The murder that inspired Keane's 'The Field'

It is no easy task finding the spot where Maurice ‘Moss’ Moore’s strangled body was dumped. You drive along the narrow, undulating road that takes you into the wind generator-festooned north Kerry townland of Reamore, turn right at the ‘cross’ and continue up the hillside until you can see woods just ahead. You need to park near here and retrace your journey a couple of hundred metres on foot, until you can hear the babbling of a stream.

The tiny watercourse is so overgrown, it is practically impossible to see it, but it was close to this spot – just off what was then a rutted boreen – that the bachelor farmer was recovered, 10 days after going missing back in November 1958.

Moore’s next-door neighbour and former friend, Dan Foley, was immediately identified as the chief suspect for the murder. The two had been in bitter dispute over a boundary fence that Foley had erected, and the matter was due to be heard at Tralee Circuit Court.

Furthermore, Moore – who was as diminutive as Foley was burly – had been telling others in Reamore that he was concerned for his safety because he felt the other man had it in for him.

Even before Moore’s body was found, investigating officers were being advised that Foley was the culprit. And they kept a close watch on him before and after the body was found, only metres from where both men lived.

The case was nothing short of a sensation in the Ireland of 1958. Back then, there were only a handful of murders every year and this one – seemingly caused by a dispute over land – tapped into a specific national obsession. Furthermore, the killing happened in a place that seemed to embody the self-sufficient rural Ireland famously espoused by Éamon de Valera.

But notorious as the case itself was, it would probably not be remembered quite as well today had it not inspired the late John B Keane to write his most famous play, The Field. Keane – from nearby Listowel – was as captivated by the murder as everyone else in the country and journeyed to Reamore in the company of a journalist to discover what he could about the killing.

Despite the fact that Foley was never found guilty – due to insufficient evidence – Keane always felt that he had been responsible for Moore’s killing. And he based his anti-hero, the Bull McCabe, on Foley.

John B’s son, Billy Keane – an Irish Independent columnist – has also written extensively on the case. “Sixty years on, it’s still going on,” he tells Review. “People still fight over land. It goes on the whole time. Back then, it was news because it was a different Ireland, murders were very rare. The play kept it going and the movie kept it in the public eye even more.

“I walked every inch of that place before – it’s a godforsaken place… rushes and bad land. They fought over nothing of value really. It just shows you the level that people will fight over – you can trace it back to the Famine. There were a lot of evictions in north Kerry. It was probably a residue from that.”

Little remains today of the modest houses Foley and Moore lived in. The contentious field has become wildly overgrown, but it wasn’t always like that. “That field would have been in a very different state back then,” says a local man, who has lived in Reamore for decades. “They would have tended it as best they could to make some sort of living out of it.”

Week-long search

His walking companion, a local woman, says rural people in this part of Kerry had a very modest standard of living in the 1950s, and they had to enjoy simple pleasures, such as card games, whenever they could.

And it was after a card game in the home of Julia Collins that Moss Moore met his death. He left her house at about 10.30pm, carrying a bicycle lamp to help him negotiate his way home in the pitch blackness.

Despite a major search of the area, his body was not found for over a week – despite it lying in the stream that passed by his house. The local man who stops to talk with Review is not surprised and says that, even in recent times, it took considerable time to locate the body of a senior citizen from the community who had gone missing. He appeared to have fallen into a ravine.

After the state pathologist adjudged Moore to have died from strangulation, all eyes turned to Foley – who protested his innocence. And while gardaí could not prove their case against him, the court of popular opinion decided he was guilty.

Graffiti was written on the gable of a nearby creamery claiming Foley was responsible – “Boycott Dan Foley the Murderer” – and soon, nobody would have anything to do with him. He was unable to sell his milk to anyone. No local supplier would allow him to purchase seed. He and his wife Nora were effectively ostracised from the community.

A culture of fear ruled Reamore and the communities around it, and even those who might have felt Foley was innocent, risked being alienated if they spoke up. A makeshift sign, close to other ‘messages’ about the killing, warned that “the person who takes down this notice will be shot”.

And it wasn’t just ostracisation that Foley experienced. Even before Moore’s body was found, the windows of Foley’s house were shattered with gunfire, while later on a home-made bomb was placed close to his home.

Five years later, in 1963, Foley dropped dead of a heart attack while working in his field. Those who knew him said the final years of his life had been a living hell. His wife continued to live in the area until old age, according to the local man quoted above “and even after Foley’s death, some people continued to act strange with her”.

