Recalling an interview with Dan Keating the last survivor of the Tan War
In 2006, just a year years before his death in October 2007, I travelled to Castlemaine, Co. Kerry to talk to Ireland’s oldest man, Dan Keating. At 104 years of age Dan was the last surviving veteran of the Irish civil war. A slim and sprightly man, he had a lively eye and quick conversational personality.
Dan had seen a lot and he had lived through some rough times, but he has always remained steadfast to both his republican ideals and his Catholic faith (even though he was excommunicated for being in the IRA).
He was keen to learn whether any of my small travelling party had “done Lough Derg” in our bare feet. We were keen to learn whether it was as bad as internment in PortLaoise. “There’s little difference between them”, he said.
We had been in the house talking for about two hours, so Dan suggested we go out for a bite. As we passed over the ridged terrain between Castlemaine and Tralee he suddenly said, “The Tans called this place the Dardanelles, they couldn’t come up here without getting sniped at.”
It was strange getting these direct telegrams from history. You could sense that Dan was recalling these scenes and reliving them in his memory.
He had an amazing capacity for names, lists of which he rattled off from the ranks of the IRA, the Auxiliaries, the ‘Tans’, and the ‘Free-Staters’. His accounts were vivid, without a trace of the scruples of a bystander.
Dan was born on 2 January 1902 into a family of nine, on a small farm. Before the outbreak of the Tan War, times in Kerry weren’t good, said Dan. ‘There was hard living. Every farmer grew their own stuff but some had no land to till. “You’d have to say that poverty was rampant. Within a radius of 400 yards of here twelve families left and never came back.”
The changes Dan lived through are hard to comprehend. “You had the landlords too, of course”, he said. “There was no place worse now, than a place you passed through near Killarney. All the tenants, including our family, were evicted by Lord Mount Eadle and his agent Lesley. You’d have to say he was a tyrant.”
That was part of the reason Dan joined the IRA, but what consolidated the young men of Kerry to revolt was the threat of conscription in 1918. Dan proudly pointed out that in every generation the Irish always rebelled against an unjust society. He pointed to the Fenians, the United Irishmen, and 1916.
He talked about Kerry’s part in the 1916 plan. “In Kerry they were all set to join the rebellion and they were based in Tralee. Now there were three men came down from Dublin to go along to the cable station in Killorglin. And their idea was to seize this, and declare war on behalf of the Kerry men. But the motor they were driving went into the river in Killorglin and they were all drowned bar one.”
We all know this history, having become familiar with the repetition of these testimonies in books and documentaries, but it was different hearing it from a man who I could imagine listened in to conversation where this news first broke as a local story. Perhaps in Dan’s household they were expecting news of that fateful expedition and were waiting on the command to help the radio operators to get to their destination somewhere off the Castlemaine-Tralee road.
Dan continued: “Then Casement landed in Banna and there was no one to meet him. Twas very unfortunate. The police found him and after two days – Kerry will never live it down – took him to Dublin where he was executed. From then on the IRA was taking root and about 1919 it flashed out in every county.”
“The first ambush in Kerry was in Lispole, but they picked a very bad place. They were surrounded and there was three men killed and two captured.”
Dan said they learned from this engagement and at the next ambush: “It was at Headford junction. There was a crowd coming from Kenmare to Killarney to collect their wages. They were intercepted on the way; anyway, and nearly all were killed. Then we found out that a detachment of the Lancashire regiment were coming and were almost on top of us. We were lucky to get out but we lost two men. When we counted what we had afterwards there was only three rounds of ammunition per man.”
This led me to ask whether it was true that when the Treaty was signed the IRA could only have lasted a few weeks longer.
Dan did not subscribe to that notion, and he said that the majority of the men who fought the British up to that point didn’t believe so. He thought that it was the British treasury that was feeling the cost of the war most keenly and England, in recession, couldn’t afford to continue indefinitely. In Kerry, he said “95% of the IRA fought against the Treaty. The condition with ammunition was never a big problem.”
“The next big ambush was in Castlemaine. I think there was fourteen men on the road back from Tralee and there was eight of them killed and two surrendered.”
Well, “twas a God-send,” he said. “They [the brigade] collected everything and they got over two thousand rounds and all the rifles and revolvers.”
Retribution was always a factor in the British terror campaign, and it was indiscriminate and brutal. Dan described one such scenario. “Then here was a Major McKenna from Dunbarton in Scotland in charge of the Auxiliaries in Tralee. He was absolutely ruthless. He’d appear every night in a different village, and there was several ambushes laid for him. But the night we’d be in Farmersbridge he’d appear in Kilflynn. We couldn’t get him! Finally John Joe Sheehy got word that McKenna played golf in the Links in Tralee. We laid out a reception party for him and when McKenna came to the third green Sheehy took him on and shot him dead. McKenna was ruthless but after they killed him it quietened them [the Auxiliaries] in Kerry.”
Dan described the last engagement of the Second Kerry Brigade, on the night before the Truce was declared. They had set up an ambush for the troops in Castleisland, but they found the tables suddenly turned on them. With very little time to react they set their course on a pitched battle. As he said, ‘we took them on.’
After the ensuing close quarter conflict twelve men lay dead; four volunteers and eight British.
Neither Dan nor his comrades in the column welcomed the terms offered in the Treaty. In his words, “the minute they knew what was on offer they were opposed to it, and in the next election in Kerry 75% of the people voted against the Treaty party.”
With so many taking the anti-Treaty side, the bloody, brother against brother lore that we are all told about must be questioned. As Dan recalls, there were some people who joined the Free State army in Tralee and Listowel.
“It must be said that none of them ever did anything dirty” he added. “In the end the commanding Free State officer in Kerry wrote to the minister in Dublin, and he asked for four hundred Dublin guards and asked to transfer out all the Kerry people that were in the Free State army.”
“Very few of them were in the IRA at all, but the money was thirty bob a week so they just joined.”
That was great money that time. For instance, in his first year as apprentice shop-keeper Dan earned nothing but room and board. After two years he earned a pound a week, so thirty bob a week was a very attractive proposition for anyone who had no objection to joining the dirty war.
After the war job opportunities for former IRA men were scarce. Most of them either emigrated or scrounged a living in any way they could. Dan was arrested and interned for seventeen months. He landed a job in a bar but was arrested after a time for ‘not answering questions’, and he was put back in jail for another six months. Of course, he lost that job.
He worked manually wherever he could get work, up until 1940 when he was arrested again. He was put back into Portlaoise and then into the Curragh internment camp.
After four years he was released from the Curragh and his luck changed. A chance meeting with an old acquaintance landed him a job as a barman in Dundrum, Co. Dublin, where he stayed for the next thirty years.
We talked about Gaelic football, and Dan told me he hardly missed an All Ireland, hurling or football, in over 70 years.
I asked if he thought that we got the Ireland he fought for.
“No.” He shrugged without rancor.
It’s not a perfect country but Dan hadn’t given up on it.
Revisionism is an exercise of those who want the doctrines of the present to shape the ideals of the past. In his long life Dan had faced plenty of hardship, much of it inflicted maliciously, but he didn’t seem the slightest embittered. That said, he hadn’t revised the outlook that decided his actions for him. It was a pleasure to meet him. Ar dheis Dé go mairfidh a ainm.
Lorcán Mac Mathúna