Keith Jeffry, ‘Young Ireland Comes of Age’, review of Sebastian Barry, A Long Long Way, in Times Literary Supplement ( 22 April 2005), 292pp.

Willie Dunne, a tiny, meagre child, whose growing up and soldiering are the subject of this resonant novel, is too short to join the police, which is a sore disappointment to his District Inspector father. He works instead as a builder, which admirably suits his creative instincts. But with the outbreak of war in August 1914, Dunne, perhaps at last following in his father’s footsteps, “knew he must play his part”, and enlists in the British Army. Tens of thousands of fellow Catholic Irishmen do the same, so much so that Christy Moran, a veteran Army NCO who provides a sardonic running commentary to Dunne’s military career, remarks that “the fucking British army is full of us. It should be called the fucking Irish-British army”.

Notions of nationality, patriotism and loyalty are central to A Long Long Way, which exploreg a particular dimension of early twentieth-century Ireland. Existing novels about Irishmen serving in the British Army during the First World War either deal with regular soldiers, like Liam O’Flaherty’s grim Return of the Brute (1929), or migrant London Irish volunteers, such as Patrick MacGill in (for example) the fictionalized reportage of The Red Horizon (1916). Harry Heegan, the Dublin working-class recruit in Sean O’Casey’s play The Silver Tassie (1928), is closer to Barry’s Willie Dunne, though in the single act set in the battle zone, O’Casey (unlike Barry) robs his soldiers of all individuality and portrays them as mere ciphers. More recently, Jennifer Johnston, in How Many Miles to Babylon ? (1974), traced the intertwined stories of a young Ascendancy-class officer and a stable-lad recruit joining up to learn how to fight against the British.

For the most part, the majority Irish wartime experience, of Catholic, usually nationalist, soldiers, has been ignored, in historical studies as much as in literary works. Over the past ten years or so, a number of historians have shifted their focus on to the war, and begun to recover the “forgotten” history of nationalist Ireland’s engagement with the conflict. Yet categorizing the Irish experience of the war as either “nationalist” or “unionist” ignores the fact that most people most of the time - do not act in selfconsciously, political terms. And these are the people Sebastian Barry treats so vividly and so illuminatingly in his novel.

Willie Dunne is essentially apolitical at the start of the book, following (in so far as he thinks about it at all) his father’s loyalty to Crown (King George V) and country (Ireland). Barry marvellously recreates an early-twentieth-century environment where, despite the increasingly urgent political conflict between nationalist Home Rulers and predominantly Ulster Unionists, most people were not bothered by politics one way or the other. But Dunne cannot remain unaffected by the changes in the Irish political landscape. He happens to be in Dublin on leave at the start of the 1916 Easter Rising, when what he witnesses unsettles him, and leads to a falling-out with his father. During Easter week, he travels from Dublin back to Flanders, in actuality an improbable feat, but in context a rewarding manoeuvre which allows Barry to counterpoint the similarities, and the differences, between Irish soldiering at home and abroad, as well as the challenge which the Rising offered to notions of patriotism and national allegiance. One fellow infantryman, a nationalist, later executed for disobeying orders, tells him, “I came out to fight for a country that doesn’t exist, and now, Willie, mark my words, it never will”. Willie, too, observes the widening distance “between the site of war and the site of home”, and in 1918, after another leave in Dublin, he finds himself happy to be going back to the war. The front line, among his friends, is the only place for him: “He knew he had no country now”.

Willie Dunne’s journey from Irish innocence to battlefield knowledge (though not understanding) is punctuated by a series of finely crafted set pieces which celebrate the camaraderie of military life and coolly observe the horror and indecent thrill of battle. An impromptu concert provokes powerful emotions among the men, “dangerous to them in the toxic wastelands of the war”. The most visceral fighting occurs in a boxing match between the champions of the nationalist 16th (Irish) Division Dunne’s - and the Unionist 36th (Ulster) Division. In this vividly theatrical “spectacle of fighting” between Irishmen, however, the issue is not political, merely the natural regional rivalry of fellow countrymen. Later, when the two Divisions have fought successfully alongside each other at the Battle of Messines, Christy Moran reports that those devious Ulster lads frorn the 36th” were “milling about and calling us wonderful fucking Paddies, that’s what they said, and shaking our hands”.

Along with Jamie O’Neill’s At Swim, Two Boys (2001) and Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry (1999), Barry’s novel completes a kind of modern trilogy, exploring the coming of age of young Irishmen and of Ireland itself. Political and sexual awakening make a good fictional combination. And while O’Neill’s is a gay romance, and Doyle’s an older woman fantasy, Sebastian Barry gives us a squalid and brutalized encounter with a French prostitute which in a neat and unexpected twist undoes Dunne’s romantic ambitions back home. This rich and rewarding novel, which reveals a hitherto largely hidden Ireland, complements O’Neill’s and Doyle’s accounts of nationalist activists at home, and, with Willie Dunne, an emblematic Irish hero more typical and more enduring than most, satisfyingly completes the story of “young Ireland” during the First World War.[END]

 

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