Character Analysis: Gretta Lawlor

1916 Rising. Collection of picture postcards of destruction scenes. (37) at Whyte's Auctions

Gretta Lawlor is a young Dublin woman, first introduced into the story as the daughter of Mr Lawlor, a man beaten by Metropolitan Policemen under James Dunne’s charge. Willie delivers pheasants on behalf of his guilty father to Mr Lawlor, and in delivering these he encounters Gretta as a thirteen-year-old girl. She is a particular Dublin beauty, “truly… one of the beauties of the city”, though like other Dublin beauties, she is “skinny and destitute”. Gretta is a working-class girl, living in a tenement beneath the city’s Protestant cathedral, and this establishes an initial difference between the two that means they conduct their relationship in secret. Willie is aware that his own family’s middle-class snobbery means that he “he knew what Maud and especially Annie thought about such things, and they would immediately tell his father”, so that their relationship “wasn’t normal or straight exactly”. In this way, Gretta’s relationship with Willie is defined by the same reticence to challenge his family’s worldview that later becomes such a source of contention and grief in the novel. 

Willie from the very first falls head over heels in love with Gretta. His worshipful devotion to her stands in strong contrast to Gretta’s own manner of loving. Gretta is from the first a composed and resolute figure who finds value in her father’s dictum that a man should know his own mind, though she holds these words in some ironic distance: “that’s only a thing he got out of a little book he reads. St Thomas Aquinas Willie. That’s all.” The narrator writes that “Gretta was an extremely straightforward person and she knew herself when she saw Willie for the first time that Willie was for her”, and indeed where Willie is sometimes all sentiment and emotion, Gretta is an unsentimental source of clarity in the novel. She is clear from the first about what she wants and expects, and Willie’s attempt to enlist is “much against Gretta’s desires”. She has a practical insight that Willie often lacks. Later, when her expectations of Willie are disappointed, she makes new plans.

Despite her age, Gretta is a mature presence in Willie’s life, and her seriousness and pragmatism stand in strong contrast to Willie’s own romantic and idealistic nature. Indeed, Willie proposes to Gretta “but she had not felt awkward saying no.” She answers, Willie observes, “like a lawyer”. There is indeed a firmness that can be almost stern, as when Willie reintroduces the matter on furlough, and she “surprisingly shook a finger at him”. Where Willie would give into sexual desire and emotion, Gretta shows judgement and control. The two have a relationship in which the one is mindful of the other (“though they could row like the best”) but in wry, ironic phrasing, the narrator observes that “she wasn’t so wedded to the idea of his erection as perhaps he was”. When Gretta decides to make love to Willie before he returns to Flanders, she controls the encounter, for “she drew him into the deeper dark” by the canal-side, and “she drew up her skirt in the greeny dark”. She will not commit to marrying Willie until after the war, but she does show deep affection for Willie. 

Gretta is at times a seemingly distant lover, who does not reply to Willie’s letters, and this is a problem for Willie throughout the novel. Admitting this, Gretta nonetheless gives her own reasons for this lack of communication- “I’m tired in the evening when I get home and have to make a supper and then I just sit in my chair like a ghost or fall into the doss.” Her relentless work as a seamstress, then, is an important influence on Gretta’s life, and indeed her “bossman Casey” is “like a bishop when it comes to his women courting”. Gretta’s life— the time she can call her own, the relationships she can be allowed to have— is dictated by her exhausting life as a working class woman. There is, nonetheless, a matter-of-factness, a certain disregard for Willie’s intensity of feeling that is both sad and inadvertently funny about Gretta’s thoughtless communication: as when she sends him, as Willie puts it, a “kind and interesting postcard showing Sackville Street in ruins- who would ever have thought- thinking of you”. Unsurprisingly, given their age and relative inexperience in relationships, both Gretta and Willie are guilty of a kind of thoughtlessness that is not related to the intensity of feelings each has for the other. They find it difficult to maintain their relationship through the separation caused by the war.  

Gretta remains Willie’s first and only girlfriend, though he betrays her trust in sleeping with a prostitute in Amiens and this ultimately leads (after Gretta reads Pete O’Hara’s secret letter) to the break-up of their relationship, a devastating blow to the young man. When, at the end of the book, Willie returns to Dublin and visits Gretta, he finds her breastfeeding the baby she has had by her new husband. Gretta writes a letter to Willie in response to O’Hara’s, but it never reaches Willie. Gretta is conscious of her betrayal but she is understanding as they say goodbye to one another: “I don’t suppose it was such a very terrible thing you did, but it broke my heart to read it.” The relationship ends with this tone of sadness and regret. 

