Irish soldier, trapped by conflicting loyalties

February 27, 2005|By Diane Cole | Diane Cole,Special to the Sun

A Long Long Way

By Sebastian Barry. Viking. 287 pages. $24.95.

He was born in the dying days." That is how Irish novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry introduces Willie Dunne, the hero of his latest work of fiction, A Long Long Way, and it does not take long to discover just how bloody the life and times of Barry's Dublin-born character will prove.

The year of Willie's birth is 1896. That means he will turn 18 in 1914, just in time to enlist in the British army and become prime fodder for the global conflagration of World War I. It also means that by the time he turns 20, in 1916, the Irish Nationalist Party's increasingly militant call for Home Rule will have become the dominant voice in Dublin. As a result, Willie also will become caught in the crossfire of competing loyalties.

American readers unfamiliar with that era of Irish history will learn, even as Willie does, how shifting politics can turn friends into enemies and vice versa. When he first marches off to Flanders Fields, Willie's ears still echo with the promises of both Irish and British leaders that a quick end to the fight against Germany will hasten the granting of Irish Home Rule. Fighting for England, they assured, would aid the fight for an independent Ireland. No wonder that, shivering amid the muck of the trenches, Willie is confounded by reports that war sentiment back home has changed dramatically.

Irish leaders now counseled that, for them, the real enemy wasn't Germany but England, the power that refused them independence. By this logic, as an Irishman choosing to fight for Britain, Willie is nothing more than a traitor to Ireland.

This new map of conflicting allegiances is made brutally real in the course of Willie's first home leave in April 1916. Willie arrives in Dublin just in time for the Easter Rising and is abruptly called back to duty -- this time in the streets where he grew up. He is ordered to fire on crowds of Irish nationalists among whom he recognizes neighbors and friends, and whether he pulls the trigger or not, he will carry wounds of guilt and doubt.

Barry makes palpable Willie's confusion about whose side he is supposed to be on. The son of Dublin's police superintendent, Willie had grown up believing in his father's brand of Anglo-Irish patriotism and duty to the crown of England. Regardless of the bravery he displays at the Front, that sense of duty earns him nothing but contempt back home. At the same time, even after he endures harrowing mustard gas attacks by the Germans, Willie must suffer the taunts of anti-Irish British commanders unwilling to trust anyone who speaks with a brogue. Nor is personal loyalty immune from the casualties of war. Willie's final disillusionment arrives when he discovers he has been betrayed, in a cruel trick, by an Irish comrade in his company.

Willie's character at first seems a blank slate -- a stand-in for an entire generation whose lives were swallowed by the wars that raged around them. But that is precisely Barry's point.

Barry's writing, which tends toward the overwrought, also takes getting used to. As the story progresses, however, his heightened language and outsized style provide the tools to render Armageddon-like images of the war's relentless killing. These ghoulish visions include fields stacked with lifeless bodies; rain-soaked trenches flowing with equal parts of blood and mud; yellow clouds of mustard gas, a whiff of which will lead to sudden suffocation; and the eerie ghost towns "liberated" by soldiers who discover no one left alive. These images will haunt for a long, long time.

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and contributes to many national publications, including The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report.

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