A BBC reporter delves into his family’s story to understand the roots of war
‘You cannot legislate for local grudges’: Fergal Keane COLIN MCPHERSON/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES
The vicious Irish War of Independence between 1919 and 1921, writes the BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane in this fine and troubling book, “the one that changed the lives of my grandparents, that created the country in which I grew up, would follow me through all the wars of my own reporting life”.
After a professional life in killing fields such as Rwanda and Kosovo, trying to understand why people murder for a cause and how this affects future generations, Keane has investigated his own family history in Listowel, a Kerry market town. Here he tells the stories of Grandmother Hannah, a draper’s assistant, her brother Mick, a farmer, and their friend Con Brosnan, publican and Gaelic footballer, relating their parts in a brutal war and later in “localised butchery” in Kerry, and how they then dealt in their various ways with what they had done. He also tells movingly of the life and death of Detective Inspector Tobias O’Sullivan, as Irish as they were, and how Brosnan would be haunted by the shots he fired into him.
Men had crossed over to where violence was normalised
That was a time when merciless gunmen, murdering Irishmen for the crime of defending the state, were matched in brutality on the British side, particularly by the notorious battle-hardened veterans of the Western Front who had been recruited to assist the Royal Irish Constabulary and were nicknamed the Black and Tans. It was a time when guerrillas ambushed their friendly local policemen and shot civilians on vague suspicion of giving information, bedecking their corpses with placards saying “Spies beware”, and burning down their homes.
Out-of-control elements in the Crown forces then made others pay for such actions through fearsome, often random, reprisals. “Men had crossed over to where violence was normalised, a crowded, claustrophobic hellish island.”
If that was bad, at least it left the nationalist population with comforting stories and myths about their heroic struggle and a result that, despite partition, they could present as a victory. Far worse was the civil war that followed when a minority opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty: comrades were pitched against comrades and brothers against brothers, with political disagreement rendered more toxic by historic blood feuds and the Irish rural greed for land.
“You can say a war is over,” writes Keane. “It can be declared finished between the two armies. But you cannot legislate for local grudges, not when your army is made up of so many small armies, and men who become accustomed to having the power of life and death at the end of a finger.”
Like most of his generation, Keane was fed a romantic diet of stories of past wrongs and old ghosts but heard little about the civil war, which left behind it a corrosive legacy of bitterness. In Kerry, for instance, Free State forces avenged the killing of five soldiers in a booby trap by tying nine republican prisoners to a land mine and blowing them up.
Keane is a gifted writer whose scarifying experiences in war zones have not coarsened his humanity. Nor does his emotional reaction to terrible cruelty lessen his determination to tell the truth. He admits here to just one bias: “a loathing of war and of all who celebrate the killing of their fellow men and women”. He has unsparingly used his family history to show how many of us, in certain circumstances, might be killers and worse. Even in our own backyards.
Wm Collins £18.99 pp356