In the totality of the novel, we encounter Gretta in relatively few scenes, as the narrator follows the twists and turns of Willie’s short life. As Willie’s first love, the image he holds of her is vital to his character, and the thought of her sustains him through his many trials. We see Gretta in the text most often through the lens of Willie’s affections and frustrations, and in this sense the novel is as centred on a masculine viewpoint of the war, seen from the front line, as many of the other texts that have been written about the First World War. Yet, as the practical and forthright working-class Irishwoman who is Willie’s young lover, she offers glimpses in the novel of another Irish perspective on the war. 

Character Analysis: James Dunne

As you may have noticed, I’ve recently found time to complete the book summary of ‘A Long, Long Way’! It’s taken some time, but we’ve got there in the end. I’m now going to start uploading a mix of study resources to help you get to grips with the novel. On the one hand I’ll focus on brief portraits of the main characters, on the other, important themes (probably more of the latter, as these will give you ways in come the exams). Hopefully we can make this novel feel a little more manageable for you. Here, we begin with:

James Dunne

James Dunne is Willie’s father. He is an important authority figure in the narrative. He is the Chief Superintendent of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Willie’s earliest memories are of his father at parade and the narrative is, in one sense, a tracing of his son’s gradual disillusionment with his father. Willie progresses from childhood hero worship and an adolescent wish to please his father, to youthful doubt and finally adult acceptance of a difference or division in their thinking. James Dunne’s stubborn certainty in his own authoritarian convictions— Unionist, anti-Nationalist, Monarchist— lead to a division between father and son that is at the heart of the narrative. It is, in familial form, a reflection of the wider social divisions opened up during the First World War in Ireland.

The character of James Dunne is, like many of Sebastian Barry’s creations, inspired by a real-life member of the Barry family, Barry’s own maternal great-grandfather.

James Dunne is a striking and in some ways sympathetic figure at the start of the narrative. He rears Willie and his sisters after the death of his wife and provides a loving home. As a police commander he is implicated in the violent suppression of trade unionists in Dublin, but his sympathy for Mr Lawlor indicates some regret about the methods used by his forces in the riots.

Similarly, his pride and sorrow in his son’s volunteering to fight in the British Army show signs of personal vulnerability, and perhaps some doubt about the good nature of his power— within the family, and in society at large— that he unquestionably wields. Mr Lawlor’s judgement, “I don’t care what a man thinks as long as he knows his own mind”, is well applied to James Dunne in the narrative: as his character develops, it becomes clear that James Dunne’s world-view is a collection of emotional allegiances and unexamined prejudices that he is unwilling to examine because they are bound up so strongly with his sense of self.

For as the novel continues it becomes apparent that James Dunne’s love for Willie is conditional on his son’s loyalty to a personal world-view that seems increasingly defensive, conservative and narrow minded. Willie’s at first indirect questioning of his father’s anti-Nationalist prejudices soon become construed by James Dunne as personal attacks. James Dunne cannot admit challenges to his understanding of the world, even from (or rather, especially from) his much-loved and tentatively opinionated son. 

Ultimately, James Dunne’s identity as an authority figure— as a figure of strength, from whom unquestioned authority in politics and life flows— is revealed to be founded on weakness. His egotistical certainty of his rightness is finally bound up with his role as a father, and as a respectable servant of the British state. When these are threatened, he reacts with aggression and irrationality, and in some sense this symbolises the aggression and irrationality of the British State itself. His fate at the end of the novel— derangement in the County Home in Baltinglass— are a result of a fragile ego shattered by guilt and shame.

Chapter 23, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Willie returns to his regiment. He feels hollowed out by the war, broken hearted and empty. He notices that there are few Irishmen travelling to the front. The former general of the fifth army, ‘The Mutineer’ Gough, is one of many voices attesting to the untrustworthiness and cowardliness of the Irish soldiers of the 16th. Willie reflects that ‘Tipperary’ will not be sung any more. Similar contempt for British soldiers like himself is expressed amongst the Irish at home. It is demoralising and painful thought for Willie, who more and more experiences the signs of extreme depression and the inability to feel pleasure.

Christy Moran tells Willie that most of the regiment has been replaced with men from Newcastle. Willie greets Joe Kielty, who, to his wonder, was not killed in the German attack near St. Quentin. Moran, in a thoughtful gesture that Willie appreciates, gives him Timmy Weekes’ copy of Dostoevsky’s The Prince.

