It’s no wonder they call West Cork ‘A Place Apart’; it is both very Irish and quite cosmopolitan, for many have blown-in on the winds and stayed to make this beautiful place their home. I have such an affiliation and like to take time to explore its history and people. Taking a break from current affairs and entering into the spirit of Summer, I am using this month’s column to share one of my discoveries!
Like many of my age group, I sometimes tend to stand outside rural bookshops waiting in thirsty anticipation for them to open, as drinkers waited outside pubs in the old days when they still had strict opening and closing hours. Part of the attraction of the second-hand bookshop is that it sometimes offers a link with the past in the context of a tome that had flown silently under my radar.
My latest eureka moment in this context occurred when I stumbled on a book with, in its introduction, two maps; one of West Cork, including Bandon, Glandore and Skibbereen, an area close to my heart. The other map was of Eastern Turkey with the ancient and biblical cities of Mersin, Tarsus and Antioch featuring and that is an area not too far away from Lebanon, where I had the pleasure of serving with the United Nations peacekeeping force. The book is titled Blood-Dark Track: A Family History an enjoyable read from a number of perspectives that left me even more curious about the author Joseph O Neill, the son of a Turkish mother and an Irish father.
Joseph was born in Cork City and subsequently spent time in Mozambique and lived in Turkey until the age of four. He also lived in Iran. From the age of six on he lived in the Netherlands, where he attended the Lycée français de La Haye and the British School in the Netherlands. He speaks English, French and Dutch, is a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge and was a barrister at the English Bar.
It was his book Netherland that bestowed on him stellar status when Barack Obama admitted in an interview with the New York Times magazine that he had become “sick enough of briefing books” to begin reading a novel in the evening and had plumped for Joseph O’Neill’s story of cricket in post-9/11 America, Netherland. When he was 10 years of age, in the mid-1970s, he learned that both of his late grandfathers were imprisoned during WWII.
Twenty years later, he took it upon himself to learn why. His trawl for the facts took him around Turkey, Israel and Ireland and among those he interviewed were Yitzhak Shamir and Gerry Adams.
His maternal grandfather, Joseph Dakad, owned the Toros hotel in Mersin. At the time Mersin was likened to Casablanca, a hotbed of international intrigue and conspiracy. The hotel had 20 rooms and a first-class restaurant with a chef who had cooked for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the Turkish republic. He was debonair, suave, spoke French, German, Spanish Arabic, Italian and English, wore silk shirts and was an accomplished horseman.
On Sunday nights, there was dancing on the terrace overlooking the sea and the hotel buzzed with the top Mersin society set, travellers and foreign so-called businessmen. He was a Germanophile and befriended many German guests who stayed in his hotel. In Jan 1942 a freak frost destroyed the local citrus crop and Dakad decided he could make a small fortune by importing 200 tons of lemons from Palestine. He decided to travel to Jerusalem, then under British control, to procure the shipment and on his way home. At the Syrian border, he was arrested by the British on suspicion of being an Axis agent. He was initially held in a military prison in Beirut and subsequently transferred to a monastery in Emmaus, Palestine. The man nominally in charge of Dakak’s imprisonment was Sir Patrick Coghill, the head of the British Security Mission in Syria. Sir Patrick was a nephew of Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville.
Meanwhile his Irish grandfather Jim was arrested in 1940, when Eamon de Valera’s Government, fearful that IRA activists might compromise our neutrality, rounded up all known IRA men. He was held for four years in the Curragh, in Tintown, an internment camp in County Kildare. An account of life there by one of the internees is as follows: “our life is monotonous enough here but one gets used to it and by now we are mostly all well settled down and making the best of our time by serious study. I myself am taking advantage of this enforced leisure to catch up on some of the education I missed, so this place will, I hope, have its profit as well as its debit side.
Jim O’Neill’s story is rooted in the landscape of West Cork, with its rivers winding through Idyllic landscapes; he was born at Ardkitt near Enniskean. It was down here on a bend in the Bandon river that he poached salmon to pay for his sons’ confirmation suits, he was familiar with the hides where guns and ammunition were stashed by IRA activists and of course the monument to the Kilmichael ambush, where Tom Barry’s IRA Cork No. 3 Brigade killed 18 British auxiliaries in November 1920 is nearby; a period in history that has always resonated with me, given that my Granduncle Brigadier General Gibbs Ross commanded the IRA Cork No. 5 Brigade and was killed in Bantry on August 30, 1922, eight days after Michael Collins.
By the mid-1930s Jim, a Corporation truck driver, was an active IRA company commander and training officer. Vice admiral Henry Boyle Somerville (73), a relative of writer Edith Somerville (of Sommerville and Ross fame), was shot when he answered the door of his home at Castletownshend, Skibbereen, on March 24, 1936. Nobody was ever arrested for the murder. But, when the author visited his uncle Brendan, the family custodian of IRA secrets, Brendan dropped a rusty Colt 45 into his lap with the words: “That’s the gun that shot Admiral Somerville.” Boyle Somerville in the new Ireland, like the Syrian Christian Joseph Dakak in Turkey, was the member of an uneasy minority in a new state.
It never ceases to amaze me how the events of history have the ability to entwine two families in two very different parts of the world. Dochreidte! (unbelievable)
Every year my mind migrates to West Cork like the return of the swallows. I stumble across the stories of those who have gone before me with tales of West Cork people who have cast their footprint on the world stage, be it academics, sportsmen, diplomats, musicians or writers, West Cork is second to none.