So much of our Irish past is snagged with myth and suppressed memory, it is as if the blood and the bitterness made truth too painful to bear

Feargal Keane goes in search of the real history of his family and his country
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It was an election campaign which promised to be as bitter as any ever fought in Listowel. On one side Fianna Fail, the party of De Valera and militant Irish nationalism; on the other was Fine Gael, the party which descended from Michael Collins and those who had voted for the partition of Ireland in 1922. Looming over both was the shadow of the Catholic church, an institution of unrivaled power in Listowel, as in most other southern towns. Both parties paid obeisance to the church. Both doffed their caps to the priests. But if moral issues (in Ireland that usually meant anything to do with sex) were not involved, the priests tended to stay in the background during elections.

And like every campaign since partition, the election campaign of 1951 was dominated by the politics of the civil war. The stuff which was kept under wraps most of the time came flooding out in elections: who had fought on what side, who had killed who, who had really represented the will of the Irish people.

Both sides were limbering up for an orgy of bile and insults. Enter my uncle, John B Keane, and a group of subversive associates. Sick to death of the old bitterness, they decided to take matters into their own hands and put up a non-party candidate. He was the inestimable and unimpeachable Thomas Doodle Esq. Needless to say, Tom Doodle did not exist. In reality he was a friend of my uncle's who was persuaded to disguise himself and play the part for the duration of the campaign.

At first, the main parties were inclined to ignore the Doodle campaign. The work of young lads with nothing better to do. And then came the Doodle monster meeting. Those who were present remember it as the biggest meeting in the town since Parnell came in the last century. Crowds pressed around the railway station where my uncle and his friends were waiting with a horse-drawn carriage to meet the candidate. As he emerged, a brass band began to play and somebody in the crowd fired several celebratory shots into the air.

Followed by several hundred people, Doodle and his spin- doctors proceeded to the market square, where he unveiled his daring manifesto to rescue Ireland from civil war politics. The promises were intentionally ludicrous. The crowd knew this and cheered him on wildly. On jobs, he pledged to open a factory for shaving the hair off gooseberries; there was also a hint of universal free drink. Crucially, he promised "that every man would have more than the next". In the atmosphere of political clientism and unrealistic promises which prevailed at the time, the crowd delighted in the biting satire.

The meeting finished with the ringing campaign slogan: "Vote the Noodle and give the whole Kaboodle to Doodle". To orgastic cheering, Doodle vanished into the night. In the event, Doodle did not stand in the election. His candidacy was a joke, but a very pointed one. Spare us your old hatreds, the young were saying, we want a different Ireland.

My uncle would later carry on the battle as one of Ireland's best-loved writers, satirising the crony politics of the day and portraying in his plays a country struggling for social and political change. In the Sixties, he was one of the leaders of a movement which would argue against the compulsory teaching of Irish in schools. Although a fluent speaker and lover of Irish, John B felt the young were being turned against the language. He had little time for the narrow nationalist elite who used the language as a political weapon. It was a stand which would earn him verbal and physical abuse, culminating in a savage attack at a meeting in Dublin, from which he was lucky to escape without serious injury.

I only heard the story of Tom Doodle in its full glory last summer, in the course of a long journey back through the political landscape of my childhood and family. I knew that various members of my father's family had been involved in the IRA, among them my grandmother, Hanorah Purtill. Once while staying with her in Kerry during the holidays, I remember a war pension arriving at her house on Church Street. And when I asked her about it she admitted she'd once been an IRA volunteer.

But like so many who had taken part in the bitter struggles of 1919-22, Hannie Keane was slow to talk about what had happened, what she had seen and done. I knew only that she was a devout follower of Michael Collins and that after the Treaty she had abandoned the gun in favour of politics. Throughout my life I had known her as a gentle granny, a woman who passionately supported constitutional politics and never neglected to cast her vote. And so when my uncle told me about her revolutionary life one morning last summer, I knew I was discovering an altogether more complex woman.

At the age of 17, Hannie Keane had become a member of Cumann Na Mban, the female wing of the IRA. The women provided intelligence, logistical and moral support to the gunmen who were attacking British forces and the Royal Irish Constabulary. My grand-uncle, Mick Purtill (Hannie's brother), was one of the main IRA leaders in the area.

One of Hannie's jobs was to smuggle guns around the neighbourhood. According to my uncle, she did this by concealing them in her underwear, a place not even the notorious Black and Tans (British Irregulars) would think of searching. But they did suspect her enough to issue a death threat. One evening while she was walking home, a Black and Tan by the name of Darcy stopped Hannie and put a gun to her head. She was given 24 hours to get out of town, a warning she chose to ignore.

Hannie survived, but many of her comrades-in-arms did not. Hannie Keane was no different from thousands of young men and women who had flocked to the republican movement after the British had executed the leaders of the Easter 1916 rebellion. In a matter of weeks, British stupidity had inflamed public opinion. The radicalisation of public opinion which the rebels had sought was achieved by British firing squads. As my uncle put it to me: "If you have never had to aspire for freedom, if you have always had it, then it's impossible to understand what it means to live without it".

The War of Independence in North Kerry was a savage affair. The nearby town of Ballylongford was attacked and burned by the Black and Tans; in the valley of Knockanure, the Tans shot dead three men after ordering them to run across an open field. My grand-uncle helped the only survivor of that attack to escape and bring the story to national attention.

