I read this award-winning book last year, but didn’t review it at the time, which was a mistake; it’s a very powerful, lyrically written novel. For those of us who are not Irish, its resonance is diminished somewhat, but I was privileged the other day to hear Barry talk about the book in person while I was in Dublin, and I gained some insight into what it means to Irish people. It is not without controversy, as I heard.
It is the story of Willie Dunne, a young Irish lad from Dublin who volunteers in 1914 and what happens to him during the war. He is in many ways atypical, in that despite being a Catholic, his father is a police inspector, at a time when virtually all those in authority were Protestants. Being Irish, Willie has not only the disassociation that existed between those fighting and those left at home, to deal with, he also has the events of Easter 1916, to cope with. In his case, more so than many, as Barry places him in Dublin at the time.
Unlike other combatant nations in the Great War, Ireland had until recently virtually forgotten those Irishmen who took part as members of the British army, subsequent events leading to them being regarded as traitors, rather than the heroic upholders of civilisation that Great War participants were viewed as in Britain and in the Commonwealth.
By having Willie take part in the suppression of the Easter Uprising, Barry tackles this attitude head on. Willie is seen as increasingly conflicted and alienated as the novel progresses. The presentation of trench life is very well done, covering both the boredom and the terror – Willie pisses himself before every attack, and suffers from the shakes.
At the time that I read it, I hated the way the novel ended – I felt it was clichéd and unoriginal. Barry answered my unspoken question as to why he ended it in the way he did, by describing the play featuring Willie’s father, which he wrote in the early 90s. The seeds of this novel’s conclusion were sown in that play.