Guests of the Nation
|"Guests of the Nation"|
First UK edition of collection
"Guests of the Nation" is a short story written by Frank O'Connor, first published in 1931, portraying the execution of two Englishmen held captive by the Irish Republican Army during the War for Independence. The story is split into four sections, each section taking a different tone. The first reveals a real sense of camaraderie between the English prisoners. With the two Englishmen being killed, the final lines of the story describe the nauseating effect this has on the Irishmen.
Neil McKenzie's stage adaptation of the story received a 1958 Obie Award.
The story opens with two Englishmen, Hawkins and Belcher, being held prisoner by a small group of rebels, somewhere in Ireland, during the Irish War of Independence. They all play cards and argue about politics, religion, and capitalists. The group is housed in the cottage of an old lady, who in addition to tending the house engages the men in arguments. She is a religious woman and quick to scold the men if they displease her.
Bonaparte, the narrator, and his compatriot, Noble, become friends with the English soldiers. Jeremiah Donovan, the third Irishman, remains aloof from the others. He is the officer in charge of the small Irish group. One evening Donovan tells Bonaparte and Noble that the Englishmen are not being held as prisoners, but as hostages. He informs them that if the English kill any of their Irish prisoners, the Irish will order the execution of Hawkins and Belcher in retaliation. This news disturbs Bonaparte and he has difficulty facing his prisoners the next day.
A few days later, Feeney, an intelligence officer for the rebels, arrives with the news that four Irishmen were shot by the English and that Hawkins and Belcher are to be executed that evening. It is left to Donovan to tell Bonaparte and Noble.
In order to get the Englishmen out of the cottage, Donovan makes up a story about a transfer; on the way down a path into the bog, he tells them the truth. Hawkins does not believe him. But as the truth settles in, Hawkins tries to convince the Irishmen not to kill them, arguing that, if their positions were reversed, he would never shoot “a pal.” He asks to be allowed to become a traitor and to fight for the Irish side.
Bonaparte has misgivings about executing the two men. He hopes that they attempt to escape, because he knows that he would let them go. He now regards them as men, rather than the anonymous enemy. Despite Hawkins’s pleadings, the party makes their way to the end of the path where Feeney and Noble are waiting.
Donovan shoots Hawkins in the back of the head. As Belcher fumbles to tie a blindfold around his own eyes before he is shot, he notices that Hawkins is not dead and asks Bonaparte to “give him another.” Belcher displays an inordinate amount of dignity and composure, considering the circumstances. Donovan then shoots Belcher in the back of the head. The group digs a shallow grave and buries them. Feeney leaves and the men go to the cottage, where the old woman asks what they have done with the Englishmen. No answer is given, but she knows nevertheless and falls to her knees to pray. Noble does the same. Bonaparte leaves the cottage and looks up at the dark sky feeling very small and lost. He says that he never felt the same about things ever again.
- Jeremiah Donovan
- The Old Woman
• Guests Of The Nation is an ironic/sarcastic description of British Army hostages seized in the Irish war of Independence by Irish freedom fighters
• Belcher: A large Englishman who is one of the hostages, he was the quieter of the two who ingratiated himself with the old woman of the house by helping her with her daily chores. Belcher had made her his friend for life. Belcher on realizing his fate seemed to accept it as “whatever unforeseen thing he’d always been waiting for had come at last”. His sense of organization sees him preparing his own blindfold for his execution. His courage and generosity sees him request of his executioners that they finish off Hawkins first before he meets his own fate. This is further demonstrated in Belcher's acknowledging to his executioners that they are only doing their duty. Belcher's whole character and personality is found in his last statement. His lover “went away with another fellow and took the kid with her. I like the feeling of a home, as you may have noticed, but I couldn't start another again after that”.
• Hawkins: The second hostage made his captures look like fools when he showed that he knew the country better than they did. Hawkins knew Mary Brigid O’Connell and had learned to dance traditional dances such as the Walls of Limerick. Hawkins had too much old talk and as a result lost at cards. He always argued with Noble into the early hours. He worried Noble about Religion with a string of questions that would puzzle a cardinal. He had a deplorable tone and he could throw bad language into any conversation. A communist and agnostic, Hawkins always argued with Noble about capitalism and Religion. When it came to his execution Hawkins could not believe his fate and thought his friends were joking. Hawkins terror at the prospect of death highlights the futility of the conflict in terms of humanity and the friendships that developed between the captures and hostages. The execution of Hawkins provides a chilling climax to this episode.
• Jeremiah Donovan: He is not the narrator. Irish soldier who does not like the prisoners. Donovan reddens when spoken to and tends to look down at his feet, yet when it comes time to execute the Englishmen, he is strangely energized and excited. Donovan believes in a questionable interpretation of duty to his country, of which he constantly speaks and which he cites as justification for the execution. When Irish prisoners are executed by the English, it becomes clear that he unidimensionally believes in taking an eye for an eye. Donovan is the character who commences the act of killing in the execution scene, though it is the narrator's firearm that is first mentioned by the narrator.
• Noble: A young volunteer who along with Bonaparte guarded the hostages. Noble’s character and personality is expressed in the story in his exchanges with Hawkins. Noble is a devout Catholic who had a brother (a priest) and worries greatly about the force and vigor of Hawkins' terrible arguments. Noble shows his humanity in not wanting to be part of a deception, telling the hostages that they were being shifted again. Yet he understood his duty, and undertook the order of preparing the graves at the far end of the bog.
• Bonaparte: The narrator of this story. It’s not clear from the story the relationship between Bonaparte and the author, but given O’Connor’s role in the I.R.A some comparisons may well be drawn. Bonaparte has the responsibility of telling a terrible and chilling story about a war of independence. These stories are a testament to the butchery and futility of war. The last paragraph of the story best describes the effect this episode had on both Bonaparte and Noble. Communicating on what happened in the bog to the old lady without saying what they did, the description by Noble by the little patch of bog stiffening into it, and Bonaparte “very lost and lonely like a child, a stray in the snow. And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again."
"Guests of the Nation" is the title story of the 1931 Frank O'Connor short story collection of the same name. This collection includes:
- "Guests of the Nation"
- "Jumbo's Wife"
- "Nightpiece with Figures"
- "September Dawn"
- "Machinegun Corps in Action"
- "Soiree Chez une Belle Jeune Fille"
- "The Patriarch"
- "After Fourteen Years"
- "The Late Henry Conran"
- "The Sisters"
- "The Procession of Life"