Major Stokes is found hanged in a barn, leaving a note for his wife and children.

The Americans have entered the war, and plans to conscript in Ireland have been shelved. Willie and his fellow Irishmen are the last Irishmen who will fight in Flanders. The presence of new American troops in large numbers coincides with the Hundred Days Offensive and the final push forward across Flanders to what will be an Allied victory. Willie is surprised as he is marched forward across the destroyed, scorched earth landscape to feel something of his first determination on joining the army. He sees the potential for building in the country.

Willie sees the end of the war approaching and gathers his thoughts about it. He admires Christy Moran’s dogged persistence and compares him favourably to the leaders of nations. He sees this impulse in the revolutions attempted everywhere- including Ireland. He feels outcast now, however, with no sense of country or belonging. He resolves to learn the lessons of Jesse Kirwan’s death in the years to come, but cannot reconcile his relationship with Ireland or Britain, and feels exiled from both.

Willie and his platoon arrive at St Court, where German soldiers hold a bridge with the aid of distant artillery. They wait in the dark night by a river marsh for instructions on how to proceed. Willie hears an owl hooting and then, from the German side, Willie hears a soldier singing ‘Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht’. He is struck by the voice, which seems harsh and ominous. He turns the words ‘Silent night, holy night’ over in his head and hopeful aspiration and despair contend within him. He feels alone. He sings in reply to the German voice. A shot rings out, and Willie is shot dead. Joe Kielty catches him as he falls.

As he dies, Willie sees four angels. Each has the face of Jessie Kirwan, Father Buckley, the German that Willie killed, and Captain Pasley, the captains of Willie’s soul. Willie is buried in Flanders with Christy Moran’s medal, in the ground where thirty thousand Irishmen are also buried.

Tragically, a letter of apology from Willie’s father, James Dunne, arrives too late to for his son to read. He apologises for his foolishness and declares his pride in his son. He asks Willie’s forgiveness for his anger and recalls his pledge to his wife to look after all his children. He ends with the words, ‘Your loving father’. The letter is sent back to Dunne with Willie’s property- his soldiers small book, the copy of ‘The Idiot’ and the dead German’s porcelain horse. When older, Dolly takes the book to America. Willie’s father eventually goes mad and ends up in a county home for the elderly and insane.

Willie is buried quickly. The regiment moves onward, pursuing the fleeing Germans. He is buried near the place where he fell, with Kielty making the oration and Moran attending, noting the site of the burial in their maps, before moving on.

Chapter 22, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Willie wakes up in hospital. The explosion has lacerated Willie and given him extensive body burns, though luckily his helmet protected his face from the blast. The trauma of the concussion has given him shellshock, and his head and left arm jerk uncontrollably.

Moran tells Willie by letter that the 16th has “ceased to exist” and General Gough has been dismissed. An Irish officer visits Willie on a visit. He cheerlessly harangues Willie about Irish discontent at home and the unwillingness of the Irish to accept conscription. He is pleased that Home Rule has been rejected by the British government and promises retribution against ‘the Sinn Fein’ nationalists at home. Willie listens dutifully. He reads about the recriminations after the German successes of Operation Michael, and the scapegoating of Irish soldiery. Willie is saddened to think of the end of Redmondite aspirations.

Willie becomes close to a nurse who treats his wounds and burns. Treating him, one day she notices that Willie appears to have a tattoo of a harp and crown near his heart. The heat from the explosion has branded the pattern onto Willie’s skin from Christy Moran’s superheated medal. He tells the nurse that he doesn’t mind it at all.

Later, Willie asks the nurse to hold him. She is reluctant to, given rules. He pleads with her and she assents. The moment is transcendent, moving him from his current cares to thoughts of Gretta, and a longing for love. As he is held, Willie is amazed to find that he has stopped shaking. He senses the deep sadness of the nurse who holds him, and wonders if her sadness cured him.

His shaking under control, Willie writes a letter to his father. He lies about the extent of his injuries. He writes to tell his father how much he loves him, and how grateful he remains for his love and care. He reminds his father of his own memories of childhood, chief of which is a memory of James Dunne encouraging his children to sing to his dead mother. He ends by recognising that his experiences at war have caused him to think about the world in a different light, and that this change in him has offended his father, but affirms his love for his father.

