The centenary of the Easter Rising this spring has been a good excuse to delve into books by Irish authors on the Great War 100 Reads list. Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way is the third on this theme, and the one that deals most directly with the events around Easter 1916.
Young Willie Dunne grew up within the walls of Dublin Castle with his father and three sisters – in lodgings allocated to his father as police superintendent. He joins the British army early in the war, to fight for King and Empire. He wants to help save Belgium and to prove himself to his father.
The realities of war weigh in quickly:
When they came into their trench he felt small enough. The biggest thing there was the roaring of Death and the smallest thing was a man. … The first layer of clothing was his jacket, the second his shirt, the third his long-johns, the fourth his share of lice, the fifth his share of fear. (pp 24-25)
Barry tells the common “men and boys go to war and bond in hell” Great War story through the lens of Irish history. Willie Dunne is probably typical of many who go to war – he bumps into challenges to the accepted beliefs from his upbringing. No deep scrutiny or aha moments. Instead, he naively struggles to understand the wider world.
The reasons for other folks signing up – or not – are confusing to Willie. Volunteers in their various guises might have … responded to Kitchener’s call to defend King and Empire … responded to Redmond to realize the promise of Home Rule … wished to resist Home Rule and maintain the status quo of British rule. Willie first encounters dissonant views in helping a man disabled by his father’s police tactics. He witnesses the Easter Rising while home on leave, and must fight in British uniform against his own countrymen. He pities a rebel his own age who is killed in the uprising. He can’t grasp the motives of his friend Jesse who, disillusioned with the British, refuses to fight and is shot for insubordination.
The Irish soldiers come to be seen as traitors from all sides: British officers’ disrespect turns to distrust. The Irish at home resent them as turncoats.
How could a fella go out and fight for his country when his country would dissolve behind him like sugar in the rain? (p 287)
Barry’s skill as a playwright comes to the fore in evocative word pictures. His portrayal of the first encounter with a gas attack – the soldiers wondering at the beauty of a fog/smoke/cloud they cannot comprehend, not knowing what is about to hit them – is all the more poignant as we know how deadly it is.
You can see a touching scene between Willie and his father in your mind’s eye as Barry reads it here.
How each of the three Irish authors I’ve read treats the events of Easter 1916 is a study in contrasts. Lanigan’s White Feathers happens mostly in England. Characters are aware from afar of events mostly incidental to the story. One returns to Ireland to join Cumann na mBan. Johnston looks at class differences between Anglo-Irish and Irish in How Many Miles to Babylon. Barry poetically shows the ambiguities of war in horrid beauty.