The Canal Bridge

By: Tom Phelan

Publication Date: September 2005

(9 customer reviews)


The Canal Bridge by Tom Phelan

‘A lad could be sent to any place in the world, to any spot in the empire on which the sun never set, an empire with huge mountains and lakes with no bottoms to them; waterfalls a mile high; rivers a hundred miles across where they floated into the sea …’

Ireland 1913, on the eve of the First World War. Matt Wrenn and Con Hatchel, inseparable friends, join the British army in search of escape, adventure, the wonder of exotic lands, and the security of regular money in their pockets. To some they are making something of their lives; to others, they are traitors to Ireland.

As they sail to their first posting in India, they find themselves diverted to France- to the fields ‘made liquid by the blood and guts of boy soldiers’. For four years Con and Matt become part of the terrible savagery of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. Back home in the Irish Midlands, Con’s sister and Matt’s sweetheart, Kitty, recalls their carefree childhood on the banks of the local canal, and hopes for a future after the war. But as the lads battle for survival amidst the horror of the trenches, the Easter Rising begins to cast divisive shadows across the country.

A visceral, lyrical evocation of the physical and emotional devastation of the First World War, The Canal Bridge is a compelling story of friendship, love and tragedy that lingers long in the memory.

‘This book presents a different side, a story of ordinary people caught up in a horror not of their own making. I truly enjoyed this and it is a story that was long overdue.’ Customer review


TOM PHELAN is author of the novels In the Season of the Daisies, Iscariot and Derrycloney. He was born and raised on a farm outside Mountmellick, County Laois, and he now lives in Long Island, New York.


9 reviews for The Canal Bridge

  1. Lilliput Press

    “Tom Phelan’s The Canal Bridge is one of the finest novels I have read in a long time. In a selfish way I hated for it to end as the writing is so good! The narration of the story from multiple points of view gives it a truly human depth. The realities of World War I and its effects on young men are brilliantly envisioned. All of the characters are so wonderfully developed, especially Mathias Wrenn, Con Hatchel and Kitty Hatchel. I fell in love with Kitty myself! Such beauty, courage, dignity and determination. The lyrical beauty of Tom Phelan’s language makes The Canal Bridge a masterpiece.”
    Jim Hawkins

  2. Lilliput Press

    “As a huge Tom Phelan fan, it would be difficult to say which of his books was my favorite, but if forced to choose, this book is IT. It made my heart leap, skip, and ache; it made me laugh out loud, and it certainly made me weep. Each chapter is narrated in the voice of a different character, a conceit at which the author excels, and here he is at his best. The sensitivity with which his female characters are wrought is particularly remarkable. One of the few books I have ever reread. It is that excellent.”

  3. Lilliput Press

    “210,000 Irishmen fought in the British Army during World War I, with 35,000 losing their lives. While Irish blood was being shed in a British cause, British troops were killing Irishmen in Dublin during the 1916 Easter Rising, the celebrated rebellion by Irish militants to push England out of Ireland. Conflict being the heart of storytelling, Tom Phelan builds his brilliant novel of WWI on the conflict of loyalties: Were these Irishmen who fought for England heroes or traitors?

    Phelan’s decision to tell his story through multiple narrators breathed greatness into the novel. How refreshingly creative is Phelan’s use of the high school entrance exam essay of Kitty, the chief female character, to sketch the canal bridge setting in rural Ireland and to meet the boys, Con (her brother) and Matt, who would become soldiers at the center of the novel. The diction of the narrators captures the authentic verbal experiences of their lives, with their references to animal dung, plowing, Wellingtons, and Missus Hodgkins’ use of a mares and stallions metaphor to describe Kitty and Matt when they are together. We meet the rabid nationalist Johnjoe Lacy through the narration of a laborer who witnesses a clash between the British Army recruits Matt and Con, who are called traitors by Lacy. Before the lads go off to war, the author has firmly placed his readers in rural Ireland of the early 20th century and set the conflict in motion.

    This narrative device does slip now and then from Phelan’s hands. I refer to some of the narrators not seeming to be witnesses to what they were narrating. A reader can easily forgive the slips, as they are slips found too in Moby-Dick and The Brothers Karamazov.

    Told mostly through the voices of Matt and Con, Tom Phelan’s is a heartbreaking story of callow youths who joined the army to see the world. We laugh at Matt’s attacking the plate of liver and onions in the mess hall, the best meal he had ever eaten. Knowing what young soldiers will ultimately experience, the reader is pained by Con’s romantic notions of visiting Madagascar, Bangalore, and even Xanadu. Phelan lets the enthusiasm of the innocent youths set up the grim turn in their lives. The better educated soldiers point out Sicily and Malta on the left and Libya and Egypt on the right as their troop ship steams east in the Mediterranean. But the ship and their lives are reversed—Egypt is now on the left—as the war in Belgium and France demands more lives.

    The Easter Rising, not a popular undertaking in Ireland in its time, surfaces during the War section of the novel. Through their own words we learn of the attitudes of the characters toward the Rising. We find out that the uprising has driven a wedge between English and Irish soldiers fighting a common enemy. Phelan plants seeds on the home front, also, during the War section which will yield the final conflict of the novel. Sadly, when wars end, murderous spirits do not end with them.