When Willie privately reflects on his experiences, he feels not anger but the omnipresence of death, and knows that his previous fervour and loyalty to the British cause has waned at last to little but a feeling of simple loyalty to his father.  

Chapter 21, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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It is the cold Christmas of 1917, and Willie has just turned 21. Willie’s platoon are billeted in a farmhouse on an only partially trenched part of the front line. The news is that America may be about to enter the war, and that all reserve Irish battalions will not be sent to Flanders but to reserve camps in England. Moran (who because of loss of men now commands the platoon) draws the lesson that as far as the English are concerned, the Irish are no longer to be trusted.

Willie is troubled. His family do not contact him on his birthday, and he remains deeply upset by the anonymous letter sent to Gretta. He mentions the matter in passing to Pete O’Hara, who expresses sympathy and anger. The men await a German attack, filled with a feeling of growing dread.

The day of the attack comes and the men first face massive artillery and mortar fire before the massed lines of a German regiment attack through fog. Willie’s platoon fight at a forward point until Moran orders them to fall back. Finding themselves in a wood behind, they fall into hand to hand combat with the Germans. Pete O’Hara is mortally wounded in the fight. He confesses to Willie that he sent the letter to Gretta and declares his deep regret. He explains that he sent the letter in a fit of humiliated anger, when Willie indignantly struck O’Hara for the rape of the Belgian woman. O’Hara dies in mid-explanation.

As Willie momentarily rests beneath a tree a shell explodes near himself, Christy Moran and Timmy Weekes. He awakes in a shuddering ambulance, and sees a vision of a dozen tongueless women sitting with him. He blacks out again.

Chapter 20, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

Willie visits Captain Pasley’s parents’ farm at Tinehely. He feels hollowed out by the prior day’s events and as he walks through Dublin he notices first the repair of the war-damaged city and then, as he walks down Marlborough Street, a group of children throw stones at him. They believe he is a British soldier and taunt him to go home. He tells them that he is home.

At Tinehely he encounters a Protestant vicar as he climbs the hill to the Pasley’s. The vicar’s kind words to Willie almost make him weep.

When Willie reaches the Pasley house he is full of misgivings about visiting. He wonders at the reasons for coming. When he knocks on the cottage door he is greeted by a kind and welcoming woman who, it transpires, is Captain Pasley’s mother. He talks awkwardly, stiltedly, of his admiration for her dead son. Mrs Pasley observes that Willie misses him; this profoundly affects Willie, and Pasley’s memory becomes intertwined with his memories of all the dead comrades he has known. Willie curses his foolishness in visiting and being unable to say how he feels. Nonetheless, Mrs Pasley tells Willie what a comfort his visit is. At the return of Mr Pasley, the group has tea together, and later Willie is walked by Mr Pasley to the railway station. Mr Pasley shows Willie Captain Pasley’s gravestone, which expresses pride in his son’s sacrifice for ideals of King and Empire. Willie comforts the grieving man.

Making a connection in Dublin to return to the front, Willie is surprised by Dollie at the railway station. Annie and Maud have brought her to say goodbye, and hang back behind the barrier instead of speaking to Willie, but he is delighted to bid farewell to his youngest sister.

Chapter 19, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

Willie returns from the front to Dublin Castle and is so changed that at first he is not recognised. He is greeted happily by Dolly and Maud, but Annie speaks to him sharply about soldiers who supply rebels with guns: she can barely hide her anger. James Dunne returns home. Willie does not expect the belligerence and cold fury that he is met with by his father. The policeman speaks angrily of the death of one of his recruits at the hands of the rebels, his anger at his son’s letter and speaks of his own responsibility and authority. Willie is conciliatory but his father launches a bitter diatribe about his son’s treacherous betrayal of all he stands for. Willie leaves the apartments and goes out into the night.

He makes his way to Gretta’s home in the slums. The thought of Gretta sustains him in his misery and he decides to ask her to marry him. When he reaches Gretta’s room, however, he finds her nursing a baby. Gretta tells Willie the child is her own: she has married. She tells him that she wrote a letter to him which had had no reply— a letter prompted by the earlier letter she had received from one of Willie’s friends. Willie feels dread as she explains that she knows about his encounter with the prostitute in Amiens. He reads the letter anonymously sent to Gretta, then makes a sad confession and apology to her. Gretta cries. The two manage a kind of heartfelt understanding before Willie leaves: Willie admits to the truth of Gretta’s father’s criticism, that he did not know his own mind.

Willie leaves in misery, and spends the night in a dosshouse.