A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry
He was born in the dying days.
It was the withering end of 1896. He was called William after the long-dead Orange King, because his father took an interest in such distant matters.
It seems to have taken me ages to finish this book. I’ve been dipping in and out for a while now. Nothing to do with the book itself, more to do with my lack of attention, because it is a very good book. Gripping would be the cliché. But true nonetheless.
A Long Long Way tells the story of Willie Dunne, who leaves Dublin to fight in World War I, a soldier in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. His family have always been loyal to the crown. His father is a policeman. He is fighting for Ireland, and England, and all of Europe. Home Rule is on the cards, and until the war is over even the nationalists in Ireland have been saying that Irish men should join up. But the front is a brutal place. Full of death and misery. And then comes news of the 1916 Rising in Ireland. And some Irish soldiers think that maybe they haven’t any reason to fight. And some aren’t trusted, because of what is happening in Ireland.
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.
The story, and characters, come almost instantly to life in this novel. The book describes some truly hellish moments, but at the same time the writing is quite beautiful and lyrical. Which makes the subject matter all the more moving I suppose.
The sacrifice of Irish soldiers in the Great War has, until fairly recently, largely been forgotten, buried underneath the nation-building myths surrounding 1916 and the resulting War of Independence. Which makes Willie’s story all the more poignant.