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Resting Places: On Wounds, War and the Irish Revolution by Ellen McWilliams

A happy, safe childhood that nevertheless senses the darker history which eventually emerges in all its troubling detail

Resting Places: On Wounds. War and the Irish Revolution
Author: Ellen McWilliams
ISBN-13: 978-1914318245
Publisher: Beyond the Pale Books
Guideline Price: £15

Ellen McWilliams’ tender memoir begins and ends in the parish of Desertserges near Bandon in County Cork.

This is where McWilliams grew up in the 1980s and where some of “some of the most violent and deadly events of the Irish War of independence and Civil War played out”. Much has been written of the fighting in west Cork from the nationalist side and indeed McWilliams relates a poignant account of her Cumann Na mBan activist grandmother. She also writes about the Dunmanway Massacre, “…one of the major historical controversies of the Irish Free state” when “between 26 and 28 April 1922, thirteen protestant men and boys were murdered or disappeared in the townlands around Bandon, Enniskeane, Dunmanway and Clonakilty.”

Growing up in this close-knit, deeply neighbourly community of Catholics and Protestants, McWilliams nevertheless had “questions” about the “mild-mannered separation of the two communities on certain occasions”. This observant and sensitive child, McWilliams eventually became an academic and Resting Places navigates that experience, studying and working in Britain: falling in love with an Oliver Cromwell scholar, giving birth. The many-layered Resting Places ends with McWilliams’s painful discovery of how close she was to the Dunmanway Massacre.

McWilliams’s local Georgian rectory in Kilcolman provides a startling metaphor for the difficulty of writing about two sides. When many Protestant Big Houses were burned in 2021, the rectory although “not quite the Big House of the Anglo-Irish imagination …” was spared “because a member of the family that lived there had the medical training to help the wounded and the injured — treating British soldiers in a makeshift ward in the attic and Irish rebels in the basement, an extraordinary and enlightened experiment in holding two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time.”


This could describe McWilliams’s “experiment” too. Freud has compared the mind or psyche to a house of several storeys, each of which corresponds to a different layer or strata of consciousness. Resting Places likewise provides several stratas of consciousness, a happy, safe childhood which nevertheless senses the darker history which eventually emerges in all its troubling detail, “…you watch the story of your life, your family, the house you grew up in and the community that raised you spill across the kitchen floor.”

Martina Evans

Martina Evans

Martina Evans, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a poet, novelist and critic