Brian Keenan


Life
1950- ; b. Belfast; ed. NUU [now UUC], Coleraine, grad., BA Hons, 1974; MA in English Lit., 1985; taught in Beirut, and kidnapped by Hesbollah [Islamic Jihad, a fundamentalist Shia militia] and held in darkness with John McCarthy and others in the Balbac Valley, 1986; supported by a strenuous campaign by his sisters Elaine Spence and Brenda Gillham, based on his Irish citizenship, he was released on 24 Aug. 1990, and flown home on the Irish Govt. jet; issued An Evil Cradling (1992) an account of his confinement with other hostages, winner of Irish Times Literature award for non-fiction (1993), writer in residence, TCD, 1992- ;
 
Keenan has produced a series of programmes on the Troubles and the communities in the North, conducting interviews with Gerald Dawe, Jonathan Bardon and Maggie O’Kane in The Long War series (C4 TV); a horse-back journey in the middle-east with John McCarthy was written up as Between Extremes (1999); Turlough: A Novel (2000), was conceived as a debt to Toirbhdeallach Ó Cearbhalláin [Turlough Carolan] from whose spirit in the face of blindness he took comfort during his imprisonment; wrote a film of his experience, Blind Flight (premiered 9 April 2004), with Linus Roache and Ian Hart playing the parts of Keenan and John McCarthy respectively; returned to Beirut for BBC documentary, 2007,with his wife Audrey, and has sons Cal and Jack.

[ top ]

Works
An Evil Cradling (London: Hutchinson 1992; Arrow Vintage edn. [Random House] rep. 1993), 296pp.; Turlough (London; Jonathan Cape 2000), 333pp.; with John McCarthy, Between Extremes (London: Bantam 1999), 344pp.+16pp. pls. & col. ports., and Do. [rep.] rep. (London: Black Swan 2000), 392pp. [16 of pls.].

There is an Irish Times feature on his BBC documentary (IT, 13 Aug. 2007).

[ top ]

Commentary
Samir Al Khalil, ‘The Silence Broken’, review of An Evil Cradling, in Times Literary Supplement (12 March 1993): ‘.. in order ... to illuminate those darker reaches of the human spirit, they have to be described. This Keenan’s book achieves with grace, compelling honesty and deep humanity’.

[ top ]

Paul O’Mahony, ‘The Irish psyche imprisoned’, in A. Halliday and K. Coyle , eds., The Irish Journal of Psychology, ‘The Irish Psyche’ [Special Issue], Vol. 15, Nos. 2 & 3 (1994), pp.456-68, refers to An Evil Cradling: ‘It is also perhaps not a pure coincidence that it is an Irishman, Brian Keenan, who has provided one of the most enlightening accounts of the related experience of captivity as a hostage.’ (p.462).

[ top ]

Derek Hand, reviewing Turlough (Jonathan Cape), in Irish Times (30 Sept. 2000), writes, ‘O’Carolan is transformed in Keenan’s treatment of him into a figure important for his ability to make art out of everyday world, and, in so doing, remake that world anew.’ Hand writes: ‘At a time when grand narratives such as nationalism and artistic endeavour are all too cynically attacked and dismantled, it is refreshing to encounter a piece of writing that celebrates both [...].’

[ top ]

Quotations
An Evil Cradling
(1992): ‘For years I would not let the dark gods of politics and religion possess me. Unlike many of my age and background, I had made that mythic leap and crossed the Jordan. My Protestant working-class background and all its shibboleths would not contain me. I chose to ask questions and not accept ready made answers. We discover our own answers if we have the will to do so; and if we are not afraid of the confrontation with ourselves that such a journey might entail. / I am grateful for my particular background. I will not call it Protestant or Loyalist or British, for they are terms barely adequate to explain by understanding or perspective. The oft-quoted adage comes to mind: “mind concedes nothing to without a struggle.” There are those who “cross the Jordan” and seek out truth through a different experience from the one they are born to, and theirs is the greatest struggle. For here is the real conflict by which we move into manhood and maturity.’ (p.17) Further, ‘[in searching] the complex panorama of our past, one thing emerged again and again, our relationship to and understanding and experience of love underlay everything else [...] The experience of love was the stepladder up which we could climb.’ (Quoted by Michael Longley, speaking at the presentation of the 1993 Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize; see Fortnight, May 1993.)

