'Ere their story die' : the rhetoric of historical responsibility in Sebastian Barry's A long, long way
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Three important Irish texts use revelations about Irish involvement in the First World War as a lens through which to examine contemporary Ireland: Jennifer Johnston’s novel How Many Miles To Babylon (1974), Frank McGuinness’s play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (1985), and Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way (2005). Because significant critical attention has been paid to the texts of Johnston and McGuinness, and because access to Barry’s archive in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas further illuminates the process by which Barry represents this crucial moment in Irish history, his novel is the focus of this paper. Unlike Johnston and McGuinness, whose projects use the First World War to interrogate the Ireland in which they are writing and force the reader to grapple with their own historically (or mythically) constructed identities, Barry’s A Long, Long Way denies personal culpability and allows for a view of history in which the individual stands forever as a tragic or pathetic victim. Barry’s novel details the experiences of one Irish soldier, Willie Dunne, on the Western Front and plots his changing attitude towards Irish soldiers’ involvement in the War following the Easter 1916 Rising. Exposed to both nationalist and loyalist perspectives, and to the horrors of war, Willie increasingly develops sympathy with the nationalist position, though he never abandons his principal loyalty to his father. While Willie’s narrative presents a more complicated vision of the Dunne family—Barry’s ancestors who have figured prominently in his oeuvre—it fails to escape the tragic impulse in much of Barry’s fiction, in which history is an immovable and oftentimes malevolent force. Such a vision of history allows individuals like Willie Dunne to disavow responsibility for their personal fate and for their roles within a larger Irish history.