Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way treats an issue which was virtually airbrushed from Irish history for generations after it happened: the involvement of Ireland in the British Army during the First World War. While school texts record the heroic deeds of the 1916 Rising – the event which ultimately led to the creation of the Irish Free State six years later – precious little attention is given to the tens of thousands of Irishmen fighting under the Union Flag in Flanders at that time. Only in recent years has Ireland come to accept its participation and suffering in the war between the European great powers.
Barry’s A Long Long Way tells the life story of Willie Dunne, the son of a Dublin policeman, who volunteers for action in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. It is unflinching in its depiction of the squalor of life at the front for both private soldiers and officers. The novel captures the gore of warfare and the sensibilities of the men assaulted by it. It is at once both brutal and poetic.
A Long Long Way is also the story of Ireland at a crossroads in its history. While the Royal Dublin Fusiliers suffer horrors abroad, their native city is in turmoil during the time of the Easter Rising in 1916. They find themselves fighting in an army which is frequently guilty of racism against Irish servicemen, while back at home, they themselves come to be regarded as traitors. The Irish soldiers thus constitute an entire generation caught on the wrong side of history.
Three Monkeys spoke to author Sebastian Barry about the story behind his latest, highly acclaimed work.
Three Monkeys: A Long Long Way strikes me as a singularly passionate, heartfelt work. How involved did you feel with the subject? The Great War has been a theme hinted at in your work before, for example in The Steward of Christendom [Barry’s award winning play The Steward of Christendom has as its main character Thomas Dunne,a Dublin policeman serving the Crown, but also a mention of Wille Dunne, his son and the central protagonist of A Long Long Way] . Was there a sense of working your way up to dealing with it specifically?
Sebastian Barry: As the work went on, I became more and more involved, almost as if personally. As soon as I had the group of soldiers, and felt I knew them, the subject took complete hold of me. I wrote The Steward of Christendom in 1993, this in 2003, so, yes, I expect it took a decade for Willie’s well to fill up, as it were.
Three Monkeys: In some ways, A Long Long Way has the obvious look of a book that was simply waiting to be written. Given the number of Irish families who were bereaved by the Great War, it’s remarkable that no one got there ahead of you. Regardless of the self-confidence of Celtic Tiger Ireland, would you agree that a strong strain of self-censorship exists when dealing with Irish identity?
Sebastian Barry: Well, Jennifer Johnston wrote magnificently about the war some twenty five years ago, but I know what you mean nonetheless. Though there have been so many books about other nations at the war, the English in the main obviously. But in Ireland I suspect the matter of the war became merely impersonal, after so long a silence, people not suspecting it had anything to do with them, especially as it hardly registers in any of our school history books. If it was forgotten for real reasons, both good and bad, it became forgotten for no reason at all. But it has been extraordinary to me the numbers of people at readings and in letters that suddenly realise they have this strong connection, and remember they had great uncles or whatever at the war, and are suddenly appalled by what they went through, and, in many cases, suddenly proud, suddenly amazed, suddenly thankful, which is wonderful. The forgetfulness was born out of self censorship perhaps.
Three Monkeys: Your final acknowledgements suggest a mountain of research. At the same time, Willie Dunne is based upon your grandfather. How important was ‘official’ historical accuracy for you, writing the novel?
Sebastian Barry: There are some wonderful history books now; possibly because the topic was so out of the way, it attracted true maverick and gifted historians. The dry regimental history was the most useful, in that I was able to get some idea of actual battles, then try and ‘forget’ them, to remember them differently with the help of the characters in the book. I didn’t feel I could make up the experiences of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in Flanders, but at the same time, as always, the most important thing had to be the penny whistle tune of the book.
Three Monkeys: How difficult is it to approach such a dramatic, violent period artistically? Did you take any cues from previous literary/dramatic works set during the Great War?
Sebastian Barry: I must have read some of the English novels when I was young, but I purposely didn’t go back to them for this. I read none of the contemporary novels for the reason I didn’t want to be ‘helped’, if you follow me, which is always a danger. I wanted to write about Willie at the war as if it had never been written about before, because obviously his own experience was one time only and unique. I didn’t want to make a work of literature in that sense, but a sort of remaking of his actual experience – impossible of course, but that seemed the best lamp. Of course it was a little terrifying to approach the war at all. But the men got me through, believe me.
