Doyle, Roddy: A Star Called Henry

Roddy Doyle, Referat, Hausaufgabe, Doyle, Roddy: A Star Called Henry
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This novel was written by Roddy Doyle, who was born in 1958, and first published in 1999. It enables the reader to get a clear impression of the lives of families in and around Dublin – actually all over Ireland – at the beginning of the 20th century.

Henry was born in 1902 and grew up in the slums of Dublin as the son of a one-legged brothel-bouncer and a mother who lost several of her children and kind of dislikes this son, because he was given the same name as her other son, who died soon after his birth. As soon as Henry could walk he lived on the streets, robbing, begging, always hungry and cold, and cared for him and his younger brother Victor.

At the age of fourteen, when Victor was already dead, Henry, a member of the Irish Citizen Army by then, was one of the rebels who forced their way into and besieged the General Post Office in Dublin. During this time of uprising he met his former teacher, Miss O’Shea, again and had his first sexual relationship with her. When he observes her walking outside where the shootings take place the next day, he beliefs he will never see her again. Still one gets the impression this love is more physical than emotional.

Several days later, Henry and the other members of the new “IRA” under Michael Collins make their way to another building through the hail of bullets. Several friends and colleagues of Henry were killed at the attempt to cross the street.

[page 133]

After the rebels had surrendered, they delivered themselves to the British soldiers. They were held captive then but despite Henry managed to escape. He ended up at Annie’s place, a prostitute who offered him shelter for its own sake.

A few years later, Henry participates in the Irish “War of Independence” as a Fenian. With their guns, parades and marches they made an effort to show the British, things would work a lot better without them.

By then, Henry was prepared to die for Ireland although even then he had not realized all of this system he was part of. His job was to train young Fenians how to fight and ambush properly and was engaged in Dublin whenever they needed an assassin like Henry to kill a spy, rozzer or RIC man. He always received a small piece of paper with a name on it and then delivered the dead body. The aim was to make the life of the British as miserable as possible for them – and he was always accompanied by his father’s wooden leg which assisted him in his killings.

When he encountered his former teacher and first sexual experience Miss O’Shea again, they married, although Henry had “a woman in every ditch”. Together they carried out robberies and killings on their stolen bike. Miss O’Shea even set fire to the RIC barracks herself. Although she and Henry were shot when the “black and tans” persecuted them, both recovered more or less quickly.

This was the point when Henry decided he would not take part in the killings any longer, while his wife even during her pregnancy was an active rebellion and “freedom fighter”.

Henry did not see his daughter until five months after her birth.

He received warnings from former friends and colleagues to be killed soon, because he did not participate in the war any longer which could only mean, he must be on the opponents’ side.

Before Henry decided to go away, to Liverpool maybe, he spent a night at the brothel which once was his father’s “working place”. He did his last killing there - his father’s murderer. The next day he visited his imprisoned wife for a last time and told her he had to go away.

Although the book tells a fictive story about a young man named Henry Smart, an invented character, the historical background is a true one. The novel illustrates the living conditions of the poor and the rebels in Ireland. Doyle created a vivid picture of such a rebel, although to me several incidences and realities appear somehow unrealistic. Further a broad insight into the system behind the Easter Rising of 1916 and the “early” IRA is provided.

This novel also can be seen from a different standpoint: Apart from a kind of “historical” document it can be considered the biography of the first to decades of Henry Smart’s life: His feelings, impressions and thoughts are clearly expressed, because the whole story is told from Henry’s point of view. It is remarkable that the story starts even before Henry was born. Henry being the first person narrator helps to analyse his character:

Concerning his character there are two points of view: The one is, how Henry sees himself and the other one is, how he really is.

Henry is convinced do be a strong character, firm and steady in every situation, in power of the whole world: When he looks at the bullet-riddled houses and the deserted streets after the Easter Rising he thinks, “I’d wrecked the place, brought it to its knees.” [page 135, 4th line from the bottom]

Another outstanding feature is his unbelievable brutality. One might even say, he was born to kill, because there is no evidence in the book he psychologically suffered from the job he carried out. Even when friends of him were shot dead he stated, “I waited to feel something.”

His sexual relationships with several women could be interpreted as an expression of his inner tumult. He probably thought he had to demonstrate his power and strength to the whole world in order to live up to his reputation. Apart from that he is convinced, no woman could ever resist him.

Convinced oft his own power, his influence on practically everything and his cleverness, he feels enormous pride inside when he is allowed to read the Proclamation before everybody else was. The same feeling he gets when several songs began to be created for his honour. He loves to show off, not so much in front of others but in front of himself, and enjoys every second of this triumph and popularity. This makes him feel he cannot be beaten by anybody, which is emphasized by the affirming thought “My name is Henry Smart”.

Still a certain change in Henry’s character takes place at the end of the story: When a friend of himself was killed, for the very first time he experienced the other side of these killings. Until that time it was always him who killed certain “names” written on a piece of paper. Killing them was just part of his job. Despite this development of his character there are no hints of regret or sorrow. He decides to start a new life, but walks away with the same pride that was part of his “old” life. Although he decided to leave his daughter and wife he does not show much grief about that, which seems rather contrary to the completely different aspect of his character that turned up when he first held his daughter in his arms: [page 330, middle of page].

As I already broached, the reader gets to know much about Henry by the way the whole story is told. This goes together with the author’s use of stylistic elements and how vivid he describes the events that take place.

The most remarkable feature of the book also is the most effective one: Doyle expresses the feelings of the characters in any situation through the language. This gives the reader a clear impression of details of the plot: In situations of suspense, for example, he uses short sentences, fills them with a minimum of information and often connects this to an inner monologue of Henry. Several parts of the book contain no more than the thoughts of Henry. In these situations it is only the reflections of the outside world inside his head that explain what is going on.

The language always changes parallel to the plot. Doyle also creates different characters because he uses different types of language or slang, which again are appropriate for the varying characters. Henry’s language, for example, can be characterized ruthless and coarse and contains many swear words.

Although one might consider it inappropriate in several situations, the language even shows some picturesque elements. This again serves the purpose to create a vivid scene inside the reader’s mind: “Flames were licking the clouds.” “There were streams of melted glass creeping onto the street and the heat whipped slices off my face.”

Another habit of Doyle is to jump about and often change places and the centre of attention. This sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to follow, because he needs some time to find out which of the former interrupted plots are continued now.


Apart from the just mentioned difficulty and Henry being kind of an unbelievable egoist with character-features that somehow bothered me, the book is absolutely worth reading. Not only that it provides valuable background information about the living conditions of so many Irish families, one also receives interesting information about the organisation of the IRA in its early days and insight into the background of the Easter Rising.