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.

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

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So, to the closing of the curtain on Part One of the novel, with this long and crucial chapter in which Willie witnesses the 1916 Easter Rising.

Summary— Chapter Seven

His leave over, Willie wakes in a long army barracks room in Devoy amongst many other men. Getting up, he urinates into a chamber pot. In the act of doing so, he stirs the man in the bed next door. An ugly Southerner, the man leaps up and knocks his Bible into Willie’s full chamber pot. Mortified, Willie offers the man his own family Bible as a compensation. This act at first placates the agitated Southerner: but swiftly the man turns violent, leaping on Willie and strangling him. Willie, bemused, offers no resistance. Eventually the Southerner’s attack peters out, ending in a sardonic declaration that a murder would stop him being sent to France. The man then proceeds to chat amiably with Willie about betting. He introduces himself as from Jessie Kirwan, from Cork. Willie introduces himself, and to the resigned question “What did the Irish ever do?” Billy answers that they died abroad lately. Kirwan laughs and thinks on Willie’s words.

Willie accompanies his strange new friend as they are transported through Dublin. Willie looks for Gretta; Kirwan sits on the floor of the transport, uninterested in Dublin, something Willie cannot understand. Willie eventually sees Gretta on the steps running down to the dock, and in return she sees him: the two wave enthusiastically to each other. Willie is elated. He talks to Kirwan, who mentions his father and asks what Willie’s father does. Willie answers that his father is a policeman. Kirwan replies his father, being against the law, would not approve. Willie asks what Kirwan’s father does. Kirwan’s cryptic reply is that his father is a lithographer, a word Willie does not understand, and this ignorance amuses Kirwan. Yet later Willie reflects that it is Kirwan’s ignorance of the character of the war that he is now headed towards which is worthy of pity.

Willie’s transport unloads its men onto the organised chaos of the docks. As the soldiers assemble, a horseman arrives bearing a message for the commanding officer. Amidst general confusion, Willie finds that he and the other men are being marched back into Dublin.

There they find the crowds already gone. Kirwan speculates that the war might be over and if it is so, he will, as one of Redmond’s Volunteers, leave the British army. Willie cannot understand Kirwan’s point and sardonically states that he too is a volunteer. When their column arrives at the O’Connell monument on Sackville Street (where his father played his part in the 1913 violence) the pair find a city in flux. Their column halts to see a thing that astounds Willie: a cavalry charge up the street. The gathered crowd cheers the chivalric sight before, even more bizarrely, firing begins from the General Post Office and cuts down the charging soldiers. Willie at first thinks the Germans have invaded Dublin. A civilian offers Willie a sheet of paper as he watches, and making to take it, an officer commands that Willie step back in line and not “parley with the enemy”. He tells Willie that if he takes the paper, he will shoot the civilian. Willie’s column is then marched across the city towards the Mount Street Bridge.

Willie’s column marches up Mount Street to find a battle ensuing, centred on a building to the left of the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, troops also advance. Willie’s column are commanded to improvise a barricade across the street by pulling out the furniture of local households. They then begin firing at the occupied building. A machine gun opens fire from the building, shooting down the advancing British soldiers on the other side.

Willie’s company are commanded to cease fire once it is realised that their own fire could be hitting the British soldiers opposite. Willie is dumbfounded by the scene. Belatedly, he realises that Jesse Kirwan is crying. Kirwan, having read one of the sheets blowing about the street, realises that the men in the building are “our fellas”, Republican rebels against the British. He is distraught. The command is made to prepare to charge under the cover of machine gun fire. British machine gunners, ensconced in a building on the right of the street, spot a young groom walking six horses on the road, and proceed to shoot him dead.

Willie and his comrades charge, and his many of his fellow soldiers are hit in the rifle fire from the rebel-occupied building. The charge only makes it halfway up the street before taking cover. Willie, stunned, finds himself next to an officer badly wounded in the shoulder. Suddenly a young man appears behind Willie holding a revolver. Nervous and pressing this to Willie’s chest, the young man declares that Willie is a prisoner. Willie cannot comprehend the man’s words, but the officer beside Willie immediately reaches over Willie’s shoulder and shoots the rebel.

