I got this book for background reading because a relation of mine was "on the run" both during the War of Independence (1918-1921) and during the subsequent Civil War (1922/3).
I got more than I bargained for. Colm turned out to be from Rosmuc in the heart of the Conemara gaeltacht and lived more or less around the corner from where my great grandmother was born (in Turlough) so I found the whole narrative fascinating from beginning to end.
It covers being raised in Rosmuc, becoming a teacher of Irish with the Gaelic League, various linguistic/political intrigues of the day, recruiting for the Volunteers, 1916, and the War of Independence, and it includes great reporting on conditions inside a variety of English prisons.
The style is simple and crystal clear, so much so that I am now curious to read the original Irish language version of the book. Full marks to the translation.
The narrative is full of marvellous asides such as the incident described below, which I fully understand but had never heard tell of the like before.
Before getting to the incident itself I need to explain some background. During the Great Famine (1845/8), evangelical Protestants were offering food (soup) to starving Irish Roman Catholics on condition they changed their religion. Strictly speaking those dispensing the food were "soupers" and those changing their religion to get it were "jumpers". However, in common speech, those changing their religion for the the soup were called "soupers" and even to this day this is one of the greatest insults that can be aimed at an Irishman - that his ancestors were soupers. It is the equivalent to the "mother" insults in USA/Hispanic speech.
[quote from pps103-4 : Gweesalia near Bangor Erris in Co. Mayo]
As we made our way along the road the travelling teacher would stop and greet anybody who came our way with a hearty "God bless you". We were coming to the end of our journey - somewhere on the road between Knockanlogey and Gweesalia - when an untidy-looking man in his fifties came in our direction. The travelling teacher was slightly ahead of me on the road and he had barely uttered his "God bless you" when the man shot back with this hostile response: "May God and Mary bless you and may bad luck strike you down you dirty old Protestant". When I expressed my surprise at the incident to the people of the house where I was lodging that same evening the family explained to me that the "strange" man on the road had probably suspected that we were soupers.
"Why would he have thought that?" I asked them.
"Because the soupers would never pass anybody without making sure to greet them before the others could utter a word." The reason for this was that they were afraid of saying the word Muire (Mary) in the Irish response go mbeannaí Dia is Muire duit."
[end of quote]
A beautiful and refreshing read and a great insight into the struggle for independence at the level of the "coismhuintir" or ordinary folk.