Brian Keenan - A journey beyond imagination


Needless to say, the Brian Keenan sitting across from me is different from the image of the emaciated hostage that went around the world when he was released. Today, he’s a fit-looking man, a badly healed broken nose the only remaining evidence of his physical torture.

His boyhood imagination became a valuable resource to draw on during his internment. He recalled books that he read and movies he’d seen and rewrote the endings in his head. As a child he had explored Belfast on his own, and as a teenager he’d hopped on trains, and in the darkness (for most of his internment he was blindfolded and chained) he recalled those journeys, which helped but didn’t always keep the insanity at bay. He explains: “You know that famous line from Milton ‘A mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’ – that’s what happened. The mind can take you places you really don’t want to go. It was very hard to deal with, and maybe the only way I could find to deal with that was to say, [‘It’s] okay if I’m going insane. So I’m going to go take myself there and I’m going to become more insane than sanity itself.’”

After several months in isolation Keenan was joined by John McCarthy an English journalist, who had been kidnapped shortly after Keenan. McCarthy recalled that first encounter in an 1999 interview with The Independent newspaper. “After a few hours we were laughing a lot. That was certainly a great relief. What surprised me was Brian’s reaction to the guards. He wasn’t going to take any nonsense. I was impressed, but also slightly frightened by it. These are the guys with the guns. We’d heard them beating people up, even killing someone. When he started standing up to the guards, saying ‘No, I’m not going to do this,’ or, ‘You’ve got to bring us food,’ I’d be thinking, let’s back off a bit. But it was very encouraging to me. . . . What Brian taught me was if you don’t address fear and fight it, then you’re lost.”

The two would become each other’s “buoyant lifeline.” Chained and blindfolded much of the time, held in confined spaces and moved 17 times in the dead of night tied up under trucks and in the boots of cars, suffocating from the tight mummy-like bindings, they were always relieved to find that they were still together when they reached their new location.
“He would be aware of when I was getting very frustrated or unfocused. He would use the medium of humor,” he said of McCarthy. And in turn, Keenan would do the same for him. “I knew intuitively when he was going down, he didn’t have to say anything or do anything. I knew when he was entering a dark place.”

The fact that McCarthy was English and Keenan was an ardent Irishman helped. “If I had been with somebody who was like myself, time would’ve passed very slowly, because you need validity of who you are through another person. So I would’ve got less validation because I would’ve had less to give.

“McCarthy’s difference meant he had more to give and I had more to give. The other curious thing is, John said the public school he went to, most of the lads either went to university or else they went into officer training in the British Army. He said at one time, ‘I could’ve been pointing down a gun at you or you at me.’ And we laughed about this. It made me banter with him like hell. And he would banter back, saying, you fucking Irish baboon. We were able to play – you know how important play is to kids, it takes you out of where you are. Well, that’s what happened. Two grown men had to learn to play again. He had just assumed I was an Irish Catholic nationalist, and about a year down the road I said, ‘John, I’m a Protestant’ and he said, ‘What?’”

A review in the English press said of An Evil Cradling, if you ever want to understand the Irish question you should read the story of Brian Keenan and John McCarthy.

“It is about validation,” Keenan said. “You need the other to validate who you are, what you are, or what you might aspire to be. You need another to listen to what you’re saying and you need to do the same with him.

The point he’s making is that a united Ireland “has to be a Republic of the heart, of the mind, of the word. It has to be a united place imaginatively brought together. Whatever might articulate itself in political terms or historical terms or visionary terms, I believe it’s the imagination that will create this [united place] and if you want imaginative Ireland you must go there first. Then begin to articulate it to the others.” 

Despite the destruction that the Troubles brought to the North, in the scale of things, it’s not as bad as other places Keenan has seen. “I’ve been to the Middle East, and other troubled places. And when I put them all together, the North doesn’t weigh too heavy, in a comparative sense. We’re not psychically hurt to the degree of some other people. I’ve walked through some places and Jesus, you know, I don’t know if those people can be rescued, if their humanity can be pulled up out of that very, very dark destroyed place that they are in and give them a sense of identity and purpose. At least we didn’t lose that,” he said.