This powerful novel by Sebastian Barry spoke to my heart, not only because it tells the story of two men in love with each other, an easy love that did not bring each other heartache or soul- searching, but because it was a story of making your way in the world with all its difficulties in such an unassuming way. It is also a novel of identity, national as well as personal since this is America in the middle of the nineteenth century and the states are anything but united and the tribes that predated the white settlers are suffering from the move west.
Thomas McNulty and John Cole are in love. He has arrived in America from Sligo, Ireland by way of Quebec and fits in as a soldier since that is a way of earning a living. His love, John Cole, is an American he meets under a bush. Together they travel and earn a loving, first as dancers, dressed in female attire, and then as soldiers. Throughout the story Thomas is fluid in the expression of his gender, something that has deeper importance as the book reaches the denouement. What never changes is their love for each other and their determination to stay together. This is something that is ‘understood’ by those around them if not always remarked on; it is never an issue. This is not a coming out novel with the requisite angst!
The novel takes us to the frontier where ‘Indians’ are being forced from the land. Whatever Thomas McNulty thinks of this, he does his duty and in doing so becomes a surrogate parent with John Cole for Winona. It is the power of the writing that makes you want the very best outcomes for these characters despite the harsh conditions and historical events that seem sure to tear them all apart.
This is a novel to care about and one that uses the singular voice of Thomas McNulty to speak up for people who we now call gay but who then were just people in love. ‘Days Without End’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Here is a poem from Yeats to remind us all that we are getting older.
Sailing to Byzantium
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon‐falls, the mackerel‐crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
W B Yeats
This poem is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I read this novel by Jamie O’Neill back in 2002 and the commemoration events in Dublin this weekend reminded me of it… and reminded me that I loved it so much.
The novel is set in Dublin before and during the Easter Rising of 1916. At its heart is the story of two boys, Jim and Doyler, and their emerging sexuality. Their attraction for each other grows while events around them prove to be dramatic for Ireland. Doyler promises to teach Jim to swim with the aim of swimming to a small island called Muglin’s rock to lay claim to it. The intention is to do this in a year’s time, which will make it Easter Sunday 1916.
Also important to the novel is the nephew of Eveline MacMurrough, a staunch republican. We discover that Anthony MacMurrough is in disgrace, having served a prison term in England for homosexual acts. His intention is to stay clear of politics but his aunt sees a way for him to redeem himself in the eyes of society. He cannot clear his head of his former lover who provides an internal monologue, commenting on the choices MacMurrough makes in his new life.
The story is one of identity; the boys as well as their country are struggling to be free. The extent to which the emerging Ireland will allow its sons to show their true feelings for each other is hinted at through the ending. Just as they look to be reunited events get in the way. Interestingly, in the depiction of Irish nationalism, we see socialists as well as traditionalists with each boy and MacMurrough taking a different path in the struggle.
‘At Swim, Two Boys’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
In London, so off I went to the National Portrait Gallery, one of my all time favourite places to spend an afternoon. On this occasion I wanted to hunt out the portraits of people who were famous once but whose fame has waned with the years. The gallery is full of paintings from way back in history as well as many contemporary works of art. I wondered how many of the currently famous would still be thought about in years to come, even in a hundred years time. Then it struck me that there would be those who were famous enough to merit a portrait and famous enough to have that portrait exhibited in a gallery but who would now be unknown to most visitors.
The portrait above is of William Henry Betty. He was born in 1781 and died in 1874, so had a long life. However, his career was brief even if it did start at a very young age. He was a child actor who went on the stage, reputedly because he saw a play as a young boy and was inspired. He started his own career in Ireland but soon came to London and toured the UK. His fame was such that he attracted crowds and the attention of royalty.
His career was short lived, though, and by 1808 it was pretty much over. He attempted some comebacks after university but, like many child actors, never achieved the same heights as an adult actor.
This portrait is by the artist John Opie from the year 1804. His son donated the portrait to the gallery in 1905. Here he is shown at the height of his fame in full actor mode.
I first heard about Roger Casement many years ago and added his name to my mental list of people to find out more about. His role within, and then against, the British Empire made him an extraordinary figure. To be given a knighthood and then executed by the same British establishment is quite something. We know that all powerful empires go on the attack when they are themselves attacked and, in this case, Casement challenged the authority of the British in Ireland.
It is strange that the first book I read about this man was actually a work of fiction but I was given this book by a friend and it hit the mark. However, he was a complex man and, perhaps, fiction is the best way in. At least here we are privy to his thoughts, as given to him by the author Mario Vargas Llosa. In this novel we have the man in prison awaiting his execution and reliving his past, a past that included fighting on the side of the oppressed in Africa and South America. It should be no surprise, then that he stood up for the Irish in their fight for independence from the British. What is more surprising is the choice of timing. To hit at the British when they were engaged in a war with Germany was seen by many as the act of a traitor. To seek the help of the enemy on the basis of my enemy’s enemy is my friend was unforgivable.
So, when a German submarine brought arms to Ireland in the run up to the Easter rising of 1916, it is no surprise that the British saw this as a hostile act. The arms were never landed, Casement was arrested and he found himself in prison.
In this novel, we see Casement as an idealist and also a little naive. He hopes for clemency from the Empire he despises and seeks comfort from the Catholic church despite his homosexuality, something not then endorsed by the Pope, and his youthful Protestantism.
It is this complexity that makes the book an enjoyable read. The outcome is known from the beginning but we still have the tension of the prisoner awaiting news of a stay of execution. The London papers made much of his sexuality and public opinion was less likely to call for clemency once this was known, maybe the leak of his letters and papers was deliberate! Maybe, too, his lover, who betrayed him was also a British plant all along. Whatever the truth, the Empire had been challenged and he paid the price.
‘The Dream of the Celt’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?