Thursday, October 04, 2007

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake

Dan Keating, the last surviving veteran of the 1919-21 Irish war of Independence from Great Britain, has died. Keating lived in died in County Kerry, the precise contemporary of my great-grandfather, who also fought in the Republican Army for a free Ireland, and who was born, lived and died in Kerry.

A piece of history has come to a close, at least as much as history ever does. Suddenly I'm reminded of newsreel footage of the last Civil War veterans on V-E day, and the sense that historical moments that we think of as utterly separate, centuries apart, can be spanned by a single lifetime. Now, of course, it is the World War II veterans who are dying, but some will undoubtedly survive to see another generation, and if history gives any template, another war.

Keating's obituary, though, adds a sudden shock of recognition to the Faulknerian axiom that the past is not past:

He joined the I.R.A. faction that opposed the 1921 peace treaty with Britain, and fought against former colleagues in Ireland’s 1922-23 civil war... took part in an I.R.A. bombing campaign against London from 1939 to 1940... In 1970, he switched his allegiance from the “official” Irish Republican Army to a new, Northern Ireland-based faction called the Provisional I.R.A., which spent 27 years trying to overthrow British rule.

When the Provisional I.R.A. called a 1997 cease-fire and supported the Sinn Fein push for a negotiated deal, he switched support to a breakaway faction, Republican Sinn Fein, which opposed compromise and backed the I.R.A. dissidents’ continued bombings.

In 2002 he also refused a $3,500 award from President Mary McAleese that was offered to all Irish citizens who reach age 100; Mr. Keating argued that she was not the real president of Ireland...

Mr. Keating had no immediate survivors.

It's as though those Civil War veterans in the newsreels were still fighting in the forties and fifties. And maybe, when you look at the vociferousness with which Southerners fought against integration, the war was still being fought. History, it turns out, can take longer than centuries -- since, borrowing not from Faulkner or Joyce but Stein, all our contemporaries are not our contemporaries. Or it can happen in an instant. Just like that; a birth, a death, an event -- and you wake up.

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