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’

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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.

Chapter 14, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Willie’s company return to the front line. The war is in its darkest months yet. With great loss of life, sections of the regiment have gained ground at Guillemont. Captain Sheridan tells the men they are press on to Guinchy. Once again, the men gather before Father Buckley for mass, but this time they do so in a field fought over just days before, still strewn with the unburied dead. As Buckley speaks, Willie thinks upon the nature of words, finding them a kind of natural music, and rallies.

The company make their way up to the line through smashed fragments of humanity. The shelling is intense. Ever more anguished, Willie recognises the corpse of Quigley amongst the hundreds of bodies as he passes. He sets about cutting barbed wire with his fellows, preliminary to pushing forward. The men, seeking distraction, argue good-naturedly about the type of crop they work amongst. The talk cheers them.

Moving up to the captured German lines, the company eventually come to a battlefield, the scene of vicious fighting. Dead German and Irishmen are everywhere. The sight of dismembered corpses is terrifying, and the smell of death lingers. Men retch as they walk. When the men reach Guillamont they find Chinese workers building a makeshift road. In the midst of terrible shelling, the diggers are struck by shellfire as they work. Willie and his company finally stop at the foremost trench line. There they eat stew and sleep before the planned attack on Guinchy.

The men are ready to attack at four in the morning, awaiting the movement of a creeping barrage intended to supress German fire as the men march across no-man’s land. Pitying the new recruits, Willie hears with terror the British shelling commence: he wets himself as the barrage begins. The men are given their orders, and climb the trench ladders. They march across no man’s land. The barbed wire is scattered and at first the men walk unimpeded towards the German line. Soon however the British artillery barrage overreaches them, allowing German machine guns to commence firing. The Irish advance is cut to pieces. Captain Sheridan is immediately hit. The company marches on through the murderous gunfire. The Irish soldiers reach the enemy trenches and engage once more in hand to hand fighting with German soldiers, who swiftly surrender.

Willie and the company spend the rest of the day in a cold panic, awaiting a counter attack. Finally they are relieved by others in the 16th and begin the march back to British lines. Reaching the safety of occupied ground, they find the body of Captain Sheridan as it is being transported back to the line. They follow its progress to Guillemont. As they go, they are cheered by fellow soldiers who have learnt of the capture of Guinchy. Willie and his comrades feel traumatised and empty, however- knowing as they do the hideous carnage they have left behind them.

Chapter 13, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Kirwan is executed for cowardice the next month. Major Stokes declares the sentence, and the Irishman is shot at dawn. Willie helps dig Kirwan’s grave, and attends his funeral, where Buckley tells Willie of Kirwan’s family past. Kirwan’s mother, Willie is told, left her millenarian sect to be with his father, and in doing so was forever expelled from the fold. Their union together, Buckley tells, gave them Jesse Kirwan. Willie is upset to be told this, and remembers the tale until his own life ends. That night, Willie sneaks out of billets, and sings ‘Ave Maria’ over Kirwan’s grave.

Willie tells O’Hara this sad story, and O’Hara responds with his own confessional. He tells of moving through a Belgian village at the start of the war and discovering a maimed and raped Belgian woman tied down in a church. The men release her and lead her away to be treated but come under fire from a wood and take cover in a ditch. A young lieutenant strikes her as they seek cover, and then proceeds to rape her in the same ditch. O’Hara confesses that he held her down while the rape happened. Willie is revolted and strikes O’Hara, who is surprised by Willie’s reaction. O’Hara remonstrates with Willie about the brutality of the war, but Willie is horrified and goes to bed, desperately questioning the nature of man.

Chapter 12, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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It is late spring in Flanders in 1916, and Willie’s company are performing fatigues while behind the lines. News continues to filter through of more executions back in Ireland. The men realise that some sort of big push is imminent. The French bloodshed at Verdun continues unabated.

Jessie Kirwan awaits court martial for disobeying orders, and is refusing food. This is relayed to Willie by Father Buckley, who has been ministering to the Corkman. When asked for a character reference, Kirwan gives Buckley Willie’s name, and Buckley asks Willie to visit the prisoner. At first Willie means to refuse, his compassion worn away by time and events. Yet Buckley’s fond request and a curiosity about Kirwan leads to Willie agreeing to see the man in spite of himself.

The Battle of the Somme begins. News of the massacre of the 36th Ulster Division reaches the men, who are awed and horrified. Willie goes to see Kirwan where he is held, in a working abbatoir, on the 3rd of July. A bullock is being slaughtered as Willie arrives: Kirwan is being held in a toilet adjacent to the killing floor. While Buckley goes to see his charge, Willie talks to the Irish corporal guarding the room. Kirwan is a nice enough man, the corporal declares, but became deeply upset after the execution of the rebel leaders. He is not sympathetic to Kirwan’s politics, but does note with some concern that Major Stokes’ hostility to the Irish means that at court martial Kirwan’s life stands in the balance.

Willie goes in to see Kirwan. He is emaciated and withdrawn, but greets Willie from his bed. He announces his intention to be shot. He does not intend open protest, but refuses as an Irishman to fight in the British Army. He has chosen Willie as the single witness to his intentions. Willie tries to talk him out of his intention, but Kirwan is firm. Willie then gives Kirwan his Bible. Kirwan protests that he has one: Willie reminds him of their first meeting, and notes that his own isn’t stained with urine. After leaving Kirwan in his cell, Willie walks out with Father Buckley, privately ruing his friend’s seemingly suicidal ethical course.