Individual and History


I recently finished reading, “The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty,” by Sebastian Barry.  Although I don’t read many novels, I decided to get it after a FB recommendation by Trish O’Connor.  Barry is an Irish writer.  I totally enjoyed his lyrical, creative, Irish use of language. In addition there was a fair amount of local vocabulary that sent me to the dictionary.  At times the dialogue reminded me of my grandmother speaking.

I grew up in Bristol Borough, with an Italian father and Irish mother.  As a child although we went to the Irish parish (St. Mark’s), I wanted an Italian identity.  Then in college I read Leon Uris’s “Trinity.”  My eyes opened to Irish history and heritage, particularly, “the troubles,” the Irish drive for independence.  I wrote mother proclaiming that I accepted my Irish heritage even if we didn’t know much about our ancestors.

The “Whereabouts” opens in Sligo, western Ireland, at the turn of the century.  Eneas parents are tailors in a mental institution. His Pappy is also a musician and Mam loves to dance.  Simple people, they live quiet lives, raising their kids.  Eneas isn’t exceptional in any way, has no great talents, is a pretty average kid.  Growing up he has one good friend, Jonno Lynch.

During the first war he joins the British Merchant Navy and is stationed in Galveston, TX.  And so begins his wanderings.  Back home he cannot find employment and so joins the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).  Basically he is a British policeman.  Unfortunately many in Sligo and Ireland, the Irish Republican Army, (IRA) are rising up against the British.  The IRA were known to kill members of the RIC who they saw as traitors.  In 1921, Ireland was partitioned and the Irish Free State was created.  Even though he was not political and left the RIC,  Eneas became a marked man.

Since he did not feel safe in Sligo he travels, ocassionally returning to visit his parents.   He serves in France during WWII. Lives in Lagos, Nigeria where he makes a close friend, Harcourt.  Eneas’s life changes when he gets a pension due to his military service.  He and Harcourt open a home for sailors outside of London.

Eneas’s friend, Jonno, became an Irish patriot.  Several times he warns Eneas that “they” are after his life.  Jonno shows up at the sailor’s home.  He is accidentally shot by someone traveling with him and Eneas sets the building on fire to destroy the dead body. But Eneas thinks Jonno is calling to him and he runs into the fire, to his death.  His wanderings have come to an end.

It was a good story but what struck me most was how historical forces beyond our control can shape our lives.  Eneas wasn’t political, wasn’t particularly pro- Irish or pro-Bristish.  But his service in the Royal Irish Constabulary earned him a label, led to his future wanderings and eventual death.

How many lives of my generation were determined by Vietnam.  Those that served, obviously those that died but even those that resisted, or made career choices based on the war and draft.  How many lives of today’s immigrants driven by economic, social or political turmoil in their home country wander, seeking a new life, seeking asylum in the United States or European democracies.  How many have hopes and dreams shattered by the current Trump administration.

How often do forces beyond our personal, individual control determine our life choices?



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