Wednesday 20 November 2019

Bedtime stories told by my father are where history began for me

Acclaimed BBC foreign correspondent Fergal Keane explores his family and national heritage in an extract from his memoir Wounds

Black and Tans in Dublin
Black and Tans in Dublin

"His manner was that the heads of all those (of what sort so ever they were) which were killed in the day, should be cut off from their bodies, and brought to the place where he encamped at night: and should there be laid on the ground, by each side of the way leading into his own tent: so that none could come into his tent for any cause, but commonly he must pass through a lane of heads … and yet did it bring great terror to the people when they saw the heads of their dead fathers, brothers, children, kinsfolk, and friends lie on the ground before their faces, as they came to speak with the said Colonel." - Thomas Churchyard, A Generall Rehearsall of Warres, 1579

This is the story of my grandmother Hannah Purtill, who was a rebel, and her brother Mick and his friend Con Brosnan, and how they took up guns to fight the British Empire and create an independent Ireland.

And it is the story of another Irishman, Tobias O'Sullivan, who fought against them because he believed it was his duty to uphold the law of his country.

Church Street in the early 19th Century
Church Street in the early 19th Century

It is the story too of the breaking of bonds and of civil war and of how the wounds of the past shaped the island on which I grew up. Many thousands of people took part in the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed.

The story of my own family is one that might differ in some details but is shared by numerous other Irish families.

They may have taken different sides but all were changed in some way, and lived in a new State defined by the costs of violence.

Michael Collins
Michael Collins

I have spent much of my life trying to understand why people will kill for a cause and how the act of killing reverberates through the generations.

This book is, in part, an attempt to understand my own obsession with war.

It starts in my grandmother's house in the north Kerry town of Listowel, in the middle of the 1960s.


Mick Purtill in his Free State uniform
Mick Purtill in his Free State uniform

The house is asleep. My brother and sister are in beds at the other side of the room.

My mother is in the room across the landing, next to the door leading up into the attic where cracked uncle Dan once lived among the cobwebs and the crows.

The last drinkers have left Alla Sheehy's next door. His wife Nora Mai is sweeping the floor. She will be muttering, drawing hard on a cigarette, cursing the hour and the work, under the eternal gaze of the stuffed fox on the counter. A garda will pass soon on his rounds, his ear alert for the murmur of secret drinkers. There are several dozen pubs in Listowel and he will stop to listen at each one. But the only noise is from the dogs barking in the lane between the houses and the sports field.

"They can sense it," my father says. "Stay quiet now. Stay quiet and you will hear them."

The cover of Fergal Keane's book
The cover of Fergal Keane's book "Wounds"

He sits at the end of my bed. I can only make out his shape. There is comfort in the tiny orange glow of his cigarette. "Listen close," he says again. "The riders will come soon."

I am 10 years old. My imagination swells in the darkness. My father lives between the story and the reality. He has spent his life faltering between the two. It is his gift and his tragedy. He can make me believe anything.

"Now! Now! Sit up," he says. "Do you hear them? They are riding to hell!"

I hear everything that he wills into being: the hooves pounding the midnight earth, the hard music of armour, sword and spur and men's voices shouting in the late autumn of 1600.

Captain Wilmot's cavalry - armed with the finest muskets Queen Elizabeth's treasury can procure - stop before the gates of Listowel Castle and by the banks of the River Feale, which flows out of the mountains in neighbouring County Limerick, meandering around Listowel on its way to the Atlantic coast nearby.

The garrison refuse to surrender. Above the swift water, heads fly. The blood seeps into the salmon pools. Nine Englishmen are killed, but the Irish cannot hold out. They beg for terms but are refused. They must accept the captain's discretion, which means death in a more or less dreadful form.

Wilmot kills them by hanging, a comparative leniency by the bloody standards of the day, according to my father.

After the surrender, the legs of eighteen suffocating men kick to the laughter of Wilmot's men. My father reaches to his throat to mimic the act of hanging.

The priest who is found with the garrison is spared, however. Not for him the breaking of joints with heavy irons, the agonising death that is the fate of another clergymen found near Dingle.

The priest has a bargain to offer. He tells Wilmot that the rebel Lord Kerry's son, "but five years old … almost naked and besmirched with dirt", has been smuggled out of the castle by an old woman. Who better than the heir to lure the lord into surrender?

The old woman and boy are found in a hollow cave and are sent to Dublin with the priest, but their fate is not recorded.

My father pulls ghosts out of history every night. I know that in reality there are no riders as the field behind my grandmother's house is unmarked when I check it the next morning.

"Sure, that's your father for the stories,' Hannah jokes to me when I return. My grandmother has stories too. She is part of more recent wars. If only she would tell me. She fought the English and was threatened with execution. But her stories will remain untold in her own voice.


I am grown and my father is dead when I discover how faithfully he brought the Elizabethan past to life. In the late 16th century, the conquering English had swept their enemies before them.

After capturing Listowel, they rode on into Limerick. The president of Munster, Sir George Carew, reported back to London that they had killed "all mankind that were found therein, for a terror to those that should give relief to renegade traitors; thence we came into Arlogh Woods [in County Limerick] where we did the like, not leaving behind us man or beast or corn or cattle".

