Irish novelist Sebastian Barry joins poets Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes as the third writer ever to win the prestigious Costa Book Award twice, this time for Days Without End, the spellbinding new novel that’s winning the best reviews of his distinguished career. Cahir O’Doherty asks him about the tale that begins with the Great Hunger, journeys through the violent clearances of the 1850’s in the United States, and on through the Civil War - before it’s made into a new film.
Described by the judges as “one of the most wonderful depictions of love in the whole of literature,” Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End recently won him his second Costa Book Award.
The book follows the life of young Thomas McNulty, a Sligo migrant who flees from the Great Hunger to America, where he quickly embarks on a series of life transforming adventures in a book so beguiling it’s a work of near magic.
“I was told you can’t win the Costa prize twice and no one ever had except for two poets, one called Heaney and the other called Hughes,” Barry tells the Irish Voice.
“So, I was accepting on the night that I couldn’t win. I was actually standing in the back before the announcement so I wouldn’t trip over the other four. Then I had a sort of out of body experience. When they said my name it was another surprising thing about the book, like being given some amazing medicine.”
The discoveries Barry made in the writing of Days Without End and its unanimous critical reception have astonished him. Firstly, there’s the surprise of the character at the center of the tale itself, young McNulty.
To get where he’s going in life Thomas passes through three major conflagrations, any one of which would be enough to fell most comers. One is the Irish Famine; the next is the brutal American land clearences of the 1850s and then on though the Civil War.
The book, which follows McNulty’s love story with fellow solder John Cole, was in part inspired by Barry’s own son’s decision to come out as gay, Barry reveals.
“It was literally with my amazing son Toby coming out a few years ago, he was only 16, and it was very hard for him to say because we still make it very complicated and painful for people to say those words, even in our supposedly modern society,” Barry said.
“There’s a lot of subterfuge and lies around it. It’s still hard to say. But when he did I was so jubilant as a father, so released from worrying about him.”
Prior to his announcement, Toby had been withdrawn and depressed but with his coming out both he and his family were suddenly unburdened. Barry, whose work excels in unearthing hidden narratives and revealing what was long concealed, was creatively inspired.
“We are very aware as Irish people of all the lost history, all the lost Irelands, but this was a new and hidden history and by its nature then very attractive to me,” he says.
As a boy Barry’s grandfather had told him that one of his great uncles had been in the Indian (Native American) wars. “That was suggestion enough. I thought I already knew about that era because I had been up to the Adelphi Cinema in Dublin every Saturday growing up, herded into the one and sixpenny seats, watching the cowboy films,” he relates.
“I’ve been thinking about that for 50 years. But maybe without Toby I wouldn’t have had the grand luck to almost be obliged to start thinking about this incredible river of (hidden) human experience.”
When we meet Thomas in the book, the sum total of his experience has been erasure. All his future is gone; all the people he loved are gone. He’s in a coffin ship where he tries to tell us when people got hungry enough they at each other.
“It’s an extreme of nothingness,” says Barry. “It’s very difficult for us to try and go back and understand. When we stepped off the boat it wasn’t that the Irish were lice ridden, it was that we were considered to be lice. When Thomas and John find work in the army and become soldiers it’s a triumph over the social conditions of the time. There was nothing to assist you then, unless you worked you would starve.’
For all of its specificity Barry insists Days Without End is not an American book, or a western. “It’s trying to understand where my great uncle went and what happened to him and doing it almost from books,” he says.
It took time to find, but when Thomas arrived he was fully formed. “The experience was walking into my workroom in Wicklow and him always waiting to tell me more as if he was sitting on the other side of the fire more or less. It just felt like a good time as a writer. It was not like writing at all, it was like being told, or being the first reader of this account.”
The catalogue of privations and terrors that befall Thomas would be enough to unmoor most lives but Barry realized as he went on that Thomas regards his story as a victory.
“This is his victory in the world because he is on the side of life, like Roseanne McNulty in The Secret Scripture, his religion is life, and although he has terrible things to say what he is also saying is these were the high days of my life, the days without end.
“His victory is not only being able to tell it but to bring back news from his time. Good news. You can be in love and be loved. You can have a sort of crazy luck in the world. I was just elated by Thomas, whoever he is or was, or will be.”
Can it be possible that people like him can make their way back up the DNA or the river of blood or whatever you want to call it and actually make themselves present centuries later?
“What a fabulous possibility. What I discovered is that prejudice is this huge force, but once you put your hand on it it’s not there,” Barry says.
“It doesn't actually have any basis in thought or philosophy or anything else. What you’re missing then is this entire city of radiance that’s there. That people like me have just been missing. We need to know it.”
We’re talking about 10 percent of humanity since the beginning of time, Barry says. We’re talking about a contribution to life that is an important university of how to live, which should always have had access to.
“Even as a straight person we should always have been trying to learn, to get the Ph.D. in these historical matters because there is essential information. To go back and try and show this is a major part of all history is a sort of crazy privilege.”
Thomas’ access to joy, his understanding of love in the book, just seems to be an endless resource for the critics that adore it. “I’m still trying to connect myself to it,” Barry adds.
Will there be a film of Days Without End? Almost certainly yes.
“I’ll let them make their own announcement about this, but put it this way: I’ve never had the experience of three or four incredible groups of people coming to say can we make a film of this. Usually your agent is desperately trying to place it. That wasn’t the case with this. That was another astonishment to me.”
Publishing Days Without End has been the most thrilling, most unexpected joy, Barry says.
“It’s been a great adventure. At 61 you can’t complain about that let me tell you.”