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.

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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.

Chapter 8, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Willie returns to Flanders in spring. He is becoming traumatised by his experiences, and is beginning to endure panic attacks focused on the safety of his sisters. Jesse Kirwan’s misery and the death of the young rebel weigh on him. Meanwhile, the other Irish recruits are largely disinterested in events at home: Christy Moran, however, is indignant about the nationalists’ actions.

The men march up the line to Hulloch, where Willie writes an affectionate letter to his father affirming the patriotism of the Irishmen in the line. At stand-to a communication is relayed from HQ that a gas attack is expected. Father Buckley gives mass to the gathered battalion as the shelling before battle begins; a sign of the mortal threat anticipated ahead.

The men have taken their place in the line when gas sirens sound. Captain Sheridan makes a speech, calling on the men’s courage. A new recruit, Quigley, collapses in fear, and struggles to get his gas mask on. Willie is left to his own terror as he waits for the attack to begin. When gas finally begins to pour over the parapet, Quigley is the first to collapse; Willie is surprised by pity for the soldier. Sheridan moves the incapacitated to the rear of the trench. Willie shits himself in fear, and finds himself praying for the protection first of Jesus, then his father, then his grandfather. As the gas pours in, men struggle in their masks; Willie smells the gas, which seems more deadly than before, at St Julien.

Hand-to-hand fighting ensues as attacking Germans leap into the trench. Willie is seized upon by a German but he inadvertently skewers the man with his tomahawk, then manages to slash at the man’s head. In tearing his own mask off, the German succumbs to the gas. A melee ensues as more attackers leap into the trench, and Willie is knocked cold.

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

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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.