Opinion Comment

Thursday 17 October 2019

Billy Keane: 'The Tipperary trial that could have been named 'The Field 2''

Cautionary tale: Richard Harris, star of John B Keane’s ‘The Field’, which was based on a story of a murder in 1958
Cautionary tale: Richard Harris, star of John B Keane’s ‘The Field’, which was based on a story of a murder in 1958
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Patrick Quirke faces life in prison. Bobby Ryan was murdered. Lives are in ruins, there are no secrets - and all over a few fields. There have been many day-trippers who travelled to Dublin to attend the most talked-about show in town. The Tipperary murder trial could have been named 'The Field 2'.

My dad John B Keane wrote 'The Field' back in 1965 as a warning over the "unappeasable greed for land". The trial of Patrick Quirke had much in common with both the play and the subsequent movie.

My dad's mother Hanna and his uncle Mick Purtill fought in the War of Independence. The war was more than about independence. The Irish people wanted their land back.

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My nana told me the story of how a baby and her mother were found dead outside the door of the workhouse in Listowel on a cold January morning in the late 1840s. The baby was at her mother's breast, but there was no milk. The mother and baby had been evicted from their smallholding for non-payment of rent. This story was told to my nana by her mother, who was alive during the Famine.

Bobby Ryan's children Robert Jnr and Michelle outside court
Bobby Ryan's children Robert Jnr and Michelle outside court

People died for the land and fought for the land. The way of the land was "we will give you the shirt off our backs, but not the grass off our fields".

The prosecution in the Tipperary murder trial proved Bobby Ryan was murdered by Quirke because he was the boyfriend of Mary Lowry. Quirke was Mary's ex, and Quirke would lose out on the land he was renting from her.

Ms Justice Eileen Creedon, in her summing-up, referred to correspondence between solicitors about the termination of Quirke's lease on Ms Lowry's farm. No lease meant no Lowry land for Quirke.

Quirke owned 50 acres and rented 110 acres. He milked 100 cows. Where was he going to feed the cows? Fifty acres is a small enough holding nowadays. Quirke needed the Lowry land, and he needed it badly.

Patrick Quirke left the body of Bobby Ryan (pictured) in a run-off tank after killing him
Patrick Quirke left the body of Bobby Ryan (pictured) in a run-off tank after killing him

There is hardly a month goes by that there is not some mention of 'The Field' in the course of bitter disputes in the courts over land.

My dad saw and heard of many land disputes in our pub. He thought that by writing the play, he could show people the error of their ways. There was a bomb threat to the pub before 'The Field' was about to be produced. We lived over the bar, but my mother told my dad he had to write the play.

Hiding place: the underground run-off tank on the farm leased by Patrick Quirke, where he stashed the body of Bobby Ryan
Hiding place: the underground run-off tank on the farm leased by Patrick Quirke, where he stashed the body of Bobby Ryan

My mother was a farmer's daughter and she knew all about the poison spread by land disputes. Jim Sheridan and Richard Harris got that across brilliantly in the movie. Harris was nominated for best actor in the Academy Awards.

Nearly every land dispute involves intimidation and threats. People take sides and communities are split. Families are torn apart. Very often, the disputes became generational. If you inherited the farm, you inherited the hate.

Patrick Quirke
Patrick Quirke

There is also a sense the protagonists in these murder cases are bound not by the laws of Ireland, but by the law of the land. The green grass is green gold. This is an insatiable lust beyond ordinary madness.

No doubt now that the verdict has been delivered, there will be those on all sides who will breathe a sigh of relief and say "thank God that's all over". But it's never over.

'The Field' is based on the story of the murder of Mossy Moore in 1958 at Raemore, about 11km from Tralee. Dan Foley was the chief suspect.

He was never charged, but he was boycotted by his neighbours. Dan and his wife lived a lonely life. His brother Mick was disabled and he used to play the concertina for the neighbours, but no one came to hear Mick's tunes after the murder. There was an attempt to bomb the Foley house.

Relative: John Ryan, brother of Bobby Ryan, leaves court after the verdict and sentencing. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Relative: John Ryan, brother of Bobby Ryan, leaves court after the verdict and sentencing. Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

The Foley land was sold, but Dan's nephew John Foley bought back the overgrown fields a few years ago. John always maintains his uncle was innocent. The evidence was circumstantial at best. John is still angry and we will see how the story of the Foley fields plays out in a place where the past is still part of the present.

After a visit to the scene of the murder, we wrote "there's a terrible, atmospheric sadness in this forlorn spot where such terrible events occurred over half a century ago. It seeps under the skin. The very land is anaemic. No birdsong here in this bleak place or the sound of playing children. It's as if Mick's concertina is playing a requiem for the dead".

I wonder will Patrick Quirke's conscience trouble him when the lights go out in his prison cell tonight, and for many nights to come?

The craze for land will diminish with the years, and will the grey-faced old man in the lifer's cell come to say some day: "Was the killing of Bobby Ryan worth all this?"

Irish Independent

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