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.
We had a lively discussion about Roddy Doyle’s “A star called Henry”. Many of the group had been unsure about reading it because they could see it would be about Ireland’s troubled history and lots of violence, but actually, once they read it, they viewed it positively. In fact everyone who attended the discussion, enjoyed the book, though they found the history it portrayed, very upsetting. Henry Smart and his father carry the tale that is written in the oral tradition style, yet with vivid description in pithy couplets. Henry Smart and his father for whom he has been named, are larger than life characters who use his father’s leg as an effective weapon. As with the scene at the General Post Office, there is an element of myth and legend, more grandiose in the telling. Doyle gives a positive view of women as they fight alongside the men and particularly his wife causes a lot of damage. Doyle provides a vivid picture of the Dublin slums in the 1920s and 30s. It is a political novel but does not take sides. It was what it was. The conditions were deplorable for the ordinary people and soldiers returning from the war, suffering from post-traumatic stress and with no job or income, were an easy target for the British to use to keep order in Ireland as the Black and Tans. So people were ripe for rebellion against the British. However as Henry Smart found, they were all just used for political ends and social reform did not happen. Instead the IRA got power and destroyed any who disagreed with them, or who stood in the way of their own political or monetary gain. Henry Smart started off being hunted by the British, but by the end he was also on the IRA hit list – the very people he had helped bring to power. He realises his ideals of fighting for reform were only his and that he has been used. He ends up on the run, leaving for America.
There were less of us at this reading group session so maybe that has skewed the figures, but we gave this book 8 out of 10.
Elisabeth, Upper Norwood Library Group