For its part, the IRA conducted a ruthless campaign, killing Black and Tans and also fellow Irishmen who wore the uniform of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Houses belonging to unpopular Protestant landlords were burned, those suspected of pro-British sympathies were killed or driven out, informers were executed without mercy.

In one case an RIC district inspector was walking up Church Street in Listowel after attending mass when he was surprised by the IRA and murdered. I don't know how much of the local campaign my grandmother participated in, or how much she knew about the planning of such attacks. I do remember my father telling me a story about a murdered British officer haunting the house on Church Street, a green shadow who flickered across the walls at night.

Was this the fruit of fantasy or did it hint at some dark story untold? My grandmother died before I was interested enough to ask her about the truth of those days. I will never know. So much of our Irish past is snagged with myth and suppressed memory, it is as if the blood and the bitterness made truth too painful to bear. When the British departed in 1922 the IRA split. My grandmother took the side of the pro-Treaty forces.

The issue then, as now, was the partition of the country. Where you stood on partition, whether you would kill and die over it, became the trenchline that defined our national politics for generations. In North Kerry the Civil War was, in the words of Professor Brendan Kenneally, a family friend and a leading Irish poet: "The dirtiest fight of all time, families split by it, football teams split by it. A bitter, bitter time".

Two stories he remembers from that time: at Ballyseedy outside the town of Tralee, soldiers of the Free State Army tied nine IRA prisoners to a landmine and then stood back and detonated the device. Eight of the men were blown to pieces. One miraculously survived to tell the story. At Clashmelcon, near Listowel, a group of IRA men hiding in caves overlooking the sea were urged to surrender and climb up some ropes which had been lowered by the Army. As they came to the top, the soldiers cut the ropes and sent the men falling to their deaths on the rocks below.

That was Irishmen killing Irishmen. Irish Catholics killing Irish Catholics. I did not hear those stories growing up. The history I learned in school was safe history: Irish heroes and English villains. And there was no shortage of English villainy to contemplate. The curse of Cromwell, the rebellion of 1798, the Famine, the Easter Rising, the Black and Tans. But the blood and guts of what we did to each other was skipped over. The Civil War and the bloody reality of what the IRA did in prosecuting its war against the British was glossed over.

I went to school in 1966, the year Ireland celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. They were stirring times. I remember the radio relentlessly playing ballads and martial music. As the voice of one announcer droned repeatedly: "If you must sing a song, sing an Irish song".

I dreamed of dying for Ireland. Our schoolyard battles were always the same: the Irish versus the Brits. My hero was Patrick Pearse. Noble and handsome. I longed to emulate him, to perish in glorious battle. And I understood, too, that to be Irish was to be Catholic. I may have loathed the boredom of Sunday masses but my Catholic identity was not up for debate. It had come down to me from my devout grandmother, who had in turn been given it by her grandparents.

But looking back now I sense that 1966 was the high watermark of the old nationalism. The Irish identity which had been defined in terms of its Catholic faith and its antagonism to the British was evolving into something altogether more exciting.

We might have played war games in the day but at night we had television to look at, with its imported programmes and ideas. We were heading into Europe, taking part in UN peacekeeping operations, we were embarking on economic policies that reversed the isolationism of the past. My uncle John B and many other writers were challenging the accepted orthodoxies of church and state. The women's movement was agitating on issues such as contraception and equal rights in the workplace.

All around me Ireland was changing, but I was too young to see it. I do have one memory which underlines both the nature of the state and the challenge it was facing. Every few weeks my mother would hand me a brown envelope and send me to Mrs Gleeson's chemist around the corner from our Dublin home. Once inside, I would hand the envelope to the chemist on duty. She would disappear into a back room and return with the envelope, filled now with small tablets. "What's that, mam?" I asked one morning. "That's just the Pill, love. Just the Pill."

I hadn't a clue what "the Pill" was but I knew it was something secret. And there it was, a small act of subversion, but one being repeated by women across the country. It was a new revolution, altogether different from the battles of the past.

And then, in 1969, the long, festering wound of partition burst in our faces. The politics of blood returned to Ireland and filled our television screens every night. As the Troubles ground on we were alternately horrified, outraged, sickened, mystified, saddened, apathetic. The struggle which my grandmother and her comrades had abandoned in 1922 in favour of constitutional politics had come back to haunt us.

At first we felt sympathy for the Northerners, our nationalist impulses twitched reflexively. But the war up North was brutal and unromantic. Dismembered bodies. Widows and orphans. We didn't live through it, but its poison infected the whole island. And with every brutal image, it became harder to cling to the simplistic, nationalist pieties. To paraphrase Yeats: Romantic Ireland was dead and gone.

It took 30 years of murder and violent sectarianism to bring the people of Ireland, north and south, to the point of agreement. Now we have reached that point, there is a feeling akin to a collective intake of breath. We hover before this peace, uncertain and nervous. Will it last? Where will it take us? What kind of country have we become on the journey to peace? I don't know what my grandmother would think of this new island. I suspect the conservative, Catholic part of her nature would find some of the changes difficult to accept. But I hope the revolutionary in her, the rebel heart, would celebrate the freedom we are finding.

Fergal Keane's three-part series `Irish Journeys' begins on Saturday at 7.25pm on BBC 2

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