As the 50th anniversary of the murder approached, his nephew John Foley told local media that his uncle had been framed for a crime he didn’t do. “There is no question that he was framed,” he told the Kerryman newspaper in 2007. “There were those who used the situation for their own gain and two innocent people suffered as a consequence.

“The pressure placed on him with the boycott, and all the effort he had to go through in his daily life, put him under continuous strain. He was doing things all on his own, whereas he might have had the help of his neighbours before, and the whole thing climaxed on him and brought on his death.”

Another local, the late press photographer Pádraig Kennelly, also protested Foley’s innocence, having spent much time in his company after the murder. “I became convinced of his innocence and was satisfied that his reaction – ‘Let them go into court and swear their perjury’ – was what many independent-minded Kerrymen would have said in the circumstances. In my belief, the gardaí were too quick in accepting the boundary dispute as the cause of the murder.”

Even to this day, one can find people in this upland community, just 11km from Tralee, who have different views on Foley’s innocence.

Brian Devaney, a writer and Spain-based English teacher who grew up in north Kerry, has long been intrigued by the case and how it influenced one of Ireland’s most celebrated plays.

At the end of 2017, he published his first book, What Lies Beneath, a critical study on The Field – originally to be called The Field by the River – and its origins. “The roots of The Field lie in that story, a dispute over land and the power of community,” he tells Review. “And the power of communal law over ‘official’ law. “The play itself dramatises the local, the parochial and the insular, while simultaneously tapping into universal archetypes and paradigms, which have communicated with audiences all over.

“So, in effect, the drama of that real-life story has provided a vehicle to explore further avenues.”

Devaney believes Keane was inspired by “the raw humanity” of the case that was “exposed in all its shade and light”. And, he says, “the unsolved nature of the case and the inability of the police to penetrate the community also added to the dramatic nature of it.”

But he points out that the play deviates significantly from the events in Reamore. It’s not a local that the Bull McCabe kills, but rather a self-made ‘blow-in’.

“The victim in the play is an outsider,” he says. “Not only that, but he is a returning Irish emigrant, having done well for himself in England. By doing this, the nature of identification may be explored in the play as one interpretation of Irish identity [William Dee] is pitted against another more traditional one [Bull McCabe]. This exemplifies Keane’s talent in taking the local and transposing it to a much broader context.”

Jim Sheridan’s 1990 movie adaptation helped bring the story to a global audience and the plot deviates further from what happened in Reamore. The outsider, on this occasion, is an Irish American (played by Tom Berenger in the film). Richard Harris was Oscar-nominated for his star turn as the Bull.

Curious tourists

Billy Keane, meanwhile, says his mother Mary had grave misgivings about John B’s decision to write the play. “She had huge reservations about it,” he says. “There were a lot of threats made… letters, there was talk of a bomb maybe. My mam was scared of it. And when the movie came out, somebody wrote a letter to my dad to say that the whole thing would be dragged up again. Even all those years on, there was still tension over what had happened.”

Keane says his father had no regrets. “My dad was a great social campaigner. I think he wanted to show people that they shouldn’t be fighting over land, because these are the consequences. But I think he did it in a sympathetic way. He understood why they fought over land, because his mother had been involved in the War of Independence, and he knew that violence was used by immediate members of the family.”

And violence over land has not died with Moss Moore, he says. “Even in the pub, you’d see people coming in and they’d be on different sides of an argument about a bit of land, or a boundary or a ditch and you’d be watching them to make sure that nothing kicks off. It’ll go on forever.”

For Brian Devaney, The Field – which was first performed in the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in 1965 – was the play that elevated John B Keane’s stature. “He was regarded as being a bit of a country boy, only recognisable, as someone once said, by ‘the pinstripes on his wellingtons’.

“I think it wasn’t until the Ben Barnes version at the Abbey [in 1987], and when critics like Fintan O’Toole began taking him seriously, that he began to be a little more important in the canon. I would argue that he is still overlooked critically, as can be seen by the lack of critical literature on one of Ireland most popular writers of the last 60 to 70 years.”

The legacy of the killing of Moss Moore lives on due to being immortalised in art, and even still, members of media and curious tourists make the drive to Reamore to try to get a sense of a place that become notorious for all the wrong reasons.

“We’ve got used to it now,” the local woman quoted above says. “It’s something that happened here a long time ago and it will never be forgotten. But then, the killing of anyone should never be allowed to be forgotten.”

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