Born in the Dublin slums of 1901, his father a one-legged whorehouse bouncer and settler of scores, Henry Smart has to grow up fast. By the time he can walk he’s out robbing and begging, often cold and always hungry, but a prince of the streets. By Easter Monday, 1916, he’s fourteen years old and already six-foot-two, a soldier in the Irish Citizen Army. A year later he’s ready to die for Ireland again, a rebel, a Fenian and a killer. With his father’s wooden leg as his weapon, Henry becomes a Republican legend – one of Michael Collins’ boys, a cop killer, an assassin on a stolen bike.
I received this book for Christmas and had intended reading it next month, what with the month that’ll be in it and all (for non-Irish readers next month is the centenary celebration of the 1916 Easter Rising, the opening shots effectively in our War of Independence) but when it got selected for a bookclub, it moved up my reading list slightly.
Other than The Barrytown Trilogy, I haven’t read many of Doyle’s books, though I’m aware they cover quite a spectrum from children’s to adult books, dealing with a number of issues in what can only be classed as a very Dublin way. However for the most part his books are based in contemporary Dublin, a Dublin Doyle and indeed I know. A Star Called Henry however is a historical novel and as a result has a different feel to it than the Barrytown books. The Dublin wit and spirit is till there but as a historical novel the Dublin portrayed isn’t one Doyle knows, only heard or read about.
There is tendency to romantise the Easter Rising. It is a defining moment in Irish History, the event which would change the course of Ireland’s destiny. For one week, a handful of Irish men and women would hold out against the might of the British Empire. For generations these men and women have been held up as martyrs to the cause of Irish freedom. Doyle however takes a slightly different tact. There’s a touch of O’Caseys Three Dublin Plays particularly The Plough and the Stars or Connolly’s Strumpet City to this book, between the colourful characters so typical of Dublin (Granny Nash is quite something) and the touch of irreverence towards the Rising. Doyle is giving a voice to the people of Dublin’s squalled tenements, a group often overlooked in Irish History about the period.
It’s easy to see why some noses may have been put out of joint when this was first published. Doyle doesn’t exactly paint the most flattering portrait of the leaders with the exception of Connolly, the socialist labour leader, who he clearly admires. Neither Padraig Pearse (one of the main leaders in 1916) nor Michael Collins (the military mind behind the War of Independence) come out exactly smelling of roses. Pearse is portrayed as a pious radical, happy to go to his death, taking his men with him, in the name of Ireland’s freedom. Interestingly a recent TV series by RTE about the Rising called Rebellion portrayed a similar version of Pearse and came in for a lot of criticism as a result. Collins, one of the great romantic heros of Irish independence (seriously people leave flowers and love letters on this grave to this day) is shown to be thoroughly rootless, willing to dispense with those no longer of use to the cause or who have become a liability.
Henry is an interesting and likeable character. He is Dublin’s answer to the Artful Dodger. Clever, cheeky and by necessity a survivor. He never sinks into self pity or depression, no matter what life throws at him. Overall I preferred the earlier section of the book prior to the Rising when Henry is a kid. There is a lightness to the earlier sections missing from sections, though it also includes the scene which made me cry, the death of Henry’s younger brother Victor in a dank alley from TB. Henry is his own man in the early sections, with his own code of ethics and answering to no-one. As the book progresses he increasingly becomes a pawn in something much bigger then he.
One of the most disturbing elements in the book is Henry’s relationship with Miss O’Shea, his one time teacher and later love interest. I’m honestly not entirely sure what Doyle was seeking to achieve with this story line. For me Miss O’Shea was yet another adult in Henry’s life who should have looked out for him, but ultimately let him down, and used him for her own ends.
I enjoyed this book, but I didn’t love it the way I loved The Barrytown Trilogy. Also while Irish readers will enjoy it, I’m not sure of the degree it would transfer to non-Irish readers. I suspect you would need at least some familiarity with Irish history and the main characters in other to appreciate elements of this book. For anyone interested in reading a book set during the Rising, I’m not sure that this would top my list, though I’m honestly not sure what I would recommend instead….Maybe O’Casey.