Written by Brian Gallagher
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

Balbriggan, Ireland, 1919. The First World War is over, but the increasingly violent demands for Irish independence are threatening to precipitate war with the rest of Britain. Thirteen-year-old Johnny knows which side he’s on—the Irish. Brought up in a brutal Catholic orphanage, he’s now a general helper-out at the Protestant Mill Hotel. Two things brighten up his life: his dreams of making it as a musician (he’s a talented clarinetist) and his friendship with Stella and Alice, both eleven.

Stella’s father is the Commanding Officer at the nearby British R.A.F. base. She’s on the British side, but she’s appalled by the brutality of the Black and Tans, ex-WWI soldiers brought in to deal with the Irish so-called rebels. Alice’s mother runs the Mill Hotel. Politically, Alice is undecided but she dislikes the way her mother treats Johnny. He can’t help being an orphan, so why should her mother look down on him?

When Johnny secretly becomes a spy for the I.R.A., things take a dangerous turn…

What I admire about Gallagher’s writing is that he never forgets that it’s the adults who are the driving force in what becomes an increasingly dangerous war of attrition. The three children’s thoughts, aspirations and activities are set against a background over which they have very little control. He is interested in how children grow up in a world where there are those fighting, on both sides, who don’t care who they hurt.

Johnny, Alice and Stella have to grow up fast, to decide for themselves what sort of people they want to become. Johnny and Stella must also come to terms with their own past traumas; and all three must decide whether their friendship can survive the political divisions between them and how far they’ll go to help each other. Highly recommended.