A family of memories

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

by Thomas Kilroy, directed by Patrick Mason
RTÉ Radio 1’s Drama on One
1 March 2015

RTÉ Radio 1’s ‘Drama on One’ production team of A family of memories—Kevin Brew (producer), Patrick Mason (director), Thomas Kilroy (writer), Denis Clohessy (composer) and Damien Chennells (sound design). (RTÉ)

RTÉ Radio 1’s ‘Drama on One’ production team of A family of memories—Kevin Brew (producer), Patrick Mason (director), Thomas Kilroy (writer), Denis Clohessy (composer) and Damien Chennells (sound design). (RTÉ)

Thomas Kilroy is regarded as one of Ireland’s most important living writers and, along with Brian Friel, one of the key modernisers of Irish theatre. A contemporary of Frank McGuinness, Tom Murphy and Seamus Deane, Kilroy is world-renowned as both a dramatist and a novelist. A director in the seminal Field Day Theatre Company, he has been unflinching in his treatment of the darker aspects of contemporary Irish society, including homophobia in The death and resurrection of Mr Roche (1968), political violence in Double cross (1968) and, more recently, institutional child abuse in Christ deliver us! (2010).

Narrated by Kilroy himself, A family of memories is a deeply personal exploration of his father’s journey from IRA Volunteer to Civic Guard sergeant, a force that many of his former comrades regarded as illegitimate. By examining his own family history, Kilroy explores the profound effect of political violence on generations of Irish families struggling to escape from the shadow of events during the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Dan Breen in Limerick Jail—where he was imprisoned in the latter half of the Civil War—with the National Army officer who used to be his driver. In December 1922, when head of the IRA column that occupied Callan, Co. Kilkenny, he was less than friendly to National Army soldiers and Civic Guards—including Thomas Kilroy senior—who were lined up on the main street in ‘a public demonstration of power and humiliation’.

Dan Breen in Limerick Jail—where he was imprisoned in the latter half of the Civil War—with the National Army officer who used to be his driver. In December 1922, when head of the IRA column that occupied Callan, Co. Kilkenny, he was less than friendly to National Army soldiers and Civic Guards—including Thomas Kilroy senior—who were lined up on the main street in ‘a public demonstration of power and humiliation’.

Arrested for the ambush of an RIC convoy in July 1920 in which two policemen were wounded, Kilroy’s father was convicted and sentenced to penal servitude for life. Remarkably, his father was permitted to marry in Galway Cathedral, a few hundred yards away from the city’s jail where he was incarcerated. One of the main instigators of an attempt by republican inmates to burn down Galway jail in November 1921, he was eventually released in January 1922 as part of the general amnesty. Convinced by the arguments of Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins, Kilroy senior joined the fledgling Civic Guard shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War and became a sergeant in the village of Callan, situated near the Kilkenny border with Tipperary.

While exploring his parents’ experience of revolution, Kilroy recounts his own journey through the archives and the commonplace nature of reports of brutal violence in the formative years of his parents’ lives:

‘In the newspapers, reports of relentless ambushes and killings of police and military throughout the countryside are placed alongside the results of games of golf from the local links. Masked men drag out victims from their homes on a nightly basis and shoot them, while the well-named local
theatres, the Empire and the Victoria, continued to do brisk business in comedies and farces. A buy-Irish campaign sits uneasily on the page near reports of the more lethal activity of Irish nationalism.’

Éamon de Valera, ‘… the lanky galoot … who went against his own comrades behind their backs’, according to Thomas Kilroy senior. (RTÉ Stills Library)

Éamon de Valera, ‘… the lanky galoot … who went against his own comrades behind their backs’, according to Thomas Kilroy senior. (RTÉ Stills Library)

While the War of Independence had a profound impact on his parents’ lives, as on those of thousands of Irish families, the internecine violence of the Civil War left an even deeper imprint. Within ten days of his father’s arrival in Callan in November 1922 an attack was made on his barracks by the anti-Treaty IRA. Harry Phelan, a young guard under Kilroy’s command, became the first member of the force to be shot dead in the history of the new state. A month after Phelan’s killing, Callan was occupied by the anti-Treaty IRA under Dinny Lacey and Dan Breen. Soldiers and police who refused to join the IRA, including Kilroy’s father, were lined up on the main street in ‘a public demonstration of power and humiliation’, and in full view of the watching townsfolk were told that the National Army was finished. Kilroy and his men were spared, his father believed, thanks to their previous record in the Volunteers.

Almost 30 years after his father’s arrest, Kilroy recalls a visit to his native Callan by Éamon de Valera leading to a fierce argument between his republican mother, ‘white-faced and barely controlled’, and his father, loyal to the memory of Michael Collins, who ridiculed her reverence for de Valera, ‘the lanky galoot … who went against his own comrades behind their backs’. Decades later, while researching accounts of the November 1921 revolt in Galway jail in which his father was brutally beaten, Kilroy discovered that de Valera had been formally received by University College Galway while ‘his own rebel soldiers’, including Kilroy’s father, ‘struggled for their lives in the prison, merely yards away across the road from the campus, as if two Irelands existed side by side’. Kilroy, aged thirteen, had his first sight of de Valera, then taoiseach, during the election campaign of 1948 and struggled to comprehend his mother’s veneration for such a

‘… thin, gawky, gaunt figure, [who] had little obvious appeal in his person. More than that, the voice was a deadly monotone with a slightly high pitch and there was little ornamentation or even elevation in his use of language. Yet I can still remember the tension in that crowd on that miserably cold night.’

A family of memories recalls John McGahern’s observations in Memoir regarding the profound impact of the violence of the revolutionary period on his own father, who, like Kilroy’s, also became a Civic Guard sergeant. Kilroy recalls vividly that, as a child, his father’s old gun and ammunition represented ‘a dark, dangerous shrine to another creed [and] when no one was watching, a small boy made his way upstairs and into the bedroom, he slid open the drawer so it didn’t squeak, he lifted the heavy weapon in both hands, trembling with the confusion of feelings, some of them terrifying …’.

‘Like most wars’, Kilroy concludes, ‘this was a war of confusion; like most wars, this was a war of the young.’ In this respect, ‘the lack of clear lines of the narrative’ reflect ‘the kind of confusion that attends revolution everywhere’. In recounting his family history, Kilroy acknowledges that ‘memory is notoriously subject to selectivity and embroidery depending on the character of the one remembering. Each act of remembering is subject to this distortion. In the case of the imaginative recaller—the artist—memory may be heavily aestheticised, the most profound distortion of all.’ The strength of A family of memories is that it suffers from no such distortions, representing a measured and sympathetic contemplation of the profound impact of violence on generations of Irish families.

Conor McNamara is the author of Easter 1916: a research guide (Four Courts Press, 2015, forthcoming).

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