Off the Shelf: The Sunken Road
By Ciaran McMenamin
Harvill Secker ISBN 9781 78 7301900 2021 250 pp. Review by Terry Kenneally
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” is a line from the Odes, by the Roman poet Horace. The line translates, “It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland.” Horace’s line was quoted in the title of a poem by Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum est,” published in 1921, describing soldier’s horrific experiences in World War I.
The Sunken Road is a historical novel about two pivotal stories in Ireland’s history, the foundation of the State, and the Protestant memory of World War I. Nothing is spared in the visceral language used to describe the horrors of war: “bodies float into the sky before raining their parts down on the men below.”
Two farm boys from Co. Fermanagh, a Catholic turned atheist Francie Leonard and his Protestant best friend Archie Johnston, are seduced by the drama of the war in Europe and leave the village to join up with the Ulster 36th Division in 1916. They leave behind them Annie, Archie’s sister and Francie’s love. In a few months they will face the terrors of the Somme (in total over a million men from both sides became casualties during the battle). Before they leave, Francie swears to Annie that he will keep her little brother safe.
The story opens in May 1922 in Northern Ireland, with police constables kicking down the door of a cottage where they believe Francie is staying. After surviving the war, Francie joins the IRA. He quickly becomes notorious for brutally killing people, including a pregnant woman who tried to shield her Inspector husband, killing both her and her unborn child.
The man pursuing Francie is his former staff sergeant, Crozier, an Orange bigot who has made life miserable for Francie because he was a Catholic in a Protestant unit. After the war, still burning with hatred, he becomes relentless in his quest to find Francie.
With this year marking the centenary of the Partition, The Sunken Road couldn’t be timelier. After eluding Crozier at the cottage, Annie accompanies Francie as he makes his way to the Free State border, at Pettigo, a village split between the two states on the Donegal border. Francie joins up with the other IRA forces and they face the British and Crozier in the last major battle of the War for Independence.
McMenamin’s depiction of the war is graphic. Nothing is spared in the visceral language used to describe the horror. He compellingly uses the books interchanging structure of the war in Europe and the War of Independence to build increasing tension. The novel shifts between the race to the south and a slow reveal of what happened between Francie, Archie, and Crozier in the Western Front.
Essentially what Francie is telling us is that if you had seen what he, and Wilfred Owen, had seen, “you would not tell with such high zest… the old lie: “Dulce et decorum est pro patri moi.” The Sunken Road is a gem of a book, and Highly Recommended.