Willie tends to the man on the floor, and asks him if he is a German. The dying man tells him he and all the fighters are Irishmen, then speaks an act of contrition before desperately grasping Willie as he violently chokes on his own blood. The blood of the man sprays over Willie in his long and horrible death. Willie finally says a quick prayer over the man’s dead body.

Willie’s company are withdrawn from the battle and marched back to the dock, where they are immediately decanted onto the troop ship. Confusion reigns amongst the soldiers. Willie worries about Jesse Kirwan and seeks him out on the ship. He finds him solitary beneath the ship’s second funnel as the ship chugs out to sea. They share a cigarette, and Willie asks whether the volunteers Kirwan declared membership of were the rebel force in the city. Kirwan, exasperated, explains that the rebels are those who disagreed with Redmond’s pledge to aid Britain. Willie, uncomprehending, explains that he is a volunteer too, but Kirwan points out that Willie volunteered in response to Lord Kitchener. He goes on to explain the origins of the Irish Volunteers as a Nationalist response to the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, with their pledge to resist Home Rule for King and Country.

Willie is nonplussed. He asks where it all leaves Jesse, and what the printed declaration he read about allies in Europe means. Kirwan explains that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s Opportunity”, referring to the opportunity that Britain’s struggle abroad affords the Irish. Kirwan opines that he regrets not listening better to the lessons of his radical Nationalist father. Willie feels angry at Kirwan, and points out that many Irishman have died fighting against Germany, but intuits that his new friend, tolerant of Willie’s own ignorance, does not deserve anger. Kirwan’s final words to him are that he knows of the Irish dead.

Willie goes below decks to sleep and realises that his uniform is stained with the young Irishman’s blood. He tries to clean his uniform the next morning, but the blood will not wash out, and remains on his uniform until he arrives once more in Belgium.

Some thoughts on narrative

A remarkable set-piece, then, this eruption of the Irish struggle for independence within the narrative. The Easter 1916 Rising as depicted by Barry in chapter seven is as surprising to the reader as it was to the largest part of the Dublin population at the time— at no point in the chapter previous does Barry signal that Willie’s furlough is on the Easter weekend of 1916. Before moving on to ask questions pertinent to the study this chapter, I’d like to stop and consider the way that this chapter transforms the narrative as a whole.

Previously in the novel I think it is fair to say that we have been steered to anticipate that the events of Easter 1916 will feature explicitly or implicitly within the narrative (in any tale of a Dubliner during the First World War it could hardly be otherwise). The importance of the 1913 Sackville Street Riot in the story has implicated the novel’s main characters in a crucial event in the pre-war Irish history of labour struggle and civil rebellion. The description of the massacre of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers by gas at Ypres similarly entwines Willie’s experience as an Irish soldier within the complicated fabric of Anglo-Irish identities and loyalties, as this young Irishmen— indeed, at the time, a young Briton— fights for the British army abroad and sees his Irish comrades massacred. On a more subtle but perhaps more fundamental level, the language that suffuses the story— Hiberno-English— in its particular wording and unique syntax makes this a tale structured around an Irish lived experience, and specifically Irish ways of expression and thought. This narrative is ‘thrown’ into the Irish world. We rightfully expect, therefore, that the defining Irish political event of the First World War will make its force felt in the story: but perhaps not as directly as it does in this chapter.

I would argue that this is because the novel so far has been a story which has played on our readerly expectations of a number of other conventional narratives, despite its focus on the Irish and Irishness. First, and dominating the reader’s reception of the early part of the novel, we are reading a story about a young soldier caught up in the events of the First World War. The conventional First World War narrative typically tells of a young and somewhat naïve man journeying abroad to fight for his country, destined in doing so for an irrevocable change in the face of unimaginable violence and tragedy. Certainly the story until chapter seven has broadly followed this trajectory. Another conventional story is also nested within this narrative; the story of a boy and a girl who meet and fall in love, whose relationship will either succeed or fail. This subplot has teasingly remained nascent within the war narrative, but doubtless we anticipate some kind of deepening of the couple’s relationship to come, or an ending in some way caused by the war: again, a conventional element in war narratives. Finally, also nested within the war story, there is the story of the son who has lived in the shadow of his father’s desires, who has lived some of these as his own, but has begun to suspect their essential worth. The story, in other words, of an Oedipal rebellion that will create another identity for Willie, and the hard-won freedom of a knowledge that will encourage him to follow a new path in life.

