‘The worker picked up Pakhom’s spade, dug a grave, and buried him – six feet from head to heel, exactly the amount of land a man needs.’
he above is from Leo Tolstoy’s ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’, a tale capturing the greed of craving more land than is needed. The same meter was used over 70 years later by the late John B Keane in one of his seminal works, ‘The Field’, based on a murder in Raemore townland in 1958 when neighbours fell out over a patch of land no better than a landing pad for snipe and pheasant.
But whether it’s Tolstoy’s Russia or Keane’s Kerry, the vice of coveting land is a universal one.
Listowel publican Billy Keane recently explored the backdrop to his father’s play in the RTÉ documentary – The Real Field – which saw him disturb the lightly sleeping story of Moss Moore’s murder near his home on the night of November 6, 1958. Many blamed his neighbour, Dan Foley, due to a dispute over land with Moore.
Moore’s body was found 10 days later, concealed under rushes in a stream just 50 meters from his home. Whether Foley was guilty or not has never been established. But Foley’s sentence was, perhaps, even worse than jail itself – ostracisation from his community. Foley died from a heart attack, alone in a field of cattle, in 1963.
Reviving the story of a murder that would have been all but forgotten but for the pen of John B Keane was not easy for Billy to take on. Community and memory are perpetually in motion in North Kerry; stirring old enmity can be risky.
The documentary features Dan Foley’s nephew, John, who insists on his uncle’s innocence, saying he was framed for Moore’s murder. There is a scene where John talks with Billy about buying back the disputed piece of land, land that is today totally covered in briers and scrub.
“Land is, in my opinion, something that you can’t just acquire, or get. It doesn’t grow,” John explained.
“Land is land…Ownership of land is, in my opinion, everything. I hope those who follow me would have the same sentiment and pride in owning Raemore,” he added.
In many ways, the scene underscores the age-old tussle between owning land for practical purposes versus the emotional need to acquire it.
The documentary also reveals that John Foley thinks he knows who murdered Moss Moore on that night in ’58, but he is reluctant to go further.
“My family are of the opinion that maybe I should call it a day, say no more about it,” he says.
Billy admits to initially having mixed feelings about doing the documentary.
“I said to myself ‘Am I only dragging up old sores?’ But I kind of felt it could be viewed as a warning to people over land,” Billy said.
“It’s not totally a rural message either, I got that message from a few people in Dublin. People need to be careful of how these obsessions can grow on you, and how they get caught up in your life.
“These [disputes] can also be passed on to your family. Sometimes if you were left something in a will, it might be seen as an advantage when, in fact, it could be seen as a terrible disadvantage, as you’re left with a legacy of trouble and hate.
“I suppose there is a bit of trying to change Ireland for the better about the programme,” said Billy.
The Kerryman newspaper covered the story in great detail at the time, which caused a sensation in the quiet and conservative enclaves of rural Kerry. The Kerryman of November 29, 1958, asks: “Who murdered Moss Moore? Police may find the answer in the scores of statements taken from neighbours of the 46-year-old farmer during the last two weeks since his body was found.”
In the same article, it touches on the murderer’s motive: “If Moore’s murderer was an acquaintance, it is thought unlikely that he was killed for his money. He would have known that the quiet man, who liked to be known as a farmer, could have had little riches.”
Billy says one of the driving forces behind the documentary is to inform a new Ireland of old Ireland’s failings. Behind the acquisition of land, property, wills and inherited fortune lie the unseen perils of rancour and violence.
Theatrical tales of savage brutality running counter to the quaint perception of Irish family and community life extend back to John Millington Synge’s ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ (1907). When ‘The Field’ first hit the stage in the Gaiety Theatre in 1965, it produced similar shock-waves, themes that were amplified even more in Jim Sheridan’s 1990 hit movie – The Field – with Richard Harris as the ‘Bull’ McCabe. It is easy to see why some people may have felt unhappy that the portrayal of ‘Bull’ inadvertently depicted Dan Foley as cold and stubborn.
“It was never my dad’s intention to hurt the Foley family. The real story and the play are quite different in many ways,” said Billy.
“I still don’t know who did it [the murder], but the big thing is that the Foley family’s side of the story is known. The Foleys are a lovely family, John is a great community man. It is a tragedy all round; it’s a warning to all of us, there is a time to prioritise.
“Even though the story was kind of known, a lot of people didn’t know the story behind it. The biggest reaction I got from it [the documentary] is people telling me about an experience in their own family.
“This isn’t just a Raemore phenomenon, it is everywhere. It just happened to be made more famous because of the play. The reaction to the programme has been very good. I think people felt we were fair, especially to the Foley family.”
Lastly, Moyvane poet Gabriel Fitzmaurice features in the documentary. He captures the never-ending saga of the murder:
“That murder still resonates to this day, here especially in this area,” said Gabriel. “It resonates among the older generation because of the genius of John B Keane, who brought the murder to us…It takes over 100 years for these things to be forgotten. You can forgive, but maybe you can’t forget. John B Keane has made the murder unforgettable.”