Both the first and last words of the title of Frank O’Connor’s short story “Guests of the Nation” are extremely ironic. O’Connor’s story describes the highly unusual relationship that develops between two English soldiers (Belcher and Hawkins) who are being held as prisoners by two Irish soldiers (Bonaparte and Noble) during the Irish War for Independence. Because the Irish Republican Army is a guerrilla force rather than an army with massive resources, the prisoners are being held inside the country cottage of an old Irish woman, whose name is never given. The other major figure in the work is an Irish officer named Jeremiah Donovan.
During the time that the English soldiers have been held as prisoners, they have actually struck up surprisingly friendly relations with their two Irish guards. Bonaparte has much in common with Belcher, and Noble has much in common with Hawkins, especially in terms of personalities. Bonaparte and Belcher are both quiet and reserved, while Hawkins and Noble love to argue with each other about religion. Ironically, their arguments make them even closer to one another than is true of Bonaparte and Belcher. The old woman, meanwhile, likes both of the Englishmen, but especially Belcher, who treats her with great courtesy, while Donovan seems really close to no one else in the story. In fact, he seems to resent the close relations that have developed between the prisoners and their guards.
The fact that the Englishmen are referred to in the title as “guests” is highly ironic on several levels. In the first place, they are technically enemies but are treated as guests by Noble, Bonaparte, and the old woman. Secondly, although they are technically enemies of the Irish, the Englishmen treat the Irish with the kind of friendship and fellowship one might ideally hope to receive from one’s guests. Finally, and most ironically of all, at one point the Irish guards are given orders by their superior officers (including Donovan) to execute Belcher and Hawkins – not because of anything Belcher and Hawkins have done, but because the English army has executed some Irish prisoners it has been holding. The executions of Belcher and Hawkins are partly ironic, then, because they have done nothing to deserve execution. And their executions are excruciatingly ironic because their own friends, Bonaparte and Noble, must participate in the deed. Even the names of Bonaparte and Noble are very ironic – just two of many touches of irony in this extraordinarily ironic story.
The word “Nation” is also ironic to some extent. Ultimately, it is not the Irish “nation” that executes Belcher and Hawkins; if that were the case, the deed would seem much more impersonal. Ultimately it is Bonarparte and Noble who must spend the rest of their lives troubled morally and/or spiritually by the act in which they have participated. O’Connor’s story reminds us that it is never really “nations” who kill; rather, it is the individual soldiers who must represent their nations during times of war, often if ways that scar those soldiers, physically and/or mentally, for life.
In the famous final lines of the work, it is not the Irish nation that speaks; instead, it is the tormented Bonaparte:
And anything that ever happened me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.