Ireland Uprising and Down in the Trenches
For some reason I am drawn to read a lot of books, both factual and fictional, about the two major wars of the twentieth century. And each time I start one of those books, question why I am doing so ‘Have we not had enough of books about these wars?’ And the answer, sadly, seems to be ‘no’. Both conflicts created huge wounds both individually and collectively, and what those conflicts still have to teach us will probably not cease to be lessons needing learning, until all wars cease.
Barry is certainly one of the writers who is still able to reach out, meaningfully and in a new way, to the reader. There is something about Irish writers (and also, I think about some, though not as many, Scottish writers), whereby the rhythms of language, and the choice of words are very different from writers from England, and words therefore have a fresh power. Barry has that enviable ability to write about the particular and specific, in such a way that the particular transcends into the universal, and his well written central character, precise and particular, grows larger and larger into being Everyman, as Barry makes him more and more individual and known to us.
A Long Long Way starts with a Dublin family, with young Willie Dunne, one of a close-knit family, shortly before the start of World War 1, and takes him through the war, and also ties this up with the 1916 Easter Uprising. So it examines that war from the perspective of Irishmen, Irish Regiments, and the promise of Home Rule. Soldiers were enlisting to fight for Irish independence at the end, as much as for the freedom of poor little Belgium, or against ‘the Hun’. The conflict between Ulster and the South glimmers through.
At the start of the novel, Barry’s spare, cut back prose, his short sentences, shot through with surprising and memorable phrases and images, produced an effect on me as if I was reading a fairy-tale. Curiously reminded me of that wonderful Scottish writer of Faerie, George McDonald, The Princess and The Goblin, The Princess and Curdie.(Puffin Classics)
I say this not to denigrate Barry, its actually the reverse, its about the ability to tell a story in such a way that the reader knows a more universal story is being told. His language is beautiful, images and phrases we may have come across a thousand times are put together in a startlingly new way. Who would ever have thought to describe the dropping of bombs in the trenches this way, for example:
There were bombs falling everywhere now, in an industrial generosity
This juxtaposition, this surprising and many layered choice of phrase ‘industrial generosity’ – this gives certainty to what I later found out – Barry is a poet. Of course, this is what poets do – they new mint the world for us
The sun lay along objects with indifferent and democratic grace, gun-barrel or ploughshare. The war was like a huge dream at the edge of this waking landscape, something far off and near that might ruin the lives of children and old alike, catastrophe to turn a soul to dry dust
He is not a self-consciously beautiful writer, he is a writer who makes you see clear, feel fresh, interpret the world anew. Before change, we must be able to interpret!
This is a book I know i will re-read – because of that poet’s vision, and the ability to tell the story, to weave. In many ways my response to Barry has been as profound as to another Celtic poet novelist, the Scot Andrew Greig. His novel about the second world war That Summer about the Battle of Britain and the Home Front, is a book which has stayed with me, even though i read it several years years ago, and for similar reasons as I think this one will.