Suspicion, murder and mayhem in Kerry: The true story behind The Field 

Tonight we get to see the documentary made by Billy Keane about the bitter dispute made famous by his father and the subsequent film with Richard Harris an 
Suspicion, murder and mayhem in Kerry: The true story behind The Field 

Richard Harris as Bull McCabe in the 1990 film, The Field.  The Real Field documentary screens on RTÉ One next Tuesday. 

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of The Field, Jim Sheridan’s gripping tale of murder, rural codes and an unholy obsession with land. The movie became an instant classic on release, in particular due to unforgettable performances by Richard Harris as 'Bull' McCabe and John Hurt as his sidekick 'The Bird' O’Donnell.

The film was based on a stage play by John B Keane of the same name, which premiered in 1965 – directed by Barry Cassin and starring Ray McAnally as The Bull. The Listowel playwright drew inspiration for the play from an unsolved murder case from his hinterland in north Kerry several years beforehand. The fallout from the cold case still resonates more than 60 years later, which is explored in a fascinating documentary entitled The Real Field.

“People still talk about it,” says Billy Keane, eldest son of John B Keane and narrator of the documentary. “I was always interested in the murder case because I felt there was so many loose ends. I was never sure who did it. Everyone said it was Dan Foley. I wasn't completely convinced.

“It always bothered me about it – the fact that Dan Foley had such a terrible end. The consequences of what happened up there in Reamore went way beyond just the murder. There was so many people affected by it, especially the Foleys. There’s elements of a whodunnit in the documentary, but it’s the tragedy that takes over. It has always nagged away at me.”

Dan Foley and Moss Moore were neighbours and friends in Reamore, which is about 15 miles from Listowel. Moore was 12 years younger, a bachelor living alone with two dogs for company; Foley lived with his wife and her brother. Only 100 yards separated their houses. As farmers with small holdings in a tight-knit community, they worked together cutting turf and saving hay. They met daily at the local creamery and played cards with each other – usually Forty-Fives – at night-time.

Dan Foley worried his cattle were wandering away from his house towards the bog so he put down a boundary fence along the sliver of land between his land and Moore’s. Moore felt the fence was encroaching on his land so he moved it. Foley moved it back. Moore took a court action so the fence would be moved back indefinitely.

Billy Keane at the site of the dispute for The Real Field documentary.
Billy Keane at the site of the dispute for The Real Field documentary.

Ominously, before their case was to be heard in a Tralee courtroom in December 1958, Foley said to a neighbour there would only be one man around for the case. On Thursday, November 6, 1958, Moore disappeared after a night playing cards in a neighbour’s house. Locals reported to the gardaí that Moore had been murdered, not missing.

A search ensued. The case captured the imagination. Press descended on Reamore. Photojournalists took snaps of the search parties. Cameras were such a novelty at the time that you can see local gardaí grinning giddily in the pictures. Foley was amongst the searchers. Neighbours were already avoiding him. Graffiti was daubed at the local creamery calling for a boycott of him.

Nine days after disappearing, Moore’s body was found under a ledge in a stream overgrown with rushes. The corpse was only 35 yards from Moore’s house. Moore was strangled to death. An impromptu wake was held at his house, which scuppered any chance of harvesting useful evidence. 

At first, Foley – who had scratch marks on his face, which he claimed he got from the horns of a bull – refused to go into garda barracks for questioning, but cycled a few days later into Listowel for interrogation. The gardaí had no evidence, however, to pin the murder on him.

When a file was prepared for the Director of Public Prosecutions, the DPP decided it wasn’t strong enough to bring a conviction. The local community passed their own judgement. Foley was ostracised. He couldn’t use the local shop. He couldn’t buy fodder. He couldn’t sell his cattle. Four years after Moore’s murder, Foley dropped dead on the roadway beside his house.

To this day, Foley’s nephew, John Foley – who brought a court injunction, which failed, trying to stop The Field movie from screening 30 years ago – claims his uncle is innocent of the murder. He now owns the disputed half acre of land his uncle and Moore squabbled over, and is one of the contributors to the documentary.

“When I interviewed him about seven or eight years ago, he was a bit antagonistic towards me until I explained to him that I wasn't sure whether his uncle did it or not,” says Keane. “When you meet him, he’s such a nice man."

Keane says there had been rows going on it the area for many years before the killing. There had even been a previous murder over land about a mile away, and Moss Moore's brother had found the body. 

 "It’s not fair to say that it only happens in Reamore and a small part of Kerry," says Keane. "It’s everywhere. Walk down a mile of any road in rural Ireland and there’ll be something terrible happened over land. Or a family broke up. Or violence. Killing over land. What’s it all about?”

A clipping from the Cork Examiner in 1958 reporting the death of Kerry farmer Maurice Moore. 
A clipping from the Cork Examiner in 1958 reporting the death of Kerry farmer Maurice Moore. 

 The writing of John B Keane’s masterpiece took its toll, too, on the playwright – the emotional strain of immersing himself in the headspace of a murderer while he hammered away on his typewriter above his pub in Listowel and, of course, having to pick at a story that was close to real-life events on his doorstep.

“The intensity of it,” says Keane. “The pressure of writing about his own people in a small country place, and they could walk into the pub. He knew what was going to come down the line with this thing as well. It was fairly savage. It wasn’t an attack on people as such. It was more of an explanation.

“He understood them. His mother came from a republican tradition. He knew why people fought over land, why they were thrown out of it, and that they died for it. He understood these people very well. I’d say he was conflicted, though, in that he was one of them.

“You know a strange thing happens when you get a case that goes to court. It could be a property dispute, somebody could have killed someone or assaulted someone and the judge will often say: ‘This is well illustrated in John B Keane’s The Field'.”

  • The Real Field will be screened on RTÉ One, 9.25pm, tonight

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