Monday 18 December 2017

Review: The Soldier's Return by Alan Monaghan

MacMillan, €15.49, Paperback

The first World War was a complicated affair. Remember all those school textbooks reminding us about the complex web of treaties, and German armament, and the rivalries of the Great Powers?



Well, for Ireland, it was even more complicated than that. We had a set of sticky moral dilemmas all our own. Was it better to fight for Britain in order to speed up our independence from her, as John Redmond urged?

Or was it better to join the IRA and fight the British directly? Both were means to the same end, yet the men who chose the latter route were hailed as heroes, while the others were cast out as traitors.

This seam of ambiguity in our identity has been mined by many writers, most notably Sebastian Barry, whose novel A Long Long Way explored the way in which one approach came to be seen as somehow "more Irish" than the other.

There is a telling scene in Alan Monaghan's new novel, which is the second installment of a trilogy covering the period 1914-1922. Stephen Ryan, just back from a gruelling stint serving with the Dublin Fusiliers in the trenches, is beaten up in Dublin because he's wearing a British army greatcoat.

Because we have followed his progress in France and retreated with him before the German offensive, and because we know that the lovely Lillian Bryce is waiting for him, our sensibilities rise up at the unfairness of this attack.

Were these not the very same people who liA ned the streets to cheer off the thousands of Irish volunteers? Monaghan does not labour the point, but Stephen's predicament is well described: he is now hated by the people he fought to liberate.

The Soldier's Return takes up the story of Stephen Ryan after his return from the front. He is wounded, physically and mentally, and becomes addicted to morphine, for it helps with both kinds of pain.

He pushes Lillian away because she doesn't understand what it was like over there; she has even become active in the Irish anti-conscription movement, much to the alarm of her Trinity professors. Monaghan is good on the mixture of guilt and duty that drives Stephen to fool the Medical Board and get sent back to France. He is good, too, at battles, advances, retreats and skirmishes.

When the war ends, Stephen finds it difficult to adjust to civilian life. He is saved by Dunbar, a medical officer he met in France.

Yet for all the very convincing detail we get regarding Stephen's descent into depression, his recovery -- he gets back his job, his health and his girl -- is described in a sentence or two.

Stephen's brother Joe took the other route to Irish independence, the one that led via the Easter Rising to the War of Independence. Now he is with Sinn Féin, a trusted lieutenant, close to Dev and Collins.

The brothers have a grudging respect for each other, though each believes the other is misguided.

As the story unfolds, they become closer and Monaghan seems to suggest that these opposing camps in Irish history work best when they work together.

We are all familiar with certain aspects of the First World War: the horror of the trenches, the shellshock, the manly bonding. They have been explored artistically in many forms, from Upstairs Downstairs to Blackadder.

We are also familiar with historical tropes from closer to home: the Auxiliaries, the Croke Park massacre, the execution of the Cairo gang, the one-step-ahead-of-the-British ingenuity of Collins and his men.

So the danger of stereotyping is real, but Monaghan avoids it. He balances his story nicely: enough action to keep things moving, and enough introspection to let it all sink in.

The last book of the trilogy will see the Ryan brothers pitched into the Civil War. Monaghan has made us care about them so much that we can't wait.

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