The presentation of the Easter Rising at the end of the novel’s first act marks the moment when these conventional narratives are forcibly shifted or translated into a part of a different narrative, that of the historical struggle for Irish independence from Britain. The story thus far has been, as we have seen, particularly interested in Irish lives, and in its realist detail has traced many of the effects of British rule in Ireland. When the King of Ireland visits Dublin; when a supply trench in an Irish section of line is named Sackville Street; when Willie and his family live in apartments in Dublin Castle; when Christy Moran scorns the English and decries “the same fucking army that always done for us”, while fighting in that selfsame army; when Captain Pasley wonders at Moran’s lack of Gaelic; when marching Irishmen sing ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’, but also sing ‘Take me back to dear Old Blighty’; when Gaelic syntax or calqued words and phrases endure in the English speech of the narrator and characters—all these are among the signs and symptoms that show the effects of many hundreds of years of British colonial rule, seams that reveal the motley and variegated fabric of Irish identity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, in this scene that closes the first act of the novel, Barry’s narrative presents the eruption of violence on Dublin’s city streets, bringing revolutionary conflict front and centre for the reader.

This is, in one sense, a return of the repressed. Not that the Easter Rising is somehow a forgotten event: it is clearly central to modern Irish identity, as was made clear by the national remembrance of it in Ireland in 2016. This is not as true of British identity, where the centenary passed mostly unnoticed and uncommemorated (the Rising being a beginning of one forcible divestment of Empire amongst many others that still remains too painful to confront, perhaps). Nonetheless, in focusing on that peculiarly Irish experience of the First World War, Barry is engaged in the recovery of a forgotten history. Those Irishmen who fought with the British Army during the First World War have, in a sense, been orphaned by history: for a long time now, no nation has been particularly interested in remembering them as their own. To fight bravely for what was once an occupying power is no source of deep credit in a post-colonial nation like Ireland, fashioning a new sense of identity. Similarly, the sacrifice of outsiders for an Imperial nation at war may for a time provoke feelings of almost mystical reverence amongst some at home: but that recognition of contribution sooner fades away into disinterest and often, after a time, bemusement at the ties of feeling that once bound foreigners to the homeland (how many in Britain now understand why Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, West Indians and Irish, amongst many others, fought under the Union flag?). History has shown that bemusement has been shared in post-colonial countries too.

So it would be one thing for Barry to write that Irish First World War novel, to try and recover the Irish experience of fighting in the British army during the First World War, and present all the multifarious reasons for which Irishmen did this. In doing so, he recoups some of the meaning that the Great War had for a disparate people. The conventional First World War narrative has definitively been changed, however, when Barry presents a key moment of fracture in the history of both Britain and Ireland— that moment in Irish history when, as WB Yeats famously wrote, all “changed, changed utterly”. History by its nature is multifaceted, but revolutions demand you take sides, and to remember and represent the beginnings of one is to unearth the forgotten trauma of that choice. The narrative takes a significant turn in this chapter which means, whatever happens next, the story is more than that of an Irish soldier at war.

Questions

“It was the very seam of night and morning, and Willie woke with ease and freshness. His body was warm and his limbs did not ache. It as very odd really.” So this chapter begins, with a suggestive metaphor of dawn. A seam is the line where two fabrics are stitched together. In war zones, it is also a home to lice. Why do you think Barry begins chapter seven with this metaphor?

The mercurial character of the nationalist Jesse Kirwan is one of the most vivid to feature in the story so far. Yet the beginning of this chapter, with the altercation surrounding Kirwan’s urine-soaked Bible, has the exaggerated and confusing character of farce. What are our first impressions of the Cork man? Why does he act the way he does? Why do you think that Barry introduces Kirwan in this way?

