I wrote about my love of Van Morrison's music the other day - which reminded me of an interview I wrote about Brian Keenan - for one of the Sunday newspapers 10 years ago.
Brian Keenan went to school in Belfast with Van Morrison - which he told me at the time when I met him in the bar of the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh - where we chatted very amiably over a few glasses of good red wine.
Brian Keenan also went to school with another well-known public figure from Belfast - David Ervine - one of the key figures in reaching the Good Friday Agreement.
I interviewed David Ervine as well some time later - and I enjoyed the company of both men - so Van Morrison is the one that got away - for the moment at least.
So here's the interview I wrote after my meeting Brian Keenan.
If I can find it, I'll post the one with David Ervine as well though - sadly - David Ervine has since died.
Hope for everything, expect nothing
Brian Keenan was kidnapped and held hostage in the Lebanon for five years. He was chained like an animal, alone, in the dark, denied his freedom and, for much of the time, all human contact. “Hoping for everything, expecting nothing was the key to surviving”, says Keenan. The words would make a fitting epitaph for a man who is now very much alive and kicking, his life transformed by a mixture of tenacity and fate.
The horrors of Keenan’s captivity are described in ‘An Evil Cradling’. Published in 1992 this powerful book tells of the struggle to hold on to his sanity. “Most prisoners have their release date outside the cell doors”, says Brian. ”Mine was different. I was caged behind lots of different doors, but the finishing post was never in sight. Hoping without expecting was the only way to carry on. I had to find a source of inner strength I never knew existed”.
Smaller in stature than expected, Keenan looks an unlikely person to strike fear into armed guards. He has a slightly crumpled exterior and a ready smile, his manner calm and assured, watchful and attentive, drinking in his surroundings. Brought up in Belfast, from a Protestant working class background, Keenan has always retained a strong Irish identity. Hostages were kidnapped to punish America for its role in the Middle East; Britons became targets because of the Thatcher Government’s support for America’s bombing of Libya. Keenan was in Beirut only a few months before being bundled into the boot of a car, on his way the American University, where he taught. An innocent Irishman abroad was mistaken for an Englishman in a cruel twist of fate.
“The biggest problem was the sheer monotony”, says Keenan. ”The door opened every morning and I was allowed out to shower and use the toilet. After that I was locked up again for the rest of the day. No conversation, no friendly voices or human kindnesses, were allowed. I had to wear a blindfold all the time. The mind numbing routine never changed. The isolation was terrible; my only visitors were those who came unseen and unheard by the guards. I made them welcome, they became my friends; we would talk for hours. I held on to them, they pushed back my prison walls”.
“One of my visitors was Turlough Carolan, a blind harpist who lived and died in Ireland three centuries years ago. I knew little of the man, a few scraps of information from my youth, but for some reason he jumped into my mind. We talked and talked, about his music, Irish culture and history. I made him a promise: I would write his life story when I got home. I made one other promise which was to tell the tale of my captivity”.
Keenan was finally released from his living nightmare in 1990. For five years the Irish government had kept up the diplomatic pressure. The British Foreign Office, meanwhile, was accused of dragging its feet. Keenan continues to hold them in cold contempt. ”British politicians thought they could draw a line under things by welcoming the hostages back. The truth is they could and should have done more to get people home”, he says.
Keenan headed for Dublin as soon as he was released. He underwent a thorough health check where he met his future wife, Audrey, who was assigned as his physiotherapist. He describes their first encounter with affection. ”I thought I was in great shape. I exercised every day in my small confined space, countless press up and the like, and had the impression I was very fit. But Audrey brought me back to earth with the observation that while my muscle tone was OK, my coordination had gone all to hell.”
“I disappeared as soon as I finished the hospital checks. I headed for a remote cottage in Co. Mayo half way up a mountain where no one could find me, particularly the press. Offers to write my story had come flooding in, but I had already decided to do nothing until the others were released. I was worried about John McCarthy and the friends I’d left behind. I found it hard to live with the possibility of John being held on his own, without company or companionship. We grew very close in our shared hell, which must have been down to luck or something. Our sense of humour and different personalities clicked straight away. If they hadn’t, who knows what might have happened? As things turned out John was moved in with the remaining American hostages, though I had no way of knowing this at the time”.
“I threw myself into the kind of hard manual labour that’s good for body and soul, or mine at least. I wanted to be on my own; I craved the peace and solitude. I had no TV, radio or electricity or newspapers which I had been deprived of for so long. But I had a monkey on my shoulder. When the hostages came home it insisted that I kept my bargain and that I write the book that became ‘An Evil Cradling’. I didn’t know where to start or how. I had never written anything like a book before. I went for a drive and a walk along a desolate beach to summon up inspiration. Nothing stirred. On the way back I stopped at a ruined priory trying to call up my some of my old spirits. I scribbled notes down, words and headings, whatever came into my head and sorted them into piles back at the cottage.”
“I started to tell my story to a tape recorder and the words came pouring out, in a torrent. As I spoke, the tears were running down my face: I was listening to a man confronting his demons and I paused only for breath until I had finished both sides of four tapes. I decided to treat myself to a pint in a local bar and the barman, Seamus, asked me if I had been away. I looked relaxed, he told me, as though I had just got back from a good holiday. He was very observant; a great burden had just been lifted from me. After that, finishing the book was easy, like writing with a feather in my hand.”
Keenan continued his writing career once ‘A Evil Cradling’ had been published, but at his own pace. ”I am now in a very fortunate position: life is not a race for me, I can take the time to enjoy the journey”, he says. A travel book with his friend John McCarthy followed and has gone to the top of the best-seller list in the UK. ‘Between Extremes’ tells of their prison fantasy about starting a Yak farm in Patagonia (Southern Chile), which allowed them to escape the dreadful reality of their situation. They vowed to visit their make believe world after gaining their freedom, but it led to another strange occurrence.
On his return from Lebanon the first gift Brian received was a book of collected poems by Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner. “You can’t explain something like that”, he observes with a wry smile. ”Coincidence maybe, but no other living soul could have known of our fantasy world in South America, as we lay in chains in Beirut”. Neruda and his book of poems became a spirit guide for Keenan on his journey to Patagonia.
The last debt to pay is to the blind harpist, Turlough Carolan, who befriended Keenan in his darkest days. “I swore I would write his story, but it was like trying to describe the early life of Jesus Christ at times”, says Keenan. ”There were no records or witnesses. I had to find the child, start from scratch and piece the jigsaw together. Turlough fascinated me; he lit up my mind though I knew only a few bars of his music. Why he should have appeared is a mystery, but he got me through some very tough times; he helped me stay sane."
The book is finished and is being published as ‘Turlough’ a fictional account of the bard’s life. Keenan, just turned fifty, is proud of his achievement. He is at peace with himself and life generally. He lives outside Dublin now and is married with two young boys, 3 years and 10 months. His life has changed beyond all recognition as once it did before, but he looks forwards not back. He winces visibly at being asked to speculate about being separated from his new family.
The spell is broken as John McCarthy arrived with the news about ‘Between Extremes’ becoming top of the pops. He is Yin to Keenan’s Yang: slim, clean-shaven, the youthfulness of Peter Pan and dress sense of James Bond (Pierce Brosnan version). “Fate and friendship can take you on some extraordinary journeys” says Keenan. “I met John under incredible circumstances, but we have a gigantic level of understanding about ourselves and the human spirit. So, some good came of it after all”.
Mark A. Irvine