Leabharlann na Meán


Machnamh 100 - Fergal Keane

17th November, 2022

My words today are the consequence of witness. They come from what I have seen and what I have heard. The long conversations with the survivors of violence, but also with the perpetrators. Traumatic memory is not confined to those on whom violence was inflicted.

I have spent much of my lifetime away at the wars. Most frequently civil wars: the scenes of genocide, ethnic cleansing, man-made starvation.

I have gone into the noise and fury of battle, and afterwards into the anguished, complex silences, and I have explored the necessary fictions that men and women construct to protect their minds from the consequences of the violence they have wrought.

I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing – no cruelty, no indignity – human beings are not capable of inflicting upon each other. But I am also convinced that humanity in extremis is capable of immense generosity – of that which might help bind wounds and lay foundations that help us to move away from the possibility of a return to violence.

I believe that in order to heal the wounds of war, we must heed the pain of others. We must do it especially, when they belong to what in divided societies we see as the ‘other’ side.

Above all, we must look on the atrocities of the past – whoever carried them out – with clear eyes. To heed is to see things as they actually were.

The body parts shovelled from the ground after the IRA bombs on Bloody Friday.

The mutilated remains of the victims of the Shankill Butchers found in Belfast laneways.

The dying man, bleeding out from a paratroopers bullet on Bloody Sunday.

To heal, is to acknowledge and be respectful towards the pain of others as well as to our own.

As a consequence, I am impatient with keyboard warriors, barroom balladeers, and social media’s manipulative liars. I fear the ease with which it is possible to create narratives that offer us comforting fictions about the true nature of killing.

My words for you today are a personal reflection. I do not speak on behalf of anybody. And my experience of reporting on atrocity has taught me not to believe that anything I say can make much, if any, difference to the course of violent events. I am familiar with moral injury: in my own case the fear that held me paralysed in Rwanda in 1994. To want to intervene, but to be too terrified for one’s own safety to take the risk. I can speak to you now at some distance in time from the wars I have witnessed. Yet they live with me in everyday trauma. In vivid detail. I think of Brian Friel’s line from ‘Translations’: To remember everything is a form of madness.

I don’t write, report, speak because I think I will draw people back from the brink, or remotely imagine that the words of a reporter will pierce the mental armour of those who have spent years rationalizing to themselves the necessity of killing. I am here because I believe that the act of witness has rights of its own. That what I report can join with the voices of others who try to stand outside the clamour of conflict and offer true stories that might become part of a larger institutional memory.

I am here because of the President’s generous invitation, because I believe this series of conversations, while rooted in the past, can inspire a dialogue about the present which has as its hallmarks generosity, compassion and honesty. And these values, heeded in the heart and mind, might shape an Ireland in which we can talk of healing.                              


I shouldn’t have needed a psychiatrist to tell me that family history and the history of the island on which I grew up were part of what sent me to explore the trauma of others.

But when he did I was greatly relieved. Because until then I had wondered whether my relentless returning to scenes of violence was not perverse or, as one well-meaning older relative asked me once: ‘what do you want going into all that old stuff for?’

It is a good question for today.

The reason I go into the ‘old stuff’ – and whether that is the stuff of the 1920s, or of the nineteen seventies or eighties, is because it lives with me: in the memory of the stories I heard, and the Troubles I myself reported. It is central to the[FK1]  shaping of this island now.

I was not the first of my family to experience the terror of war.

My grandmother Hannah Purtill was fifteen when the Irish Revolution began. By the time the fighting stopped, seven years later, I believe she had been changed by what she witnessed on country lanes and on the streets of Listowel.

War in north Kerry was…the broken corpses of comrades after torture, the blood of a policeman congealing in a gutter, the revolver pointed towards her head in a threat of execution, and night after night waiting for a battering on the door. 

As a member of Cumann na mBan my grandmother Hannah spied and smuggled messages and weapons.

