A Review: Guests of the Nation by Frank O’Connor

This story is at once warm and cold, sweet and brutal. It is about brotherhood and its opposite – war. The action takes place during the Irish war of Independence in 1916. Two English soldiers are being held hostage by a group of Irish volunteers. A swap is possible with the English, but if Irish captives are shot, these two unfortunates will also be shot. The bleakness of this scenario is lightened by Frank O’Connor’s humour.

The narrator of the story is one of the volunteers, known as “Bonaparte”,  for reasons untold, and his companion is called Noble. The two English soldiers are called Belcher and Hawkins. Belcher is a huge, quiet man, moving around the place – like a ghost – as Bonaparte thought. He follows the Woman of the House everywhere, carrying buckets and baskets and loads of turf for the fire. But Hawkins made up for it. He talked all the time, and argued about religion every night with Noble.

“Adam and Eve! Adam and Eve! Nothing better to do with their time than pick bleeding apples!”

Once he tackled the Woman of the House about the war in Europe but she gave him his answer:

” . . .  and think you’ll deceive me because I’m only a simple poor countrywoman, but I know what started the war. It was the Italian Count that stole the heathen divinity out of the temple of Japan.”

And she blamed everything on “Jupiter Pluvius”, a deity no one had ever heard of!

Each evening the four men would play cards together and Bonaparte thinks to himself that he never saw two men take to the country as completely as they did. They knew all the locals and went to the dances and could dance “The Waves of Tory” as well as anyone. Bonaparte and Noble didn’t bother to keep a watch on them any more.

As Bonaparte says:

” . . . you could have planted that pair down anywhere from here to Claregalway and they’d have taken root there like a native weed.”

But the day arrives when Jeremiah Donovan, another volunteer, tells them that four of their own had been shot that morning and that Hawkins and Belchar had to be shot in reprisal.  Jeremiah tells this  news to the Englishmen but they refuse to believe him. Hawkins gets annoyed by his continuing with this “joke” and when he sees that they are in earnest he entreats them, asking why they want to shoot him; weren’t they all chums?

The prisoners are marched out to the bog and Bonaparte feels so sick he can’t speak.

“I had the Smith and Wesson in my pocket and I kept fingering it and wondering what I’d do if they put up a fight for it or ran, and wishing to God they’d do one or the other. I alone of the crowd saw Donovan raise his Webley to the back of Hawkin’s neck, and as he did so I shut my eyes and tried to pray . . . Hawkins had begun to say something when Donovan fired, and as I opened my eyes at the bang, I saw Hawkins stagger at the knees and lie out flat at Noble’s feet, slowly and as quiet as a kid falling asleep . . . “

Belcher then, with great dignity, ties a handkerchief around his own eyes and says:

“I never could make out what duty was myself . . . I think you’re all good lads . . . I’m not complaining.”

One second later he was dead too. O’Connor writes these sentences simply, without drama or sensation. Simple, straightforward and brutal. And it makes me think of all the wars that ever were. All the young men, the boys, killed in their thousands and all for what? Make war to make peace?

I’m going to include a short poem of my own here.

LAMENT

My mouth is stretched – a soundless wail of anguish

For the sorrows of the world

An eye into hell in the corner of my room

Cry out your lamentations, prostrate yourselves

And weep, and weep, and weep.

I will leave the last word, and the last

sentences of the story, to Bonaparte:

” . . . and I was somehow very small and very lost and lonely like a child astray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”

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