“In the Somme valley, the back of language broke. It could no longer carry its former meanings. World War I changed the life of words and images in art, radically and forever. It brought our culture into the age of mass-produced, industrialized death. This, at first, was indescribable.”
–Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New
Imagine an event so horrible that words cannot describe it. Consider the Battle of Verdun where an estimated 700,000 souls perished. Or the Battle of the Somme, where over a million men perished. Consider the particular horror of World War I.
More than 200,000 Irishmen served with the British forces during WWI, which occurred at the same time that the Irish were seeking their independence from Great Britain; a decade-long struggle known as the Irish revolutionary period. Irish leaders believed that their struggle for home rule would be enhanced by their participation with Great Britain in the War to End All Wars.
This is the backdrop for Sennett’s The Music Teacher.
We first see the protagonist, Joe Dooley, as a ten-year-old boy, who hears music in the mundanities of everyday life in Dublin and Queenstown. He has a fine voice, too, and is chosen to lead his class in the weekly singing of hymns. When he enters college, he becomes the principle tenor in the Choral Union, a position that provides him with some little status among his peers. He learns to play the piano, and as a young man becomes a piano teacher. Finding that he cannot support himself on the income from music lessons alone, Joe enlists in the British Army reserve force.
Through Joe’s formative years, and once at college, the ambiguousness of his politics, his beliefs about what was going on around him, his heritage, sees him “…In the company of Jesuits, he defended the Church of England; amongst recruits in the Brotherhood [The Irish Republican Brotherhood; a secret fraternal organization pledged to seek the establishment of an independent democratic republic in Ireland], he found common ground with the R.I.C. [The Royal Irish Constabulary was Great Britain’s police presence in Ireland]. When a student committee proposed requiring knowledge of the Gaelic language as a prerequisite for granting a degree, Joe signed up at once and drafted their charge.”
What Joe was certain about, however, is that as a boy and a young man, his love for his friends—his boyhood friend, Heinrich, called Harry, a German boy in Ireland who would later serve in the German Army; Severin, an older boy who became Joe’s mentor, and was an Irish Nationalist; Donal, a college chum, whose brother was a wealthy businessman who encouraged Joe to join English army—yes, his love for his friends was emotionally, and, in all cases but one, physically reciprocated. Later on, in the war, there was Davy, a volunteer ambulance driver, from whom Joe would learn the essential passion of love. The word “friend” became for Joe a mantra, a magical gift surely given by God; much like music, friendship was at the core of Joe’s understanding of the worth of life.
Joe became a good soldier. Promoted to corporal, his duty became, above all else, to protect and care for his small unit of “Dubs,” his band of Irish brothers fighting in a war that eventually became for Joe an incongruity; something not compatible with the more meaningful fight for Irish independence back home. As he led his men to battle on the Western Front, Joe’s priorities became crystallized, leading eventually to desertion from the British army and taking his friends with him in a circuitous journey back home.
Richard McCormak, the man who had urged Joe to join the British Army, and who later was central to bringing the disillusioned Irish soldiers back home, justified his actions—and certainly mirrored Joe’s eventual epiphany—this way: “In every section and in every regiment…everywhere I went I found men full of disillusion. Some were willing to fight on and if they believed in what they were doing I would offer every bit of metériele, money, and support I could muster. In that I am sure we never compromised their bravery or their commitment. But for every man who stayed and fought I found another who was broken or unable to raise his sights to massacre. These were honest and noble men who feared less for their own lives than for the lives of their friends and their fellows and who thought that it was for their cause we were truly fighting and it was for their freedom and dignity that we had to abdicate our roles as soldiers.”
Sennett is a fine writer. This story flows with ease, and provides a good explication of the historical period in which it is set, as well as one man’s struggle to know himself. It would have been helpful if English translations had been provided for the Gaelic passages in the work. Additionally, I would have liked to have seen a more vivid portrayal of the horror of the war in which much of the storytelling occurs. Yes, I know, that probably wasn’t Sennett’s intent, but the horrid specter of an event that, as Robert Hughes notes, was, at first, “indescribable,” and “changed the life of words…forever” is something that would, at least for me, beg a more thorough description.
Reviewed by George Seaton