Chapter 18, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

News of the death of Willie Redmond, Irish MP and the brother of John Redmond (the Irish Parliamentary Party leader) shocks the men on the front. It affects Willie, but devastates Father Buckley. Willie offers his condolences to Buckley at the latrines. Buckley takes some consolation in the recent bonhomie between soldiers from Northern and Southern Ireland after the Battle of Messines, calling it “Willie Redmond’s moment”.

After short lived fame as victors at Messines, Willie’s regiment find themselves transferred to Ypres. The persistent rain has flooded the area and the mood of the men becomes depressed again. Ypres is thick with mud and under constant bombardment. The bodies of the dead of previous battles at Ypres are uncovered by the deluge. Willie is affected by the bleakness of the new situation.

As they march across northern Flanders, Willie, Joe Kielty and Timmy Weekes console themselves with humorously seditious talk of the war, its violence and its apparent purposelessness. When they finally reach their positions on the front line they find the trenches completely degraded and have to rebuild them under fire. The trench walls encase maimed bodies and the men work without food for two days. Father Buckley works at night to find the remnants of the dead, to bury them. 

On the third day the 16th leave their trenches and attack slowly over a mile of deep mud. Willie’s platoon are in the first wave. Their attack is easily stymied by machine gun fire and there are many further casualties as the German army counter-attacks. Willie is distressed to see Father Buckley digging a grave for a soldier in the face of the attack. A second supporting wave of British soldiers finally relieve Willie’s platoon, and they return to the support line.

The day after the battle news comes of the vast number of dead in the attack, of a stray mustard bomb hitting a regimental HQ- and the death of Father Buckley. Willie is upset, and accounts of the priest dying at an aid post confuse Willie.

Major Stokes visits the forward line to inspect the trenches in a strange humour. He approaches Willie Dunne and quietly asks of Willie, ‘no hard feelings, Private?’ Willie makes clear he has no feelings of resentment or anger, and Stokes, reassured perhaps, moves up the line.

The 16th remain in the line for fifteen gruelling and dangerous days in the rain and mud. Neither supplies nor planned relief reaches them. Christy Moran surprises Willie with leave to go on furlough on the recommendation of Father Buckley. As Willie leaves for Dublin, Moran tucks his medal into Willie’s great coat as a keepsake.

Chapter 17, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

It is June of 1917. The I6th find themselves about to make an eastward attack on Wytschaete, a village on the Messines Ridge, held by the German army. An artillery barrage has been ongoing for three weeks, and the preparations for the coming Battle of Messines have been thorough. The men recognise this state of preparation as unusual during the war: Christy Moran puts it down to the new General in charge of the operation.

Before the battle, amidst the terrifying noise of the guns, Moran confesses to his comrades why he joined the army. Falling asleep whilst smoking in bed, his wife’s hand is badly burnt so that she cannot work as a seamstress. Moran joined the army in order to support her. This is a difficult confession for the bluff but sensitive Moran, and he dreads that the men will laugh at him, but they are respectful and tell him that they are sorry for his wife’s suffering. This is a moment of intense emotion for the sergeant major, who is distracted as he waits for the order to attack.

Three mines are simultaneously set off under the German positions, and the explosion is massive and astonishing. The attack begins and Willie and his platoon go over the top in the leading wave. As they march up towards the ridge, they receive no enemy fire because of the creeping barrage that covers them. When the barrage stops, machine guns begin to fire on the men. Christy Moran captures a pill-box, killing two men in the process. Members of the Irish and Ulster regiments greet each other as they push on, unmolested by German fire. Second lieutenant Biggs orders Willie and to stay whilst he fetches Moran back: he is killed by a flare, but eventually Moran retires to the Willie’s position himself. He tells of the celebrations of the united regiments ahead. All the soldiers are amazed by the success of this complete victory.

After winning a medal for valour, Moran is amongst those honoured by a visit of King George himself to the line. Despite Moran’s nationalist passion, he is pleased by the monarch’s visit and tells Willie that he spoke to the King.

The 16th is then moved again, this time back to Ypres. The regiment falls under a new general, ‘Gough the Mutineer’, a British officer who was known for his antipathy to Home Rule. Moran humorously voices his sense of foreboding at the prospect.  

Chapter 16, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

The 16th find themselves back in the line in a quiet sector. It is the frozen winter of 1917, and the front is frigid with snow. The composition of the regiment is changing; fewer Irishmen are volunteering now, and the regiment sees an influx of English volunteers. Willie finds that the new men are much alike his Irish fellows.

