Fellow traveller – Frank McNally on the ‘republican widowhood’ of Dervla Murphy

An Irishman’s Diary

The late Dervla Murphy was famous for her overseas travels, often to inhospitable corners of the world. But one of the more gripping stories in her 1979 autobiography concerned something that happened when she was safely at home once, entertaining a guest.

It was 1944 and she was only 13 years old. The guest arrived one dark March afternoon, looking “tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome” but also very tired.

In a strong Kerry accent, he identified himself as “Pat Carney” and asked to see the adults of the house.

After a short conference with her mother, who seemed to have been expecting him, it was announced that “Pat” would be staying for a while.

But despite the official welcome, his presence also caused consternation. “Never had I seen my mother looking so distraught,” Murphy recalled.

As was soon explained to the future travel writer, their guest – forwarded by an aunt on her father’s side – was an on-the-run IRA man, wanted for the murder of a detective.

In a preliminary assessment of the ethics, her mother declared: “This young man is a criminal though he regards himself as a patriot. No doubt his elders are chiefly to blame. They are using his muddled, foolish idealism. But we can talk about it later. Now please show him to his room and give him a meal.”

The young Dervla had none of her mother’s qualms. She was instantly enthralled by the new lodger and his backstory: “This was the stuff of which fantasies are made . . . I was to prepare a meal for a man on the run who would be hanged if caught.”

She was shocked, therefore, to find out that her father, although of “impeccably republican” stock, strongly disapproved of Pat’s presence. It was her mother, from a background “Redmondite at best (Unionist at worst)”, who felt they were morally bound to shelter him.

“But then I reflected that he (my father) was very old (forty-three). And I made allowances for the fact that at that age some people just can’t have the right reactions anymore”.

While her mother insisted that allowances had to be made for the young man’s “sick idealism” and her father protested that the State would be ungovernable “if hectic emotionalism were to be accepted as an excuse for murder”, neither, in the end, was prepared to hand him over.

In the meantime, he and Dervla became friends. He never discussed his circumstances or attempt to recruit her to the cause. Instead, they played “round after round of rummy”. He also taught her how to read maps and to whistle so loudly that she could be heard “two miles away”.

But in their very friendship, eventually, there was an epiphany.

As Murphy summed it up nearly 40 years later: “To me this marvellous companion seemed a magic sort of person, an intelligent grown-up who had retained all the wondering enthusiasms of childhood. And my intuition was right. It was Pat’s tragedy that he had never outgrown either the innocence or the ruthlessness of youth.”

After a fortnight with the Murphys, he moved on and was unheard of for months. Then he was arrested at the aunt's house. "Pat" turned out to be Charles Kerins, wanted for the murder of a Det Sgt O'Brien at Ballyboden, Dublin in September 1942.

His death sentence provoked protests all over Ireland and bitter argument in the Dáil where, the night before the execution, a Deputy Finucane from Kerry predicted that Kerins's name "will live until Fianna Fáil is blasted into oblivion".

But Eamon de Valera’s Government had adopted a ruthless line with their erstwhile allies in militant republicanism. There was no reprieve.

Kerins was hanged at 8am on December 1st, 1944. Around which time, Murphy was sitting down for breakfast at her boarding school in Waterford and, full knowing the significance of the moment, experienced "an almost hysterical elation".

As she explained of that and her ability to eat breakfast untroubled, “it was against the nationalist tradition in my blood to mourn such deaths, for that would have been to imply that the sacrifice was not worthwhile”.

When the mail was distributed during the mid-morning break that day, two worlds collided.

Her classmates chatted about hockey, while she read a letter from a friend "who had been hanged three hours earlier". It included a silver ring, made on a Belfast prison ship, and now promptly installed on her finger.

Recalling her republican widowhood decades later, Murphy struck a balance between irony and affection.

“I wore the ring constantly from that moment until my fingers and my ideals outgrew it – developments which conveniently occurred at about the same time,” she wrote.

“But I have it still and I would not part with it.”