My father was a history major in college, and we kids grew up discussing it at the dinner table. It was my first experience with how interpretation and perception shape the events that we (or our children) will one day call history.
Since we are approaching the one-hundreth anniversary of the Easter Rising in Ireland, I want to tell you about a book that changed the way I thought about it. You might enjoy it. (I repurposed this column from my other blog, Read Play Edit.)
I recently (recently when I wrote this post in 2012) read A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, one of Ireland’s finest writers, and I’m still shaken by it, by what I didn’t know or didn’t understand about the First World War (that’s just for starters; God knows there’s plenty I don’t know). As I was thinking about the history I learned, it occurred to me that as an event moves from the present into the past (and it never stops, my friends, it never stops; we grow older so quickly) we learn about it first from journalists, reporters, participants—people who were there. As distance and perspective are gained, the historians and memoirists begin to weigh in. (Here’s a beautifully written—and current—article from the Guardian about the facts and the myths of that moment in history.)
And then the artists take over, and playwrights, screenwriters, the poets and the novelists.
For those who have eyes to see (and hearts, I think, to comprehend), there’s a lot to learn from them. That’s probably why our teachers had us read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school, although by that time I’d already read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 not long after that. Last year I tracked down a used copy of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse after a World War I–reading hiatus of a couple decades.
These novels and others like them will live on long after those present at the events have left us (in fact, the last veteran just died in February). (Again, 2012.)
I have no personal connection to the Great War. My parents were born too late and my grandparents too early for me to have an immediate family connection. But history—no matter whose it is—is personal. It’s horrible enough to think of all those boys dying; nine million of them. Nine million.
Two hundred thousand Irishmen fought in British uniforms, as Ireland was then a part of the United Kingdom; many of them signed up because they were promised this show of solidarity would lead to Home Rule (that is, self-government). Some went for the idealistic reasons young men tend to go; in this case, to stop the Kaiser. Others did simply because that was what their government called them to do; the Acts of Union in 1800 had forced Ireland into the UK and further under England’s thumb. There was a lively opposition to the Brits, but a great many Irish even in the south accepted the status quo; there’d been four generations of peace.
And then … the Rising. An insurrection staged during Easter week 1916 by young men who believed Ireland belonged to the Irish changed everything.
Willie Dunne, the protagonist of A Long Long Way, has been fighting in a British uniform for considerably more than a year when he finds himself home in Dublin on a brief furlough during Easter 1916. Because he is in the British army, he is sent to help quell the Rising. Think about that: an Irishmen called to bear arms against his own countrymen. Willie’s father knows exactly which side he is on, but Willie himself, just nineteen, is mightily confused.
How could a fella like Willie hold England and Ireland equally in his heart, like his father before him, like his father’s father and his father’s father’s father, when both now would call him a traitor, though his heart was clear and pure, as pure as a heart can be after three years of slaughter?
Willie is in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 16th division, which saw action at the battle of the Somme, Guillemont, Ginchy, and Ypres, sustaining enormous losses. At the third battle of Ypres (July 1917) casualties were so high the battalion virtually ceased to exist. Willie is wounded there, so it is only later he learns that most of his comrades are gone, and that the English generals blamed the dead men for not fighting well enough.
There was a terrible lack of new Irishmen now in the army. You could hardly meet another fella in transit. It had all dried up, those thoughts and deeds of ’14. It was all a thing long done and past. No one now thought it was a good notion to kit up against the Kaiser and go to Flanders. The 16th was gone the way of all old, finished things. … Ceased to exist! And then to be blamed for that themselves. That was a test of loyalty anyhow, to hear a thing like that, never mind a rake of Germans rushing at you. But Willie heard it on the trains; he could smell that opinion almost in the sea air of Southampton. Better forget about the Irish. They always had been a strange crowd anyhow. … Between your own countrymen deriding you for being in the army, and the army deriding you for your own slaughter, a man didn’t know what to be thinking. A man’s mind could be roaring out in pain of a sort. The fact that the war didn’t make a jot of sense any more hardly came into it.
Of course, they blame them because they’re Irish. Because the Irish in Ireland are in open insurrection against the British king.
Mothers in Ireland said they would stand in front of their sons and be shot before they’d let them go, and that was a change … They could raise one hundred and fifty thousand men immediately, and that would win the war. But the Nationalists wouldn’t stand for it. Said King George could find lambs for the slaughter in his own green fields from now on.
There is much more in the story than what I’ve told you, of course. It’s very compelling. A Long Long Way is not a typical historical novel, but it’s got the kind of history that will make you think. That will make you glad for the circumstances of your own precious life, and your children’s.
The prose is breathtakingly beautiful. You should read it.
* We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie, / In Flanders fields. (John McCrae)