How much can the story of one family tell us about Ireland during the revolutionary period of a century ago? Especially when that family is relatively obscure, and living in a relatively peaceful part of the country? The answer, surprisingly, is quite a lot.
This extremely well written tale, recounting the story of the McKenna and Clinton families, and the violence they suffered, as well as the violence they inflicted, is a real eye-opener.
The author, a descendent of the two families concerned, is Myles Dungan, presenter of RTÉ Radio's The History Show, and this book is based on an edition of that programme, called "Three Killings".
The changed title reflects Dungan’s discovery of another violent death involving the family, this time in Arizona. Given his interest in the American West, there was probably zero chance of Dungan ignoring this death, but as it happens, it helps to highlight some of the issues raised by the other killings.
Watch: Myles Dungan on Four Killings
The first of the four violent deaths was that of Jack Clinton, an immigrant from Meath shot dead in Cochise County, Arizona in June 1915. He had fallen foul of one of the cattle barons who detested small farmers like him, whose fences were closing off the open ranges and who were suspected of stealing cattle. In this particular land war, Jack Clinton was one of the have-nots, killed by agents of the better off.
This was ironic, because at home in Meath, Jack Clinton’s cousin Mark was to be killed for precisely the opposite reason. The Black Hand Gang of Cormeen, landless agrarian 'bandits’, murdered Mark in May 1920, an act born out of resentment at his family’s relative wealth and occupation of disputed land.
The gang had, however, picked the wrong man – Mark was a Volunteer, with relatives and friends prominent in the local IRA. While his death had nothing to do with the War of Independence, the IRA, under local commander Seán Boylan (father of the legendary Meath GAA coach), took decisive action.
Mark’s killer, William Gordon, was captured, tried, and sentenced to death. After GHQ in Dublin and the Dáil Cabinet queried this sentence, a second trial was held, the sentence was confirmed, and Gordon was executed – the third killing.
The fourth killing involved members of the McKenna family, relatives of the Clintons (and of the author), who were prominent in the IRA’s Meath 3rd Brigade. In July 1921, just a week before the Truce which brought the War of Independence to a close, brothers T.P. and John McKenna, and their cousin Peter Clinton, were involved in the execution of an informer, Patrick Keelan.
Each of these four killings is treated with sensitivity, and the actions and motivations of the participants, whether victims or perpetrators of violence, are fully explored. So too is the aftermath of the violence of the period on those concerned. By doing so, the author throws new light on a range of important issues – land hunger, the IRA’s intelligence operations, trials and executions, crime in wartime, and the new State’s treatment of those who had helped achieve independence.
Dungan knows his history; he also knows how to tell a story, and the book zips along, each chapter drawing you to the next, the text sprinkled with wit as well as information, with local detail which illuminates the wider story of the revolutionary period.
This is a gem of a book, and deserves a wide readership.