The detail about Jesse Kirwan’s father is suggestive of a particular kind of upbringing or worldview, very different to Willie’s. One of the songs that Kirwan’s father would sing, and Jesse repeats to Willie, is the old Scottish folk ballad, Helen of Kirconnel— “It’s a good one,” said Willie (p.84). When Willie tells Kirwan his father is a policeman, Kirwan replies “My father wouldn’t think much of that. My father doesn’t hold with laws and policemen and the like.” When Willie asks if his father a robber, Kirwan counters that he is “A lithographer” (p.84). A lithographer is someone who produces printed material from lithographs, either in the form of pictures or text: what do you make of this cryptic answer? Can you build your own imaginative portrait of Kirwan’s father, given the information the narrator supplies? What kind of relationship do you think that he would have with his son? Note that Kirwan later ruefully notes of the Rising that “my father said it would happen. He sees a long way into things. And I should have paid better heed to him, I think.” (p.96)

It could be argued that Jesse Kirwan is a kind of mirror to the character of Willie. In some ways he is very similar to Willie, in others almost a reverse image. Detail the ways in which Kirwan and Willie differ as characters, and the ways in which they are similar. Why, despite everything, do these two young men get on?

“‘Step back in, Private,’ called the captain. ‘Don’t parley with the enemy.’ ‘What enemy?’ said Willie Dunne. ‘What enemy, sir?’” (p.88). Ever the innocent (or perhaps, in Jesse Kirwan’s words, a “gammy fool”), Willie’s confusion and incomprehension in the face of the Dublin fighting performs a narrative function. Willie is constantly asking questions that ask to be explained or making assumptions that demand correction. What freedom does Willie’s limited perspective on events allow the writer in presenting the Easter Rising?

“Their column was fiercely halted and things took place now that no one could understand the purpose of. For here now, as real as a dream as one might say, a little contingent of cavalry was drawn up just under the awnings of the Imperial Hotel…” (p.87). Yeats wrote that in the wake of the 1916 Rising that all was “changed, changed utterly”. Revolutions demand not only the transformation of objective society but also a shift in the perception of those living within that society. As Barry describes it, the beginnings of this occur in the tumult of the Easter Rising. In what ways is familiar Dublin defamiliarised in his description of the Rising? What does the rebel violence reveal about the relationship between the Irish and the British?

 Read the accounts of the Battle of Mount Bridge Street in the following two articles. Note that these two historical narratives take very different perspectives on the Easter Rising. The Western Front Association writes describing the Battle as one among a multitude of others fought during the First World War. The Irish Story article, taken from a larger historical work by John Dorney, focuses more on the Irish rebels. Consider the narration in these articles; the way in which the narrators’ perspectives and selection of detail produce different understandings of this battle in Dublin (both, I want to make clear, are well sourced historical accounts—we are not searching for falsehoods here). How is authority established in the narration, so that we believe these accounts the Battle of Mount Bridge Street? What people and events do these two historical accounts focus on? In what ways are statistics and speculation used in support of viewpoint? Are there moments that could be considered emotive or symbolic of a broader viewpoint on the Easter Rising in these accounts? The purpose of this exercise is not to find bias, as such: this would presuppose that there is some ideal objective narrative out there capable of being told. It is to discover the ways in which storytelling, and the forms we use in storytelling, necessarily produce meaning— and can direct the reader to find meaning.

Willie’s encounter with the nineteen year old Irish rebel (p.92-3) has the character of mythology; that is, it is a scene that could be seen as embodying or symbolising something essential about Ireland and conflict between Irishmen in 1916. It is also another example of the mirroring of character that features in this chapter. What misunderstandings are foregrounded here? How do the two soldiers treat each other? Does this scene suggest anything about the author’s perspective on revolutionary Ireland?

“Ah Jesus, Willie. That’s different altogether. You’re a volunteer for fucking Kitchener. You can’t be this thick. Look it, boy. The Ulster Volunteers were set up by Carson to resist Home Rule…” (p.95). Jesse Kirwan is more clearly a device in the narrative than any other character that has featured in the story so far. What function does this character perform in chapter seven? In what ways does this character give the reader access to a different understanding of the Easter Rising than Willie’s?