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Dan Keating, who died peacefully in his native Kerry on October 3rd, aged 105, was the last of the Republican irreconcilables.
The sole survivor of Ireland’s 1919-1921 War of Independence, he refused ever afterwards to recognise the legitimacy of any Irish government, North or South, giving his allegiance only to the all-Ireland Republic proclaimed by Partick Pearse on the steps of the GPO in Dublin at Easter 1916, for which he’d fought and had striven the rest of his life to vindicate and defend.
This was the key to the commitment to which Keating held hard through the decades when sections of the Republican Movement successively split off—Michael Collins and Cumann na nGaedhael in 1922, de Valera and Fianna Fail in 1926, Sean McBride and Clann na Poblachta in 1948, Tomas Mac Giolla and the Officials in 1970, Gerry Adams and the Provisionals in 1986: in every instance, the “breakaway” faction had a majority within the Movement as it veered away from armed struggle to seek advancement by constitutional means. In every instance, too, the breakaway group, for a time at least, prospered and won places in government.
But to Dan Keating this was of little account. For him, the Republic was not an ideal to be aimed at, but an already-existing entity which all IRA members were oath-bound to defend. In this perspective, a development which might seem to others an honourable advance towards the ultimate objective appeared as abject desertion of duty. His formal political office at the time of his death was as Patron of Republican Sinn Fein (RSF), the party led by Ruairi O Bradaigh from which the Adams-McGuinness group split in 1986, traitorously, as Keating would have had it, to take seats in the Dublin parliament.
In a BBC interview last March, he described the Northern peace process as “a joke,” and added: “All the talk you hear these days is of peace. But there will never be peace until the people of the 32 counties elect one parliament without British interference.”
Dan Keating was born on a small farm near Castlemaine in Kerry in 1902. The family was well-respected on account of his uncles’ active role in attacking landlords’ agents. He joined the youth wing of the IRA at 14 while working as barman in Tralee, graduated to the adult movement in 1920 as flickers of violence began spreading into flame, and took part in a series of fire-fights and ambushes. He would never be drawn on whether he had killed: “When you are involved in an ambush with a crowd of men, you wouldn’t know who killed who.”
Like a majority of the Kerry IRA, he rejected the partition Treaty of 1921. To the end of his days, he recalled an engagement at Castleisland on the eve of the truce in which four comrades were killed, juxtaposing “four good men lost” with Michael Collins across in London, signing away the cause the men of Kerry were giving their lives for.
The majority of the anti-Treaty forces left, mainly for America, after losing the Civil War. But Keating stayed, and, unusually for a Republican at the time, found work, as a barman in Dublin, and became a leader of the Bar Workers’ Union. He took his first drink at the age of 55 as an expression of disgust at the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association’s “treachery” in failing to oppose longer hours for pub workers.
He was under constant surveillance by the Irish Special Branch, served stretches in prison and in de Valera’s internment camp at the Curragh, spent a year in London during World War Two trying to organise a bombing campaign. Involved in virtually every twist and turn of Republican politics, over time he acquired iconic status but always remained an active rather than a mere honorary presence.
He went home to live in Kerry in the 1960s, with his late wife Mary, whom he had met in the visiting room of Mountjoy Prison. He continued advising, berating, denouncing and demanding as fitted the Republican occasion.
“He had opinions about everything until he drew his last breath,” says one RSF figure, “especially about football and hurling.”
Passionate about both of the Gaelic games, he attended 150 all-Ireland finals at Croke Park, which nobody doubts is a record.
He died as he was born, in frugal comfort in his native county.
Some years ago, the Dublin Government (he’d never have referred to it as an Irish Government) urged him at last to accept the pension to which all veterans of the War of Independence were entitled. “No,” he replied, “sure we achieved nothing.”
Except that he kept the faith for 90 years, a rare achievement surely in the world we live in.
Dan Keating, born January 2nd 1902, died October 3rd, 2007. He leaves no close relatives.
Eamon McCann lives in Ireland and can be reached at: Eamonderry@aol.com