A Star Called Henry tells the story of Henry Smart, born in the slums of Dublin in 1901 to a one-legged father who works as a whorehouse bouncer and as a killer for hire, and a mother who, having seen her children die one by one is old before her time.
Following his father’s disappearance and his mother’s descent into alcoholism, a five-year-old Henry abandons his mother and takes to the streets with his younger brother Victor. The brothers have to grow up fast to survive on the streets; they learn to rob and beg, as well as becoming used to the constant cold and hunger. After one particularly cold night, Henry wakes up to find that Victor is dead, having at last succumbed to the tuberculosis which (unbeknown to Henry) had been plaguing him.
The next encounter we have with Henry is six years later in the Easter of 1916. Henry is a 14-year-old boy-soldier in the Irish Citizen Army, a faithful follower of James Connolly, and playing his part in the siege of the General Post Office.
After the rebels surrender Henry manages to escape from the barracks and his probable execution, gets a job in the city’s shipyards and finds refuge with a woman whose husband is serving in the British Army. However, all does not remain calm for long, as Henry (working under an alias) learns that his escape had made him a modern Republican legend in the pubs of Dublin. Hearing the men singing songs about his bravery and courage, along with meeting Jack Dalton another veteran of the Easter Rising, is all it takes for Henry to re-join the rebellion and to be willing, once more, to die for Ireland.
With his father’s wooden leg as a weapon, Henry becomes one of Michael Collins’ boys; killing policemen, setting barracks on fire, training others to kill and riding around Ireland on the back of a stolen bike. After three years of enlisting volunteers for the rebel army, and moonlighting as a ruthless assassin for the cause, Henry realises that his place in Michael Collins’ inner circle is merely superficial. Henry is only a confidant of Collins and his cronies when a dirty job needs doing, otherwise he is excluded from the inner circle because of his roots; Henry is a child of the slums, the others are children of a decent, middle-class, Catholic world.
When the time comes in 1921 to start negotiations with Britain for a truce, Henry’s own superiors judge him to be a dangerously hard man, likely to fight with rejectionists in the ensuing civil war, and attempt to have him disposed of, just as he had previously disposed of scores of men. However, Henry realises how little the endless violence and killing of civilians has to do with the concept of a free Ireland or a better life for the people of the land, and decides to leave Ireland whilst he still can. But in order to flee, Henry must start a new life without his wife and daughter.