The Irish Republic has rarely featured as prominently in the mainstream British media as it has in recent months. Plans for a soft Brexit seem set to founder on the challenges posed by the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland; and the historic referendum on changes to the law relating to abortion was the dominant news story of the late-May Bank Holiday.
Today, the Democratic Unionist Party’s annual conference will be addressed by Boris Johnson, having spent last evening listening to Philip Hammond on why the current Withdrawal Agreement is the best that can be achieved by negotiation.
It was in this context that I came to read Fergal Keane’s Wounds : a memoir of war and love. Having long admired Keane’s forensic approach to broadcast journalism, most notably in his coverage of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 as the BBC’s Southern Africa correspondent, I was intrigued to see how he would tackle a subject that was – literally – much closer to home.
American sociologist Charles Wright Mills wrote that “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both”2. Keane reflects this philosophy perfectly in Wounds, his account of events leading to the Irish Uprising in 1916, the battle for independence and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, and the subsequent civil war and political settlement underpinning the Republic of Ireland as it is today. Keane employs his journalistic skills to excellent effect. Meticulous research and reference to contemporary source materials lends an academic rigour to the writing. But the text is brought to life as Keane draws on his own family history in north Kerry to see the events through the eyes of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.
I came to the book from a position of woeful ignorance about the history of the island of Ireland, and the series of events leading to the Uprising and eventual secession of the Republic from the UK. This book makes clear that what little I thought I knew was hopelessly simplistic and anodyne.
The caricature of English oppressors lording it over an impoverished native population is comprehensively demolished by Keane. He paints a picture of the north Kerry of his grandmother that is so much more complex and nuanced. Certainly, there are ‘old English’ families receiving an income from Irish tenant farmers on estates that were given to English ancestor-invaders several hundred years before. But these landlords are not all hostile to the interests of their tenants, nor are they uniformly against the principle of a greater say for the people of Ireland in their day-to-day governance. Similarly, some of those who fought most doggedly to preserve British rule were themselves born and raised in Ireland. As Keane writes in his prologue : “This is the story of my grandmother who was a rebel, and her brother and how they took up guns to fight the British Empire. And it is the story of another Irishman… who fought against them because he believed it was his duty to uphold the law of his country.” Towards the end of the book, he concludes that : “There was no absolute telling how the mood of the times and the circumstances of family, the generational shifts and, possibly, resentments could change the way in which young men and women saw the world.”
A recurrent theme throughout the book is the genuine conflict that existed across communities, between families, within individual combatants, throughout the skirmishes and battles that characterised the guerrilla campaigns of first the war of independence and then the civil war in the south of Ireland. Keane links the fight for freedom from UK rule in the period after 1916, directly to the Troubles that claimed so many lives in the lead up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 1998 : “The Provisional [IRA]’s claims of legitimate violence were rooted in the violence of [those] who had no electoral mandate for revolution when they struck in 1916 against a government they declared to be illegitimate.” In this context, the peace process that reached a conclusion in 1998 brought to an end a conflict that had begun 80 years earlier. And this is why questions over the border between north and south as part of the political soap-opera that is the Brexit process have such deep meaning in Northern Ireland and the Republic. In contemplating the possible return of a hard border between the UK and theRepublic, Keane observes : “Nobody thought the war would start again. But so much of our island history is about how unforeseen consequences play out over the long run that I cannot say violence will never return.”
Wounds is a thoughtful, accessible and above all intensely compassionate account of a period of history that has profoundly influenced the last 100 years of politics in the UK. I highly recommend it as a primer for anybody seeking a deeper understanding of the modern history of the island of Ireland, and a better appreciation of why any potential dilution of the Good Friday Agreement is the cause of such alarm.
(Mills, C. W.: 1959, The sociological imagination, Oxford University Press, London)