The Dead Republic is the final novel in Roddy Doyle's trilogy about the life of Irish revolutionary Henry Smart which began with A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing. Born in 1901, Henry begins as a hit man for the IRA until it is determined that he is a liability to the movement and his execution is ordered. He escapes to America where he and his family trek around the country until he becomes separated from them in a train accident which also costs him his leg. This last installment of the trilogy begins in 1946, where Henry turns up collapsed on the desert set of a John Ford film. In something of a parody of the grand entrance he is discovered inadvertently by one of the film's stars, Henry Fonda, who has stepped out behind a rock to relieve himself.
Henry becomes involved with director Ford who wants to shoot a film about the Irish uprising based on Henry's life. Henry agrees, but soon discovers that there is a great divide between movies and life. What Ford is creating is a sentimentalized version of Henry's life; one that Henry finds insulting to everything he remembers. In a story much reminiscent of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Henry learns that there is a significant gap between one's reality and the artistic representation of that reality. Presumably, they are collaborating on the film that was to become The Quiet Man, but very soon Henry discovers that there is a difference between life and art.
Like the characters in Pirandello's play, Henry keeps complaining about the liberties that Ford wants to take with his life. Like the Stage Manager in Six Characters in Search of an Author, Ford keeps trying to explain the need to telescope the events of a life time into two hours of screen time. Henry complains: "He knew what I was doing. I was reclaiming my life. I knew what he was doing. He was making me up. There were two stories being dragged out of me." And Ford's story was nothing but a sentimentalized idyll. The grim grit of the revolution was out, and the beauty of the red headed colleen, as played by Maureen O'Hara, was in.
Henry goes along with it for awhile, but when they finally go back to Ireland to begin shooting and he gets a look at the final script, he runs off in search of the truth of his past. This leads to a happy period of anonymity, equivalent to a kind of tending to one's garden, as he becomes caretaker in a boys' school near Dublin and romances a woman who may or may not have been his lost wife. The dreamland lasts until he is caught in a terrorist bomb blast, recognized as an icon of the revolution and taken up by the IRA as a heroic connection to their roots — a connection to be exploited for their current purposes.
Like John Ford, the leaders of the IRA want to create a Henry for their own purposes. Neither is concerned with the reality. They are all concerned with creating a reality that will have the desired effect — be it aesthetic or political. For the IRA, Henry becomes a tool for their propaganda. As one of their leaders tells Henry, the war for independence is about "the ownership of the definition of Irishness." "The copyright," he goes on. "The brand. Who owns Irishness, hey?" Henry Smart, the real Henry Smart, is unimportant. The Henry Smart they create, that Henry Smart, is significant, and that Henry Smart is to become a kind of saint of the revolution.
In Roddy Doyle, Ireland has once again produced a truly gifted story teller. He weaves in and out, back and forth through a half century of a man's life with finesse. He has created in Henry Smart a character who embodies a "brand" of Irishman quite different from the stereotypical version created by Ford, embodied in character actors like Barry Fitzgerald. He has created a complex round character who is both idealistic when he can afford to be idealistic, and practical when necessary. He has created a character that is not perfect, a character who like most of us is flawed, and not always strong enough to do what we know we should. Still, when push comes to shove, Henry will do what little he can.
While the story line of The Dead Republic is clear enough for those who haven't read the first two books, it would probably be a good idea for readers to start at the beginning. Besides, Henry Smart is a character worth knowing about from the start.