Reading between lines on our history

How was 2018 for you? In the spirit of the season, this column has, after deep reflection, decided to look back on a few books that were published in the year gone by.

Three books stayed with me. They differ largely in content and tone, but all say something about this country in one guise or another.

Say Nothing was written from outside the country and is all the better for it. The author, Patrick Radden Keefe, writes for The New Yorker magazine.

His book is based around the murder of Jean McConville, the fall-out for her family, and what became of the individuals who, while not necessarily directly responsible for the murder, were inimitable to the culture in which it occurred.

What sets Say Nothing apart is the fresh perspective and cracking narrative bulging with pace, plot, and character.

The author examines McConville’s background and particularly the fall-out for her 10 children after she was taken away on a cold December night in 1972. Many of them ended up in care.

Some

developed their own problems, which may have been inevitable in light of what was thrust upon them.

However, the three individuals who dominate Radden Keefe’s narrative are Dolours Price, Gerry Adams, and Brendan Hughes.

Price came from a long line of violent Republicans and joined the IRA after being convinced that peaceful means of aspiring to equality would be redundant.

The book deals with the brutal way in which she was force-fed in an English prison when she was on hunger strike, and the impact it had on her for the remainder of her life.

Hughes had an iconic reputation as a gunman in the IRA. When he and Adams were captured in a British army operation, both men were “beaten senseless” before being dispatched to Long Kesh. As they arrived, the Republican prisoners gave a rousing reception for these celebrities of their organisation.

Hughes “would later count that moment — black and blue, manacled, borne into prison on that great wave of enthusiasm — as one of the greatest in his life”. Both Price and Hughes claimed that Adams had control over a unit called the Unknowns, which was used to kill and usually disappear individuals who were singled out for death. Jean McConville’s murder was carried out by this unit.

Adams has always denied any involvement in the IRA but, like the vast majority of people, the author doesn’t give much credence to the denials. Adams has claimed that Hughes and Price falsely painted him as an IRA leader because they disagreed with his peace strategy.

The book traces how Price and Hughes became completely disillusioned with Adams and the direction in which he took the republican movement and how they, in turn, became embittered. Readers can make their own minds up as to whether their versions of the past or Adams’ denials are more credible.

Say Nothing provides fresh perspective and plenty to reflect on, all delivered with writing of a high quality.

Somebody who has also been involved in decades of struggle of a different hue altogether is Alice Leahy. She left her safe, pensionable job as a nurse in the 1970s to work with people who ghost through the streets under the label “homeless”.

This year, Leahy, with the assistance of journalist Catherine Cleary, wrote a memoir that serves as both a slice of social history and a road map to understanding today’s inability to address the housing emergency.

What comes across in the pages of The Stars Are Our Only Warmth is how Leahy managed to combine a hard-headed pragmatism with a humanity devoid of any judgement. She’s not trying to change those she encounters on the street, just help them live with the pain.

Perhaps for that reason, and others also, Leahy is a fierce advocate for independence from any interference.

Her organisation, the Alice Leahy Trust, does not receive any Government funding and is therefore unencumbered by the latest headline-grabbing political or administrative wheeze to infect the lives of the homeless.

She is not a fan of professionalisation of services to deal with the most vulnerable on the streets. In this vein she recalls in the book how things began to change in the 1980s.

“The days when senior Health Board officials worked in draughty, ramshackle offices were coming to a close. Those officials were far less likely to be visiting hostels, much less volunteering in them and working shoulder to shoulder with people like me.

“Layers of bureaucracy and the jargon of management speak were growing around some senior officials like moss on stones. Empires were being built and large amounts of money spent defending them.”

The Stars Are Our Only Warmth is a cracking read that also injects a little faith in humanity at a time when it’s sorely needed.

For a different perspective on how we live, the publication this year of A Century of Politics in The Kingdom is hard to beat.

Written by Owen O’Shea and Gordon Revington, it runs the rule over politics in Kerry in all its honour, glory, deception, and insincerity. It mirrors the whole nnature of politics on a local level in this country and how it has evolved since the beginning of the last century.

There is much about the history of politicians from the country who went on to make an impact on the national stage, particularly during the difficult birth of the State. There is also plenty of humour, such as the quote from an election agent for Fianna Fáil’s Tom McEllistrim in the 1973 general election.

Vote Number 1 Tom McEllistrim and Number 2 Kit Ahern in order of your choice.

This quote alone sums up how the concept of vote management is lost in translation en route from HQ to the constituencies.

This being Kerry politics, there is no short of roguery also. Among the anecdotes going back over the years, the book includes what came to be known as Killarney’s own Watergate episode.

During the 1948 general election, the Fianna Fáil HQ in Killarney was broken into in the dead of night. However, the nburglars were not intent on removing possibly incriminating files, or rooting out deep intelligence on the party, but fare of a more mundane, if daring, hue.

“Apparently,” the Kerry Champion reported, “the entry was effected for the purpose of removing a streamer that stretched across the street from the upper window, bearing the inscription “Kerry, let us be united. Give us three for Dev”.

The streamer was later recovered, having been “thrown inside the wall of Lord Kenmare’s demesne a short distance away”.

On such disreputable actions is the direction of a nation determined. Finally, a book not yet read but waiting to be devoured over the holiday is Michael Moynihan’s Crisis And Comeback, Cork In The Eighties.

Looks like it could be just the job to see out the year on. Happy Christmas.

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