The platoon has a new leader, second lieutenant Biggs, who proves an efficient leader. Willie meets a young Londoner named Timmy Weekes, who introduces himself with a funny joke about his surname. A Hampstead boy, Weekes is well read, and introduces the other men to Fyodor Dostoevsky and Walt Whitman. Willie, like the other men particularly enjoys Dostoevesky’s ‘The Idiot’. For Willie, however, the murderous destruction of the war weighs ever heavier upon him, and the winter is prolonged and awful.

Eventually spring arrives and the men are moved once more in preparation for a new attack. Willie receives more letters from home, but still awaits a letter from Gretta. Before decamping, Father Buckley takes confession from Willie about his visit to the prostitute in Amiens. Willie then confesses his troubles with his father and talks of witnessing the shooting of the young Rebel soldier on the streets of Dublin. Buckley is a Redmondite, and explains his belief that the war is ultimately a fight for Ireland and Home Rule. Willie is doubtful and upset by his variance with his father on the matter. He receives his penance, and with a word of good luck for the following day’s attack, is dismissed.    

Chapter 15, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

images

Willie and company find themselves stationed well behind the front lines. Willie receives an unsettling letter from his sister Maud informing his that his father is angry with Willie. He is disturbed by the news, knowing his father would have disliked the disquiet Willie expressed about the execution of nationalists in his last letter home. Willie feels a sense of distance growing between himself and his father and Gretta at home.

An inter-regimental boxing match is held between two Irishmen in what is informally billed ‘The Battle of the Micks’. The fight is between an Ulsterman of the 36th Ulster regiment, and a Southerner of 16th. Both regiments were originally comprised of volunteers, Unionist Ulstermen on the one hand, and Nationalist Volunteers on the other, and the pull of these two conflicting Irish political traditions adds spice to the competition. Willie, like the other men, is excited by the prospect of match.

The fight is held in the divisional hall. Line officers sit with their men, while Staff officers watch in their own segregated section. It is an even match, and the crowd is pleased. Some of the political tensions underlying the fight come to the surface in sectarian cheering from the crowd. Cuddy, the Southern champion, is floored and takes the count, but composes himself and fights again. There is a brief fight in the crowd, where jeers like ‘rebel cunts’ and ‘Ulster bollockses’ are heard, but the general atmosphere remains excited but genial. Swinging wildly at the Ulsterman, the Southerner slips on the canvas and falls to the floor; remarkably, he is helped up by his opponent. The fight continues brutally, and the partisanship of the crowd is softened by admiration. Finally, to acclamation, the Southerner swings a brutal blow to the temple of the Ulsterman, and wins by a knock out.

Other entertainments follow, including ‘The Rising of the Moon’, a play about an Irish rebellion in which, ironically, Major Stokes plays the role of the Rebel. A month later, the men attend a dance in which only soldiers participate, and despite the absence of women, the men raucously dance with each other. At the end of the night Joe Kielty, a champion Irish dancer, dances to the acclaim of all present.

Willie talks to Kielty later and Kielty tells him what led to his joining up: on a walk in Ballina a young women presented him with a white feather. Willie is amazed at the slight nature of the reason; and as the men fall asleep he begins to cry. He measures his own naïve motivation against the absurd reality and magnitude of death on the front, and realising the change wrought within him, is distraught.

Back to reading!

As some of you know, some time ago I had to take a break in writing about ‘A Long, Long Way’ for this study blog. I began writing on the novel here when my wife Stacie, suffering from leukemia as she had been for some years, became seriously ill. With the unstinting support of my wonderful school, Southfields Academy, I was given the time off to care for her– and writing about this A-level text was one means of staying connected with my students at my school. Sadly, Stacie died in April of last year. She was and remains a constant inspiration to me. However, the period after her death was not conducive to writing and my focus has been getting back to being a regular teacher again.

Now I’m settled back in, I’m hoping to update what I can, when I can. I’m going to start by posting chapter summaries to help students revise the novel for the summer exams: as and when I can, I’ll add my own reflections and study notes for you. I hope you’ll be patient– and in the meantime I’ll add such notes as I add will help you come exam-time. All the best!

 

Chapter 6, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

images

Back, then, to Dublin.

Summary— Chapter Six

Willie arrives at his father’s Dublin Castle quarters filthy after ten days in the line and the long journey back from Belgium. When he knocks on the front door his sister Maud does not recognise him. She and Annie are delighted to find her brother has returned home, but Willie insists that no-one touches him while he is lousy. The girls warm water to give Willie a bath.

Willie takes in the surroundings of his familiar home. He thinks of his father and finds himself unsettled by thoughts of the 1913 Bloody Sunday riot and his father’s role in the clashes. He ruefully reflects that, as a Dempsey builder during the lock-out, he was a scab. Once home, he feels traitorous to even think of these things.

