I was named after a dead mod. My first cousin, Kevin Barry, came off his scooter in Gorleston-on-Sea, near Great Yarmouth in East Anglia, in the summer of 1968, and he was killed instantly. He was seventeen. I was born in June the following year, almost a year to the day since his death, and so I was called for him. By the age of twelve I was a mod myself. This was around the time of the revival led by The Jam. I loved the look—a fishtail parka, Sta-press trousers, Ben Sherman polo shirt, white socks, black tasselled brogues—and somewhere at the back of my mind I probably associated it with the glamour of tragic early death.
My cousin’s father was also Kevin Barry. He was born around 1921 in Limerick city. It was a working-class family, with the males often employed on the railway, and the family lived near the station, in a laneway off Lord Edward Street. Going by the date, there seems a reasonable probability that my uncle was named for the rebel martyr. He moved to England for work in the late 1930s and he joined the army there and was shipped out to Italy. He was captured by the Nazis an hour after landing and spent the war at an open prison in an Italian village. He ate well enough and chased women for three years and came back in 1945 in the guise of a hero Tommy. He got a job then in a shipyard in Great Yarmouth. I have no idea if that side of my family was strongly political or if my uncle’s joining the British army was frowned upon. Naming a child ‘Kevin Barry’ in Limerick city in 1921 might have been an expression of popular sentiment as much as an overtly political act, and anyway half the town would have wound up with sons or nephews in the British army.
The other side of the family had a blueshirt streak. They lived on Parnell Street in Limerick—they weren’t long in from the countryside. My grandfather wore a blue shirt all his life. I remember him rolling up the sleeves of it to take apart his Honda 50 on the lino in front of the fireplace. Then he’d put the motorbike back together again and head for the pub on it. He had once gone to see General O’Duffy address a gathering in the city. I suppose there’s every chance he raised a one-armed fascist salute to him. He wore a blue shirt until the day he died in the early 1970s and he always voted Fine Gael.
I went to a couple of the black flag marches for the hunger strikers in Limerick city as a twelve year old. There was death-glamour on the air: some of the local young fellas were suddenly very fervent and het-up about the North, or at least they were for a while. The IRA was known to be strong thirty miles out the road: the notorious west Limerick and north Kerry brigades. There were often stories in school about columns being seen on training runs at dawn in the Curraghour woods.
I only ever noticed my name raising a certain feeling when I lived in Edinburgh in the early part of this century. Sometimes it was smiled at and occasioned amused glances. I joined the Stockbridge branch of the library in the city in 2003 and when my name was presented on the form, the two lads behind the desk cracked up. That will go down well in some places, one of them said to me, and the other broke into a bar of the song.
Never having experienced anything like it in the Republic, I was amazed at the fervour of the hatred during the James Connolly memorial march in Edinburgh each May. Often there were assaults and stabbings and random attacks around the verges of the march and the day, and the atmosphere was toxic.
I am one of an army of Kevin Barrys, of course. When I was signing on in Cork in the mid 1990s, the woman at the dole office was searching for my file one day and told me there were six Kevin Barrys at that hatch alone. There is a bomb disposal expert in New York, a boxing trainer in New Zealand, a slide guitar player in Illinois, a retired Joycean professor in Paris—all Kevin Barrys.
In 1988, during a brief period of third-level education, at what was then NIHE Limerick, I found that the leftist students were very involved with Central America and the Sandanistas and all the rest of it, but they had nothing at all to say about the North.
I left the college and got a job as a cub reporter on the Limerick Tribune. One night I was alone in the newsroom and took a call from a man claiming to be speaking for the INLA. He issued threats to drug dealers in a couple of estates in the city. He had a very flat Limerick accent. The next day, two men from the Special Branch arrived to interview me about the call.
—What did he sound like, Kevin?
—He had a very flat Limerick accent.
—Could you do it for us?
—I could, yeah.
—Go on so.
—‘How’s-it-goin’ there, I’m callin’ on behalf o’ the Irish National Liberation…’
In 2007, having returned from living in the UK, we bought an old barracks of the Royal Irish Constabulary in County Sligo. It had a waft of dead sergeants off it and I knew that sooner or later it would start trying to get into my fiction. It is located about eight hundred yards beyond the village of Ballinafad, looking over Lough Arrow. The reason that it was built outside the village was so that it could keep an eye on the Ascendancy hunting and fishing lodges across the lake.
