Attending the premiere in Cork of Ken Loach’s new film “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” was Dan Keating, who at 104 is one of the last surviving veterans of the Troubles (aka "Tan War") and the subsequent Civil War.
"It brought back old memories, all right," he said. "I thought it was very factual now, very good. It worked very well, I thought." Keating, a rifleman, took part in two large-scale "Tan war" actions, at Castlemaine and Castleisland in Co Kerry, in which twelve Black and Tans and other British personnel were killed. As the portrayal of the birth of the Irish state in The Wind that Shakes the Barley divides opinion in Britain, he is one of the few men alive to have witnessed events at first hand.
The "Tan war" is now officially viewed as the triumph of courageous rebels against British occupation, and is commemorated with pride by all political parties in the Republic of Ireland. But the subsequent civil war, in which Keating fought on the side of the anti-treaty rebels, pitted brothers against brothers in a vicious conflict which created internal divisions that are dying out only now. So, while tales of the Tans have always been told with relish, the Irish are mostly very reticent to recall the civil war.
The conflict included the execution of prisoners by both sides, those who favoured accepting a treaty with Britain and those who opposed it. In some cases leaders ordered the deaths of once close friends. In one instance, a commander signed the death warrant of the man who had been best man at his wedding. Mr Keating said of his civil war opponents: "They were worse than the Black and Tans, and they committed some awful atrocities. In one week they murdered 19 people - comrades I knew only too well. They were just gone overnight." One of these actions was carried out on the eve of a truce. "We knew the truce was coming up all right, but I suppose we were all mad for a fight all the time," he recalls.
Mr Keating's life is doubly remarkable in that he has survived not just physically but also in terms of his opinions. These have remained absolutely intact for almost 90 years. He is the patron of Republican Sinn Fein, a small republican party associated with the aptly named Continuity IRA, a splinter group which still uses violence. Its members - preposterously in the eyes of most people in Ireland - regard themselves as the true heirs of the state's founding fathers. Mr Keating has never accepted a state pension because he regards the Dublin government as fundamentally illegitimate. He refused to accept the state's standard €2,000 (£1,380) award to centenarians because he was "stunned" to hear the Irish President saying that her ambition was to walk through Dublin with the Queen.
While one may admire Mr Keating for his steadfastness, his support for diehard terrorists and his pig-headed refusal to recognise the Irish government is proof positive that age does not necessarily confer wisdom. His continuing support of violence is utterly out of step with the vast majority of nationalists in all parts of Ireland who realise that their cause is better advanced through the power of the ballot rather than the bullet. Those that fought the British during the “Tan War” were not usually as inflexible as Mr Keating. For example one of my now dead cousins fought in the North Cork brigade of the IRA and initially opposed the Treaty. During WWII he helped develop new radar systems for the British military. I am sure he would have viewed Mr Keating as an old fool.