Once a Syrian, always a Syrian

Maria Margaronis

  • Blood-Dark Track: A Family History by Joseph O'Neill
    Granta, 338 pp, £16.99, February 2001, ISBN 1 86207 288 4

Joseph O’Neill’s grandfathers, one Irish, the other Turkish, were both imprisoned without trial during World War Two. Jim O’Neill was arrested in 1940, when Eamon de Valera’s Government, fearful that IRA activities might compromise Eire’s neutrality, rounded up all known IRA men. He was held for four years at the Curragh internment camp in County Kildare. Joseph Dakak was seized by the British at the Syrian border in April 1942 as he travelled home by train from a lemon-buying venture in Palestine, and detained for more than three years in a series of British and French concentration camps on (undeclared) suspicion of being an Axis spy. In both families a tense silence surrounded these episodes. Sensing that his grandfathers must have done something wrong, O’Neill set out to learn what had happened to them; in the process he learned a great deal more than that. His interest, he explains, is not political; and what he knew of most historical subjects when he began this book could, he says, ‘be written out on a luggage tag’. But (like Cary Grant, perhaps, in North by Northwest) he found himself irresistibly drawn in.

His thoroughness and energy are phenomenal. He visits every place important to his grandfathers in Ireland, Turkey and the Middle East, tracks down every relevant surviving functionary of the British imperium, combs through letters, journals, testimonies, newspaper cuttings and censored documents in the Public Record Office. He flies to Israel with the memory of the 171 bus blown up at the Aldwych by an IRA bomb fresh in his mind; questions hotel doormen and Yitzhak Shamir; boards the Taurus Express at 4 a.m. to visit Dakak’s birthplace at Iskenderun. The drifts of detail and description can seem overwhelming. O’Neill is searching not just for the facts but for a visceral understanding of the worlds in which his grandfathers’ choices made sense. A barrister as well as a novelist, he draws on every available skill: ferreting out information; sketching characters; interrogating motives; pushing beyond his own facility at phrase-making (‘clouds white as cricketers’, the moon ‘like a button on a blazer’) to find plain words for what he has learned. As in any family history, the story at the heart of Blood-Dark Track is the writer’s own, the drama of his struggle to open a path from the present to the past and to pin down the connections between private lives and public events.

Jim O’Neill’s story is rooted in the landscape of West Cork, with its rivers winding through tunnels of leaves and its Big Houses hidden by high stone walls. Here is the bend in the Bandon where he poached salmon to pay for his sons’ confirmation suits; here is the copse where guns and ammunition were stashed by Republican fighters; here is the monument to the Kilmichael ambush, where Tom Barry’s IRA Cork No. 3 Brigade killed 18 British auxiliaries in November 1920. The world of Jim O’Neill and his wife Eileen was shaped by the sense of being permanently at war. This was felt at every level, from the murder of two first cousins and the memory of the Black and Tans hammering on the door to the misery of living in grey corporation housing during Jim’s internment. Their uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters were IRA activists, many of them high up in the organisation; Eileen’s brother Jack Lynch was the commanding officer who orchestrated the bombing campaign in England in 1939 which killed six civilians and seriously injured 55.

Cheated of his farm inheritance by a series of blunders and family quarrels, Jim O’Neill earned a living as a lorry driver for the Cork Corporation. He was hard-working, authoritarian, tough on his eight children. By the mid-1930s he was an IRA company commander and training officer, chosen to participate in the first raid against a British military target since 1921 (which was, to his lifelong regret, aborted). When Eileen wonders aloud what her husband might have done with education and opportunities, her grandson speculates whether Jim O’Neill’s internment at the Curragh, and even his political convictions, might have been manifestations of an unnamed ‘deeper captivity’:

Poverty was a cage of sorts, certainly; but it was not exclusive to Jim and did not affect him in his last years; and it didn’t fully account for an image of my grandfather that had crept into my mind and would not go away, that of a man who gripped life’s every stick and pole with the white-knuckled rage of a man gripping the bars of a cell.

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