Guests of the Nation

by Frank O'Connor

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In the first of the four numbered sections of “Guests of the Nation,” the main characters are introduced. Though Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) are not named explicitly, through mention of names such as Claregalway, reference to the British as foreigners, and dialectal expressions such as “divil” (devil), the implicit premise is established that two ordinary British soldiers have been abducted by the IRA and have been held on a rural farm for a period of several days or weeks. Just as the British soldiers got on well with their prior IRA captors in the Second Battalion, even attending Battalion dances, so they play cards with their present captors and are on friendly terms with them and the somewhat peevish old woman who owns the farm where they are being kept, largely because of Belcher’s considerate actions toward her.

The tempo of the plot, which takes place in only two days, quickens in the second through fourth sections. In the second section, after the description of yet another nocturnal argument about religion and capitalism between the devout Irishman Noble and his contentious, atheistic captive Hawkins, Bonaparte discovers (as does the reader) from his superior Donovan that their British prisoners are actually hostages, who soon may be shot in retaliation for the threatened execution of imprisoned IRA members. Indeed, as narrated in the third section, the next evening Donovan calls at the farm to implement the retaliation for the execution that day of four of the Irish “lads” (one of whom was only sixteen years old). With the reluctant help of Noble and Bonaparte, who have grown fond of them, the prisoners are taken out into the marshes near the farm, Hawkins arguing all the way, once he has learned what is in store for him and Belcher.

Finally, in the fourth section, a little later in the evening at the bog, Hawkins—despite his vehement arguments and objections and offering to desert and turn renegade—is suddenly shot by Donovan and then again minutes later (at Belcher’s behest) by the disinclined narrator in order to hasten the lingering death caused by Donovan’s poor aim. After Bonaparte and Donovan help Belcher with a blindfold, the group listens to a surprising outburst of talk about his life from the usually taciturn soldier. Obviously moved, Noble seems about to intercede when Donovan hastily executes the second prisoner. After Bonaparte and Noble return to the farmhouse that night, they and the old woman have powerful feelings of regret or remorse, which the narrator says forever affected and altered his subsequent experience of life.

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