History is made up of memory, and memory is a storyteller. Sebastian Barry knows this, and knows that the vast movement of history, politics, and war is a cloth woven of the threads of personal experience, of the ways in which we come to cherish personal beliefs. In A Long Long Way, Barry uses his exceptional gifts to tell the story of Ireland’s entry into the First World War through the heart and mind of one young soldier.
Willie Dunne, brother of Annie from Barry’s previous novel Annie Dunne, joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at age seventeen because he is less than six feet tall. Six feet is the height requirement for becoming a policeman. Willie’s father is a policeman and is disappointed that his son cannot follow in his footsteps. Willie becomes a soldier instead. While many around him are willing to fight because of the promise of home rule for Ireland, such beliefs are still foggy in Willie’s young mind. Like so many young men, he wants to please his father and prove himself a man. One of the many truths revealed in this story is the way in which the relentless violence of war is fueled by such simple motivations.
The history of Ireland’s role in the Great War is not well remembered, and Barry is a master at embodying political issues in the hearts of his characters, with all the ambivalence and emotion of the human heart. Willie’s father is devoted to king and country while Willie must question many familiar assumptions as he develops the ability to hold his own opinion. The hideous daily violence of war and the larger political beliefs that seem to make it necessary are the raw material that Barry uses to ask a more fundamental question: How does a person come to think for him- or herself? As one character says to Willie, “The curse of the world is people thinking thoughts that are only thoughts which have been given to them. They’re not their own thoughts. They’re like cuckoos in their heads. Their own thoughts are tossed out and cuckoo thoughts put in instead” (p. 9). Barry is asking what makes people think and behave as they do. Almost one hundred years after the events in this novel, with the world still engaged in war after war, could any question be more important?
Barry, who is also a poet, writes with a lyrical power that makes this lost world pulse with reality. The music and beauty of Irish speech is everywhere here and is all the more poignant when brought to bear on the terror and madness of life in the trenches. Barry’s knowledge of his characters is deeply felt, and their story is shared by all of us who live in a world continually threatened by war and by unexamined beliefs. A Long Long Way is a work of profound sadness and beauty that rings with the truth of what it is to be human.
Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His play The Steward of Christendom won many awards and has been seen around the world. Among his other plays are Our Lady of Sligo and Boss Grady’s Boys, both recently seen in New York. He is the author of the highly acclaimed novels The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and Annie Dunne, and his most recent play, Whistling Psyche, premiered at the Almeida in London in 2004. He currently lives in Wicklow, Ireland.
You write with great authority about the trench warfare of World War I. Did you grow up hearing stories about it? Did you do a lot of research?
There has in recent years been a number of pioneering books about the Irish involvement in the war, and they make poignant reading. They’re listed at the end of the book. Although a novel is of course “made-up” in a good sense, there are some inescapable things in a book like this, battles that really happened and such matters, that have to be researched. Aside from this, my wife’s grandfather was in the Royal Army Medical Corps right through the war and came home safely. I had his Soldier’s Small-Book, still pristine, on my table while I worked. Also my own grandfather John O’Hara caught the tail end of the war in the British Merchant Navy, when he was still sixteen, and in the Second World War he served as a major in the Royal Engineers. Many of the songs he sang were First World War songs and he loved to sing them, so when I looked into such songs, I heard his voice in them—especially “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” which is why I gave it as the title.
Was it important to you to make your own contribution to the tradition of war literature? Were you influenced by other writers who have written about war, such as Hemingway or Crane?
Well, it is a mighty tradition, and ancient, and there are mountains that cannot be scaled or equaled. Also there are ambiguities and contradictions in the very idea of war literature for an Irish person. Whose war, whose tradition, whose literature? I could see how important it was once to suppress the story. I think it gradually became important to me, if not to make a contribution, at least to attempt it. Because as I went along further and further with it, I slowly understood better what that particular war meant for Irish soldiers. So it seemed strangely urgent to try to tell the story, for them, about them, and as much as possible maybe, in a haunted fashion, by them. It is Willie Dunne’s book, I do think. And the other lads’.
