Somewhere in Ireland during the time known as “The Troubles,” the era of the civil war that led to the creation of the Irish Free State, three soldiers identified only as Republicans are struggling through a snowstorm in mountainous terrain. They are described only as a man with “grim young eyes”; a man referred to by the others as the commandant who has “a forlorn look in his eyes”; and a huge man walking bareheaded and erect who has a “proud, fearless face.” The commandant is seriously wounded following an ambush in which their column was wiped out, and the three soldiers are trying to reach the sanctuary of a mountain tavern that the first man knows about. Snow has been falling steadily for many hours and the features of the countryside are hidden beneath a “bare, flat” landscape, a moorland that is “silent, oh, silent as an empty church.” The setting is as bleak as the men’s prospects. All that they can see as they search for shelter are “falling flakes of white snow, undeflected, falling silently on fallen snow,” an image of desolation stretching toward infinity.
The commandant is very weak from the stress of his wounds, “blood on his coat, on his hand, and congealed on his black leggings,” and the soldiers are aware that they are being pursued, but the possibility of finding safety and warmth in the tavern gives them the impetus to proceed. The first soldier recalls the tavern in better times to encourage his mates, “two storey high and a slate roof with sun shining on it,” but when they abruptly come on it, it appears as a ruin, “a crazy blue heap,” with smoke rising from its base. The soldiers are stunned, then enraged, but before they can make any kind of decision about what to do, a group of people appears around the house. The people have clearly been through some trial of their own, as indicated by the strange state of their dress. There is a woman with a “long overcoat buttoned over her dress and a man’s overcoat on her shoulders” holding a hat with red feathers, two thin children “in queer clothes,” and two men trying to salvage some items from the wreckage.
The two groups face each other, frozen by a kind of paralysis of despair, until the commandant suddenly cries out, “Stand fast. Stand fast boys. Stand.” in a last instant of consciousness before collapsing in death. Rather than holding their ground, they are propelled by this terrifying incident into frantic grief as the youngest soldier implores the woman for some kind of assistance. Her response is to call them “daylight robbers” and to accuse them of burning down her house. The soldier’s attempt to explain that it was their adversaries who are responsible is lost on the woman, who sees both sides as equally guilty. “Ain’t I ruined and wrecked for three long years with yer fightin,” she demands, giving tongue to a sentiment felt by many citizens of the country. Her anger is illuminated as one of the men from the tavern describes a fierce battle earlier in the day in which the house was used as a fortress and destroyed by a bomb, with the survivors of the explosion carried off in cars to an unknown fate.
In the aftermath of this explanation, both groups settle into silence and immobility, the two soldiers sitting exhausted and dazed in the snow, the family that managed the tavern for the previous twenty years unable to reconcile their fury with any recognition of the humanity of the soldiers. In an awful expression of the most grievous wounds of war, the gaze of the tavern owner is filled with “hatred” and “curious apathy,” while the anguish of the soldiers over their comrade’s death is regarded with “the serene cruelty of children watching an insect being tortured.”
The narrative action of the story has been marked to this point by a steady decline in the fortune and spirit of the soldiers, but the third soldier has seemed indestructible until now. Finally, even his resolve is overcome. “Let them take us. I’m tired fighin’. It’s no use,” he says, but this wrenching admission of defeat is merely a prelude for further brutality as the soldiers of the Free State arrive. Their roundup of all the people at the tavern is brusque and pitiless, their leader expressing a cold pleasure at the discovery of the dead commandant. “So we got him at last. Eh? Heave him into the lorry, boys,” he orders. The entire troop and their prisoners descend into the valley, with no sign of human pity, no mercy, no compassion. All that remains of the carnage is the “black ruin” of the tavern, and the “black spot” where the body of the commandant had fallen. The night and the snow, falling “like soft soothing white flower petals,” provide a natural relief from the horror, a sort of benediction from the cosmos for a remnant of humanity that seems, temporarily, to have lost its capacity for the grace of forgiveness.
Style and Technique
To render its impact in the broadest terms, O’Flaherty has fashioned “The Mountain Tavern” in the form of a folktale. All the primary characters are intensely concentrated but none of them is very complex. The “voice” of the narration is distant and removed, like a legend filtered through time in which the narrator is content to let the events speak for themselves and the details accumulate strength through directness. The lyric beauty of much of the descriptive writing is understated but extremely evocative. A poignant contrast between the supple poetic power of the writing and the stark and chilling events that are described is developed as a means of charging the mood of the story with dramatic tension. The entire story is like an unrelenting poem of force and fracture, in which a sustained, intense vision of a terrifying reality is created and held throughout the narration.
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