Fergal Keane's new book studies his family’s participation in the 1919-21 war against the British which led to the establishment of the Irish Free Stateby Wendell Steavenson / January 25, 2018 / Leave a comment
In his new book, Wounds, the veteran BBC correspondent Fergal Keane turns his attention from foreign wars to one closer to home: his family’s participation in the 1919-21 war against the British which led to the establishment of the Irish Free State, and the civil war that followed. The conflicts pitted neighbours against each other. The fighting was nasty: ambushes, arson, assassinations; revenge and reprisal stalked country lanes and town squares in “an accumulating local viciousness.” The brutality of the Black and Tans was matched by IRA Republicans who turned on their former comrades-in-arms after the treaty with the British. Years of strife led to a breakdown in law and order. Keane notes sadly, “it is the same in every… civil conflict I have ever reported.”
Keane’s family comes from County Kerry and he weaves his story around the assassination of a Royal Irish Constabulary officer who was gunned down by the IRA yards from his own front door. At the time, Keane’s grandmother, Hannah Purtill, was carrying messages and guns for the IRA and her brother, Mick, was a comrade-in-arms of the police officer’s killers. Both died without talking much about their war. “The past freezes over,” writes Keane.
Amid the brutality, Keane finds extraordinary acts of derring-do, escape and even mercy. During the civil war, his great-uncle Mick saved a former comrade from the firing squad. One of the most affecting descriptions in the book is a passage in which the IRA execute an informer and the man thanks them for their decency in allowing him to write a final letter to his family before he is shot.
“Much is unreachable,” Keane admits, wary of “absolute conclusions.” Two generations on and his experience reporting on horrors from Bosnia to Rwanda, gives him an even-handed perspective. He cannot condemn those who took up arms, but neither can he—or any of us who grew up in peace—quite explain it.
Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love by Fergal Keane is published by William Collins (£18.99)