In a novel by Sebastian Barry from 2011, On Canaan’s Side, a very old Irishwoman in America is writing her life story, a story of obscure survival through the dark, violent dramas of twentieth-century history, stretching back to “a thousand thousand moons ago, as one might say.” Among her memories are two images of tiny, utterly lost things. One is a string of pearls that belonged to her dead mother, given to her as a child by her father, which she broke: “The little cultured pearls poured out on the floor, and made a dash for the gaps between the floorboards.” A few were rescued. “The others must still be there, a queer memorial to me and my mother, in the darkness.” The other image is of a gigantic dust storm that struck New York in the 1930s, when she was there on honeymoon:
The storm blew its sorrowful dust about all day, covering everything and everybody. It must be still there, anciently, in the cement mixes of that time following, lying in the little lines of the sidewalk, deep in the very heart’s core of the citizens.
Broken vestiges, buried scraps, things which “must still be there” but have long gone unnoticed: Barry’s work disinters, sometimes after “a thousand thousand moons,” such lost histories. He often refers in his fourteen plays and eight novels, written over more than thirty years, to characters who think themselves of “no account in the world,” who are living “on the edges of our known world.” His people are the “nothing people,” the victims and survivors of war and famine and poverty, prison and incarceration, people who’ve had no voice and no acknowledged value. Another of his old Irishwomen, Annie Dunne, in the marvelous novel that bears her name, thinks of herself and her cousin, hidden away in their obscure lives, as being
like two spiders, in a dark corner of the world, things of no true importance…. But even the spider leaves a trace, a broken web blowing on the breeze. It does not need the notice of man. In its own manner it makes its simple statement, it writes its simple sentence and is gone.
Barry’s characters are scattered through the world, though they often hark back to one “dark corner” of it. They may come from Ireland or Africa or America, but, like Annie Dunne, most of them, until now, draw on or derive from the “forgotten hidden people” of Barry’s own family.1 They hail from rural Wicklow, or Sligo, or the Isle of Sherkin in County Cork, or Dublin. They appear and reappear as the members of two Irish families, the Dunnes and the McNultys. Through their stories, Barry reconstructs and gives voice to his ancestors and relatives. He knows their cultures and histories and speech as well as his own skin, but he has to reimagine their inner lives. He does so by giving each of them their own space, their own play or novel. They may have rolled under the floorboards of history, but in Barry’s capacious, generous imagination, they have a speaking voice. Their lives, often of abysmal failure, anguish, and bare survival, become as heroic as in any classical epic.
One of them is even called Eneas, doomed by history to wander the face of the earth. “Your man Homer” gets a mention in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998). It strikes Eneas “that any person alive in the world, any person putting a shoulder against a life, no matter how completely failing to do the smallest good thing, is a class of hero.” In A Long Long Way (2005), Barry’s shattering novel of Irish soldiers fighting in World War I, Willie Dunne, an Irish boy who will be slaughtered like thousands of others, considers the men crouched with him in the trenches “in their complete insignificance,” the “poor Tommies of Irishmen, Joe Soaps of back streets and small lives.” “Heroic things had been suggested to them, and though they were not heroes as you might read about in old Greek stories, their hearts, such as they were, answered.”
The Irish “tommies” who get back from that hell to their own country, where a rebellion has been brutally put down while they were fighting for the British Empire, find that “pride in that ‘foreign’ war meant little in Ireland.” Often they are treated with contempt or hostility for their pains. Many of them join the Black and Tans, the much-hated recruits to the Royal Irish Constabulary in the war of independence. Barry’s Irish stories are of oppressive allegiances and broken loyalties, clustering around the early twentieth century but stretching over long years and long, unforgiving memories. In a country, in Yeats’s words, of “great hatred, little room,” these characters are all marked by the history of the Protestant Ascendancy and the Famine and depopulation, the bloody years of the rebellion, the war of independence, the setting up of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the civil war that followed it.
There are terrible, murderous rifts, often within families, as between Superintendent Dunne, the old Catholic who’s spent his life maintaining the rule of law in the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and his son Willie, who, in the trenches, starts to understand the rebels and the Easter Rising. There are always conflicts—in the 1930s, for instance, between those who follow the Fascist leader General O’Duffy and all those they would like to exterminate: “the lousy, the ragged, the morally unsound.” For the priests whose unquestioned authority dominates many of these lives, the “morally unsound” often includes women. Roseanne McNulty in The Secret Scripture (2008), banished from the community for her supposed adultery, is a horrifying example of how women’s lives are controlled by religious pieties and the hypocrisies of a sexually repressed society. That theme of the exterminators and their victims will ring on, in a very different historical context, in A Thousand Moons.
