States, but perhaps to document it is enough.


Grade:     B  


7 responses to this post.

  1. The impression I have (from comparative studies in education, from study now quite some years ago) is that American school children are taught a very positive (some would say triumphalist) interpretation of American history – which contrasts with Australian curriculum which teaches Indigenous prior ownership and dispossession, even to quite small children (which *sigh* some have called Black Armband History). (With little kids, this curriculum takes the form of Aboriginal dreaming stories, and discussion about how Aboriginal families lived before European settlement, e.g. cooking, hunting, shelter, teaching their children to be safe in the outback etc. That is, it acknowledges that they were here and owned the land, but doesn’t go into massacres and other forms of violence etc. That comes later in secondary school.)
    It wasn’t always so, there was denial until about the 1970-80s (curricula then differed from state to state) but now Australian kids know this from the outset. So for us the issue has become not what happened, but who’s telling the story.
    And although I didn’t comment on this in my review, I suspect that the gloss on Barry’s interpretation is that a sensitive Irish fellow like McNulty can see the injustice and cruelty because that’s also happened in his own country. Whereas the reality was – as you suggest – that the Irish signed up and joined in just like anyone else did.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      This isn’t related to the aborigines but I always thought that Auistralians were somewhat proud of their outlaw past, that many are descended from prisoners.
      I think it is good that the little children are taught aborigine ways, because some of that empathy for the aborigines will endure later on. I think US kids could sure use lessons in respect for other different cultures.
      However at some point the truth about the white violence and racial prejudice must be faced. I don’t think Irish-Americans are noted for their sensitivity to racial issues. They seem to take pride in the fact that they also were discriminated against, but the fact they were white always gave them a rung up on many others. It would be difficult to compare the prejudice against the Irish with the prejudice against blacks for example.
      In the novel, Thomas McNulty can see the white cruelty clearly and report it objectively. That’s a big improvement over most.



      • Yes, I agree. In nearly all situations, reconciliation can only progress if it starts with an honest acknowledgement of past wrongs.
        BTW Australian pride in a convict past is a recent phenomenon and it’s nearly always predicated on the crime being something now considered trivial e.g. stealing hankies, or being a union agitator or something like that. *chuckle* I think most people would still rather find an aristocratic second son or something similar:)



  2. My impression was that some of the interest was the introduction/exploration of gay characters in a setting where they would of course have existed but where they are generally omitted from the narrative.

    Otherwise, I’m not a big historical fiction fan so even a new take like that doesn’t really tempt me.



    • Hi Max,
      Yes, gay Indian fighters and gay Civil War soldiers, of which there were probably a lot. Perhaps the point Barry is making is that the other Indian fighters and soldiers made less of a big deal out of their fellow gay soldiers back then than they would today. The others soldiers seem to take it all in stride. I’m not sure if that is true, but it makes a more interesting novel than one mired in gay politics



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