Dark Blood Track, A Family History
Joseph O’Neill
Granta   $49.95

For an author to have one fascinating grandfather may be considered good fortune. To have had two looks like pre-natal planning. Joseph O’Neill has gone even further, blessing himself with a pair of enthralling grandmothers. Out of their lives, and those of his cousins and his aunts, he has shaped a morality tale for out time, a fable which is at once amusing and terrifying, thoroughly researched while leaving its evidence, let alone the author’s conclusions, open to doubt. The qualities of documentation and skepticism are no more than one might expect from a lawyer in commercial practice, which is O’Neill’s day job. That his writing style is as clear as his manner of reasoning is subtle comes as another bonus. The poetry of the title – Blood-dark track – courses through his prose.

Let’s start with the paternal grandfather, Jim O’Neill - dashing, handsome, hard.

His ancestors had been small farmers but he grew up in the alleyways of West Cork. He was eleven years old when the Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, died during a hunger strike in 1920. Jim saw the Black and Tans – those sweepings of British gutters  -  terrorise his neighbourhood. A few miles away, the Republican Brotherhood assassinated another farmer’s boy from Cork, their erstwhile intelligence commander, Michael Collins. Jim joined the IRA, as would his sons. His socialism protected him from supporting Hitler as an ally against the common enemy, Britain. The Irish government interned him between 1941 and 1945. Joseph recounts Jim’s life with a mixture of admiration for his personal steadfastness and alarm at its political narrowness.

In recounting a career committed to violence, the grandson  takes as his focal point the assassination in 1940 of Admiral Boyle Townsend Sommerville, descendant of an Anglo-Irish family, who had come over with Cromwell in the 1640s. At first, the author as lawyer is concerned to identify the murderer – was it his own grandfather? When he discovers that it was not, he tries to explain why the IRA chose to kill Sommerville, who was respected by the local nationalists. Before the final page, he concludes – or should I say assumes? – that the Admiral had been cut down on his doorstep for no better reason than that he was a Protestant.

The Sommerville family continues to live near Cork, although one of the Admiral’s most distinguished relatives could not bear to live out his retirement in the Republic. That exile was Sir Patrick Coghill, who had been in charge of British Intelligence in Palestine where O’Neill’s other grandfather, Joseph Dakad, had been interned. This maternal grandfather was a Syrian Christian who ran a hotel in Mersin, now a sizeable port city on the east coast of Turkey.

The coincidences in this story are so crucial and so frequent that it is no wonder that, although O’Neill had published two novels, he this time decided against fictionalizing his heritage. Parallels are believable. The intersection of such disparate lives would annoy the reviewers.

The grandfathers never met and would have quarreled had they done so. O’Neill was a poor socialist - Dakad a well-to-do businessman who hob-nobbed with the Nazi Ambassador to Ankara, Count Fritz van Papen. In prison, the two men behaved as differently as their politics dictated. Jim O’Neill was part of a disciplined body of men who defied their captors. Dakad suffered a mental breakdown in which every fellow prisoner appeared as a British agent bent on gaining his confidence in order to betray him. O’Neill was an undeniable threat to security of any Irish government that acknowledged the Crown. Dakad had dangerous friends, and might have done them favours that Britain considered beyond the demands of hospitality.

One other difference is that the Irish side kept its politics to the forefront of family stories, details being concealed only to protect the guilty. By contrast, the Turkish side kept quiet about even such details of the internment as they knew. Fifty years later, the author had to have his grandfather’s account translated. This document threw up its own puzzle: had the Turkish government dobbed him into the British, and if so, why? If the Irish Troubles were at the heart of the O’Neill story, the Armenian Massacres were never mentioned by the Turkish side. This silence is the more remarkable because the Dakads were also Christian, albeit of a different strain.

Joseph O’Neill reports these conflicts with detachment from every side except that of a common humanity. He acknowledges that people he loves can be indifferent to the suffering of others, and can even participate in what he, and the law, condemn as terrorism. He seeks to understand without making excuses. Why do honourable men and women - loving grandparents - sacrifice their lives to kill civilians?

The timing of O’Neills book was another piece of his good fortune as an author. Without mentioning September 11, O’Neill, who lives part of the time in New York, shows the inevitability of the outrage felt by US Americans. Then, he leads us beyond that reaction, to an attitude which the US government does not wish us to hear. O’Neill offers empathy without sympathy for the perpetrators. If we feel angry when attacked, we should not be surprised by the rage of those we have injured. Seeing others as we want to be seen is the beginning of wisdom, a start in peace. Trying to monopolise grief in a world where thousands are slaughtered every other day is an affront to those whose massacre must compete for a mention in the late news.

O’Neill has subtitled his book “A Family History”, which it is, though it might more accurately be called “an extended family extended history”. That second extension reaches to Australia where none of his relatives has lived. Blood-Dark Track is a phrase taken from William Butler Yeats, suggesting that atavism wins through against civilization. Blood provided more than a metaphor for the crimson thread of kinship that made the British Empire. Australians once prayed that the blood of the Anzacs would wash away the stain of convictism. Ireland and Turkey: two blood-dark tracks into Australian consciousness: Gallipoli in 1915; the Easter Rebellion a year later.

Jim O’Neill’s wife, Joseph’s grandmother, is a treasure, whose patterns of consumption are determined by her political convictions, boycotting governments and corporations who violate her principles of justice. Her sympathies are catholic, including gay rights and the British miners. Her Irishness leads her to support the poor and the powerless wherever they be. That much is admirable. Yet she is not just a sweet little old lady. She has hidden guns and killers, and would do so again. She is one of the women whom Yeats heard speaking “sweet and low” to give tongue to “Hound Voices”. This conflict between her human decency and her acceptance of violence takes us back to Yeats whose mystical fascism remains part of that problem. Here are the lines from which O’Neill chose his title:

Some day we shall get up before the dawn

And find our ancient hounds before the door,

And wide awake know that the hunt is on;

Stumbling upon the blood-dark track once more,

That stumbling to the kill beside the shore

We can reject the prescriptive force but not deny the descriptive power of that sentiment.

The hope of the Enlightenment, then of Socialist Internationalism, even of the League of Nations, was that a dawn would break when humankind would no longer awake to that baying, a future when we would no longer determine our place on the planet by the memory and prospect of killing, an era when the hunt would be not for past wrongs, but for present responsibilities and the further possibilities of peace. That we have not yet reached that distant shore is in itself no cause for despair. The alarm is that we may no longer even be stumbling in that direction.

We Australians have buried the last of the Gallipoli veterans, while our leaders nourish the impulse to write who we are in the blood of Anzac. We demand that the Real IRA forget Black Cromwell, that Hamas get over the Crusades, that they and their kind shed the legends that nourish their murdering. Rather than “chanting of victory amid the encircling hounds”, Australians should also ask why we, in a country lucky enough to have been long free of violent social conflict, can not set them a nobler example.