In a town like Sligo, every betrayal is marked and known. Nothing is ever forgotten; revenge and retribution last for lifetimes. Violent deaths in horribly elaborate forms—and Barry is an astonishingly bold writer of violence—are meted out to “traitors” by men hiding in the shadows. Characters are sent into hiding or lifelong exile for fear of revenge killings, as in The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and On Canaan’s Side. Wherever they are in the world, like Jack McNulty in The Temporary Gentleman (2014), they find their Irish history pursuing them. They can never get free.
All Barry’s characters are scarred by these historical circumstances. But no individual is ever banished from his imagination: the criminals, the marked men, the outcast women, the mad and the silenced, the victims and scapegoats, all get a hearing in the redemptive court of appeal of his plays and his novels—unlike in the draconian courts of law or the summary judgments of the community he so loves to write about.
We are alerted not to make definitive historical judgments. Hidden truths and recorded facts are always jostling each other. Roseanne McNulty, whose real past has been all but obliterated, thinks that “history…is not the arrangement of what happens, in sequence and in truth, but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.” Several of Barry’s characters are writing down or telling us their stories, sometimes feeling like their own ghosts as they do so. “As you see,” says Thomas McNulty in Days Without End, “I have lived to tell the tale.” As they tell their stories they realize how much has been falsified or hidden, by others and also by themselves. Traumatic memory, a persistent subject, buries unbearable events and turns them into fantasy. Barry, ever the dramatist, loves sudden melodramatic twists at the end of his stories—a last-minute rescue from certain death, an amazing coincidence, a long-delayed discovery. However unlikely these may be, they are part of his sense of history as utterly unstable and unpredictable.
People have contradictory versions of each other. The authoritarian head of the police force is also a kindly father; a woman who is viciously cruel to her daughter-in-law is remembered by one of her sons as vulnerable and anxious; a terrorist is also a faithful brother and lover; two criminals who have murdered each other’s dearest person can become friends in prison. Barry’s unquenchable appetite for redemption runs the risk of sentimentality, but it also warns us against simplifying other human beings.
One of his unstable histories is that of the McNulty family. In different novels we hear different versions of their origins. Perhaps they were the last recorded cannibal tribe in Ireland, who “ate their enemies.” Perhaps, later in the day, they were butter exporters in Sligo. There’s a story of a seventeenth-century Oliver McNulty who lost his lands under Cromwell to a brother who turned Protestant. This is “history without documents.” But there was definitely a Thomas McNulty—just as there was a great-uncle of Sebastian Barry’s, as Barry has often said in interviews—who fled Sligo and the Irish famine in the 1840s, went to America to fight in the “Indian wars,” and became a cavalryman in the Union Army in the Civil War. What happened to him? In one version, he “was scalped by a band of Comanches in the central grasslands of Texas.” Or perhaps he survived “somewhere out there” in “wide America.”
In Days Without End, the prequel to A Thousand Moons, Barry plunged into that history, and imagined the full story of Thomas’s American life. He has often set his work in America—as many Irish writers do. His early experimental novel The Engine of Owl-Light (1987) takes a road trip through the US in the style of Kerouac or Pynchon. In On Canaan’s Side, Lilly Bere lives her life in America but never gets free of Ireland. One of her friends, Mr. Dillinger, a German-Jewish refugee whose family was killed by the Nazis and whose wife has died, spends much of his time in North Dakota, where he has found “great solace” among the Sioux. Eneas’s wanderings take him to Texas, and he thinks “he would like to be an American.” And, though Irish poetry and literary traditions are at the “deep heart’s core” of Barry’s extraordinary language, there’s also a strong undertow, in language, tone, and epic subject matter, of American writers—Melville, Twain, Stephen Crane, Faulkner—especially in these last two novels.
Days Without End exposes us to the brutal history and the inexhaustible beauties of the American landscape. Like many thousands of other Irish emigrants, Thomas McNulty has fled from the potato famine, which killed his whole family, crossed the Atlantic in one of the “coffin ships” in which so many died horrible deaths, joined the American army at seventeen, and fetched up in the Midwest. In this story of survival, he has to kill in order to live. Recurring waves of violence surge like nausea through the book. The slaughter of buffalo precedes the massacres of America’s indigenous men, women, and children, and then the savage fighting of like against like in the Civil War, in dreadful scenes of terror and chaos and frenetic killing. Barry writes these scenes with the same relentless intensity with which he made us imagine war in A Long Long Way. It’s made plain—in Thomas’s own way of telling it—that historical violence breeds violence:
When that old ancient Cromwell come to Ireland he said he would leave nothing alive. Said the Irish were vermin and devils. Clean out the country for good people to step into. Make a paradise. Now we make this American paradise I guess. Guess it be strange so many Irish boys doing this work. Ain’t that the way of the world. No such item as a virtuous people.
