Guests of the Nation by Frank O'Connor, 1931

views updated

by Frank O'Connor, 1931

Frank O'Connor's "Guests of the Nation," with its wonderfully ironic title, is one of the most memorable short stories ever written about Ireland's struggle for political independence from England. Set during the Troubles, the revolutionary period between the Easter Rising in 1916 and the signing of the Home Rule treaty at the end of 1921, O'Connor's narrative of rebels and hostages reveals the conflicts not only between the Irish and their unwelcome "guests" but also among the revolutionaries themselves.

Like many of O'Connor's stories, "Guests of the Nation," the title story of a 1931 collection, is told from the first-person point of view to give the narrative the quality of oral storytelling. Unlike the typical O'Connor storyteller, who narrates an event that has happened or been told to someone else, the narrator in "Guests of the Nation" is someone who has taken part in an action so emotionally and morally disturbing that it has altered his life. Speaking with the voice of his own Cork region while imitating the accents and expressions of the English hostages, O'Connor's narrator, called Bonaparte by his fellow rebels, recounts his reluctant role in the execution of two English soldiers in retaliation for the deaths of four Irish rebels. The success of the narrative, however, lies not so much in the description of the event itself, common enough during the Troubles, but in O'Connor's intimate study of the humanity of the rebels and their prisoners and of the personal ordeal experienced by the narrator.

"Guests of the Nation," one of several early O'Connor stories about the Irish gunman, reflects his own experiences while fighting on the losing Republican side during the Irish Civil War. During the final days of the war O'Connor, while suffering acutely from the constant danger of life on the run, was puzzled by the cold resourcefulness of some of his companions, who actually appeared to enjoy the danger and the violence. Afterward, Daniel Corkery, O'Connor's teacher and fellow short story writer, suggested that he had witnessed the critical moment in a revolution when control shifts from the dreamers, those caught up in the ideal, to the professionals, those caught up in the political expediency and emotion of the violence and killing.

In "Guests of the Nation" O'Connor develops this conflict between revolutionary attitudes in the strained relationship between the narrator and Jeremiah Donovan, the experienced rebel who has the responsibility for carrying out the battalion order to shoot the English prisoners. Their differences are played out as the narrator and his youthful compatriot, Noble, become familiar with the Englishmen while they stand guard over them. When the narrator eventually finds out that the prisoners are actually hostages, he bitterly complains to Donovan, only to be told that the English have also held their Irish prisoners over a long period of time. This moral and emotional blindness—the indifference to the closeness that has developed between Noble, the narrator, and their prisoners—is what most clearly defines Jeremiah Donovan and what most troubles the narrator when he is finally told to carry out the executions. While he recognizes the necessity of an act of reprisal—one of the executed rebels was 16 years old—the narrator is deeply disturbed by the order to shoot two men whom he has come to regard more as companions than as the enemy.

The most compelling scene in "Guests of the Nation" occurs when the English prisoners are taken to the end of a bog where a hole has already been dug for their bodies. O'Connor's early narrative strategy of developing the personalities of the two Englishmen now takes on dramatic force as Hawkins, the more garrulous of the prisoners, pleads for his life. Before Donovan shoots him in the back of the neck, Hawkins even offers to join the rebels. After Hawkins is executed, finished off with a shot fired by Bonaparte, the narrative shifts its attention to the usually taciturn Belcher, whose words before his death, in sharp contrast to the bumbling and grotesque behavior of his executioners, take on a dignity and humanity.

Once the executions and burial are over, Bonaparte and Noble return to the house used to hide the Englishmen, thereby shifting the narrative back to the emotional and moral impact of the deaths on those closest to the prisoners. While Noble and the old woman of the house fall to their knees in prayer, O'Connor's narrator goes outside to watch the stars and listen to the dying shrieks of the birds. At the end of the story the narrator turns briefly to his own emotional state immediately after the killings and to the effect of the deaths on his life ever since. He remembers vividly that the executions and the praying figures seemed at a great physical distance from him and that he felt as lonely as a lost child. He also confesses that he has never felt the same about anything since that night. Apparently compelled to tell his story, O'Connor's rebel seems to recognize at the close of his narrative that this single, terrible act of revolutionary violence destroyed his youth and left him permanently disillusioned and emotionally isolated from the human condition, no matter what the cause.

—Richard F. Peterson