Heading into the winter of 1920/21 an atmosphere of terror envelopes north Kerry. The guerrillas attack a police patrol; a village is raided and burned in retaliation. Prisoners are tied to the front of lorries as human shields to forestall ambush. Others are dragged behind vehicles along country roads, leaving them battered to a pulp. One is tied to a horse and dragged across the countryside. Savage beatings of anybody suspected of IRA allegiances are routine. Many in the ranks of the newly arrived Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries are men already brutalised by years of horror on the Western front.

People are fingered by IRA intelligence as spies, then abducted and shot dead, their bodies left on the roadside with signs proclaiming: ‘Spies Beware of the IRA’. Two police are kidnapped in north Kerry and tortured. They are released but five weeks later one suffers a mental breakdown and cuts his throat. There are bodies bleeding out on the street, bodies buried in bogs where they will never be found, lying from one century to the next deep in the peat; there are bodies that are still alive being beaten and kicked in the cells of the police barracks or, like the young trainee priest home on leave for Christmas, battered to death in the town square.

The IRA shoots District Inspector Tobias O’Sullivan of the RIC. He is a father of three young children. He lives a few minutes up the street from the Keane family home on Church Street, where my grandmother would go to visit her future in-laws. His wife Mary – known to her family as May[FK2]  - sees the blood flowing from his ruined head. She dies within a year. May[FK3]  is broken by grief. O’Sullivan’s movements to and from the police barracks on Church Street have been tracked by spies. As one of the assassins remarks: ‘We had been informed of his regular movements by a number of scouts in Listowel who had been put on his trail as soon as the order was received.’[i] It is as simple and irrevocable as that.

Four local IRA men walking along the road outside Listowel are picked up by the Tans, badly beaten and then lined up before a firing squad and shot. Despite being wounded, one runs for his life and survives to tell the tale. My grandmother, Hannah Purtill, is among the group of women detailed with making sure the dead men are given a decent burial in accordance with the rights of the Church, and the customs of the country. A Cumann na mBan member who witnesses the arrival of the bodies at Tralee barracks recalls that the face of one, a fine young fellow whom I knew personally, was all smashed in.’

Some of the[FK4]  women tending the bodies are verbally abused and beaten. They find the dead men dumped in a shed used by the police for storing turf. They wash and clean them. How easy to write that, and then stopping myself and imagining these countrywomen painstakingly cleaning away the blood and gore, how that imprints on the mind and the spirit.  

When a retired local policeman, James Kane, is killed by the IRA as a suspected informer, his family is boycotted. They are refused service in shops and forced to walk long distances because no taxi will take them. A brass nameplate is removed from their front door. They live among people who wished to erase their presence.

In the British National Archives I read the letters of Kane’s traumatised children and feel shame at the hatred that engulfed some in our town. James’s daughter Elizabeth was, like my grandmother, a draper’s assistant in Listowel. After the killing ‘the staff refused to work with her’ despite her having been an employee for fifteen years. She could not find another job.[ii] ‘After our father’s death,’ Elizabeth wrote, ‘people whom we looked on as our friends turned their back on us and at one particular social entertainment (the first I attended in the town after our father’s death) I was the only girl ignored.’

A younger sister had a nervous breakdown and became ‘a complete wreck’. The adult Kane children became destitute and were evicted from their home in the centre of town. Eventually they scattered from the story of Listowel. When Elizabeth’s lawyers wrote to a local solicitor to try and gather evidence in support of her claim for compensation, they were told that ‘there is a great reluctance to admit having taken part in a boycott of this kind, or on the part of anybody to give evidence against neighbours … all parties in Ireland are anxious to forget the troubles of the years 1921, 1922 and banish them as a hideous nightmare’.

But in the minds of the traumatised there is no banishing. Down the generations the trauma goes.

I think of Tobias O’Sullivan, RIC, whose killing was one of the most infamous in the Revolutionary war in Kerry. Yet when I asked a relative why their experience of the war had not been written into the national narrative, I was told: “Nobody ever asked.” Yet the pain of what had been done reverberates for his descendants to this day.