Yet there is virtue in the novel, and that’s the magic of it. Hidden deep inside these historical atrocities are stories of tenderness and humanity. Entirely by chance, Thomas McNulty finds his life’s companion, “Handsome John Cole,” soon after he gets to America, and their love story sits quietly and passionately at the heart of the book. In between wars, they earn their living dressing up as girls, first in a Missouri saloon and then in a minstrel show. Thomas discovers that to dress as a woman is to be his true self.
That recognition of otherness and difference and shifting sexuality is surprising inside this cruel story of men at war. And kindness can be found in strange places. Their Union Army colonel’s wife takes in and educates a group of orphaned children after the slaughter of the Sioux Indians. Thomas and John Cole adopt one of these girls, daughter of the very people their army has wiped out. They can’t pronounce her birth name, Ojinjintka, so they call her Winona (like the legendary Sioux maiden after whom Winona, Minnesota, is named). This is a dubious takeover of a life, but the motives are kindness and reparation. After many calamities and strokes of fate, the three of them end up creating an odd kind of family life—what Thomas calls “the little kingdom we have pitched up against the darkness”—with other survivors of the war and two freed slaves on a small tobacco farm in Tennessee.
This story, of obscure lives with their own startling heroism and beauty, is told in a remarkable voice, part vernacular and “ornery” (like Huck Finn), part rhapsodically lyrical. Here, Thomas is watching his companions, riding on mules through a frosty night in Kentucky:
The sky is just beaten silver now too and the moon alters his light a shade to make sure he seen. Now has a coppery yellow tinge. My heart is full of Winona but also John Cole. How come we got to have Winona? I don’t know. We been through many slaughters, John Cole and me. But I am as peaceful and easy now as I ever been. Fear flies off and my box of thoughts feels light…. Be hard to be in the world without him. I’m thinking that. That part of the country you see two or three shooting stars a minute. Must be time of year for shooting stars. Looking for each other, like everything is.
A Thousand Moons, Barry’s latest novel, continues the story of the “little kingdom” of Thomas and John Cole and Winona and their household, a few years later, but now it tells Winona’s story, in her voice. This is a more difficult and delicate enterprise for Barry, especially since Days Without End was hugely acclaimed, and the sequel has a great deal to live up to. And this—deliberately, that’s clear—is the furthest away he has ever gone from the language and experience of his Irish family characters. Though he has often imagined his way into women’s lives and feelings—as with Roseanne, or Lilly Bere, or Annie Dunne, or Mai O’Hara in the play Our Lady of Sligo (1998)—he takes a big risk in ventriloquizing a seventeen-year-old Lakota Indian girl in 1870s Tennessee.
Had the story been told conventionally, as a third-person historical novel, it might have been thrilling enough, a dark drama of the postwar South to be set alongside To Kill a Mockingbird, and all the more striking because not written by a southern American author. It has a powerful plot (and is historically precise and carefully researched). The massacre of the Lakota Indians underlies the whole story. The daughter of a dauntless mother and the niece of a great chief, Winona is a memorable heroine. She is lovely, brave, intelligent, and—having been educated by white people—also literate and numerate. She’s employed keeping the books in a lawyer’s office in Paris, Tennessee, the nearest small town to the farm. (Her liberal employer, Mr. Briscoe, is one of many convincing and curious surrounding characters.)
But neither Winona, nor the old soldiers on the farm, nor the freed slaves who work with them, the wonderfully named Tennyson Bouguereau and his sister Rosalee, can live in peace. They are in West Tennessee, the part of the state that rebelled, split from East Tennessee, which supported the Union. And it’s in turmoil. The Chikasaw people have long been driven out, and the freed slaves are an offense to the “rabblement” of night riders and lawbreakers who are causing “mayhem” everywhere. There are gangs of old Confederate militiamen regrouping, there are lynch mobs and hangings and brutal attacks, white on black.
As in Ireland after its civil war, what has been repressed is returning. Belligerent and vengeful thugs are taking over the offices of law and order, “rats in the bloom of power.” (There’s a strong whiff of relevance to today’s American government.) Winona is beaten and raped. Tennyson is assaulted and for a time loses the power of speech. The lawyer Briscoe’s house is burned down. Winona has to dress as a boy for safety—but she is put on trial for, it seems, killing her attacker. A rape, a mystery killing, a courtroom drama, a pending execution: it’s the stuff of high drama.
But that’s not how the story is told. Instead, we enter inside Winona’s experience of the world, and much comes to us clouded or indirectly. Already a “lost child,” profoundly in shock from witnessing the slaughter of her people, her “violation”—the word rings all through the book—takes the form of a traumatic memory, full of darkness and gaps, like Roseanne’s testimony in The Secret Scripture. Only at the end does the truth come fully to light.