Some of the land around Lough Arrow was owned by Sir John French, of the Frenchpark, County Roscommon Frenches. He was a hero of the Boer War, a notorious womaniser, a man who incited big passions. He had a property at Drumdoe, just across the lake from the barracks. In 1918 he was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and his was not a popular reign. There was a botched assassination attempt in the Phoenix Park in 1919. Faulty information led to a hand grenade being thrown into the wrong car. After the War of Independence, Sir John bought another estate nearby, at Hollybrook, a mile down the road from the barracks. But he was advised not to stay on in Ireland as his presence might incite difficulties. He returned to England and ended his days as (and see if this name incites even the tiniest frisson of ill-feeling in you) Field Marshal John Denton Pinkstone French, 1st Earl of Ypres.
The roof was burnt off our barracks during the War of Independence. It was one of those curiously courteous operations of the era—the Ballinafad RIC was given a week’s advance notice of the fire. Thus nobody was on site when the blaze went up. When you read between the lines, it seems that many of the engagements of the era were made on the basis of these local understandings. It was the conflict of a small country, where everybody knew everybody else, and many of the actions were merely symbolic in intent.
I am currently sitting in what used to be the RIC’s stable. It makes a good writing place, because the wi-fi doesn’t reach from the house, and also there are no windows at the back of the house, so nobody can see when I’m not working. The original walls surround the barracks grounds but in one section the old stones have been replaced by breezeblocks—this was a gateway beside the stable, long since blocked up, that would have been used for the horses. Often when I’m digging up the garden I come across horseshoes, and lots of old brandy bottles, too. If you wanted to attack the barracks, the best way would be to come down the blindside of it, from the direction of Keash hill.
The N4 runs there now, but in 1916 it would have been just foothills. On the far side of Keash lies the town of Ballymote, a notable IRA stronghold in 1916.
That year, a Tuam man named Patrick Fallon was appointed sergeant at the RIC station in Ballymote. He made slow but steady progress against the activities of the IRA battalion in the town and district. He was a nuisance to them for four years. He was shot dead on his way back to the barracks from the Ballymote Fair in November 1920. Knowing that reprisals would be swift, the town went into a panic and there was a stampede of cattle as the place was cleared out. Eight lorries of Auxillaries arrived that evening and Ballymote was set on fire. They would have been able to see the smoke rise over the Bricklieve mountains from the barracks at Ballinafad or they may well have been involved in the operation themselves.
When I entered secondary school in Limerick city, the hunger strikes were not long over and classroom support for the IRA ran at one hundred per cent. I know this because we were questioned one day in ‘Civics’ class by a Christian Brother. He asked who among us supported the cause in the North and every hand was raised. The Christian Brother seemed happy enough with that. These are not the sons of blueshirts, you could see him thinking. The Christian Brothers seemed to me to have no interest at all in the Christ end of things— their chief concern was in marketing a specific take on Irish history. In the school’s popular sentiment that year, Bobby Sands occupied a place I would say precisely commensurate with that of Bob Marley: legends.
The almost sexual charge of blood-sacrifice mythology works best on adolescent males. By Leaving Cert time, there were several young fellas around the school who were widely rumoured to be ‘in the Ra’. They were usually big quiet hurler types from the county—lads who would have much more interest in the Harty Cup fixtures than in eyeliner and fey indie bands from the north of England. That there might be actual Ra men in our midst seemed unlikely, the North being so far away, being something that existed on the television news; but then you might note the ages of those arrested on active operations, and their addresses. It wouldn’t be unusual for them to be teenagers from Munster.
I sometimes feel myself to be apolitical but I know this is nonsense. You lift yourself from the bed and breathe in the morning and you are a political being. As soon as you walk out the door there are decisions to be made. But sometimes to care at all seems difficult and uninspiring and I suffer a common disenchantment—I believe that national politics is largely just a distraction from the fact that we’re essentially owned and run by commercial, financial and technological concerns, the same ones who own and run our neighbours across the Irish Sea. We are all cousinly under the yoke of our very modern oppression. In some ways I think local politics is more interesting now and maybe the place where more traction is possible. Not that I get off my hole about it.
If I was to draw up a story, I’d probably have a young man from Ballymote waiting on his moment in one of the caves at the top of Keash hill. His dilemma is the ancient one—does he possess physical courage? Is he able to steal by night across the foothills of the Bricklieve mountains and approach on the blindside the barracks at Ballinafad? Is he capable of using that revolver at last, or of poisoning a horse even? As the blood rises, and his heart thumps, as the darkness thickens, can he still feel the pulse of a motive force? Will it sustain him once the deed is done?