Last man standing: Dan Keating

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2008), Volume 16

An ambush scene from Ken Loach’s The wind that shakes the barley (2006). Dan Keating, a participant in many such ambushes himself, gave his imprimatur to the film. A copy of the screenplay, given to him by writer Paul Laverty after the premiere, would be among the offertory gifts at his funeral. (Pathé Films)

An ambush scene from Ken Loach’s The wind that shakes the barley (2006). Dan Keating, a participant in many such ambushes himself, gave his imprimatur to the film. A copy of the screenplay, given to him by writer Paul Laverty after the premiere, would be among the offertory gifts at his funeral. (Pathé Films)

Dan Keating’s political leanings stemmed from his background, some of his uncles having been militant in land agitation in the years following the Famine. In two interviews for a BBC Radio Ulster documentary on his life, Keating recalled how his past shaped his future. ‘One branch of the family was very militant. At the time land-grabbing was rampant in Ireland. You had an agent in Milltown called Leslie, and Lord Mounteagle was the landlord. You could be doing well today and a couple days later they would raise the rent to something you couldn’t meet and they would put another fellow into it and you got the road. That brought the Moonlighters and it must be said, the Moonlighters did a great job. In every generation you had [people willing to fight] . . . the Moonlighters, the United Irishmen, then onto Sinn Féin and the IRB. You could say they were the soul of Ireland at the time.’
An uncle had to flee to America after one bloody incident. ‘In one particular case . . . a Protestant farmer, he grabbed a smallholding beside him, and the bailiffs gave it to him and Leslie. One of my uncles, with another man, went and they cut off his ears and ordered him that they would kill him if he didn’t give the land back to the man who owned it, and he did.’

1916 changed everything

Yet after land reform, relations with the British garrison stationed in Tralee improved. Before 1916, he said, British soldiers mixed freely with locals, with some even joining in pub singsongs. But all was to change after the Easter Rising. ‘I was only 14 when 1916 happened. When the executions got going there was a revulsion of feeling in the county,’ said Keating. He remembered particularly the execution of James Connolly, and the backing it got from William Martin Murphy through the pages of the Irish Independent. Fraternising with locals was at an end for the British regiments, and local women who formed liaisons with soldiers were attacked. ‘Their hair was cut and they were warned off.’

‘De Valera? I never liked him. He’d make a statement and it’d have about four different meanings . . . I always thought there was something queer about him.’ (BBC Hulton Picture Library)

‘De Valera? I never liked him. He’d make a statement and it’d have about four different meanings . . . I always thought there was something queer about him.’ (BBC Hulton Picture Library)

‘Tralee became very militant IRA-wise. When there was some British soldiers shot one November night they decided to have this curfew. You had some very bitter policemen in Tralee also.’ Keating had begun working in Gerry McSeeley’s bar and bakery in Castle Street in Tralee, as an apprentice barman. ‘The first year you got no money, but you were well fed, before rising to a pound a week in the third year.’ His involvement in republicanism came not from lengthy historical or political study but from being swept away in the fervour of the time. He said there was no relevant history taught in schools, and that he and others were simply reacting to events and following each other into the ranks of the IRA. ‘It was the thing to do at the time—there was a wave and you got caught up in that.’ He was too young to join the IRA and joined the youth wing, Fianna Éireann, instead, providing information, from the vantage point of the bar or from elsewhere.
Graduating to the ranks of the IRA, Keating took part in several ambushes and continued intelligence-gathering. Tralee and the surrounding area was by then the scene of serious fighting between the IRA and the Crown forces, including Irishmen in the RIC, several of whom were shot by the local IRA. Under suspicion for one such killing, Keating went on the run but said that he and others in the IRA melted into the local population, who gave them full support. ‘They were great, the local people at the time, they were the soul of Ireland. Without the local people, the Flying Columns couldn’t exist. They’d [the police] get no response from the people. The people were opposed to them at the time, and it continued that way right up to the Truce.’
Rather than boasting about his involvement, Keating said that it was no more than what his contemporaries did. He did not know if he had killed but said that the prospect did not trouble him. Recorded by the BBC in March 2007, he said: ‘When you are involved in an ambush with a crowd of men you wouldn’t know who killed who or what about it. It never troubled me. You were fighting for a just cause and once you have that in the forefront it never troubled you. It never troubled me—it was a job to be done and at the time it was a just cause. And the more that was killed the better you liked it. Everyone was delighted about Kilmichael and other big ones in Cork.’
The largest operation he was involved in was an ambush in Castlemaine. Keating knew of a regular bicycle convoy of Crown forces through the village, and he sought assistance from outside for a major attack. ‘At the outset in Castlemaine there were only two riflemen and about twenty shotgun men, completely inadequate. In the course of the day, some came from Beaufort and one from Farranfore, and there were twelve men who came and they were based in a hut in Keel. Fourteen policemen left Killorglin to go to Tralee to draw the month’s wages. They were in different file, about 30 or 40 yards before every man going. They went and collected their wages anyway and they had a few drinks on the way home, they went into the pubs in Castlemaine—it must be said the publicans were great, no hint in the world [of the ambush plan]. When they went across the bridge at Brackhill Cross they were intercepted, there were eight of them killed, and there was one [unscathed] survivor anyway. He was left to look after the injured.’
He spoke ruefully of a final attack launched in the last hours before the Truce. Hatred of the Black and Tans, RIC and Auxiliaries was such that one final assault was launched, but one in which four IRA men were killed along with a number of Black and Tans. ‘It was a complete fiasco. Four great men killed. I knew them all well.’

