In Frank O'Connor's short story "Guests of the Nation," why do the Irish soldiers kill their English "guests"?
In Frank O’Connor’s short story “Guests of the Nation,” Bonaparte (the narrator) and Noble are two members of the Irish Republican Army. The IRA has captured two English soldiers, Hawkins and Belcher, who are being held as prisoners in a cottage owned by an old Irish woman. Bonaparte and Noble, who are supposed to be guarding Hawkins and Belcher there, have struck up a kind of friendship with the two Englishmen. Another Irish guerilla, Jeremiah Donovan, seems distant from all the other men, English and Irish alike.
One day, Donovan tells Bonaparte (who then tells Noble) that the two Englishmen will be shot and killed if the English army shoots and kills some Irish prisoners it is holding. This news astonishes Bonaparte and Noble, who want nothing to do with any such killings. Nevertheless, when the English army does in fact execute some of its Irish prisoners, Hawkins and Belcher are indeed shot in reprisal by Donovan, with Bonaparte and Noble as witnesses. Bonaparte is actually the person who puts Hawkins out of his misery through a kind of mercy killing when it is obvious that Hawkins is not yet dead.
Why do Bonaparte and Noble participate in the killings? Various answers suggest themselves, including the following:
- They know that they are expected to follow the orders of their superiors (even a man for whom they feel contempt, such as Donovan). They adhere to military discipline.
- They can think of no way to avoid participating in the killings.
- They realize that they may be shot themselves if they disobey orders.
- They realize that there is no way to change Donovan’s mind or the minds of his superiors, who have made the decision that the Englishmen must be shot.
O’Connor’s tragic story emphasizes that precisely because Bonaparte and Noble have no desire to kill the Englishmen, they are haunted by the killings for the rest of their lives. As Bonaparte puts it at the end of the work,
And anything that happened to me afterward, I never felt the same about again.
Interestingly, readers of this story who are in the military often agree that Bonaparte and Noble have no choice but to follow orders. I offer this comment based on decades of teaching this work.