A Book Review by Frank O’Shea
Fergal Keane.Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love. William Collins. 2017. 356 pp
Schoolchildren in Ireland in the middle years of the last century learned about the events that led to the country gaining its independence. The version of the story that we were taught was highly selective. There was no doubt a prosleytising element in this, a need to make sure we saw ourselves as winners and to stress the debt we owed to those who had fought for freedom. But there was too a need to sanitise the story, to remove anything that might suggest that there was wrong on both sides. That was seen as central to the education system and it fulfilled that role well.
Twenty years later, by then young adults, we became aware of assassinations and intimidation associated with the Six Counties. We were quick to condemn such things, irrespective of which side was responsible. Fergal Keane in this wonderful book reminds us that what was happening in Derry and Belfast, in Keady and Portadown was in many ways, the same as what had happened in the 1919-23 period in Tipperary and Cork, Dublin and Donegal. He uses the area around Listowel in North Kerry, where he grew up, and specifically the role played by his own extended family in the fighting, to illustrate his thesis.
Keane is particularly well qualified as the teller of the story. He worked for many years as a reporter in areas of war and is the person credited with bringing the story of the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda to world attention. His father was the actor Eamon Keane and he is the nephew of writer John B Keane. He spent five years in Belfast reporting on the Troubles there for the BBC; in one of the strongest chapters in this book, he compares the fighters on both sides there with those involved eighty years earlier in North Kerry.
The book is a reminder of why, even today, the name Black and Tan is synonymous with indiscriminate mayhem inflicted on innocent and guilty alike. But it tells too the stories of how locals could resist such turmoil. The author’s grandmother Hannah Purtill and her brother Mick were heavily involved in the War of Independence in that part of the country, including the killing of a number of police. The story concentrates in particular on the murder of RIC Inspector Tobias O’Sullivan on his short walk from Listowel barracks to his home. The killers are named and there are interviews with the dead man’s descendants. It is a reminder that the ‘enemy’ in the conflict were, in almost all cases, fellow-Irishmen. In the six months preceding the Truce of mid-1921, 21 police and 27 IRA fighters were killed in that area of North Kerry, and that does not include the innocent civilians who lost their lives. All were Irish.
But the story of what happened after that is even sadder. “The Truce confronted Republicans with the challenge of compromise,” he writes, “and it would tear their movement apart.” Former comrades fought each other, some still holding to the creed of a Republic and others clothed in the official garb of soldiers of the Irish Free State. In the end, Michael Colllins sent his Dublin and Clare fighters into Kerry and the murders went on. Ballyseedy is described of course, but it is easy to forget that, awful as that event was, it was a stepped-up reprisal for an earlier atrocity.
Both Hannah and Mike Purtill took the Free State side in the civil war as did another character central to the story, the footballer Con Brosnan. He was a Free State officer who would organise for members of his team on a wanted list to be able to leave town after a game. The civil war of 1922-23 was at its most unforgiving in Kerry, and yet that county would win the All Ireland in 1924 with team mates who 18 months earlier would have shot each other. In 1930, former Republican fighter Joe Barrett, against the wishes of his club, gave up his captaincy of the Kerry team to his former ‘enemy’ Con Brosnan.
This is a wonderful account of the effects of the war of Independence and later the civil way in a small, relatively prosperous part of the country. The writing is clear, objective, unbiased and the author follows the careers of the protagonists and of others involved after the conflict is over.