Wednesday 24 January 2018

Review: The Soldier's Return by Alan Monaghan

Macmillan, €14.99

Dermot Bolger

At first, it seems like an almost foolhardy thing for a young Irish writer to attempt to chronicle not just the Irish experience for soldiers in the First World War, but also the wider totality of the shifting Irish experience of those years of the Great War.

It seems like a crowded market, book-ended by two great and very different Irish classics: Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon in 1974 and Sebastian Barry's A Long, Long Way, published 31 years later. Yet although writers who experienced it at first hand -- and contemporary writers as diverse as James Plunkett, Tom Phelan and John MacKenna -- have captured the conflicting loyalties of those years, it is still relatively unexplored for a conflict with more than 200,000 Irish combatants and 30,000 Irish casualties.

While Alan Monaghan cannot be unaware of such Irish shadows on his shoulder, not to mention the oeuvre of British writers like Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks, he has very much created his own imaginative space in this ambitious trilogy in progress, which describes the physical and intellectual journey of one working-class Dubliner, Stephen Ryan, who becomes actively involved in the war in Europe at the same time as his older brother, Joe, becomes involved in the struggle of Sinn Fein for Irish Independence.

The Soldier's Return is the second part of this trilogy. It began (with its first volume, The Soldier's Song, last year) by almost exclusively focusing on Stephen, but this second novel expands so that the contrasting experiences of Joe form a more central part of Monaghan's unfolding narrative.

Monaghan's trilogy began with the young and highly intelligent Stephen entering a world that was utterly foreign to working-class Dubliners -- even if they passed its gates every day. This was the Protestant world of Trinity College, into which Ryan wins a sizarship in 1914, having excelled in the examination for mathematics. He is encouraged by his school teacher, who sees Stephen's acceptance of the sizarship as a victory over his Christian Brothers masters, who are vehemently opposed to seeing Stephen exposed to the Trinity world that they cannot control.

Therefore, before the war even starts, he is an outsider, regarded with suspicion by his own family and treated with condescension by many of the privileged elite, who see Trinity as their birthright and playground. His mathematics genius is recognised not only by his professor but by a feisty, independent-thinking fellow student, Lillian, to whom he grows romantically attached. War intervenes, however, and he enlists, his Trinity credentials gaining him a commission beyond the reach of most working-class recruits.

This second part of the trilogy starts with Stephen at home, recovering from serious wounds at the front. Although it would be simple to get a medical discharge, he feels that his duty is not so much to Ireland or Britain but to the men he was leading in France, whom he is desperate to rejoin.

He bluffs his way back to the front, where he repeatedly sees action but survives. In parallel with his war, Joe is becoming one of Michael Collins' most trusted lieutenants, as the IRA start their war of Independence.

Stephen returns after the war to try to pick up the pieces of his life in Trinity and his deepening relationship with Lillian, but he is emotionally estranged from the Dublin around him. The horrors of war are ever present in his head and the Dublin crowds, who once cheered his departure, now regard his old army great coat with contempt.

His isolation is not helped by the fact that soldiers in the uniform he once wore now patrol Irish towns, being attacked and committing atrocities, including killing Stephen's grandfather in Mayo, when Joe -- after a botched IRA ambush -- seeks refuge there.

In The Soldier's Return, Stephen discovers in the Dublin of 1919 that there can be another kind of no man's land -- the one that he and other ex-soldiers find themselves in. He retains a resolutely independent stance, but he is being drawn closer to his brother's world, being forced to balance the world of mathematics and love against the tides of history shifting around him.

We await the third part of this ambitious trilogy that will bring Stephen and Joe into a third conflict -- that of the Irish Civil War -- because while occasionally Monaghan skims over class conflicts that this reader would like to see explored more, his trilogy is an example of strong and well-crafted storytelling, which sweeps the reader along.

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