Livestock was slain by the thousand and corn trampled and burned. The Irish peasants were butchered or driven away so that rebels and plotting Spaniards "might make no use of them".

Ireland was a nest of potential traitors.

The possibility of the invasion of England through the "back door", to the west, loomed large in the imaginations of Tudor states-men and soldiers.

Rebellions supported by the pope and the Spanish king reinforced the English terror of the Protestant Reformation being reversed. Such endings, they knew well, only came in tides of blood.

Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, had been in Paris on August 24, 1572 and lucky to escape the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of Protestant Huguenots. A delighted Pope Gregory XIII offered a Te Deum and had a special medal struck rejoicing that the Catholic people had triumphed "over such a perfidious race".

The European wars of religion brought an exterminatory savagery to Ireland. In the Munster of my ancestors, unknown thousands were killed in battle, slaughtered out of hand and starved or killed by disease.

The severed heads that lined the path to the tent of Sir Humphrey Gilbert - celebrated soldier-explorer and half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh - were deemed a necessary price for making Ireland a land ripe for the benefits of English civilisation, lining the pockets of English adventurers, and keeping England safe from the existential threat posed by the kings of Catholic Europe.


History began with my father's stories. It was our history. He had no interest in complex agency, only in the evidence of English perfidy of which there was abundant evidence on our long walks during holidays around the ruined castles of north Kerry. Eamonn was a professional actor, one of the most gifted of his generation, and his voice, the rich, beguiling voice of those stories, has followed me all my days.

I walked beside him through the lands of the O'Connors - taken by the English Sandes family, who came with Cromwell in 1649 - to Carrigafoyle Castle with its gaping breach where the Spaniards and Italians, and their Irish allies, were massacred fleeing into the mud of the estuary - and to Teampallin Ban on the edge of Listowel where, under the thick summer grass, lay the bones of the Famine dead. That was the "hungry grass" said my father. Walk on the graves and you would always be hungry.

In those days Eamonn was a romantic nationalist. My mother Maura was a supporter of the Irish Labour Party and a committed feminist.

She disdained nationalist politics. For her, the struggle to achieve equal pay and control over her own body were the greater causes. A memory: being sent to Gleeson's chemist on the corner in Terenure, five minutes' walk from home, to ask for a package. The brown paper envelope I carried home contained 'the pill', something so secret I could not tell a soul. Only later did I learn how the chemist and my mother, in their quiet way, defied the law of the land which forbade women the right to decide if and when they would have children.

Maura was raised in a house where no politics was spoken. Her father, Paddy Hassett, had been an IRA man in Cork, but he had left the movement when the Civil War started in 1922. Most of his colleagues took up arms against the new Irish State. The only other trace of the revolutionary past I can find in my mother's life was her friendship with our neighbour, Philippa McPhillips, niece of Kevin O'Higgins, the Free State Justice Minister assassinated by the IRA in 1927 in revenge for his part in the draconian policy of executing Republican prisoners during the Civil War. It was not a political friendship - they were good neighbours - but my mother always spoke of O'Higgins as a man who had been doing what he believed was his best for the country. He was a man we should remember, she said. Still, when my father suggested I should be named after a dead IRA man, my mother acquiesced: Eamonn Keane was a force of nature and not easily refused. Twenty-year-old Fergal O'Hanlon had been killed during a border campaign raid on an RUC barracks on New Year's Day 1957. The raid was a disaster, and the IRA campaign faded away for lack of support. But O'Hanlon and his comrade Sean South were ritually immortalised by way of ballad:

Oh hark to the tale of young Fergal Ó hAnluain

Who died in Brookboro' to make Ireland free

For his heart he had pledged to the cause of his country

And he took to the hills like a bold rapparee

And he feared not to walk to the walls of the barracks

A volley of death poured from window to door

Alas for young Fergal, his life blood for freedom

Oh Brookboro' pavements profused to pour.

(Maitiú Ó'Cinnéide, 1957)

I grew up in Dublin. The city of the mid-to-late 1960s was a place of rapid social change. The crammed tenements of James Joyce's 'Nighttown' with its "rows of flimsy houses with gaping doors", were mostly gone, their residents dispatched to the suburban council estates and tower blocks as a new Ireland, impatient for prosperity, straining to be free of dullness and small horizons, came into being.

Nationalism had a grip on us still. But it had to compete with other temptations.

The city of elderly rebels and glowering bishops was also the home to the poet Seamus Heaney, the budding rock musician Phil Lynott, the young lawyer and future president Mary Robinson; the theatres and actors' green rooms of my father's professional life were filled with characters who seemed to live bohemian lives untroubled by the orthodoxies of Church and State.

The country's most famous gay couple - though it could never be stated openly - ran the Gate Theatre next to the Garden of Remembrance where the heroes of the 1916 rebellion were commemorated. My mother intimated that Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards were "different" and left it at that. To me, they were simply a slightly more mysterious element in the noisy, extravagant, colourful world through which my father moved in the late 1960s.

They were part of my cultural milieu, along with English football teams and imported American television series. Still, my father's attachment to romantic nationalism defined how I saw history. Or I should say how I 'felt' history - because thinking played much the lesser part of all that I absorbed in those days.

Fergal Keane's 'Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love' will be published on September 21 by HarperCollins

Sunday Independent

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