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Wounds

A Memoir of War and Love

 

Fergal Keane

 

William Collins, 21 September 2017

 

There comes a time for many men in middle age when the need to find out more about one’s heritage becomes overwhelming. A compulsive desire to establish roots and facts takes over. Keane, a well-known BBC broadcaster, has been bitten by this bug – but with a twist. For not only does he come from Eire, but his family had known republican sympathies. So Wounds develops into a treatise on the evolution of the Irish nation, as it we know it today, interwoven with the weft of family feuds and creeds. The author’s extensive experience of covering internecine conflicts around the world means he is supremely well qualified to comment on tribal behaviour.  

 

The book is timely given that Ireland is again having to judge its desired relationship with Great Britain, albeit in a less fraught way than during the period covered by Wounds. Keane has a lyrical style, as befits an Irish writer, although this cannot disguise the grimness of life in his country during the potato famine. In his view much of the civil unrest that carried on until recently can be attributed to the desire of the working classes to have some security about the tenure of their land, and indeed to have access to sufficient land with which to earn a living. So the book is perhaps best at putting all subsequent Irish history in context.

 

Violence by the civil population begat violence by the Black and Tans, and so a downward spiral developed. Keane quotes a Tralee journalist who gives a pungent analysis:

 

“The police in Ireland are themselves the victims of a condition of terrorism which is only equaled by the condition of terrorism that they themselves endeavor to impose. They are, for the most part, quite young men who have gone through the experience, at once toughening and demoralizing, of fighting through a long and savage war. They are splendid soldiers and abominably bad policemen. They are unsuitably and inadequately officered, quite insufficiently trained for their special duties, and expected to keep sober in nerve-wracking circumstances in a country where drink is far more plentiful and potent than England.” 

 

The brutality of the IRA’s fight against the forces of the state was quite the match of subsequent battles. After a while the prose describing an endless cycle of tit for tat murders becomes quite numbing. Keane well describes how the war then descended further into Irishmen killing their fellows when Free Staters squared up to Republicans. As Keane says “It was all inestimably sad”.

For an Englishman with limited understanding of the nuances of this conflict there is much to learn – including that what unkind souls may describe as terrorists of the period were later awarded war pensions by the Irish state.

 

Towards its end Wounds becomes more autobiographical – the reader shares Keane’s journey of discovery, not just about his family, but also about how his value structure has evolved. At times profoundly depressing, but never less than well-crafted, and very illuminating.