Fergal Keane, brought up in Dublin and Cork, is currently the BBC Africa Editor. His book subtitled ‘a memoir of war and love’ ‘does not set out to be an academic history of the period, or a forensic account of every military encounter or killing in north Kerry…This is a memoir written about every everyday Irish people who found themselves caught up on both sides in the great national drama that followed the rebellion of 1916’. It is the story of Keane’s grandmother Hannah Purtill, her brother Mick and his friend Con Brosnan. It is more than this. It documents the appalling traumas experienced by the north Kerry community by the Crown forces during the War of Independence; the Irish Civil War and the trauma of memory and how one copes with it.
Keane shows how this overall conflict was a form of civil war when Irish people killed each other. He documents the parallel story of Tobias O’Sullivan, an officer in the Royal Irish Constabulary, married with three children who was shot dead in Church Street Listowel by an IRA unit including Con Brosnan. Brosnan, later a Gaelic Athletic hero, prayed every day for the men he had killed.
Readers familiar with the general contours of the Irish struggle may be shocked by the ferocity of the conflict on local communities like those in north Kerry. ‘Men had crossed over to where violence was normalised, a crowded claustrophobic hellish island’. Keane assesses the difficult aspects of the period that many commentators evade - Black & Tans & Auxiliary Division terrorism; the IRA execution of spies - the atrocities of the Civil War and the impact of the national struggle upon the Protestant minority in southern Ireland and their social and physical decline.
However, this is also a story of the endurance of love. Throughout the chaos Keane’s grandmother Hannah Purtill, working as a draper’s assistant in Listowel and providing intelligence to the IRA, met and married Bill Keane a local schoolteacher. Both were admirers of Michael Collins and his death was for them a catastrophe. They were stoical. Keane admits that ’I have turned to the writing of my uncle, John B Keane, to glimpse the grandparents whose inner lives were hidden from me’.
The latter part of the book offers Keane’s thoughts on contemporary Ireland - a more liberal society but one having to acknowledge its past but moving on. His experiences as a journalist in Ulster, Rwanda and South Africa give his writing an insight and compassion that makes this book more than a family memoir. It is a valuable addition to the understanding of Ireland past and present - but it is not unremittingly pessimistic. Of his uncle Mick Purtill, Keane observes ‘though still devoutly Catholic he did not rebel against the liberalising spirit of the times. Once he was sure that his family and the land that they lived on, was secure, Mick was content to let individual conscience have its day’.