[ top ]

Second Opinion’, writing on Frank McGuinness’s Someone ... &c ., in Irish Times [ Weekend] (8 May 1993): Keenan tells of his prior meetings with McGuinness when the play idea was a germ, there agreement that nothing would be presented until the hostages were free; and then his enthusiasm for the play, ‘.. with a pace and ferocity I had not expected, the play and its people blasted out of the shadows. A life-enhancing interaction of human souls becomes a substantial and fleshy thing. Frank McGuinness, with his words and imaginative power, walked into a place where angels fear to tread”. / The man had caught human frailty and worshipped it; to err is indeed delightfully human. It reveals us to ourselves and Frank McGuinness’s mirror was not faulted. There were more than a few moments when I choked back intense realisation. ‘He compares moments to Joyce’s epiphanies. ‘In these star-bright moments McGuinness hit on, with a playwright’s subtlety, guilt, love, loneliness, and all the gamut of emotions that make us, break us, and remake us. [...] He questions, for example, if the empowerment and loss of language can overcome absolute loss - when nothing is left but the flesh on our bones and perhaps a chain with which to rattle meaning.’ He particularly commends the letters-home device. Keenan finds in the phrase ‘possessed by my father’ a ‘hint[s] at the female echoing in us all.’ In the use of the Song of Songs, ‘again there was the unseen seam of the feminine sewing the parts together.’ The article ends emotionally with praise and thanks.

[ top ]

Turlough Keenan: Writing on his novel Turlough (Cape) in The Irish Times (7 Oct. 2000): ‘Isolation, deprivation and unending darkness. The classic unhingers of the mind. Add to this, a cell in which you can reach out and touch all four walls of your confinement without moving, then you will have found yourself tottering on the very bring of your known world and peering into chaos. / In this angel-fearful place, all manner of things percolate through the darm. The screams of someone being tortures [...] or the loud snores of someone who has found some refuge in a sleep so deep that even nightmares cannot enter in. But in a such a place all manner of things do enter. They people the darkeness and you can feel yourself suffocate with their imaginary breath upon your skin. […] During my long period of isolation I had many imaginary visitors, some fleeting, some remaining for days or [...] But the visitor I was determined would not go was a certain character named Turlough Carolan. Why he shoiuld come and why I should seize on him, I still, to this day, choose not to question. My only knowledge of the man was that he was blind; he played the harp and lived in Ireland several centuries ago. But I latched on to him like a flea on a dog’s ear.’ Further, ‘instead gf being draven insane [...] Turlough [...] gave me focus and purpose. I became fascinated by the complexity of the man, who in a sense I had kidnapped from out of thE ether and had chained beside me. [… &c.]’. Keenan admitted to John McCarthy after several months of captivity together that he had ‘imaginary conversations’ with Turlough: ‘McCarthy enjoyed the rigour of my intellectual, but sometimes slightly deranged, questions. [...] The clash of religion and politics in 18th-century Ireland had moved itself in the 20th century to our prison cell, with its Islamic zealo[t]s and revolutionary gunmen? Questions about alcohol and creativity opened up greater discussions about our different preferences in writers and artists. And so the debate went on, with old Turlough gently nudging us along, unseen but ever present’ Keenan speaks of letter from woman in an audience in Firbanks University, Alaska, who wrote to him describing Carolan as a Dreamwalker. Keenan calls the book ‘a debt of honour’, adding: ‘My own dignity, if it was to be worth anything, demanded that I pay up,, and the price was simply Carolan’s story’. ‘[I]f I have [...] put back the flesh on his bones [and] made him live again for a breif spell with [some] degree of sympathy and understanding, then I have repaid my debt [...] Even better still, I have unlocked the chains and let the monkey go!’

[ top ]

Cry freedom: ‘When Brian Keenan began writing a film about his experiences as a hostage in Lebanon, he found he hadn’t forgotten a single detail’, in The Guardian (Saturday, 20 March 2004 ), quoting: ‘One thing I did bring home with me from my captive years was the conviction that in the worst of all possible situations, the very best of what we are as human beings emerges. I was also anxious to reveal the “terrorists” who held us as prisoners themselves, chained to their guns, imprisoned by a worldview born of ignorance and fear, and driven by a psychotic religious zealotry that belonged in the dark ages. But the organisation behind the men who held us knew the power of television and used it to promote their cause. I, too, wanted to create my own visual exocet that would explode the easy definitions of “hostage” and “terrorist”.’ [Guardian Online; see full copy. ]

[ top ]

References
Ann Owens Weekes, ed., Attic Guide to Published Works of Irish Women Literary Writers, notes that Irish Times journalist Ann Maguire (1964-1992) wrote For Brian’s Sake (1992) on behalf of the sisters of Keenan.

[ top ]