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At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, despite years of simmering anti British feeling, Irish young men joined the British armed forces in the tens of thousands. During the course of the war over 200,000 served in English uniform, many others with Australian and Canadian units.  Then in April, 1916, 21 months into the 51 month conflict, came the Easter Rising in Dublin. 116 dead British army troops and 318 Irish civilians or rebels, fifteen rebel leaders executed by firing squad, swiftly re-ignited fury at the Empire. Support for the Entente fell away; support for Germany grew.  By the time the war was over and demobilized Irish soldiers came home, in many areas of Ireland, they were regarded as being somewhere on the continuum of traitorous behavior.

Books Canal BridgeTom Phelan has created an powerfully imagined story from these little known years of that war, those troubles. The Canal Bridge, (2014,) with its multiple narrators begins with a memory of three young children, “still in their nappies, staring across the canal at each other,” and quickly moves to 1909, the children in their early teens. The setting is the quiet countryside and small town of Ballyrannel in the Irish midlands, somewhere along the Grand Canal.  The trio at the center of the story are brother and sister Con and Kitty Hatchel and their best friend, Matthias Wrenn, who has come to live with them after the death of his own family in a house fire.  Kitty, about twelve, describes the canal in a school paper, some as if from school-taught facts, some from a child’s interpretation of the world around her.

The canal was ready for barges in 1831.  Each barge is sixty feet long and ten feet wide and can carry forty tons.  If the load is heavier than forty tons, the bottom of the barge will will get stuck on the bottom of the canal and wont’ be able to go anywhere…. There are eight kinds of fish in the canal.  One of them is the eel and it wiggles like a snake.  It will even keep wiggling after its head is cut off.  My brother fried and ate an eel once, and he said it was lovely, but no one else would taste it, except for Matt. … I love the Grand Canal at Ballyrannel.  I can swim in it. The boys can fish in it. I can walk beside the boats floating on their way from Dublin and listen to the funny way the boatmen talk.

 Phelan handles his narrative voices extraordinarily well, from the young Kitty’s paper, to the ribald jesting between her mother and father when they realize she’s seventeen and “lepping all over the place” with Matthias,  “behaving like sick cats when they were near each other.”  Their first kiss, with her in the lead, is tenderly told.  Then the boys, in August of 1913, set off to see the world, new soldiers in the British Army.

 A lad could be sent to any place in the world, to any spot in the empire on which the sun never set, an empire with huge mountains and lakes with no bottoms to them; waterfalls a mile high; rivers a hundred miles across where they floated into the sea.

Their choice does not go unnoticed in the small town. One man in particular tries to rouse local ire that any Irishmen would be joining the British, “when your own country needs you.” It is a tension that will surface again and in the closing chapters come roaring terribly back.

Their hope and wonder as they set out reminds us of our own amazement at names in big schoolroom atlases, places with names like Mozambique, Bombay, Istanbul.  Their imaginings of being sent to a totally exotic India or Egypt ring true.  Even the exuberance they feel from army training, the competition with others, wanting to be better than expected rings with youthful first experience.  We live in their skin.  With foreboding of course because we know:  1913 is followed by 1914.  And so it comes to pass.  On a troop ship in the Mediterranean, with “Egypt on the right” heading for the India of the their dreams, the ship changes course.  Instead of the sun coming up over the bow, it is coming up over the stern.  The rumors seep like canal water through the stones: they are going to France.

Con and Matt are able to stay together, as stretcher bearers. And Phelan writes some of the most unbearable descriptions of life on the Western Front I have ever read — and I’ve read lots. He writes not just of rain and mud and lice and rats, of hunger and exhaustion. He writes:

  At the Somme the earth had been torn up by ferocious shells and it was made liquid by the blood and guts of boy soldiers.  Deep, water filled holes, bigger than  front gardens had been made by repeated explosions that blew the blood and guts and bone and piss and shite and terror high into the sky in sudden plumes. The water in the holes had bits and pieces of men and horses floating on the surface, along with bits and pieces of shattered timber that had once been wagons and gun carriages.  Bits and pieces of horses and men were half-buried in the muck of the ruined  farmland.  Whole bodies lay on the surface too, their arms still in sleeves, fingers curled purplish in death; bits of head covered with matted hair, stirring in the moving air; lower jaws of men and horses, all teeth; bits of horses’ legs with iron shoes still nailed onto the hooves; big balls of guts and strings of guts; bits of rifles … a soldier’s decomposing face staring at the blue of the summer sky with empty eye sockets, a rat feasting on its lips…

Books Canal Bridge Horse

The narrative moves between the various characters, each speaking  in their own first person voice, between life at the front and life in Ballyrannel, between present experience and recent and distant memory, never with confusion for the reader. We always know who is speaking, and the references, often to a person or event described by another, unfolding not like a mystery to be worked out but as we do in daily common experience of hearing differing accounts by others.  And always written in a finely done Irish-English, not much like anything we’d hear in America, or among American WW I soldiers at the front.