Dolly and Willie’s father return home. Dolly embraces Willie. The two men regard each other affectionately. Willie thanks his father for writing to him; his father, calling his son a hero, says it was his honour. Willie’s clothes are bagged for cleaning and, in front of Dolly, Willie is washed clean in the tub by his father. Once dried, he puts on his father’s long johns and his old working suit. His father then hugs and holds Willie; though nineteen years old, Willie finds this comforting.

Willie’s leave passes quickly. He sees Gretta and learns her father will leave the army before being mobilised. He spends the last night of his leave with his father. He loves the older man deeply despite knowing his flaws. The two sit before the wood fire; Willie notices the marks his father made to measure his height. The two talk of his father’s impending retirement to Kiltegan after forty years in the force. His father asks about the war. Willie confirms that it is ‘rough’ in Belgium. His father confesses that he constantly thinks about and prays for his son.

Willie walks Gretta to her work as a seamstress on his last day in Dublin. He begs her to write more and she admits her failure to do so. He asks for their relationship to be formalized in an engagement but Gretta is firm. As much as she says she wants to be his wife, Gretta tells Willie they must wait to marry until after the war. Willie is not allowed near Gretta’s workplace so the pair must part. Willie glumly tells Gretta he loves her; she replies in kind and, despite himself, this cheers him up somewhat.

Later, before entering the Devoy barracks, Willie meets Gretta again. They kiss under the trees, lay down together by the canal side, and make love.

Questions

A chapter dedicated to Willie’s Dublin leave and the two most important people in Willie’s life at this point in the novel, his father and Gretta. It is revealing perhaps that the bulk of the chapter is dedicated to time that Willie spends at home, mostly with his father. It is only the end of the chapter, depicting Willie’s last day on leave, that features Gretta.

“The sentry at the castle gate gave him a right look as he walked in, like the ghost of war” (p. 70). Dublin Castle is an important location in the story, as the site of the Dunne family’s quarters, but it is also an important location in terms of Irish history and more specifically the 1916 rebellion. Learn about the history of Dublin Castle, especially in the years described in the novel. Does it alter or confirm your perception of the character of James Dunne (or indeed his family) to know its importance in the British administration of Ireland?

Dirt, infestation and cleanliness are important ideas in the opening scenes. What might these conditions represent for the different characters in the story?

“So James Patrick, a man of six foot six, stood his son William, a man of five foot six, into the steaming zinc bath, as indeed Willie’s mother had done a thousand times while Willie was a boy” (p.74). I found this a complex scene, full of pathos. Recalling the Dunne Family history, and the relationship between father and son, our sympathy is called on here at the same time as more complex and ambivalent feelings are evoked. Where in this sentence can we find the narrator provoking a sense of sympathy for the characters in the scene—and what detail do we find here that complicates this emotional response?

James Dunne is playfully referred to as “King of the Nits” (p.71) by Willie, and the narrator ironically observes later as he lathes his son’s body, “the lice must have been flying from Willie Dunne just like those poor men in Sackville Street from the batons” (p.74). The use of the metaphor here is revealing. In what ways might James Dunne be ‘King of the Nits’? Why are the drowning lice compared to assaulted workers? Don’t settle for one reading alone here. Try and tease out the ways in which these statements reveal or complicate character.

Read again the embrace between father and son described on pages 74 to 75. What exactly is so moving about this scene? In what ways do notions of masculinity and masculine reserve provide a key to understanding this scene?

‘We have to wait, Willie’ (p.77). What does this pragmatic judgement reveal about Gretta’s character, and her understanding of the situation she and Willie find themselves in? How is Gretta’s character developed here?

‘And they lay down together like ghosts, like floating souls, and she drew up her skirt in the greeny dark’ (p.78). What is being narrated in this scene? Is this the voice of the narrator alone, or does Willie’s response to Gretta indirectly intrude in this description? In what way does the description of Gretta drawing up her skirt complicate the description of “floating souls”?

Some thoughts

I must say I’m finding it an odd thing reading Barry. [Mysteriously deepens voice.] I’m not generally one for tears or getting choked up when reading books. I imagine it a bit like that old cartoon in The Beano where a load of little people live inside the skull of a bigger person, manipulating levers, shouting commands and getting into fights with each other as they control him or her (yes, I’m aware of Inside Out. I’m old, alright). So, I have this fantasy that sometimes when I’m reading, there’s this little guy wearing a ‘Critical Response’ t-shirt in my skull and he very often goes ahead and coshes the tiny chap wearing the ‘Emotional Response’ t-shirt in my head, and thus subdues him. And perhaps because of this I tend to like authors with a precision or violence about them: JG Ballard, HG Wells, Charles Dickens. Yet— and here’s the thing—when I’m watching movies, the roles tend to be reversed: Mr. Emotional Response gets to practice his choke-holds on Mr. Critical Response. So, on a Saturday morning with my five year old son, you may find me sniveling whilst watching Toy Story 3 or The Iron Giant.