I am sure Crane and Hemingway were influences. I have always been fascinated by the rhythms of Hemingway’s writing. In the seventies when I wrote some short novels, I used to go back to him for friendly inspiration—to get me going. What was important to Hemingway, the fact of having been there at the war, is closed to us now of course. Twenty years ago I was in his house in Key West and was shocked by how long ago his life seemed. It hadn’t struck me before because the writing is so modern, so immediate. He puts you in the midst of timeless struggles by means of his immaculate style. A Farewell to Armsis therefore a kind of time machine. You can go there. “The cold passed reluctantly from the earth. . . .” That of course is the beginning of The Red Badge of Courage, which I suppose is about a war that heralded the nature of the First World War. It is a singing book. The book I had in my car as a talisman (these are the strange actions of a superstitious writer) was All Quiet on the Western Front, another perfect book. Otherwise I tried not to read novels—some poetry of course, especially the Irish poets Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge, both killed in the war—because I was anxious to write about the war at least in my own way. Tom Kettle wrote in a famous poem to his daughter Betty:
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor, —
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
You’ve said that the character of Annie Dunne was based on someone whom you knew as a child. Is this also true of her brother, Willie? How do you go about weaving memory and imagination into a fictional character who can carry the story you want to tell?
When I was writing a play called The Steward of Christendom, the character of the son killed in the war came mysteriously into the writing. At first he was just an unknown child in the room, then he was more clearly a boy, then he got his uniform streaked not with blood but, because he was a sort of ghost, gold. The play was written about my great grandfather, but was largely invented. Some while after the play was produced, I did find out that the real man had had two or three sons at the war, one of them a Catholic priest. What became of them I do not know. So Willie is made up but at the same time isn’t—and I think Father Buckley in the novel had a lot of importance to me in that he is doing a job that a real but forgotten ancestor of mine might have done. The character of Annie Dunne was “real”—she was my great-aunt—and she refers to her brother Willie in that novel, so she is a real person in a fiction referring to a fictional brother who may or may not have existed. . . . It gets a little complicated. What I have to do to tell a story is accept in my mind that these people survive in me somewhere, in a corner of the brain, in the heart, wherever, and somehow or other can release their stories. I would have to confess that the sense of “being there” in the writing of this book was very strong. It seemed very, very real, clear, almost familiar. Not that I was there, but . . . So I am doing a strange thing—asking a fictional character to be real so that he can be an effective fiction. But it was a book that seemed to make a bundle of my research and march off with it as if it were an ordinary thing.
You are obviously very sensitive to the music inherent in language and in the rhythms of speech. Do you think the ways in which a culture uses language also affects the ways in which people think, perceive, and behave?
I do. I have to. In an impoverished society as Ireland once was in part, all things can become bankrupt and thin. But in Ireland “wealth” settled down into how people talked, as if it were the sifted gold out of the river of poverty and bad historical luck. Not always, but often enough. What is left to us as language is a rich inheritance, though it came from a poor time. The music like the language was often the music of simple things—spoons, skins stretched over frames, voice music, bones, feet beating out a rhythm. There is something of that in Irish English. But also something of that other Ireland, the flowering of eighteenth-century culture, which we often look at as being alien but really wasn’t in the end. It was often noted by baffled soldiers of other nationalities how cheerful the Irish soldiers were—maybe not quite understanding the Irish imperative to keep language going, like a responsibility. Like a form of courage. To create courage. Many of the Irish soldiers were never so well fed and fit as they were after five months of training because they came from places where food and medicine were scant—but they brought their language with them like a secret wealth, a true fitness. They might have done without proper food and the like, but never the banter and lingo proper to themselves. That is why to me to confer silence on an episode like this in the history of Ireland, because it was not helpful for instance to the story of nationalism as it later unfolded, is not only an assault on a possible lost truth but on a haven of our language itself. And we would necessarily and inescapably be the poorer for that. We were used to calling these men “not Irish,” against Ireland, even traitors to Ireland, but the music of their language makes that unprovable; their old music proves them, their old talk sanctifies them.
