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The title of Frank O’Connor’s short story “Guests of the Nation” already implies an important literary technique that will be used throughout the work: the technique of irony. The story is ironic from start to finish, beginning with the four words that constitute its title.
O’Connor’s story is about two British soldiers, Belcher and Hawkins, who have been captured by Irish forces during the Irish war for independence from Britain. The Englishmen are being held in the cottage of an old Irishwoman in the remote Irish countryside. They are being guarded, very loosely, by two Irish guerillas, Noble and Bonaparte, who in turn are supervised by a cold, unfriendly Irish officer named Jeremiah Donovan.
During the course of their stay in the cottage, Noble and Bonaparte have actually become friends with their two captives. The four men spend much of their time together drinking tea and playing cards around a warm fireplace. Donovan seems jealous of the bond that has arisen among the four men, while the old lady actually seems to enjoy the presence of the four men in her home. Eventually, Donovan brings orders that the two Englishmen must be shot as a reprisal for the British army’s execution of some Irish prisoners it held. Donovan blunty explains the situation to Bonaparte:
"There were four of our lads shot this morning, one of them a boy of sixteen."
Later, he is even more blunt in addressing the two Englishmen:
"There were four of our fellows shot in Cork this morning and now you're to be shot as a reprisal."
Bonaparte and Noble are reluctant to participate in the killings, but in the end the executions occur, and Bonaparte and Noble are left with a heavy burden of guilt and sorrow.
In light of all the facts just presented, the various ironies of the story’s title are clear. Although the English live for a time almost as “guests” of their Irish captors, in the end the “guests” are executed because of the demands of war. Executing a “guest” is an enormously ironic act, since guests are usually expected to be treated with special courtesy and respect.
The word “nation” is also somewhat ironic in light of the story O’Connor presents. In the final analysis, the story suggests that national distinctions are (or should be) far less important than the natural bonds that can develop between like-minded persons. The Irishman Bonaparte actually has far more in common, temperamentally, with the Englishman Belcher than he does with either of the other two Irishmen, Noble or Donovan. In fact, neither of the Irishmen, Bonaparte and Noble, have much in common with their fellow Irishman, Donovan. Meanwhile, the Irishman Noble has much more in common, temperamentally, with the Englishman Hawkins than with either of his Irish comrades. Yet in the end national divisions win out over the natural bonds that bind the four friends together.
In all these ways, then, both major words of the title, “Guests of the Nation,” prove variously ironic.
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