Yet reading ‘A Long, Long Way’, I find myself so affected at times by events in the story I wonder whether the two hooligans in my head have forgotten that I’m reading a book. My emotional response makes me suspect myself. Is the source of the response I’m feeling actually there in the text, or is it largely within me? Am I, as a fairly repressed British man, projecting onto the text too much? Who knows.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I cried during the bathing scene, and I know there are good reasons for me doing so. I washed my own five year old son the night before reading the scene: it’s an everyday, intimate and wonderful thing for a father, to take care of his young son like this. I know that it can’t last: that my son will grow up, will take care of himself one day. So, in knowing your own hopes for your child’s future happiness and independence, there’s a pathos to this kind of physical care, because eventually it will needfully be rejected to some degree.

To bring this back to the experience of reading, I am therefore aware that I am approaching this particular text as a forty three year old father does (interestingly, Barry is himself a father who has spoken movingly about his relationship with his gay son). I am quite distant now from the experience of young love, and that may explain in part my lack of engagement in Willie’s relationship with Gretta. Which is to say that I am probably bringing my own limitations as a reader to my understanding of the text in a way that may be quite different to your understanding of the characters in the book. I’m assuming, after all, that you are probably a fairly young reader, an A-level student in all likelihood, and that this perhaps may mean that you read this novel with a mind to your experience of being parented (or not being adequately parented), or being a young lover, or whatever it is that you as a young person long for or find frustrating.

You will have your own insights and, yes, limitations too in reading novels. It’s good to be aware of these. You should engage in a little self analysis whilst doing your literary analysis. I’ve always found a piece of advice by the theorist Fredric Jameson useful when thinking about this. In his essay, ‘Beyond the Cave’ he tells us to “measure the whole extent of our boredom” when encountering texts, to judge our own alienation from different ideas, characters, narratives and cultures. Because if you have a problem with the text you’re reading, it may sometimes be a symptom rather of how you see the world. One of the joys of reading should be that it challenges you to broaden that understanding of the world around you. You know, I hated Charles Dickens when I was eighteen.

It’s dangerous to judge any novel by the simple mirror of your experience. It’s also an undoubted joy to find your experiences reflected in a book. It’s proved that way to me when reading this chapter at least.

A Hundred Years Since: Time to Read.

000048e2_big

So it is a hundred years since the declaration in Great Britain of war against Germany. One hundred years ago from 11pm tonight, the deadline expired that Britain had set Germany to end its invasion of Belgium and France. And as I walked the streets of London tonight, in the darkening evening, I thought back to the London of old, and a picture that seems emblematic somehow of the naiveté of the age, of ranks of men raising their hats in cheer in Trafalgar Square. And of course to Edward Grey’s apposite and prophetic words as dusk fell: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes”.

I won’t rehearse a long speech of familiar lessons to be drawn from the war. To be frank, I’ve found the commemorations alienating. The art has been misjudged, the television programs unmemorable, the newspaper articles a familiar recasting of attitudes of the present in the clothes of the past. The gatherings of the heirs of the British Establishment in our finest churches, and of European leaders standing in line before great memorials, “in stately conclave met”, seem to me to be a wholly appropriate repetition of the scene of the crime.

It also seems to me that far from lighting a candle— as some have suggested– to commemorate the war dead, should we wish to make a profound or meaningful connection to those past events, an effort should be made to de-ritualise the commemoration of the war. And as an English teacher, I can fortunately say that it is books, and reading, that are the way to do this.

The First World War was, and remains, a written war. Very many of the soldiers who fought were the product of the late Victorian education acts, and they wrote home to their families about their experiences; they wrote to their friends about their experiences; they wrote poems, plays and novels about their experiences. The raw and shocking and humbling stuff of the war is already out there. If you are reading this, you are a literate person: so, if you truly want to commemorate the war, don’t follow a timetable set for you by some sentimentalising politician, but read about it, read, read, read. Read the accounts of the men themselves, read the great writings that they produced, and read history books. Don’t have your thoughts about the war predetermined by me or anyone else. Read.

You’ll be a better person– and ours will be a better world– for it.