“And we sailed down into the Bay of Biscay.  Sweet Jesus tonight! as Mammy used to say, The Bay of Biscay! Until now it had only been a blue place shaped like a backwards C in the atlas.  And here I was, leaning over the rail, looking at the front of the ship, slicing through the smooth water like the sharp coulter of a plow, pulled through a field of lea by three strong horses.”


She whirled around on Matthias and, with hands and crumpled veil spread over her face, screeched at him to go away. Matthias threw his arms around her like the Christian in the Colosseum throwing a net over a lion in the picture in the penny catechism, and Sarah hid her face in his shoulder and kicked at his shins like a turkey with its legs tied for weighing upside down at Christmas time. When she became quiet enough to hear him, Matthias said, “I told you lies too, Sarah.  We told lies to each other.”

 I’ve been looking for, and reading, fictional treatment of war, especially, WW I, for over a year now — consumed with trying to understand why we human beings are so ready to go to, or pay for, war;  why the recent past is so easily forgotten.  Not ten years after the debacle on the American invasion of Iraq, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost and the shrapnel continuing to fly from that explosion, over half of Americans in a recent Pew Poll, and over 80% of Republicans, approve of US troops being sent to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS.  Since the basic question is much too large to get a grip on, I’ve settled for the slightly less intimidating one of how writers, some of them combat veterans, represent war; its destruction and its thrill, its killing and its courage, its fear and the self-doubt.  I am particularly attentive to how, if at all, opposition to the war — whether growing in a soldier at the front, or keeping a young person, draftee or potential volunteer, from going at all — is portrayed. The Bridge Canal stands out here, as well. Unlike so many of the fiction, and memoirs, of war, opposition is not confined to grousing and cursing among those holding similar views.  The hardest thing about opposition is to actually stand and oppose.

Con Hatchel, exhausted, filthy and maddened by what he has experienced confronts the most senior British General of the war, Field Marshall Haig, by passing himself off as a messenger with vital information.  He does not present a fine, soldierly appearance, or demeanor.  Haig shouts ‘he’s mad!’ and Con replies:

“I’m not mad at all,” the soldier said, “and I’m dirty because I’ve come from the place you sent me to. I came from the trenches in no man’s land. There’s bits of dead soldiers in my boots and on my uniform and in my pockets and that’s why I stink like an open grave, but that’s all beside the point.  The message I have for you is what’s important Mr. Haig.  … Look at me Field Marshall Haig!” the soldier shouted.  “Look at me!  I am one of your soldiers!  Look at me, goddamn you! Look at me! I am the message.  Look at me!  Smell me!  It’s me and the state I’m in, that’s the message and I am the message and I am from all the lads! … All these lads in the trenches with the rats, and the lads dead and the rats eating them,” the soldier said. “The lands out in the land, rotting under their packs, or drying out like mackeral on the wire, the lads floating in the shell-hole, all swelled up like drowned dogs in the canal with a rock tied around their neck….

Con is arrested, of course, and sentenced to execution by firing squad the next morning for insubordination. He is found dead before the execution can take place, to the fury of the officers, and the cause of which I’ll leave you to discover, reading the book.  With his death comes a re-working of the morality of killing, which I have read elsewhere [The First Casualty, for instance] — that killing someone known, especially when to prevent great suffering, is far less a crime than the indiscriminate, anonymous death of great mechanized war.


I’ve read of French and Germans, Americans and British, Turks, Romanians, Hungarians and Czechs caught up, and some gladly so, in this war. The Irish of Phelan’s book add to the terrible mosaic, and it is at the top of my list of books for those trying, as I do, to understand it all.  The descriptions of the men in the trenches is as graphic and detailed as anything I’ve read; some of it unbearable; all of it as close to real experience as can be found.  Even the repetition of some of the descriptions seems right, coming from the minds of those blasted by the sights and sounds and smells.  What else would be more appropriate than to repeat what is burned into the mind?

Of course, however real descriptions of war are, there are those who will not be persuaded.  For some, the adrenaline surge of imagined battle — and always, victory– will trump another’s realism. Some will believe against all evidence, that they themselves will come through unscathed: some always do, why not me? Some.  But perhaps fewer than if such books as The Canal Bridge had not been written.  War has had it’s heralds of glory from the earliest days of human story telling.  Those who tell its horrors are few. More power to them.

It is more than just a war story, though. Multiple stories, multiple people, lives intersecting hold our interest and investment in these “others.”  The love between Kitty and Matthias, the recovery from ‘war fatigue’ by Sarah, the local trouble-makers, the friendship between Protestant and Catholic and the final, climactic re-emergence of deadly battle from which Matt had come home, intact, build a story we fully inhabit.  It may be somewhat surprising for anyone caught in the romance of the IRA and their resistance to British colonialism to read that some of the “lads” were not very nice people; that very good people lost their lives; that leaders of rebellions can be as careless of lives as the leaders of great armies.  It is so, of course, and past time when it should be spoken of.

The reading, for the Audible edition, by Paul Nugent  with multiple regional Irish accents, though at times difficult to understand, is a tour de force.  “Brilliant” as the Irish like to say.  As usual, if you like a good reader, I also recommend the “whisper-sync” feature so the text can be referred to from time to time and as necessary.  It’s a book you well may return to.