Greatest detestation for the Free State Army

Members of the Continuity IRA firing a volley of shots over the grave of Dan Keating on what would have been his 106th birthday, 2 January 2008. (Wikipedia)

Members of the Continuity IRA firing a volley of shots over the grave of Dan Keating on what would have been his 106th birthday, 2 January 2008. (Wikipedia)

He continued in the IRA in the Civil War, fighting against the Treaty. ‘When it came out that you were prepared to hand over a big part of your territory to the British, there was a revulsion against it. People expected a lot—when they found out they got nothing but partition, they got very annoyed.’ While he spoke in a detached sense about British forces during the War of Independence, Keating seemed to reserve his greatest detestation for the Free State Army. He said that some in its ranks in Kerry were demobilised British soldiers who were battle-hardened from the Great War. ‘In the later stages of the war in France, there was a hint, not an order—“no prisoners, dead men”. They murdered all around them, in France. They joined the Free State Army and you could say they were a murder gang.’ Kerry was the scene of brutal fighting in the Civil War. IRA forces captured barracks, and Keating was sent to Limerick to assist in fighting before making his way to Tipperary, where he was to get a flying column from Kerry fighting there to return to help out in Limerick. They were duped into capture by a local, leading to Mountjoy and then the Curragh, where he met others like Tom Barry. ‘I knew him well. In later years I was very friendly with him. No doubt, he was the greatest. But you must say, he had a certain amount of luck on his side.’
Although he fought against the Treaty, he admired Michael Collins and had contempt for Éamon de Valera. ‘Collins did marvellous work in the war against the Tans—but when he went Free Stater then, actually he declared it one time that he was signing his own death warrant. He knew it was wrong, which made it worse. As it went along then he got very bitter.’
‘De Valera? I never liked him. You’d have to ask the question: did de Valera like anyone? I have described him before, as a thorough scoundrel … He was a very devious character. He’d make a statement and it’d have about four different meanings … I always thought there was something queer about him.’
Keating said that republican contacts helped him to get work as a barman in Dublin, before he made his way back to Kerry when a bar he worked in, Brady’s near the GPO, was sold. ‘I went back to Kerry then and I worked in a bread van for a number of years, but I got various jobs through the years all along. I was arrested a number of times; the finish was refusing to answer questions and I was jailed. I lost my job again—came out and was going all right again. There was a lot of turmoil, unemployment was rotten, but I was always able to get something to do. I like work—I always believe you couldn’t exist without work.’
He remained active in the IRA, and was involved in a planned ambush to shoot Blueshirt leader Eoin O’Duffy in Kerry. John Joe Sheehy had ordered the operation, to shoot O’Duffy en route to Tralee in a car from Limerick in 1933. ‘We decided anyway to take him out of it, the IRA in Kerry. Six of us assembled in Ballyseedy. The train is over the road at Ballycarthy. I was up in the railway station and Christy Leen was in the roadside to give me the number of the car when it’d come. The reception party was Johnny O’Connor, John Duggan, my brother Tadhg and Josie Hassett—they were well armed, they had a Thompson machine-gun and two rifles, he wouldn’t escape.’
The registration plate of the car was to be phoned to an office in Tralee by Stephen Coughlan, later to become mayor of Limerick, who was working in the city. ‘We had very strict instructions about the number of the car not to make any mistake. The man that was to give us the word, Stephen Coughlan, his conscience got the best of him and he decided to give the wrong number. And Duffy escaped into town.’ Even though he did not follow him to Tralee, Keating was nevertheless jailed for six months for involvement in a riot that erupted subsequently in the town between Republicans and Blueshirts after O’Duffy’s arrival.
Keating went to England afterwards to work in the bar trade again, returning to Ireland before heading for England once more in 1939 to take part in the disastrous IRA S-Plan bombing campaign. He worked in a bar in The Strand in central London, owned by the Irish publican Mooney, but, unknown to his colleagues, he led an IRA cell in the city. ‘I had a number of men there—three or four active men. We kept ourselves small. And we laid bombs whenever we got the chance. You would have to say we were very successful for a long time. You would select places and one of the places we selected was the Grosvenor Hotel in Park Lane. The bomb was laid at the back of a flowerpot. The only thing was to try and cause as much confusion as we could. But as time went by, what we were doing was nothing. The war was on.’ Keating said that his targets ranged from electricity facilities to bombs left in shops near closing time, timed to go off during the night.
He said that he had no concerns about attacks on civilian targets, but that no one was killed in his operations and none of his unit was captured. His IRA active service career ended when he narrowly evaded capture by Scotland Yard detectives and returned to Ireland. He was interned shortly after his return, before release in 1944. A legacy from a rich aunt in America helped him and his wife, Mary Fleming from Waterford, to set up home in Dublin, where he worked in the bar trade until her death in 1977. Keating said that he offered a safe house to Republicans and, despite having senior policemen as friends and neighbours, stored guns too.
He returned to his native Kerry a year later, but continued working as a barman well into his eighties when friends opened a pub in Kilmallock, Co. Limerick. Keating remained active in the background, siding with the Provisionals in 1970, and followed Ruairí Ó Brádaigh into Republican Sinn Fein (RSF) in 1986 after the split over ending abstention in the Dáil. He was a patron of RSF when he died. In robust health and walking several miles a day unaided until he suffered a stroke in August 2007, Dan Keating passed away on 2 October 2007 in hospital in Tralee. His funeral oration was given by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh.

Diarmaid Fleming is a BBC journalist.

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