A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry

A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry is a historical fiction novel in which the main protagonist, Willie Dunne, joins the military to prove to himself and his father that he can be more than a short teenage boy.  As a young Irish boy, he dreamed of joining his father in the police force, but he never grew to the required height.  After disappointing his father, Willie meets a young woman, Gretta, and falls in love, just before he leaves for the front lines in Belgium.  Willie is a bit dull when it comes to the politics behind WWI, but he’s also dull about the politics and struggle facing his home country of Ireland.

Barry’s prose meanders is a storytelling fashion that dates back to the old days in Ireland, and is likely to remind readers of Frank Delaney’s storytelling style.  Willie’s mind wanders into his past as a boy to the present situations he finds himself in at the front lines, with a variety of men who are as young as he is.  It is clear that these men he mentions are names that will either be soon forgotten as the ravages of war take them or who are men that make an impression on Willie’s psyche, such as Father Buckley.

“Four men killed that day.  The phrase sat up in Willie’s head like a rat and made a nest for itself there.”  (Page 21)

“As they approached the war, it was as if they went through a series of doors, each one opened briefly and locked fast behind them.” (Page 37)

“The first layer of clothing was his jacket, the second his shirt, the third his longjohns, the fourth his share of lice, the fifth his share of fear” (Page 43)

Barry’s prose is clipped when necessary to demonstrate the immediacy of war-time battles, but also it slows down the action as Willie reflects on the battles, the gas attacks, the deaths of his comrades, and more as he attempts to process all that he’s seen.  There are gruesome gas attack scenes as the mustard gas inches its way across no-man’s land and down into the trenches, filling every open crevice with its nasty poison, including the open mouths of men caught in the trenches without gas masks or even well-secured gas masks.  Barry’s work not only demonstrates the physical trials of war, but also the mental hardships that accompany the loss of friends and people you didn’t even really have time to get to know, as well as deal with the bureaucracy that is the military and the perceptions of others about your commitment to the cause and battles that happened in the past that you witnessed first hand and may not be retold in the way in which they actually happened.  There is a battle that rages inside each soldier about when to speak up and when to keep quiet, and Willie struggles with that daily.

Willie can be a trying character in that he has little knowledge of the politics around him and has little opinion on the matter, and this can keep readers at an emotional distance.  However, Barry has crafted a novel that demonstrates the ins and outs of war at a time when modern mechanisms were just coming into play, even though much of the combat was still hand-to-hand and the troops conditions saw little improvement.  Additionally, it seems that Barry is attempting to comment on “authority” whether it is in the parent-son relationship, the soldier-military relationship, or the citizen-country relationship, but the message becomes quite muddled.  It would almost seem as though the narration is trying to tackle too much in the way of the “authority” figure relationship, making it harder for readers to clearly make out the purpose of so many “father” figures in the narration.

A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry takes a while to get into, but once you begin the journey with Willie, you’ll want to see if he returns to Ireland knowing his own mind — the one requirement Gretta has made of him before she will agree to marry.  While Willie thinks of her often, he also has to contend with the daily trials of war and military service.  The novel is does not gloss over the gruesome aspects of trench-life and warfare, so be warned.  In fact, some of the best and most suspenseful scenes were those involving mustard gas, which Willie and his fellow soldiers had never seen before; Barry did well in describing how it crept across the battlefields.  Overall, a worthwhile look at WWI from the point of view of an Irish soldier caught between his loyalties for Ireland and the British army.

About the Author:

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His play, The Steward of Christendom, first produced in 1995, won many awards and has been seen around the world. His novel, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, appeared in 1998. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.

This is my 7th book for the WWI Reading Challenge.



This is my 15th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.




This is my 1st book for the 2012 Ireland Reading Challenge since the main protagonist is Irish and must cope with being away during WWI while uprisings are occurring in Ireland for independence from England.  The author also was born in Dublin.


  1. Your review will be featured on WTTG on April 5.

  2. I’ve not read this one yet, but I loved The Secret Scriptures (read for the 2011 Irish challenge) and On Canaan’s Side , which I read earlier this year. I love his lyrical writing, and find his interpretation of Irish history very absorbing.

  3. It’s an interesting premise for a novel. I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it.

  4. Here is another author whom I have not read yet. If my memory serves, he’s written quite a few books too.

  5. This sounds like one for me to read especially because I feel like there are huge holes in my knowledge and reading for WWI!

  6. I can’t believe I’ve never read any Sebastian Barry – but this one goes on the to-read list! I linked to this review on the main Ireland challenge page. 🙂

  7. I am glad that you liked it more than Anna did 😉 Since I gave the suggestion about it. I think that the style worked really well for me here, but honestly in another book, well there might now have worked

    • I had no idea that you suggested A Long Long Way. Wonderful selection and it worked for three of my challenges, which I appreciated greatly.

  8. This one sounds like a good one for the challenge Serena. I think I may have seen it on my library site. I’ll have to check again. Great review!

  9. This was really not a book for me which is sad as some scenes are so memorable. Stlye and ending were not at all what I like. I’m still glad I read it, as all the charcaters and scenes I liked will stay with me. I have added your review to my readalong post. I hope that is OK?

    • Thanks for adding my review to your read-a-long post. I really was behind in reading being sick for the past few weeks. I think this is a worthwhile novel, but the style is something I’ve seen before so it didn’t bother me as much…the adjectives were a bit over-the-top and oddly placed, but I could ignore that once I was invested in Willie. The ending didn’t surprise me to be honest given the realities of WWI.

  10. Some of the war scenes do sound brutal, but this sounds like an important book.

  11. I will be reviewing this book today, too. I thought it was interesting but I couldn’t follow what was going on in Ireland myself, so I felt as lost as Willie did at times!

  12. Glad to know that you like this novel. I loved both The Secret Scripture and On Canaan’s Side. I’ll have to get this one and give it a try too.


  1. […] the Unionists and the Nationalists!  These were mentioned in A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry (my review), but it was so confusing given the main character, Willie had little knowledge of politics related […]

  2. […] ~ A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry, reviewed by Serena at Savvy Verse & Wit […]