REVIEWED BY DYMPHNA CROWE
Fergal Keane (William Collins: 2017)
Over many years, Fergal Keane has written movingly about conflict all over the world, but in this book he is much closer to home. In his own words it is ‘a memoir written about everyday Irish people who found themselves caught up on both sides in the great national drama that followed the rebellion of 1916’ (p. 20). Keane's story centres on north Kerry and includes the story of his grandmother who fought in the war of independence. The treaty that ended the conflict resulted in the partition of Ireland, with six counties in the north remaining in Britain. This led to a civil war that divided families and friends. Keane portrays the personal conflicts that many Irish citizens experienced when choosing sides.
Keane contrasts the ugly reality of conflict with the way history was imparted to him as a child by his father, a romantic nationalist. He also gives a voice to people on all sides. Opportunities for advancement were few in pre-independence Ireland and many Irish people were employed in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) or in the army. But, following the first World War and the 1916 Uprising, the political climate in Ireland was radically changed and soldiers returned to a different world.
Using the experience of people in a localised area has given the writing an immediacy, but there are limitations. The silence that followed the events has led to a dearth of information about individuals. His grandmother and her brother were active in the war of independence but, coming to the narrative as an adult, Keane was too late to go to them for answers.
This is a very readable book, giving an even-handed account of the historical background to the emergence of the Irish state. It also provides a useful context and background to the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Until recently, there was a silence about this period of history. As Keane points out, while trouble rumbled in the north of the country it was not possible to look back at the past with the distance that allows a clear perspective. He touches on how events are remembered and the compartmentalisation of past and present. This book was published in 2017, but it is only now, one hundred years after the events, that historical accounts are becoming more widely available.