    Tom Phelan adds his own descriptions to the well documented horrors of trench warfare, gas attacks, No Man’s Land, and the abattoir that was the Battle of the Somme, but more importantly he injects moments of humanity into this war. In one scene told by Matt, when a British platoon comes across Belgian villagers desecrating the bodies of German soldiers, the British Sergeant Wilkie forces the villagers to bury the dead respectfully: “There’s times in life when we all need someone to tell us we have gone mad.” Con describes a scene after a seven day bombardment when soldiers from both sides rise out of their trenches and remove their helmets. Con says of them, “Without their helmets on, the soldiers across the way looked just like us, same height, same coloured skin, same coloured hair, same age, every bit as dirty.” How true the belief that, as Thomas Hardy says:
    Yes; quaint and curious war is!
    You shoot a fellow down
    You’d treat if met where any bar is,
    Or help to half-a-crown.

    The close of Tom Phelan’s novel is well realized in his attention to the demands of his novel: the need of almost everyone to heal and the insane requirement of some to act on their cowardice. The seeds planted earlier of conflict between zealous nationalists and Irish combatants produce a scene which, especially when read with awareness of Irish history and Irish mythology, allows the reader to infer Tom Phelan’s answer to the question, “Were these Irishmen heroes or traitors?” Most moving are the scenes after the war between the Anglo-Irish Sarah Hodgkins and the Irish Catholic Matt, both victims of what we call today post-traumatic stress disorder, as they help each other to heal.

    The humanity at the core of most of the characters in The Canal Bridge makes a novel full of death also a novel of hope.”
    John Walsh

  4. Lilliput Press

    “Phelan’s creative narrative style affords life to many voices that ring true and powerful, echoing the beauty of a simpler Ireland and the horror of an often forgotten war. The canal was life in an Ireland just beyond memory, and the trenches death. The telling of the former was hard to put down and the latter sometimes hard to stomach. Sweet and awful.”

  5. Lilliput Press

    “I must admit that I’m a fickle reader. I usually start reading three or four books at a time, winnowing them down until I’m immersed in the one that has captured my attention to the exclusion of the others. The Canal Bridge is one of those books. The author is the most talented lyrical writer I’ve read in a long while to awful, beautiful and touching effect. From the strong-willed Kitty Hatchel to her love, the enigmatic Matthias Wrenn, the characters were revealed in extraordinary depth. From halcyon childhood days in Ballyrannel, Ireland to the killing fields of Europe in World War I and beyond, the author effectively transports you to time and place. The chapters are arranged by character; some with a single chapter, others with many. Each character tells the story from his or her viewpoint, knowledge and understanding, making a unified whole that flows gracefully and perhaps more fully than it would from a single point of view. I’m looking forward to reading other work by Tom Phelan.” STEVE BELL

  6. Lilliput Press

    “The story is told chapter by chapter by individuals involved. It takes a little while to piece together as each person adds his or her part, but it will happen and you will see how the contribution of each character in the novel comes together to add up to a great novel. I liked the book. Even if I had not liked the book the ability of the author to give us insights to the inner feelings of the various characters makes it worth reading. The descriptions of the horrors of war, in this case World War I, make you see all wars as you probably never have considered them before unless you have been personally and directly involved. It is a novel, fiction, but those descriptive pages are real enough and make you feel as though you are there in the middle of the horrors on the battlefield or back at home hoping for the survival of those who are away fighting in the trenches. There were times in reading this book that I could not put it down and then, when I did, I had to pause a while just to consider what I had read. This book isn’t one where everyone lives happily ever after. It is the real real lives of people in Ireland during WWI. It is well worth reading for the story it tells and for the ability of the author to tell that story.”

  7. Lilliput Press

    “This is an excellent story set against the background of World War 1 that deals with one of the more disgraceful episodes in Irish history. Over 200,000 Irish Catholics served in the British Army in World War 1 and the Republic of Ireland has only recently and grudgingly acknowledged their service. This is of special interest to me as both my grandfather and a great uncle served. My grandfather took a bullet in the knee at Gallipoli and his brother was killed at Passchendale. This is the only book I have ever read which understood why they served. Some sought adventure, most were young and naive, many could not find work. Of course after the war they were branded as rogues and most kept their service to themselves. My grandfather emigrated to America and left Ireland for good. I’ve seen his “village” and I thank God everyday he did. By that time, of course, all of their detractors were claiming to be IRA men and deeply involved in the rebellion. This is a narrative we have all heard ad nauseam for 100 years. This book presents a different side, a story of ordinary people caught up in a horror not of their own making. I truly enjoyed this and it is a story that was long overdue.” EDWARD GILSON

  8. Lilliput Press

    “This is the second book I have read by Tom Phelan, the first was The Lies The Mushroom Pickers Told, which made me laugh and cry in equal measure, this book however made me cry. Everyone should read this book to learn about the horrors of war.” KATE BLACK

  9. Lilliput Press

    “Thought provoking, moving and that truly describes the horrors of the the First World War. Up there with Bird Song.” SIMON WALLIS

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Weight 0.5 kg
Dimensions 215 × 135 mm
Publication Date

September 2005


Paperback, 280pp