Father Robert Shannon of Boston is a young priest suffering from severe periodic mental instability caused by memories of his service as a U.S. Marine chaplain in the maelstrom of the World War I trenches. He returned to parish work at home at war’s end but was judged incapable of properly fulfilling his pastoral duties by the church hierarchy. His archbishop sends him on a long holiday to Ireland in the hope that the time alone will settle his mind. But the Ireland Father Shannon finds is in the midst of the bloody civil war that followed the winning of independence from Britain. Shannon’s travels through his ancestors’ homeland finds him confronted by the violence he hoped never to see again The trauma is eased somewhat as he adapts to the land and people that represent both the Ireland of myth and legend along with that of brutality and war. As the tale develops, the reader slowly becomes aware that Shannon is also grappling with the illegal actions he had observed within the Catholic establishment back in Boston and that his archbishop’s sending him to Ireland is far from an altruistic act.
Shannon’s struggles with nightmares of the trenches and his duty to stand for truth and honor in Boston, while adjusting to a young nation split apart by civil war, make him both a sympathetic character and a pitiful one.