Last year, I sat with the son of Jack Ahern, one of Tobias’ assassins. When I ask about his father, Seán’s eyes fill with tears. He struggles to accept that his kind, warm-hearted, hard-working father could have killed in cold blood. ‘I mean how could you live with that? To walk up behind a man and shoot him in the back of the head in front of his wife and child?’ The seventy-five-year-old son of a long-dead gunman carries the trauma of what his father had done over a hundred years before.

In my grandmother’s house Tobias O’Sullivan became a ghost story told by my father, a green figure – nameless - who stalked the house after dark. Trauma present yet ethereal, mediated through story telling. He was a dead British soldier I was told, a ghost who would wander forever. But did my father know that he was in fact an Irish policeman? That he was gunned down by men who were comrades in arms and friends of my people? There was too much that was – to my inquiring child’s mind - unknown. 

My early knowledge of the Revolutionary period was shaped by my father’s stories, by what I heard in a Listowel kitchen. My father was one of life’s romantics. When he was picked to play the role of a hero of 1798 rebellion in the RTÉ film ‘When do you Die Friend’ his performance won a Jacobs Award. That was in 1966[FK5]  - fifty years after the Revolution and three years before the war erupted in the north and our commemorations could never be the same again. Never so simple, so lacking in nuance, so embedded in the narrative of origin constructed in the exhausted aftermath of the Civil War.

For those who were[FK6]  the families of the dead of our Revolution – on all sides – there was no healing space. The war of independence gave way to the Civil War, and that in turn led some to the horrifying realisation of the savagery we were capable of inflicting on each other without any help from the British. Later on we sang the rebel songs. We kept to the safe lines of memorialisation dictated from on high. Our remembering was not an exchange between survivors and descendants. In truth I can think of very few countries where it has been.

We did not speak openly of mental wounds. Then the Troubles came.

It was not until years later, when I found myself at the scene of shootings, bombings, assassinations, funerals that the meaning of violence, the human dimension in all its blood, body parts…its tears and empty stares…came home to me. There in Belfast, Lurgan, Derry, and in small towns and villages, and again in Rwanda, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Colombia, Congo, and so many more, my hatred of war hardened.

I also saw in South Africa, and in smaller localised initiatives in the Balkans and the Middle East, attempts to heal through processes of truth telling. I am a firm believer in the power of communities addressing what Seamus Heaney called the tragedy of ‘neighbourly murder’ through mediated exchanges.

But I am especially concerned today with leaders. My experience has convinced me that for leaders to confront the trauma of the past they must speak with generosity – particularly leaders[FK7] , on whatever side, who represent those who bear responsibility for some of that violence.  The greatest, most transformative leadership involves humility. It means setting to one side justifications, blaming, politicking, whataboutery, and speaking directly to the pain of those who still live with the trauma of the murdered father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter.

It means openly acknowledging the pain caused, seeing it from the side of those still suffering with the legacy of violence. It means that we must pay full attention to the pain caused by words, gestures, slogans, chants. This is a universal responsibility for political leaders, as is the imperative of creating mechanisms that honestly address the actions of all those – out of uniform or in uniform - who took part in violence.  

We cannot have a partitioning of concern for victims according to partisan loyalties. In relation to the conflict on this island, leaders need to heed the pain of families of Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Warrington, Loughinisland, Enniskillen and so many more places. To do so is to prove that we are learning the lessons offered by the past, so that to paraphrase the words of Van Morrison, the healing can begin[FK8] .

 [FK1]Inserted the word ‘to’

 [FK2]First name corrected here

 [FK3]First name corrected again.

 [FK4]Addition of the word ‘some.’

 [FK5]Comma removed

 [FK6]Superfluous who removed

 [FK7]Word ‘leaders’ replaces ‘those’

 [FK8]Sentence re-fashioned for grammatical purposes.