It’s funny what bits and pieces of history and family lore you grow up with and don’t think about too much. For example, when Eileen, my aunt, who was sort of a second mother to us and an early mentor to me, went to the Princess Grace Ball. I look it up now and think it must have been the 31st Bal Des Petits Lits Blancs En Irlande.
It was held at Powerscourt House in Wicklow in 1965 and the ChicagoTribune called it the “greatest and certainly the most dizzying ball the Irish have held in years”. Eileen was there because a relative, Pat, was a TD and Senator, and he brought her. Of course I now know that Pat was my Nana’s cousin, Pat Scarteen, as Eileen, my mother and my uncles would have called him.
And then I remember my mother talking about driving from Glengarriff to Kenmare to visit “Aunt Debbie” – not my mother’s aunt but my nana’s aunt. They would take the Bantry oil truck for a spin. And now I realize who Aunt Debbie is.
Pat Scarteen or Pat O’Connor-Scarteen, the TD and Senator who took my Aunt Eileen to the prom, was Aunt Debbie’s son. And Pat wasn’t the only one of her sons involved in politics. She had two sons who served first in the IRA and then on the pro-Treaty side in the National Army’s Kerry No. 2 Brigade.
Aunt Debbie’s – Deborah’s – footnote in the story now reads that when the priest came to tell her that her two sons had been murdered in her house above the family bakery in Kenmare, she asked the priest to say mass for the men to read who had done it.
John O’Connor-Scarteen was shot coming down the stairs and his brother Tom was dragged from his bed and shot in the head. Both were unarmed. Tom, a brigadier general, was 20. John, a captain, was 25.
The stories one hears growing up often seem fantastic, family histories are embellished each time they are told. It never felt real to me when I heard about the O’Connor Scarteens. More like a fictional past that never actually happened. The fact that it was always emphasized that they were being shot in their beds or on the stairs or being dragged out of their beds or whatever variation I heard made it sound more like fiction. They don’t actually rip people out of their beds and shoot them in the real world. do they?
Last week I read the Irish times that Professor Michael Hopkinson, who wrote a seminal account of the Civil War, considered the killing of the O’Connor-Scarteens murder: “It’s as simple as that. It seems that this was down to personal likes and dislikes, it might be down to drinking.” be due. I don’t know.” In fact, there are people who are probably dead now who swore to me it was related to a fight over a motorcycle up at Moll’s Gap. More stories.
As I got older, I realized that people had a hard time talking about this stuff. But as I looked at the coverage last week, 100 years later, it seemed pretty clear that all of Kerry, and indeed many people on both sides of the Civil War across the country, were united in disgust at what happened to the O’Connor – Scarteen boys.
Tom McEllistrim, a senior North Kerry IRA leader, called the boys’ home to pay his respects in the days after the killings and the IRA temporarily vacated Kenmare to allow the funerals to take place. You must consider that all of this must have been complicated by the fact that presumably all of these men were on the same page less than a year before John and Tom’s deaths. I believe that part of the reason for her high rank despite her young age was her previous Revolutionary War service.
That was another aspect that struck me as imaginative – 20 years old and a Brigadier General? A lot has changed in three generations. At 20 I was a long way from being a brigadier general. I would have killed myself, but not in the service of anything bigger than myself.
I’m also thinking about another story this weekend. Of men my mother told me about, who went to mass and prayed every day but could not find rest from their torment, men who never managed to escape or atone. Men who killed other young men and then couldn’t live with the things they did.
And I think of the Fergal Keane documentary The Riverman, about the murder of a man named James Kane in Listowel and how the men involved in the murder tried to live with themselves afterwards. Keane shows us how to remember in a non-divisive way, by understanding that whether they lived or died, it was hell for everyone involved on both sides. And through understanding PTSD, the Civil War left behind people and communities across Ireland.
Aunt Debbie may have understood this 100 years ago when she asked the priest to pray for the men who killed her sons. Maybe women understood it better than men back then.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the deaths of Tom and John O’Connor-Scarteen in Kenmare. Her grandnephew and the grandson of her brother Pat, who took my aunt to the ball, is Cllr Patrick O’Connor-Scarteen – himself a former Mayor of Kerry. He is instrumental in keeping the memory of John and Tom alive. He says now is the time to remember her death with realism, tempered with plenty of kindness.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/brendan-oconnor-learning-the-truth-about-a-shocking-tragic-chapter-in-my-family-history-41956255.html Brendan O’Connor: Learned the truth about a shocking, tragic chapter in my family history