Three Monkeys: In an age of rigid literary specialisation, you write critically acclaimed plays, poetry and novels. Was it always clear to you that the story you wished to tell in A Long Long Way would be in the form of a novel?
Sebastian Barry: In this case, yes, though The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, which is being republished by Faber next year, was written first as a play, a play that didn’t work. Most of anything I have written begins life as a short poem, sometimes years and years before.
Three Monkeys: The days of tens of thousands of Irishmen fighting in the British Army are in the distant past now. One of the issues your novel explores is how so many came to serve under the British flag in Flanders. Did you feel it incumbent upon you to give a voice to their diverse motivations? Do writers have a social/historical responsibility?
Sebastian Barry: Not when I started, but, as I say, as I went on, and felt the men were allowing me in near them, and I could see what was happening and hear what they were saying, I began to feel a strange responsibility. I mean, it seemed to me after a certain time that they were their own authors, authors of themselves, and I was deeply anxious to be true to them, and I was amazed myself at their situation, their courage, and simplicity.
Three Monkeys: Considering, once again, that you write plays, poems, and novels, who are the writers who have had the greatest influence on you. Or, to put it another way, what writers do you enjoy reading?
Sebastian Barry: Of modern writers, I love Michael Longley, J M Coetzee. In older times, Conrad, Hardy. I could not read till I was nine, and one of the saving graces of that was being able to ‘read’ films like any other person. I saw the old Oliver Twist as a little boy and also Beauty and the Beast [directed by Jean Cocteau in 1945]. Great influences, feeling myself to be ‘there’ in the prison with Fagan (good Irish name), there in the dangerous enchanted garden.
Three Monkeys: The book contains a number of parallels with Doctor Zhivago. Did you work on the basis that the trauma of one era dying violently and another beginning equally violently, could be best expressed and comprehended through one man’s tragedy?
Sebastian Barry: Does it? Wonderful! Shamefully I haven’t read it, though I know Pasternak’s poems and it was joyful to visit his dacha in Russia some years ago in the days before Yeltzin (his widow was still there). The whole history of the world seems to me to be one person’s story or it’s nothing, or something else, just a great moil of nameless suffering. The single view also prevents generalizing too much. It is also a helpful camera, or box camera anyway (if you remember them).
Three Monkeys: A number of writers have started turning their attention to the effect and meaning of the attacks of September 11th. It took Ireland, through writers such as yourself, decades to come to terms with the Great War (indeed it could be argued that the process is an ongoing one, by no means finished). Is it then too early to start approaching, successfully, 9/11 in literature and art?
Sebastian Barry: I don’t know. But I suspect the reported number of good novels this year is a result of 9/11 and all the other alarums of recent years. I think it set a certain gear into movement, unseen, silent, at the heart of many writers. Writers with children, writers with that hope of a peaceful century; a sort of literary battle stations. I was not surprised to hear Ali Smith describe her wonderful book [The Accidental] as a war book.
Three Monkeys: A Long Long Way is full of the physical horror of the war: the slaughter and the squalor. Is that an aspect that you feel has faded from public consciousness, or indeed one which was hidden from Irish people?
P>Sebastian Barry: I was determined to try and show exactly what they went through, so that if you wished to call them traitors, or just lads that went out, or even heroes, you might know with some reasonable exactitude what they went through. Also, soldiers themselves are famously reticent about their experiences and try to soften them, to protect the listener, or because they feared they would not be believed. In this moment not only are the 36,000 who died in the war gone, but also every last man of the 160,000 or so that survived. That made it feel somehow urgent to describe their suffering and their resilience, and all the rest.
Three Monkeys: Is Ireland any closer to getting over its denial about the trauma suffered during those years? Do you expect to see more Irish novels based in that period?
Sebastian Barry: I think we might. It is part of the grace of the Irish people that if a wrong or an absence is pointed out, they usually will listen with a certain pointed humanity. It has been wonderful to me the attitude of audiences around the country in their willingness to hear about Willie and his friends. To understand them, to identify with them, and silently and with enormous friendship to salute them.
A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry is published in the UK by Faber & Faber