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 Dostoevsky and 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. He then talks to Buckley his troubles with his father, and witnessing the shooting of the Rebel soldier on the streets of Dublin. Buckley is a Redmondite, and explains the war to Willie as 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.

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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’s probable dislike of the sense of disquiet that he expressed in his letter about the execution of nationalists at home. Willie feels a sense of distance growing between himself and his father, and between himself and Gretta.

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 once 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 the boxing match.

The boxing match 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 contest, 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 melee in the crowd, where jeers like ‘rebel cunts’ and ‘Ulster bollockses’ are heard, but the 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 brutal fight continues until the partisanship of the crowd is softened by admiration. Finally, to acclamation, the Southerner swings a blow to the temple of the Ulsterman, and wins by a knockout.

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 Kiely (a champion Irish dancer) dances to the acclaim of all present.

Willie talks to Kielty later and Kielty tells Willie what led to his joining up. Once, walking in Ballina, a young women presented him with a white feather. Willie is amazed at the slightness of this motivation; and as the men fall asleep he begins to cry. He measures his own naïve impulse to join 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.

Chapter 11, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Willie writes home to his father, expressing his relief that Dublin is returning to normal, and his love for the men of his battalion. News of the events at home stir the beginnings of debate among the Irishmen. While general opinion is still hostile to the rebels, the news that the leaders of the rebellion are to be shot causes some disquiet. O’Hara does not like the gleeful tone of one of the newspaper reports, despite himself voicing some indignation that, as soldiers in the British army, they are thought as enemies of Irish freedom. Keilty and Willie also express regret that the men are to be shot: and in a further letter Willie tells his father this. He also writes a postcard to Gretta, for whom he once again struggles to adequately express his love and affection.

Willie and the rest of his company are billeted in a suit-making factory. Suit outlines for manufacture hang eerily from the ceilings in the main production room. As Willie sleeps with his company in the anteroom adjacent, he dreams of the man he killed. Across no man’s land, the dead German captures a pigeon, and Willie is excited by the thought that the man will now kill and eat the bird. To his surprise, the man releases the pigeon, which flies up into the sky. Willie then awakes.

Chapter 10, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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The men are now behind the lines. In a glass house laid out with enamel baths, the men communally bathe and enjoy the luxury of hot water. They joke together and ease into the silent pleasure of company. Willie, however, remains troubled by thoughts of death.

Later, the Irishmen retire to an impromptu theatre and a singing party begins. Members of the battalion volunteer to sing for the others. The sings stir profound feelings and memories from the gathered men. Willie’s friend O’Hara, an amateur musician, plays ‘Roses of Picardy’, a sentimental music hall number, and the performance brings many to tears. Willie then is encouraged to step up, and he sings the song he once sang in competition, ‘Ave Maria’. Willie’s marvellous singing and the Catholic mystery of the song enraptures the crowd. Willie remembers a long-supressed memory of singing the hymn over his dead mother’s body as she lay at home after his sister Dolly’s birth. He sings for her and for the audience of Irishmen before him- themselves so close to death.