Saturday 24 February 2018

Keane's impressive memoir makes sense of past


Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love

Fergal Keane,

William Collins,


BBC correspondent Fergal Keane, whose Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love is a story of murder, blood and betrayal. Photo: Tony Gavin
BBC correspondent Fergal Keane, whose Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love is a story of murder, blood and betrayal. Photo: Tony Gavin

JP O' Malley

During his childhood holidays in the 1960s, Fergal Keane had a number of loquacious raconteurs who would regale him with stories about Irish history. There was Eamon, his father, a fine actor and a romantic nationalist, who also happened to have a weakness for the bottle. Then John B, the famous Irish playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist, who owned a public house in Listowel town.

Here, talk would often switch between fallen republican martyrs, the famine, and haunting ghosts from the Cromwellian era.

History, Keane was quickly learning - through colourful oral folklore - had given the people of north Kerry such a yearning for land, that some were even prepared to kill for it.

However, with age, Keane sensed these stories - while romantic and engaging - were full of simple endings, drink-fuelled sentimentality, and one-sided universal truths.

Then in 1980, while watching Robert Kee's documentary, Ireland - A Television History, Keane heard old IRA veterans talking - without sentiment - about a killing that was connected to his family in north Kerry.

Keane's main raison d'etre for penning this book is an attempt to understand what makes seemingly rational individuals, under certain circumstances, become cold-blooded killers.

Is it possible, he asks, to compartmentalise war in one's life and move on? Or, do the ghosts of war haunt individuals for generations?

Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love grapples with these questions by looking at three principal characters: Hanna Purtill, Keane's grandmother, her brother, Mick, and his friend, Con Brosnan. Hanna served with Cumann na mBan during the War of Independence of 1919-21; while the other two men were active IRA volunteers.

All three would find themselves connected to the murder of Tobias O'Sullivan: an RIC officer who was gunned down in Listowel in January 1921. The 21-year-old Brosnan was part of the killing squad. Keane's grandmother and great-uncle were not directly involved in the murder.

But they played their part too: with intelligence gathering and the smuggling of weapons to fellow IRA members.

Two innocent men were later sentenced to death for the murder of O'Sullivan. Brosnan, meanwhile, went on to become a local publican and GAA hero: winning six All-Ireland medals for Kerry.

The murder happened just yards from the household in Church Street, Listowel, where Keane spent so much of his youth.

The experienced war reporter retraces the murder in real time, with clinical scientific precision.

"The autopsy carried out by the army doctor on the day of the killing recorded [four] bullets," Keane writes: "One struck [O'Sullivan's] head, the other entered between the spine and shoulder blade, another blasted into the side of his head, [the last one] fractured his right arm," he adds.

In the official version of Irish history, The War of Independence was fought by dashing young men in long trench coats, who were always righteous, just, and heroic.

In this same narrative, the Civil War of 1922-23 - where former comrades executed each other without mercy - is simply brushed over and barely spoken about.

Keane avoids the romantic cliches and simple soundbites of Irish history here. Instead he writes about war - on a universal level - for what it really is: complex, savage, sometimes heroic, often unjust, barbaric, and psychologically damaging.

Keane's writing is emotive, without being over-sentimental; and it's balanced and fair-minded, without being judgmental to those who took critical decisions for their own freedoms - under extreme circumstances - at a pivotal moment in Irish and global history.

"My forebears made a choice that might have led to prison or an early grave. They were idealists and had immense courage," Keane writes.

And yet, the author is consistently aware of war's double-sided sword of suffering: ''My grandmother and her brother became involved in inflicting terror on members of the Crown forces. This also meant terror and sorrow for the families of policeman and soldiers," Keane adds.

The journalist is no stranger to trauma himself. In his late 30s he suffered from depression, after watching brutal acts of violence committed in Northern Ireland and Rwanda.

This memoir is as much about making sense of Keane's own traumatic past and immediate family circumstances, as it is about the wider historical narrative he's covering: Keane's family, growing up, was ravaged by alcohol abuse, depression, and lingering psychological pain.

Keane delicately juxtaposes the private and public spheres of war against each other; and uses the family as a microcosm to tell a greater story about the nation state; in all of its fragilities, frailties, and disappointments.Especially when the harsh and depressive economic and political reality set in; once the Irish Free State came into existence in 1922.

Bursting with solid archival research, and top-notch writing - that is empathetic, honest, and poetic in equal measure - Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love is the most impressive work of non-fiction I've read this year.

Sunday Independent

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