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


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.

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