It’s early morning in the upscale café in the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan. Not my usual hangout, but having spent two days immersed in Brian Keenan’s book An Evil Cradling, the story of his almost five years as a hostage in Beirut, it seems fitting, since it’s my treat, that we breakfast in nice surroundings.
Seated opposite me, barely touching his pancakes, Keenan, 58, speaks in a soft Belfast accent. He is in good spirits, but a little abashed at the reaction to a talk he gave at a conference the day before.
Many of the audience members had been moved to tears by his stories, and his vision of a united Ireland, which he said “must be a place of imagination, intellectual not political.” He received a standing ovation.
Asked why he got such a reaction from the 700 plus audience, gathered for a Unite Ireland Conference hosted by Sinn Féin, Keenan explains: “When I was asked to do it I said yes instinctively. When I sat down to prepare for it I realized, holy God, how can you take five centuries of trouble, despair and a bloodbath and bring it to a place in fifteen minutes? And so I had to go back to my stories. I knew it had to be a very personal thing because we’re all engaged with this personally whatever our politics might be.”
The stories that Keenan told – about the taunting of the only Catholic boy who lived on his street; about an old Protestant woman crying on learning of Bloody Sunday; about a Catholic barman breaking in a pair of shoes for Keenan’s father so he could walk more easily in a July 12th Orange Parade – were very effective in putting a human face on the Troubles. Pete Hamill, the American writer who moderated the conference, and talked about people like his own Belfast-born parents “being hurt out of Ireland,” was among those visibly moved by Keenan’s stories, which are now included with other stories in a newly released memoir of Keenan’s childhood, I’ll Tell Me Ma.
Much has been made of the fact that Keenan was born into an Ulster Protestant family and brought up in a strict sectarianism culture. He explains why he escaped contamination.
“My dad was an Orangeman but he was a socialist in his own way, he had very strong views on it. He was the most unusual Irishman, I can tell you. Well, he was a Mason. My mother had a kind of Mother Earth thing going. She was always doing things for the neighbors. You know the way working class women do.” She also sent the minister “the hell away” from the door when he called to complain that the young Keenan was asking too many “awkward questions” at Sunday school. “I didn’t have all that church contamination. My father and mother whenever [questionable] things came up weren’t too taken aback, and neither was I, consequently.”
Asked about his story of stopping his buddies from taunting a Catholic boy, he said: “It was this kind of intuitive thing that kids have about what’s just and what’s fair. And [the boy’s] sense of alienation mirrored something that was articulating back to me in an unspoken way. There were lines of psychological and emotional connection. One was about justice and one was about being different. And he mirrored me and I mirrored him and it couldn’t have been a reason thing at that age.” Brian explained further: “I suppose I always was a reflective child. I wasn’t like the other kids. I had what’s called buck teeth, very prominent teeth. So I got called names like Bugs Bunny, which didn’t seem to bother me. Your mates are still your mates (‘Listen, Bugsy’). It really only bothered me once girls came onto the scene ‘because who’s gonna kiss you, man?’ And I didn’t play football and if I was picked I was the last person picked to play. So I read books.”
The first book he read was Jack London’s Call of the Wild. And half a century later he says he can remember it. “I was about nine when I read it. While my mates were out kicking a football or robbing orchards I was reading Jack London and running with a pack of wolves. So I suppose I was quiet, reflective in that sense. I got a lot of compensation out of taking myself other places or going other places imaginatively. Imagination was always a buoyant lifebelt I wore.”
Keenan left school at fourteen to become a heating engineer. Later he decided to become a teacher and enrolled at university. In 1986, at age 30, he found himself at loose ends; his friends were all getting married, and he decided that he needed a change of scene. “I was tired of the intransigeance, the backward mess, the terrible sense of stoppage, politically and socially. I’m saying that about myself on a personal level too. I wasn’t married. I didn’t have a job.”
He applied for a position to teach English at the American University in Beruit and was accepted. Four months into his contract, in April 1986, he was kidnapped by fundamentalist Shi’ite militiamen and held hostage, apparently because they believed he was British. Despite pleas from the Irish Embassy in Beirut (he was traveling on an Irish passport) and an active campaign put together by his two sisters back in Belfast, he remained hostage for almost five years until he was finally released into Syrian custody in August, 1990.