Style and Technique
One of the most important components of technique in “Guests of the Nation” is Frank O’Connor’s masterful use of irony. An early instance of irony, apart from the story’s title and the repetition of the word “chum” (underlining the failure of friendship in the plot), is the reference to the Irish dances that Belcher and Hawkins have learned, whose titles (“The Walls of Limerick,” “The Siege of Ennis”) allude to divisiveness, violence, and war, which undercut the harmony of the social occasion. Further, the narrator’s word to describe the timbre of Belcher’s speech, “peaceable,” ironically contrasts with the reason the British soldiers are kept captive, as well as their fate.
Indeed, ironies run throughout the story: The two soldiers executed are among the most congenial to the country and its culture; the religious doubter Hawkins is the first to discover the truths about the afterlife (by being the first killed); Belcher is so considerate of his executioners that just before he is shot he asks their forgiveness for his sudden outpouring of talk, explains his thoughtful wish to speed things up because he knows the delay is painful to them, and finally absolves them all with consoling words. Finally Belcher’s blindfold, made by knotting his handkerchief with Bonaparte’s, ironically symbolizes the union that should have prevented Belcher’s pitiful death, while it is also connected to the story’s motif of blindness—to human community and to the twists of fate, summarized in the repeated key word “unforeseen.”
The history of Ireland is one of domination by the British and of conflict between Protestants and Catholics. During the nineteenth century efforts were made to reduce the power of the British over the island. These efforts spawned a revolutionary movement that sought full separation from Britain. The potato famine and other crop failures added to the urgency of these rebellions. The Fenian Movement (represented in part in the story by Feeney) was a secret society determined to wreak havoc on English interests in Ireland and thereby drive them out of the country.
These movements came to the fore at the end of World War I. Despite several political acts by the English Parliament that tried to establish home rule for the Irish, the Irish Rebellion began in full force. After many of the local police quit in protest against the British, new recruits were brought into the country, called the Black and Tans. These militias were known for their brutality and ruthlessness. This is the setting for the story. After several years of ‘‘The Troubles,’’ the British representative Winston Churchill threatened an all-out war to subdue the Irish. Michael Collins agreed to a division of the country and independence for the south of Ireland. The Irish Free State was established in 1922. The Irish felt that Collins had sold them out in these negotiations, and he was assassinated soon after.
The northern six counties, collectively known as Ulster, were not included inside the new national boundaries. They are now know as Northern Ireland. It is here that the ‘‘Troubles’’ have continued with political and military confrontations. In 1998, promise of peace was made possible when the British government, the Irish government, and the warring parties in Northern Ireland signed an accord that established a framework for democratic resolutions to the ongoing disputes.
It was during the Irish Rebellion and the establishment of the Irish Free State that Frank O’Connor lived. These experiences shaped his attitudes about his homeland and the institution of warfare. He was a lifelong spokesman for Ireland and things Irish. Even after his move to the Unites States, he continued to write about Ireland. He once said, ‘‘I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said.’’ But he never changed...
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