There are passages in this story, dealing with the uprising at home and the soldiers’ confused and divided reaction to this, that might bring to mind similar moments in the Vietnam War. Of course the circumstances are different, but did this correspondence occur to you?
I am grateful for this question because in answering it I am remembering something, and you are giving me an unsuspected explanation in part. . . . In 1973 as a seventeen-year-old I hitched about America. In so many towns I saw them, returned veterans at street corners, or going along on their own, strangely separate, not much older than myself sometimes. I often wonder what happened to them, where they are now, in their fifties, somewhere. I was aware of the great protests against the war; indeed, it was part of our own youth culture in Ireland. But after the First World War there were hundreds and hundreds of men even under the bridges of London. Homes for heroes didn’t materialize. In Ireland ex-soldiers were often shunned, even murdered, many were institutionalized, locked away. I have carried those sights of America with me, men who went out to Vietnam, gave everything they had, youth, sanity, health oftentimes . . . gave their true wealth, what they were but came back to a changed country that found it impossible to honor them, even oftentimes to see them.
Do you have an imagined audience in mind when you write or an ideal reader? What would you like a reader to take away from having read this novel?
I used to wonder about that a great deal. I saw for myself, years ago, the last of that culture that told stories by the fire, which television and radio naturally erased. And at readings, of course, a writer can get that same sense of a direct audience. So in these recent years I have submitted to that, the notion that the reader is just beside me, interested and alert, and possibly kind of heart!
A reader I suppose will know better than I ever will what he or she takes away. Any half-decent book has a secret that the reader recognizes and, like the writer, can never completely say what it is—which I think constitutes the pleasure of a book. It is saying something, but the thing left hanging in the air, the thing unsaid, is what the reader takes away. I hope and pray that might be so. The main thing said in the book is quite simple: Ordinary men with ordinary courage were asked to do an impossible thing, did it, and were not thanked for it, were not revered for it, as they might have been. But what is left unsaid I do not know.
As a poet, playwright, and novelist, do you have a favorite genre? Do you find that different ideas are better suited to different forms? How do you decide which form you’d like to pursue for any given subject?
I have always found that a particular subject, or character, or place knows best itself what it wants to be. I have once or twice tried to write a novel about something that wanted to be a play and the reverse. Sometimes a poem points quite accurately to an eventual play. So I am at the mercy, happily, of that. I spent two years writing a novel called White Woman Street—no earthly good! But it became a play in three weeks.
It is a strange thing, a fine thing and a lucky thing, to write a play, not least because it holds the promise of being again in the company of actors at rehearsal. I spent years fishing the Moy River in Mayo for salmon and never caught one because it was so hard to entice them out of that dark water. To get a play landed seems always to me as tricky, as lucky, as unlikely. At the same time there is no rival to the long, long adventure of making a novel.
Since this novel asks such important questions about how people learn and what they believe, could you speak about the violence occurring in the world today? Do you see any way we might begin to get beyond war?
I am sure, like many people, I did naïvely hope that this century would be that long-prepared-for century without war. In matters of violence I am a Tutu-ist, as in Bishop Tutu of South Africa, whose thesis seems to be that there is no terrible action that a person can commit that he the good bishop in other circumstances might not also have committed. It is an astonishingly generous, almost bewilderingly wise stance, but it prevents a person from putting himself in superior judgment over another. A man who cannot be offended and cannot think himself superior cannot start a war. If, as George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young,” age is wasted on the aged if the only answer to the long question of human belligerence is belligerence. So I am hoping like many another mortal, like many another father, that a new answer is imminent. I am more than willing to hope naïvely.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a sort of memoir about the odd Bohemian world of my childhood in Dublin in the late-1960s.