|Tuesday 17 April, 2001
Brian Keenan: Prisoner Turned Writer
In April of 1986, an unknown university teacher from Belfast was seized by Muslim gunmen in Beirut, Lebanon. Nearly five years later, Brian Keenan re-emerged as a free man. He had become “The Man from Beirut” and the world was anxious to watch his every movement.
He had survived his incarceration, chained to the walls of tiny cells, thanks in part to the companionship of 17th century harpist Turlough O'Carolan, who came to visit him - in his mind. The blind musician, considered by many as the father of Irish music, is the subject of Keenan's latest novel Turlough.
In a moving interview, Keenan speaks to Outlook about his relationship with Turlough - the companion he imagined; the harpist who helped keep him mentally and emotionally stable through prolonged times of solitude, pain and deprivation.
In 1985, Brian Keenan travelled to Beirut to teach literature at the American University. A year later, he was taken hostage. No group claimed responsibility for the abduction; he had virtually disappeared. Then, in 1988, French hostage Jean-Paul Kauffmann, who had been freed by the Islamic Jihad, assured Keenan was alive.
The Man From Beirut
Two years later, the Islamic Dawn Organisation, a front for the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad, released Keenan and he stepped back into the world. Unknowingly, he had become famous.
After four and a half years of deprivation he declared:
'I'm going to visit all the countries in the world, eat all the food in the world, drink all the drink in the world, make love, I hope, to all the women in the world…'
In reality, he took refuge in a house in Count Mayo, Ireland, lent to him by a priest whom he had never met, and hid away from the media, cut off from society and removed from a telephone or a television. It was under these conditions that he was able to start recording the experience of his abduction onto tape and attempted to make sense of his life.
|'A hostage is the humiliating stripping away of every sense and fibre of body and mind and spirit that make us what we are.' |
Prisoner Turned Writer
Then he produced his first book, An Evil Cradling, a best-selling account of his harrowing years as a hostage and his personal struggle to retain his sanity. His first title won several awards including the Irish Times Irish Literature Prize for Non-Fiction and the Time-Life PEN Award.
His second, a travel book entitled Beyond Extremes, was co-written with fellow former hostage John McCarthy and tells the story of their journey to Chile's Patagonia, where both men travelled and worked after their times as prisoners of the Jihad.
Recently, Keenan has published his first novel,Turlough, which brings together his time of captivity with the imagined personal life and loves of the harpist who was blinded by smallpox. Keenan chose to write about an Irish hero, lauded by his fellow men, and yet knew next to nothing about him. It was a difficult enterprise. Although plenty is known about O'Carolan's art and music, little has been established about his private life.
In an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian, Keenan acknowledged he was ill-prepared for the endeavour. He was neither an historian nor a musician. He couldn't play the harp and he wasn't blind. And to top it off, he had never written a work of fiction.
|'When one spends a long time in small dark spaces, a prolonged time of isolation where you see no one, and you hear no one, and you're in the dark, strangely people come to visit you. They come in to your mind from God knows…' |
'Why Turlough O'Carolan should choose to come to visit me, I don't know and I don't question. All I knew of the man previously was that he was blind, he played the harp and he lived in Ireland some centuries ago. Beyond that I could hardly whistle two tunes of any song or tune that he ever composed…'
Honouring A Debt
With so many apparent disadvantages, it is thus surprising that Keenan persisted. But he sees it as settling a debt and honouring one of two vows he took during his years of incarceration.
He would build a cottage in Ireland and he would write a fictional account on the personal life of the man who visited him in his cell in Beirut. He wanted to explore a complex character, a man he once described as 'devoutly religious' and 'a supposed womaniser', entering into his existence in order to bring him out of the darkness.
'My own sense of what's between these pages is that it's a debt of honour…If he hadn't been in the cell, I might still be locked up. It's somebody to talk to, it's somebody to focus your mind on, it's something to keep yourself sane or insane, I don't know if there's a difference between those two things…It's more than that, it's pushing back the walls by their imaginary presence.'
In his cell, Keenan couldn't summon O'Carolan at will. His imagined companion would appear randomly and populate his thoughts. He wasn't a physical presence but he was perceived as real.
'He came when he felt like it. I was a perfect receptacle for him to pour his story into…He became very real. [I had] conversations with the wall, the wall was talking back.'
Other people visited him too, in particular his father who had died three and a half years before what Keenan calls his “holidays” in Lebanon. But none were as persistent as O'Carolan.
'I needed him to be there, I chained him to the wall beside me, I took him hostage…My sense of it is that he had found somebody he could tell things to, whereas in his life, there were very few people he was intimate with.'
Now that he has honoured his debt, Keenan thinks he can begin to enjoy being a free man.
| Life At A Glance
|11 April 1986 - Muslim gunmen kidnap Irishman Brian Keenan in Beirut. No group claims responsibility for his abduction.
4 May 1988 - Islamic Jihad frees Frenchman Jean-Paul Kauffmann, who assures Keenan is alive and being held with another Western hostage, British journalist John McCarthy.
31 April 1990 - American hostage Frank Reed is released by the Islamic Dawn Organisation, a pro-Iranian group, and confirms Keenan and McCarthy are alive.
23 August 1990 – Iranian News Agency, IRNA, announces a hostage may soon be freed. No name is given.
24 August 1990 - Keenan is freed in Beirut and handed over to Syrian army officers.
25 August 1990 - Keenan meets Irish diplomats and flies home to Belfast.
1992 - Release of Keenan's account of his life in captivity, An Evil Cradling, published by Vintage.
1995 - Keenan marries a physiotherapist.
1999 – Publication of Between Extremes, a travel book co-written with fellow former hostage McCarthy which recounts their journey through Chile's vast Patagonia. It is published by Bantam Press.
2000 - Release of From An Evil Cradling, a seven minutes and 30 second short film based on Keenan's autobiography An Evil Cradling, directed by Keith Foran. Produced by Kavaleer Production.
2000 - Turlough, a fictionalised biography on 17th century blind Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan, is published by Jonathan Cape.