“The Sniper” by Liam O’Flaherty is a short story set in Dublin, Ireland, during the Irish Civil War in the early 1920s.
The narrative focuses on a single night and follows the harrowing experience of a Republican sniper stationed on a rooftop, illustrating the intense and personal nature of warfare, as well as its broader implications on human connection and the tragic ironies of conflict.
As the story begins, the sniper is described as lying on a rooftop near O’Connell Bridge, eating a sandwich and drinking whiskey to stave off hunger and cold.
Despite the casualness of his actions, the atmosphere is tense, and the city is described as largely desolate, with sporadic gunfire interrupting the silence of the night.
The sniper’s task is to watch for enemy activity and eliminate threats as they arise, embodying the solitary and perilous nature of his role.
The conflict quickly escalates when the sniper spots an enemy armored car and an old woman informant in the street below.
Demonstrating his skill and cold efficiency, he eliminates both threats: first, the informant with a precise shot and then, using his ingenuity, the armored car with a well-placed bullet. However, these actions expose his position to an enemy sniper across the street, leading to a deadly duel that becomes the story’s central focus.
The exchange between the two snipers is tense and strategic, with both men understanding the stakes and the skills of their opponent. The Republican sniper is ultimately wounded but uses a clever ruse to trick his enemy into believing he has been killed.
When the enemy sniper exposes himself, confident in his victory, the protagonist successfully makes a lethal shot, ending the duel.
The story reaches its climax in the aftermath of the confrontation. Shaken by the violence and the killing, the sniper experiences a moment of revulsion and curiosity about the identity of his opponent.
Driven by a mix of remorse and a need to connect with the humanity of his enemy, he decides to risk his life to discover the enemy sniper’s identity. What he finds is a devastating twist of fate: the enemy sniper is his brother.
The central character of the story, the Republican sniper is young, experienced, and highly skilled in warfare.
Despite his youth, he displays a level of cold efficiency and resourcefulness that underscores his survival instincts in the midst of conflict. His character represents the dehumanizing effect of war, as seen in his initial emotional detachment when killing his enemies.
However, he also embodies the human capacity for regret, horror, and empathy, particularly evident in his reaction after discovering the identity of the enemy sniper.
This complex mix of professionalism in combat and vulnerability in his humanity highlights the inner conflict experienced by soldiers during war.
The Enemy Sniper
Although the enemy sniper plays a relatively brief role in the story, his presence is crucial for the narrative’s development and its thematic exploration of war’s personal costs.
He is a skilled and cautious fighter, much like the protagonist, which makes him a formidable adversary.
The enemy sniper’s identity as the protagonist’s brother reveals the deep divisions caused by the Irish Civil War, emphasizing the tragedy of a conflict that pits kin against kin, embodying the story’s critique of civil conflict and its ability to divide families and communities.
The Old Woman
The old woman appears briefly as an informant, pointing out the Republican sniper’s position to the occupants of the armored car.
Her character serves to illustrate the civilian involvement in the conflict and the blurred lines between combatants and non-combatants in urban warfare settings.
Her swift execution by the sniper underscores the brutal and unforgiving nature of war, where suspicion and survival instincts often lead to lethal outcomes for those involved, regardless of their direct combat role.
1. War and its Aftereffects
Firstly, the dehumanizing effects of war are vividly depicted through the experiences and actions of the sniper.
War transforms individuals into mere instruments of conflict, stripping them of their personal identities and reducing them to their roles on the battlefield. The sniper, perched on a rooftop, is initially portrayed as a cold, calculating killing machine, a role necessitated by his environment.
His interactions are with targets, not people, a perspective that war forces upon him to survive. This dehumanization is critical for him to perform his duties without hesitation or remorse.
However, the story also subtly shows his struggle against this dehumanization, particularly through his reaction after killing the enemy sniper, hinting at the internal conflict between his humanity and the desensitizing nature of war.
2. The Duality of Conflicts
Secondly, O’Flaherty explores the irony and futility of conflict, particularly through the story’s shocking conclusion.
The sniper’s enemy, revealed to be his brother, underscores the tragic irony that war can make adversaries of kin, illustrating the senseless divisions and loss that conflict engenders.
This revelation serves as a poignant critique of the civil war, reflecting on the broader absurdity of conflicts where the lines between friend and foe are blurred by political and ideological divides.
The sniper’s victory is rendered pyrrhic, highlighting the futility of war where personal losses eclipse any ideological gains, and the cost of conflict is measured in the irreplaceable loss of human life and relationships.
3. Unexpected Connections
Lastly, the theme of unexpected connections between people, even in the midst of war, emerges as a poignant undercurrent throughout the narrative.
Despite the sniper’s initial detachment, his curiosity about the identity of his opponent reveals a deeply ingrained human desire for connection and understanding.
This moment of vulnerability contrasts sharply with the rest of the narrative, suggesting that beneath the veneer of combatant, there lies a persistent search for humanity and kinship.
The tragic recognition of his brother in the enemy sniper crystallizes this theme, suggesting that beyond political affiliations and wartime roles, there are fundamental human connections that war cannot entirely sever.
“The Sniper” masterfully explores themes of war, violence, and the personal costs of conflict. O’Flaherty uses the setting of the Irish Civil War to highlight the internal conflicts within Ireland and the tragic irony of brother fighting against brother.
The story’s ending leaves a lasting impact, emphasizing the senselessness of war and the profound tragedies that arise from such conflicts, where the lines between friend and foe blur, and the price of survival often comes at a significant personal loss.