What we do get vividly, with intense longing, are her memories of the customs and stories of her mother and her people, their ideas of afterlife and immortality, their relation to the natural world and their concept of time. Winona believes endurance and courage will bring her at last back to her mother and her sisters, to “all the to-and-fro and majesty of their lives.” Her mother’s deepest measure of time was “a thousand moons,” and her way of keeping time was not linear or calendric. If you walked long enough through time, “you could find the people still living who had lived in the long ago.” You never could walk far enough, but “that didn’t mean they weren’t there.” Her mother knew “there was no past, present, and future…. There was only a hoop turning in tightly on itself, over and over.” So the narrative of the novel proves, turning what has happened over and over, bringing the past back into the present.
In the present time in which Winona has to live, we see her strong love for John Cole and Thomas, whom she calls “Mamma.” They take a back seat in the story now, in a novel partly about growing up, as they find they can no longer protect her. (You do need to read Days Without End to make the most of A Thousand Moons.) We see her falling in love, in the middle of all the violence, with a bold, funny, beautiful Chikasaw girl, Peg, Winona’s alter-ego and her second self, encountered by accident, as Thomas once encountered his lover. As in Days Without End, a lyrical language celebrates their unorthodox love and their refuge of dance and music and ordinary domestic life, hidden inside “the deep dangerous drama of the times.” But Winona’s narrative, to the novel’s benefit, mixes up rhapsody with plain, forthright speech: “Even rebels got to make the stew.”
In the eyes of the law, which plays a crucial part in this story, Winona counts as “nothing.” More than in any other of Barry’s novels, the word is hammered home, as we are insistently told that the “Indians” are considered beyond the law, not acknowledged or protected by it: “We were nothing so to kill us all was just the killing of nothing so it meant nothing.” For her to have been raped was “a nothing, a nothing served upon a nothing.” “An Indian ain’t a citizen,” Lawyer Briscoe tells her, “and the law don’t apply in the same way.” So when she comes to trial, she doesn’t stand a chance. The most touching relationship is not the one she has with her beloved Peg, or her devoted guardians, but with the freed slave Tennyson Bouguereau. Both have survived by the merest chance. They are discounted in the same way. “World wanted bad things” to happen to them both. “Whitemen in the main just see slaves and Indians. They don’t see the single souls.” In silent understanding, they recognize each other.
Does Sebastian Barry, a white male Irish writer, have the right to inhabit this voice? Edna O’Brien, whose “indomitable” example Barry has celebrated, recently provoked arguments around “cultural appropriation” with her dramatic novel Girl, which spoke in the voice of one of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. (Reviewers who admired the book noted its parallels with O’Brien’s experiences of patriarchal misogyny in Irish history.) Another courageous novelist, Zadie Smith, wrote in these pages, soon after Girl was published but without referring to it specifically, of how she reacted to being told “that only an intimate authorial autobiographical connection with a character can be the rightful basis of a fiction.” If that were the case, Smith said, she would never have written a single book. “What insults my soul,” she wrote, “is the idea…that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us.” Fiction, she argued, citing the great Colombian writer Héctor Abad, is the product of “compassion.” In Abad’s words, “Compassion is largely a quality of the imagination: it consists of the ability to imagine what we would feel if we were suffering the same situation.”2
And compassion is the key to Sebastian Barry’s writing. If anything, there is almost too much of it here. Winona is a noble and pitiable victim, and doesn’t have the shaming blood-guilt of Thomas McNulty for his killing of her people, which makes Days Without End a more complicated and deeper book. For all that, A Thousand Moons is a brave and moving novel. Above all, it has a tender empathy with the natural world. This has always been one of Barry’s strengths. But here, in imagining a person divided between a way of life shaped by moon and sun, land and seasons and animals, and a culture of documents and letters and numbers, prisons and courtrooms, nature is felt with particular intensity. Winona is as attentive to bears and owls, trees and rivers, as she is to human beings. Her perceptions are given a Homeric dignity: “The dawn had brought the quiet trees forth in their black garb”; “all the birds of the wood…went firing among the new leaves like the gentlest of bullets.” She can hear that everything has its own tune: “Brightly it pushed along, singing that pebble-song of rivers.” She attends to the lives of creatures who are watching us always, though we may not see or hear them: “You could sense the ten thousand eyes of animals that must have noted our passing through easily enough. Noted and kept back, kept quiet.”
To us those creatures may be “nothing,” as Winona has been treated as nothing. What is needed is someone to listen and to hear, as she has been heard by her life’s few friends: “They had ears for me.” So we are led to listen to the stories of Sebastian Barry’s hidden people, buried deep in the cracks of history until he gives them a voice.