Fergal healing old wounds

In an exclusive interview with the Kerryman, reporter Stephen Fernane asks Fergal Keane about the ghosts of civil war

Fergal Keane pictured with his new book 'Wounds'
Fergal Keane pictured with his new book 'Wounds'
Conor Brosnan, Barry O' Sullivan, Liam Purtell, Bridget Purtell, Joanna O' Flynn, Billy Keane and Fergal Keane at the launch of Fergal Keane's new book 'Wounds' on Friday night

Stephen Fernane

It's interesting that this book should derive from ghost stories. I suspect I will always live with the ghosts of the people whose bodies I've seen in different parts of the world and who I've seen suffering in terrible pain and wasn't able to save or do anything for.

This is probably the hardest thing that lives with you. It informs my work hugely and I hope I would be incapable of ever writing a partisan account of what happened in north Kerry during the Civil War, simply because of what I've experienced. War dehumanises us and leaves terrible pain in its wake on all sides.

It's hard to think that a quiet market town in north Kerry should be the focal point for Fergal Keane's obsession with war and suffering. The award-winning BBC foreign correspondent has witnessed the aftermath of man's inhumanity to man on a scale unimaginable to most of us. But the abject cruelty and suffering - even today in places like Myanmar - are considered universal traits for Keane when humans turn on each other.

'Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love' is Fergal Keane's latest book that tells the story of his grandmother Hannah Purtill, her brother Mick, and their friend Con Brosnan who took up arms to fight the British. It also tells the story of Tobias O'Sullivan, an RIC man shot dead in January 1921 by an IRA unit in Listowel as he strolled home for his dinner - a killing that involved a friend of the Purtill family, someone Hannah and Mick previously soldiered with. Like so many events of that period, this is the moment when brutal deeds yield to silence and are lost to history.

In Dublin, a short time after his death, 38-year old Tobius is laid to rest in an era Keane describes as 'crowded with killing'. But Tobias O'Sullivan's ghost never left Listowel and it was here that Keane, as a young boy, first heard of the hazy happenings surrounding his death. In this book Fergal shines light on that dark period in north Kerry; a darkness familiar to all who grew up with the half-truths and silence of Kerry's bloody past.

"Whenever I went back to Listowel this lack of questioning about that period was always part of the atmosphere," said Fergal.

"It was seldom if ever discussed and I was aware of having questions about that. I was also aware that I grew up in a family that was obsessed with history. But the history I was taught was very much an older history and details of the Tan war or Civil War wasn't discussed at all. This left me with many lingering questions."

'Wounds' captures the fatigued journey of the Irish people as they emerge from the tumultuous period 1916 to 1922; a time, Keane says, when people were mentally, physically and morally exhausted from all that had happened. "That really struck me during the research for the book; just how exhausted the people were by the end of the Civil War. I can see the reasons why there was a great silence drawn over what had happened. It wasn't healthy, but I can see why it happened. People were just trying to survive and repair lives," Fergal said.

A sample of the atrocities in the book present a savage disregard for human life: a man dragged from his bed, shot and stuck with a bayonet in front of his elderly mother; a 17 year old trainee priest beaten to a pulp by a rifle butt; a man slitting his throat following the trauma of his own interrogation - it's a brutal account. But it's also chilling to think such events happened in what is today a peaceful, untroubled landscape, except for the odd Atlantic storm that sweeps in from the coast. But how does a seemingly civilised society suddenly resort to barbarism?

"Once killing starts it is very difficult to control what human beings are capable of.

"People who would never normally find themselves in violence suddenly find they're drawn into doing things they couldn't possibly think of doing in peacetime. This is influenced by factors in the present, but also by old passions and animosities that become exhumed and they become part of a current struggle."

Keane is anxious to point out that 'Wounds' is a book that covers the enormous losses on both sides of the divide, as well as the non-combatants stung by the rasping tail flick of conflict. Keane adds that due to his family's staunchly Fine Gael background he found himself face-to-face with having to write about de Valera in a different light. A hint that, even today, the Civil War can still subconsciously draw us towards choosing sides. A sort of atavistic response to the actions of our ancestors.

"I tried to be as nonpartisan as I could in this book and I found that an interesting challenge given my background," Fergal said.

"There is a burden to carry after war, but you have to get on with it. This book, I hope, bridges the gap in Civil War animosity. In my previous book about WWII, I interviewed dozens of veterans and they are very similar to what I came across in relation to north Kerry. The men who fought in wars were silent; the quiet fathers I call them who just got on with life after witnessing terrible suffering."

Trying to make sense of the past and its ghostly figures is the objective of all who grow to love history. Fergal's first encounter with strange worlds and inhumane acts came late at night in his bedroom when his father Eamon told stories of Elizabethan armies galloping through Listowel. "My father was a great storyteller and the tradition of storytelling in north Kerry is one of the greatest in the world. I emerged from that tradition. But the older I got, I discovered the ghost stories he told me were rooted in truth."

However, given what Fergal has witnessed as a foreign correspondent in the fractured, war-torn regions around the globe, the ghosts of his present must feel as if they've sprung from the very depths of hell. The turmoil of north Kerry's War of Independence and Civil War might be where Fergal's fascination with war commenced, but this, in essence, is imagined from the safety of the present, far removed from the brutality he witnessed first-hand. So what, if anything, haunts the adult Fergal Keane. After a brief pause, I can sense the pain of memory in his sigh prior to answering.

"Rwanda was difficult. Thousands of people were massacred. We came on the aftermath of that and it was an absolutely horrendous sight. The worst that human beings are capable of doing: men, women and children butchered with machetes and clubbed to death, most of which had been done by their neighbours. That's a memory that still haunts me."

But the gap of understanding between north Kerry's conflict of a century ago and the devastation he witnessed around the world has narrowed with time according to Fergal. Questions about conflict in the country where he grew up and the history of Listowel are clearer now and have helped inform him of his preoccupation with war. "I've spent 25 years of my life looking at conflict and one of the things about getting older is you start to wonder about what influences you and what makes you do the things you do. This book explores the origins of that obsession which stretch back to my family's history. But it's also a book, I hope, that will resonate with other family histories."

Lastly, Fergal's research for the book has helped him forge deeper bonds with his ancestral county. The search for history has brought him home to a place, people and tradition he is immensely proud of - a love he equates with Brendan Kennelly's description of those enchanted Atlantic and 'Munster fields' that stretch for miles between Ballybunion and Listowel.

"I've got to know north Kerry a lot more since I've got older. I'm very proud of my roots there. My uncle John B was a huge influence in my career. He was the most independent minded man I ever knew. He often said that if he didn't write he would go mad. I think I now know what he meant."

Fergal concludes: "There's a great line from the poet Robert Lowell that reads: 'why not say what happened'. I've tried to achieve that with this book rather than take any partisan view of the past. We need to say what happened and look at the reasons why it happened."


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