The RIC was airbrushed from the Republic’s consciousness for 80 years. Artists have a role to play to ensure it doesn’t happen again, says Henry McDonald
Kevin McCarthy’s brilliant first novel, PEELER, rescues from the margins of Irish history a group that the future Free State and Official Ireland airbrushed from national memory: the Royal Irish Constabulary.
When I was taught Irish history at grammar school back in the 1970s, this force was only referred to by a single and dismissive sobriquet -- they were merely the “eyes and ears” of the British Army which Michael Collins had so ruthlessly blinded and deafened in the War of Independence.
At the time we knew nothing about what these officers were actually like, how the vast majority of them were Catholic Irish and what happened to them once the state was created and Ireland partitioned.
In fact, compared with the details of fratricidal brutality wrought by the subsequent Civil War, students were given next to no information about the RIC, its casualty rates, its fate and the future for its members.
PEELER fills that knowledge-gap. The story of its central character, RIC acting Sergeant Sean O’Keefe, was not just a hugely enjoyable read, but also socially and historically illuminating.
McCarthy has turned these shadowy, ghostly figures relegated in history as the “eyes and ears” to fully-formed flesh and blood characters, whose lives were as complex and rich as the men in the Flying Columns who hunted them down.
PEELER is, first of all, a detective novel, a hunt for a suspected serial-killer who has brutally murdered a young woman and abandoned her mutilated body in the remote West Cork countryside at the height of the war.
While trying to survive one of Collins’ assassination squads, O’Keefe and his colleagues now find themselves searching for a murderer who has left the word ‘Traitor’ on the young woman’s body.
That word prompts the British military-political establishment to think that the victim has been singled out by the West Cork IRA who suspected she has been passing on information to the RIC and the Army.
Meanwhile, the IRA has set up its own parallel murder inquiry and has appointed West Cork Brigade intelligence officer Liam Farrell to head up the investigation.
Farrell represents the coming power in the land, the guerrilla on the verge of taking over law and order, the republican poacher turning Free State game-keeper.
To McCarthy’s credit, both O’Keefe and Farrell are sympathetic characters with deep internal lives. Farrell is tortured by the necessities of war, of its brutal imperatives.
O’Keefe is also a victim, a mentally scarred veteran of the First World War, who witnessed his regiment being slaughtered at Suvla Bay by the Turks.
Yet it is not just the two main rival Irish figures pitted against each other in a race to catch a serial murderer that are multi-dimensional characters.
McCarthy even evokes sympathy for the English demobbed soldiers hastily drafted into an auxiliary military force to curb the armed insurrection or as they are more notoriously known, the Black and Tans.
As a veteran whose brother fell beside him under Turkish machine gun fire, O’Keefe regards some of these men as brutes and others simply as brutalised by war and crushed into service in Ireland through poverty.
McCarthy’s book indirectly provokes bigger questions about the legacy of Ireland’s violent past -- especially for those of us in Northern Ireland.
At present, the devolved administration at Stormont and the British Government at Westminster are grappling with various notions of how to confront what happened in the north over the last 40 years.
The approach thus far has been piecemeal with selective inquiries, the appointment of four Victims’ Commissioners and the Eames-Bradley process.
It has been, in essence, confusing and misdirected probably because in the end any exploration into the past, let alone the ‘truth’ of the Troubles is to going to be politically loaded.
Northern Ireland seemingly faces two options in terms of truth and reconciliation: it can go down the Spanish road towards the ‘pact of forgetting’, when all of Spain post-Franco agreed to put the crimes of the civil war aside, re-enter Europe and move on; or it could adopt a South African Truth and Reconciliation process, an official ‘national cleansing’ in front of the cameras, open to all.
The reality is that there is going to be some cobbled together compromise, a third way of muddling through.
While the victims and their families as a whole might receive some retrospective compensation, or even psychological help and support in a new Troubles-Trauma centre, there will neither be Spanish-amnesia or South African-style collective catharsis. The answer to questions such as ‘what or how did that all happen?’ cannot be properly offered by officialdom in any shape or form.
Perhaps the only positive way to explain where we have come from will be in the guise of novels, plays, films, poetry, documentary and so on. (Time, by the way, for broadcasters -- particularly the BBC -- to lift the unofficial ‘embargo’ on Troubles-related themes and give artists the space and the support to explore some of the most important events of our lives over the last 40 years through the medium of film and drama.)
Shelley once declared that poets are the unelected legislators of the world; they can also be their truth-tellers.
Let’s just hope that all those untold stories of our conflict just past won’t have to be told eight decades later the way the narrative of the forgotten RIC have been finally brought back into public consciousness by Kevin McCarthy’s dark, brooding, multi-layered, morally complex masterpiece. - Henry McDonald
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Peeling Back The Layers
There was an interesting piece on Kevin McCarthy’s PEELER from Henry McDonald in last Friday’s Belfast Telegraph, which reviews the novel in the context of Ireland’s voluntary amnesia when it comes to the Royal Irish Constabulary. To wit: