It was in Ballylanders, a one-street village in County Limerick beneath the glorious Galtee Mountains where the light is never static and the mist sits like a halo, I happened upon Gallahue's mate the farmer John Tobin. Tobin's uncle, David, had been killed by the Black and Tans during the War of Independence. Although the nephew wasn't born at the time he could recount the event chapter and verse and identify within a millimetre the place where his uncle fell and how, when the body was found at first light in a pool of blood, it was surrounded by dead matches, the relics of a vain attempt to attract his comrades.
'But didn't his mother dream that she heard him call and didn't she just wake up and go wandering the roads saying, 'He's not dead, I heard him call',' Tobin said, his own mother Brigid nodding verification of each fact in an enthralling story both sad and triumphant. In the historic Glenbrohane church, saved by the locals from a church hierarchy which wanted to demolish it and build a soulless, modern structure, Tobin pointed to a manhole, smiled and said, 'Although the clergy didn't know it, the IRA stored guns and important documents in the ceiling.' I believed him.
At the local cemetery the resident gardener was mesmerised as Tobin recounted the story of the mysterious death of Mary Massey in 1816. 'Go on, there's always two sides to a story,' said your man, shaking his head as Tobin, dropping his voice, delicately explained that Mary Massey, wife of the local Protestant landlord, John Bolton Massey, had 'let's say a friendship with a local Catholic' and that there was more to the story than told by the inscription 'Mary Massey died 1816 from gunshot'. 'She's the only Protestant buried in a Catholic cemetery around here,' he told his captive audience. On the distant hill the fairy-tale Glenbrohane church, above whose 1819 arched doorway was the inscription, 'The free gift of J. Boulton Massey, Esq, forever', watched every shake of the head and listened to every word.
Away from the mystery of Lord Massey, descendant of the Cromwellian invader, Hugh Massey, Tobin led me across an undulating field with a sober history. 'See how this field is uneven. Now look at that one over there. See how flat it is. That's what makes me convinced that this is a famine graveyard,' he said as I tried to imagine the final days of the starving paupers whose bones just might have lay beneath our feet. In 1846 the local Priest of the nearby Kilbehenny parish had written to an official declaring that '1200 people are destitute of food'. The farmer Cronin had led me along the road to a site he was certain was the last resting place of some of those about whom Father James Clancy had written. 'My mother heard from her mother that it's just in there beyond the stream, yes, that's a famine graveyard, just in there,' he said.
The location was Glenacurrane, an exquisite green valley whose beauty belies the trouble it has seen. A famine graveyard, the East Limerick Flying Column's triumphant ambush of a British regiment in 1920, and the monument to Dannie Shinnick bearing the defiant inscription 'To be unveiled when Ireland is completely independent' - dramatic moments in a volatile history - are all located within a radius of 100 metres. Shinnick had rejected the treaty and been shot on the hill above by one of Donncadh O'Hannigan's Free State soldiers as he scrambled for safety.
In John Gallahue's pub that night I heard a version of the real story. 'A woman tipped off O'Hannigan's unit, that's why they took the high road and were able to ambush Shinnick. It was the same with Tobin,' said your man. 'Really!' I replied, forgetting momentarily that Ireland was crawling with spies and informers during the Troubles. 'Oh yes, we knew who the informer was. My father was told to bring him in for questioning after the Civil War. But there'd have been no questioning, no, the IRA, they'd have just shot him. But didn't an old woman say that the grass would grow at his door and wasn't he just after selling up and leaving nine years on,' John Tobin replied.
On the Borough Road a mile from where Shinnick had died I found the grey, stone cabin my great grandfather, John, and his brother, Dinny, had left behind in 1863. The Casey sisters told how the banshee had tapped on the window of one night to warn their grandfather that his wife was about to die. She died during the night. As they proudly recounted stories about growing up here under a roof of thatch and collecting water from the stream that cascaded from the Galtee Mountains I was touched by a sense of place. Inside the house I studied the large open fireplace, eyed the walls and imagined the words of Irish and the tears reserved for Dinny as he took off with the Papal forces in 1860 to fight the 'Masonic devil' Garibaldi.
Nineteen years earlier in August 1841 a labourer from adjoining Tipperary had shuffled up the gangway of the 'Prince Regent' for a journey that would produce one of the great Irish/Australian legends. Past the famous Rock of Cashel, beyond a decaying Norman castle I went in search of the man. When I happened upon Martin Power and Patrick Molloy in the cottage next to the Moyglass cemetery I found the legend. 'Ned Kelly? Sure, we know all about him. His father had the field up the hill. He was transported for the theft of two pigs,' they explained before taking me on a journey through the famine, the fight for independence from Britain, and the Civil War. Outside, the householder, Martin Power, directed my attention to a number of holes in the slate roof.
'It was the Free Staters who put those bullet holes there when they returned fire after their train, the 'Grey Ghost', was attacked by the local IRA. A young runner for the Republicans, Seamus Hayes, was shot dead. There's a monument to him beneath the bridge,' they said, pointing me up the hill. Standing at the gate that led to the field where in December 1840 John 'Red' Kelly had departed with two stolen pigs which were to land him on the convict ship bound for Hobart, it was impossible to ignore the irony of it all.
For two years before 'Red' Kelly was leg-ironed, Redmond Barry, gentleman of Ballyclough House, Rathcormac, County Cork, had confidently boarded 'The Calcutta' en route to a career on the Supreme Court of Victoria and a final battle with 'Red's famous son, Ned Kelly. Only a week before finding the Kelly field I'd gone looking for the young Judge Barry. Vera Barry, publican of Barry's Hotel in Rathcormac, couldn't help me. Instead she led me up a set of concrete steps to the courthouse which to my amazement had accommodated the 1834 inquest into the killing of the widow Ryan and twelve peasants during Ireland's most famous anti-tithe protest.