Where is the Irish Literature of the First World War?

Otto Dix.jpg

Otto Dix Photo: Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum ©DACS 2014

For many years I taught a synoptic unit for examination at A level which was called Literature of and about the First World War. The three hour examination was unseen but required my students to have a wide-ranging background to provide context for their answers.  Teachers were free to choose what they taught and I changed my selections regularly as I discovered different poetry, plays and novels.  My favourite plays became Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuiness and To the Green Fields Beyond by Nick Whitby.

To the Green Fields Beyond (Michael Brosilow Photography

The latter deals with a tank crew and is an astonishing piece of theatre opening with the eight comrades sitting beside a campfire (in this image the campfire is not good enough).  I like this sort of technical difficulty in a play, which is, perhaps, why I directed Anne Washburn’s post-electric Mr Burns last summer (see link for Irish references).  It also requires a burning campfire.  And the first play I ever directed, Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, had, on the second night, to be brought down during the first half when Pegeen’s peat fire threatened to cause a conflagration among the audience.  Another play, Bill Gallagher’s Darkle, demanded that my onstage actors kill, cook and devour an Alsatian dog.  Oh what larks! But I digress.

In 2005, after some years of teaching this course, Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way was published.  What a revelation!  I trashed Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong and Pat Barker’s Regeneration (both excellent novels) in favour of Barry’s masterpiece.  His hero, Willie Dunne, is an unreliable narrator; he is young and naïve, and unable to understand the complexities of Irish politics and British Imperialism.  He signs up to fight in Europe, mainly because, at under 6′ tall, he cannot join his father in the Metropolitan Police at Dublin Castle. Through Willie’s uncomprehending eyes, my students and I began to understand something about Ireland during the First World War.  We were, as Willie was, caught up in the Easter Rising.  We began to grasp something about John Redmond.  Barry’s description of a gas attack near St. Julien in 1915 is among the most gruelling accounts of the war that I have read.  His sections on ‘cowardice’ and field punishment, on baths behind the lines and on the vagaries and terrors of battle are, in my opinion, unequalled by any other writer.

Anyone who knows Barry’s work will be aware that he travels across genres, often connecting his works through characters’ siblings or parents, so that when you have read A Long Long Way you need to run through The Steward of Christendom, Annie Dunne, On Canaan’s Side, as well, perhaps, as other texts, unknown to me. These together build a strong picture of Ireland as it faces up to, or sidesteps, the First World War.  Some of Barry’s other works, such as The Secret Scripture, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty and The Temporary Gentleman do the same job for the Second World War.  Most of these titles, however, work through and under both world wars, rather than focussing on one or the other. I am disappointed that Barry does not feature in the set texts of our Masters in Irish Writing and Film, as I regard him as an honest and fearless writer who is prepared to interrogate the concept of Irishness in the first half of the 20th Century especially in terms of the wars in which the Irish fought or chose not to fight.

As a putative Master of the Arts I am trained to look at Irish behaviour during the two world wars critically.  I also look at it from the point of view of a person whose grandfathers were both conscientious objectors in the First World War and whose pacifist father, decided to fight, in the artillery, against the evil of Hitler, in the Second World War.

McGuinness’s, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,  cleverly intermingles monologue, ensemble, and simultaneously  staged  two-hander scenes.  Dealing with the Battle of the Somme in 1916, the play moves between the battlefield and times back home in the North on furlough.  I will quote what is, in fact a prose poem, spoken by a number of characters:

Jesus, that’s it. The source of the strange smell. The river. The Somme? The Somme. How? It’s far – It carries for miles. It smells like home. A river at home. All rivers smell the same. Not your own river. I’ve never smelt a river. You can’t stop smelling a river. Anyway, do you not see why it’s starting to change smell? It’s bringing us home. We’re not in France. We’re home. We’re in our own territory. We’re fighting for home. This river is ours. This land is ours. We’re come home… the Bann is flowing outside. The Somme, it’s not what we think it is. It’s the Lagan, the Foyle, the Bann –

observe river scene
Hampstead Theatre production: image Imperial War Museum


This, from towards the end of the play is a scene, which moves me to tears.  I prepared this section, as well as the gas attack from Barry’s novel, for my students to perform in site-specific dramatised readings as we toured the battlefields of the First World War.

In 2006, horrified at the lack of memorials, commemorating the Great War, in Irish towns and villages, I wrote a piece for the Irish Examiner, entitled, Where is the Irish Literature of the First World War? Well, if you are looking for it, at least you can find it in A Long Long Way and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

P.S.  I meant to get more in about The Whereabouts of Eaneas McNulty and Foucault but this is already over 1000 words.  Another blog perhaps to ring in 2016, 100 years since the Easter Rising and 100 years since the Battle of the Somme.

Works cited:

Barker. P. Regeneration. 1991. London: Penguin.

Barry, S. A Long Long Way. 2005. London: Faber and Faber.

—. Annie Dunne. 2002. London: Faber and Faber.

—. On Canaan’s Side. 2011. London: Faber and Faber.

—. The Secret Scripture. 2008. London: Faber and Faber.

—. The Steward of Christendom. 2001. London: Methuen Drama.

—. The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty. 1998. London: Picador.

—. The Temporary Gentleman. 2014. London: Faber and Faber.

Gallagher, B. Darkle. N.d. TS.

Faulks, S. Birdsong. 1994. London: Vintage.

McGuiness, F. Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. 1986.       London: Faber and Faber.

Synge, J.M. The Playboy of the Western World. 1907. New ed. 2011 London: Nick Hern Books.

Washburn, A. Mr Burns. 2014 London: Oberon Books.

Whitby, N. To the Green Fields Beyond.  2000. London: Faber and Faber.







2 thoughts on “Where is the Irish Literature of the First World War?

  1. Excellent stuff Jo – I remember reading the original article as well. It’s probably stating the obvious to mention that the lack of Irish Literature exploring the First World War – despite the heavy involvement of Irish soldiers (equally true of all of Britain’s ‘colonial’ wars over the preceding 200 years) – might be related to the nationalist myth making (and and historical repression/selective amnesia) that any ‘new’ polity indulges in.

    As for your next essay/article – how about this? – To what extent can Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ be viewed as Ireland’s great contribution to the literature of the First World War?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s