One way to look at Henry Smart, the protagonist and narrator of A Star Called Henry—the first installment of Roddy Doyle’s historical trilogy, released this month in paperback—is as a Herculean- or perhaps Cuchulain-type hero. He has all the characteristics of a Bronze Age big man, and thinking of him in this way may circumvent that decidedly democratic distaste for great deeds and the vaunting of them, often found in egalitarian societies like our own. The fact is that from his birth in the Dublin slums, he has been recognized by all as a prodigious child. Like Hercules who as an infant strangled the serpents sent to kill him by Hera, or the ancient Celtic hero Cuchulain who at age five whipped the 50 snot-nosed king’s sons who came after him with their hurley sticks, Henry’s feats as a child and adult are similarly heroic and amazing.
Because the novel views the historical events leading up to the partitioning of Ireland in 1921 into North and South, and does so through the eyes and voice of Smart himself, some have found his tone a bit immodest. For example, at age five he is cut loose to run amok through Dublin with his brother Victor by a mother numbed to incoherence by gin and childbearing; he then describes himself thus: “I had charm and invention. Women saw the future Henry under my crust and they melted; they saw a future they wanted now and badly and knew they’d never get. They wanted to touch me but they couldn’t, so they patted little Victor instead.”
The first third of the story concerns Henry’s transition from Dublin street urchin to rabble-rouser for Sinn Fein, popularly known today as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army. Henry learns the rough stuff from life on the streets and his one-legged father who is employed as a hit man—using his mahogany leg as a lethal weapon—for Dublin whorehouse owner Alfie Gandon until he disappears when Henry is five.
Like an Irish Zelig, Henry then turns up as a protégé of James Connolly and a soldier in the Irish Citizen Army, which took over the Government Post Office (GPO) in 1916 during the failed Easter Uprising. “I was fourteen. None of the others knew or would have believed it. I was six foot, two inches tall and had the shoulders of a boy built to carry the weight of the world. I was probably the best looking man in the G.P.O. but there was nothing beautiful about me. My eyes were astonishing, blue daggers that warned the world to keep its distance. I was one of the few real soldiers there; I had nothing to fear and nothing to go home to.”
Instead of fighting for ideas of freedom, he is fighting for himself; and because he is more of an anarchist than a revolutionary, the first bullets he fires are over the heads of the British into the fancy Dublin shop windows which he has always been too poor to enter. What begins as class warfare for Henry eventually becomes his calling, and soon he finds that he is good at the killing, hiding, deception and mayhem, that is required of him by Sinn Fein. Jack Dalton tells him that the Irish can’t win against the professional soldiers and Great War veterans sent by the Crown. After all, these were men who had “learnt their killing in Belgium and France, the Punjab and Gallipoli. They’d killed Cossacks, Turks and Zulus. They knew their stuff.” Sinn Fein’s job was to provoke the British into over-reacting and then hope that public outcry would sway voters to their side. Michael Collins assigns Henry to duty organizing and training the country lads for the coming revolution, and he spends three years subversively riding his bicycle through the countryside. He meets and marries a Miss O’Shea who had taught him to write his name, and who now ranges the countryside with a Thomson machine gun clipped to her handlebars, robbing banks and raising hell for the cause of Irish liberation.
Finally, as the truce and partition of Ireland seem to be a reality, Henry realizes that all the lowest classes have done is exchange one master for another. The bourgeois businessmen who jumped on the Sinn Fein wagon as it was nearing legitimacy will be the only ones who will profit from the change in leadership. In a twist of fate, Henry finds himself killing for a Mr. Gandon, the same whorehouse owner who employed his father years ago, now the Minister of Commercial Affairs who has reinvented himself as Mr. O’Ganduin, a patriot fighting since the Easter Uprising.
The book ends with Smart heading for England on the run from Sinn Fein. It is given out that he will be in the Utah Desert and be shot and killed in Chicago sometime in the next two books of the trilogy. Roddy Doyle, author of The Commitments and more recently the Booker Prize winning novel Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, shows that history need not be dry, and fiction need not be myth.