The story begins in darkness near dawn. The city of Dublin, Ireland is undergoing a battle between Republicans and Free Staters. It is the Civil War. The night is silent except for the occasional machines guns and rifles, which sound like “dogs barking on lone farms.” Near O’Connel Bridge a Republican sniper lies on a rooftop along a deserted street. He has “the face of a student” while his eyes have “the cold gleam of a fanatic.” He looks like someone “used to looking at death.”
The beginning of the story immediately alerts the reader to the dichotomies that are present in the city: roof vs. city, Free Stater vs. Republican, students vs. fanatic. These exist side-by-side but also in tense opposition to one another. War has distorted the landscape, turned a city into a battlefield and made life used to death.
After hungrily eating a sandwich, the sniper takes a swig of whiskey and wonders whether he should risk lighting a cigarette. The danger is that the flash of the match might be seen in the darkness. Still, he decides to go ahead with it. After he strikes the match, a bullet hits the parapet of the roof he is on. Swearing, he looks over the parapet and sees a flash, after which a bullet strikes nearby. He realizes that an enemy sniper is on a roof just across the street, under cover.
In war, even the slightest choices, like choosing to light a cigarette, take on big significance as they can lead to death. The sniper here takes the risk, and is lucky not to get killed (though perhaps one could also argue that perhaps the other sniper is just not quite skillful enough).
An enemy armored car comes down the street and the sniper wishes to fire at it, but he knows his gun will not be able to damage “the gray monster.” An old woman appears on the street and talks to the man in the car, then points up at the Republican sniper’s position. The man gets out of the top of the car, ready to shoot, but the sniper shoots first, killing the man. The woman tries to run away, but the sniper fires at her and falls into the gutter, screaming.
The armored car is depicted as a kind of unnatural beast in the city street, again highlighting how war has distorted this world. The sniper now must kill or be killed: he cannot think. That he must kill the woman—who has informed on his position and might warn someone else were he to let her live—too shows how war blurs the line between soldiers and non-combatants, between innocence and complicity.
Suddenly the enemy sniper on the other roof takes his chance and shoots the sniper. The sniper drops his rifle with a noise he thought might “wake the dead.” He can’t pick up the rifle because “his forearm was dead.” He exclaims that he is hit as blood starts oozing through the sleeve of his shirt, but he does not feel pain, just a numbness “as if the arm had been cut off.”
One event leads to the other, and though the sniper saves himself from the man in the armored car and the old woman, this act makes him vulnerable and leads to him being shot in the arm. His numbed reaction to his wound, along with the descriptively powerful portrayal of it, reflects his attempt to deal with his pain first in order to deal with the enemy second: if he lets himself feel the pain, he might get killed and never feel anything again. His arm feels like it is cut in two in a kind of literal division between body and mind, life and death.
The sniper rips off his sleeve and ascertains that the bullet has lodged in his bone. He pours some iodine, a mild antiseptic, over his wound, and tries to withstand the terrible burning pain of it over the wound. In the street, the two corpses are immobile. The sniper realizes he needs a plan to escape, but he’s sure the enemy sniper has any escape route covered. He therefore has to kill his enemy, but because of the gunshot to his arm he can only use his revolver, not his rifle.
Caring for his wounds, the sniper wills himself to get over his pain so that he may think rationally about an escape route. The two corpses seem to be a reminder for the sniper of the fate that might befall him if he is not ingenious enough or is too slow. He does not feel remorse at the people he has killed because he cannot: he is in too much pain and must concentrate on protecting himself.
After putting his cap over the muzzle of his rifle, the sniper pushes the rifle over the parapet as if edging forward to shoot. The enemy sniper takes the bait, shooting the cap. The sniper lets the rifle and his hand hang over as if he is dead, eventually letting the rifle fall onto the street as he pretends to sink back onto the roof. The enemy sniper, tricked into thinking the Republican sniper has been killed, now stands up on the roof clearly silhouetted against the sky.
Here the sniper proves himself to be an ingenious soldier, one who masters physical pain and outsmart his enemy. Why the enemy soldier stands up is a question to consider: sure, he thinks he has killed his enemy, but standing in such a way still seems like a risky act. But in some ways not any more risky than the Republican sniper’s earlier decision to light a cigarette.
Smiling, the Republic sniper aims his revolver as his “right arm was paining him like a thousand devils.” His aim is steady even as “his hand trembled with eagerness.” He fires and his shot hits the enemy sniper, and the sniper peers “across and uttered a cry of joy” as the man “was slowly falling forward as if in a dream”. Finally the enemy sniper’s “body turned over and over in space” and “lay still” on the street below.
Once again, the pain the sniper feels does not stop him from managing to effectively and swiftly remove his enemy. The fervor of war and the competition between the sniper’s makes the Republican sniper feel a surge of joy at killing, at winning. He has survived, and he has outwitted his enemy. Meanwhile the description of the enemy sniper’s falling body accentuates its lifelessness, accentuates that war involves the taking of life.
Suddenly, looking at his dead enemy, the sniper has a change of heart. “The lust of battle died in him. He became bitten by remorse.” He has been “weakened” by his long day, the ongoing battle, his hunger, and he is “revolted from the sight of the shattered mass of his dead enemy.” Talking to himself, he curses the war, himself, and everybody.
Now that the adrenaline of battle leaves the sniper, he realizes his own human feelings: hunger, disgust, remorse, and anger. He cannot so easily live with his single-minded goal of killing, or the justifications for the war, or even people who wage wars, now that his life is not threatened. War has created an us vs. them that the sniper must abide by in his effort to survive, but when he is not in a survive or die situation he once again is aware of the complexities of life, and the preciousness of life.
The sniper throws his revolver “with an oath.” It fires, but doesn’t hit him, though the shock “frightened [him] back to his senses.” He drinks all the whisky from his flask, and decides to find his commander, to report. Going downstairs, he does not believe there is much danger, since everything is quiet. When he reaches the street, though, he feels “a sudden curiosity as to the identity of the enemy sniper whom he had killed.” He wonders whether he knew him, whether the man “had been in his own company before the split in the army.”
The sniper is suddenly frustrated by the war, but the firing of the gun when he throws it signals that he can’t just leave the war: he is stuck in it; guns will fire, and at him, whether or not he believes in the war. He does not abandon the war, and instead decides to meet the formal demands of soldiery—he will go report to his commander. Yet before he does he is overcome by a basic human emotion and need: curiosity and the desire to know another. He starts to imagine a world before the Civil War, when the split in the army had not yet occurred, and all soldiers were in it together. He wonders at a common humanity with the soldier he killed.
Taking another risk, the sniper crosses the street. There is suddenly heavy firing near him, and he runs across the street with machine gun firing behind him, until he throws himself down against the enemy sniper’s corpse, in effect again successfully pretending to be dead to save himself. Having escaped immediate danger, “then the sniper turned over the dead body and looked into his brother’s face.”
The sniper is not done fighting: he runs at the moment of danger and ingeniously hides among the enemy’s sniper’s body for protection. When he manages to satisfy his curiosity about the identity of the enemy sniper he suddenly has a revelation that is pure a chance as any: the sniper is his brother. O’Flaherty means this both figuratively and literally: the full cost of the war—a rupture of both families and the nation of Ireland in this Irish Civil War—becomes clear, and the reader is forced to see that beyond the question of who wins this war, the war’s real test will be whether the sniper, or Ireland, is able to persevere past the profound breakage of family and nation created by the war.