Guests of the Nation

by Frank O'Connor

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What are the major internal and external conflicts in "Guests of the Nation"?

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One thing that makes "Guests of the Nation" interesting is that the characters’ interactions do not initially reveal their underlying relationships or the story’s outcome. The external conflicts are pronounced: Irish versus English. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) men have captured English soldiers and are holding them prisoner. They are on opposite sides during an ongoing armed and ideological conflict. The Englishmen are being detained as hostages in case they are needed as bargaining chips.

The external conflict is dulled, however, by the apparently genial relationship between the men on both sides: they sit around the farmhouse kitchen joking and playing cards. Reality rears its ugly head, however, as the internal conflicts are brought to the foreground. The Irishmen are tasked with killing the Englishmen. For Donovan, the superior officer, does not seem too conflicted; unfortunately, his aim is bad, and he shoots but does not kill the prisoner. Bonaparte, the narrator, had maintained some distance from the prisoners but still feels guilty about killing them. The deepest conflict inheres in Noble, who has been nonchalantly arguing politics with the Irishmen. After their deaths, he drops to his knees in prayer.

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Although never explicitly stated, the major external conflict in this story is between the British and the Irish. It is set in Ireland in the early part of the twentieth century, during the nationalist uprising against British rule, which would eventually culminate in the formation of an independent Irish Republic.  The narrator, Bonaparte, and his comrades are Irish rebels who are holding two English soldiers prisoner and end up shooting them in retaliation for the execution of four Irish rebels by the British. This much we can deduce from a careful reading of the story. 

The major internal conflict takes place in the hearts of Bonaparte and his fellow-rebel, Noble. Neither of them wish to participate in the executions of the two Englishmen - although their commanding officer, Donovan, appears to be less affected by this. The English soldiers, Belcher and Hawkins, do not appear to Bonaparte to merit such a fate. Bonaparte, in fact, has developed friendly relations with them. It is only the call of abstract political duty that demands their execution.

Bonaparte, then, faces a terrible inner conflict between his conscience and his sense of duty as a political rebel. The executions of Hawkins and Belcher in fact have a life-long effect on him; he says at the end that 'anything that happened me after I never felt the same about again'. The bleakness in his heart during the executions is mirrored in the dark, grim bog where the two Englishmen are hastily and unceremoniously buried:

It was all mad lonely, with only a bit of lantern between ourselves and the pitch-blackness, and birds hooting and screeching all round disturbed by the guns.

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