A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry

The ruination and revelation of one Irishman's Great War
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A Long Long Way tells the story of Willie Dunne, a builder's apprentice and volunteer for Kitchener's Army, enrolled in the Dublin Fusiliers. He experiences confusion over the term "volunteer" and its usage in Ireland, what with Ulster Volunteers opposing Home Rule, their counterparts in the South upholding it, and his own volunteer status under the Crown. "Well, it was a veritable tornado of volunteers... If he never heard the word again it would be too soon."

It is 1916 when this wry thought strikes Willie, midway between the buoyancy and high morale of 1914 and the numbness of the war's last bedraggled months. It is also a moment of crisis in Ireland, with the Easter Week rebels overthrown and the executions about to begin. For Irishmen who believe they are fighting a just war against the Germans, events at home have disconcerting implications. All kinds of emotions - bitter resentment, admiration, chagrin and incomprehension - come into play.

Willie, on leave over Easter, is overtaken by a pang of sympathy for a dying rebel in a Dublin doorway. This feeling, which he expresses in a letter, nearly results in total alienation from his father, a Catholic policeman and old-fashioned loyalist for whom the insurgents are traitors.

But the worst destruction is taking place in Flanders, at the Somme, in Ypres, in rat-filled trenches and over landscapes of mud, barbed wire and body parts. One of Barry's most striking achievements is to indicate the Irish battalions' complex sense of commitment to contradictory purposes, while focusing on the hellish actuality of the war.

It's not by accident that Willie's peacetime occupation is that of builder, although Barry is far too adept an ironist to insist on the contrast between construction and ruination. He conjures up the enormity of the situation while avoiding cliché, and evolves a style appropriate to the undertaking, plaintive and robust. Unsurpassed in First World War fiction, A Long Long Way is a small masterpiece with an exhilarating resoluteness and authority.

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