Historians unearth priceless recordings

Bill Browne

The work of Tralee historians Maurice and Jane O'Keeffe is to bring fresh insight into the experiences of two North Cork men during the War of Independence in the county - thanks to remarkable recordings they uncovered in recent research.

While much has been written about the struggle for Irish freedom, it is rare that we have a chance to listen to never before heard first-hand accounts of the War of Independence and ensuing Civil War from the mouths of those who lived through these momentous events.

On Saturday oral historian Maurice O'Keeffe of Irish Life and Lore will air sound clips from two North Cork men, one of whom is depicted in Sean Keating's iconic painting 'Men of the South', during the launch of the work at the Crawford Gallery in Cork on Saturday.

The recordings were made by Fr JJ O'Riordan, a native of Knoclavorheen, Kiskeam, during conversations he had with veterans of both conflicts during the early 1970's while researching his critically acclaimed book 'Kiskeam Versus the Empire'.

Fr O'Riordan compiled hours of taped material for the book. These included his own father Jim (a member of the H (Kiskeam) Company, Cork 2nd Brigade, IRA) who is the tall man depicted at the back of the 'Men of the South' and Séan Healy from Kilcorney.

"I was inspired by the stories of their heroic deeds, near miraculous escapes and the boldness of their attempt to wrest freedom from what was then the world's greatest empire," said Fr O'Riordan.

"These people were not trained soldiers of an imperial army. They were small farmers, labourers and shopkeepers from local villages. None of them were rich, nor were they destitute, but they were all determined to achieve freedom."

Unfortunately, once Fr O'Riordan had transcribed the interviews, he reused many of the tapes - something that he admits he deeply regrets.

However, thanks to a chance conversation with Maurice earlier this year, it emerged that in fact the interviews Fr O'Riordan conducted with his late father and Séan Healy had survived.

"Fr O'Riordan asked me to record his own life story and during the course of the conversation I discovered he had a deep knowledge of the War of Independence and the Civil War. When we had finished, he handed me some tapes and I asked if I would be interested in listening to them," said Maurice.

It was an opportunity that the historian knew was too good to turn down.

"As you can imagine I was extremely excited at the prospect of hearing these first hand accounts of events directly from the mouths men who lived through them. To me, as an oral historian, these recordings are priceless," he said.

Maurice and his wife Jane spent more than two months listening to the more than seven hours of recordings, contextualising them and putting them into chronological order from 1919 though to 1923 and beyond.

"It was a lot of hard work but it was also very much a labour of love for Jane and I. Even for people like us, who dedicate our lives to preserving oral history, this was a once in a lifetime experience and we are extremely grateful to Fr O'Riordan for allowing us access to these incredible recordings," said Maurice.

"To be able to archive them for future generations to listen to and enjoy has been an immensely enjoyable and satisfying experience," he added.

The launch of the Irish Life and Lore Men of the South Oral History Collection will be attended by descendants of the men depicted in the iconic painting by Sean Keating which hangs in the Crawford Gallery, Emmet Place, Cork on Saturday, December 9, at 2.30pm next.

Full details of the collection can be gleaned at www.irishlifeandlore.com for those who can't make the launch.