Entertainment Books

Sunday 16 June 2019

Absorbing tale reliving a political odyssey

Autobiography: Nothing is Written in Stone, The Notebooks of Justin Keating , edited by Barbara Hussey & Anna Kealy, The Lilliput Press, €20

'Nothing is Written in Stone' forms a brilliant self-portrait of Justin Keating, a man whose vision of Ireland and the world is of enduring relevance
'Nothing is Written in Stone' forms a brilliant self-portrait of Justin Keating, a man whose vision of Ireland and the world is of enduring relevance
Deirdre Conroy

Deirdre Conroy

A politician who is a humanist and atheist, qualified as a vet and established as a farmer, a documentary maker and broadcaster, twice married, could surely not have been involved in Irish politics?

The rare breed of man that was Justin Keating (1930-2009) is conveyed in eloquent, passionate and humorous tone through his notebooks, as if a voice from the grave is reminding the reader that little has changed in Irish politics since the 1950s, but encouraging change for the better.

He lets rip in the chapter on Women, Religion and Sexuality. With the recent controversy over religious orders in mother and baby homes, and maternity hospitals, his comments on de Valera and Archbishop McQuaid are as relevant today as they were in the Free State. He describes the new State under their influence as “bigoted and Church-dominated” and that ‘‘the Church expected and encouraged the parents of unmarried pregnant daughters to drive her from her home to hide her shame in a city or abroad”.

His prescience is evident in other topics, he understood the need to nurture the earth before environmental legislation was introduced, he acknowledges the importance of a federal Europe, observes corruption in An Garda Siochana and callous extremities of the Irish Catholic Church, even the decline of the United States is addressed. 

Keating was also a senator, scientist and journalist who wrote a regular column for the Sunday Independent, and was appointed Labour Party Minister for Industry and Commerce in 1973. As the son of the great Irish romantic-realist painter, Sean Keating and his radical-left mother, May, it is not surprising his vision was way beyond his time. Fellow politicians — about whom he candidly engages — include Noel Browne, Sean MacBride, Garret FitzGerald, Charles Haughey and Conor Cruise O’Brien.

John Boorman recalls that Keating was, “so far removed from the tribalism and village pump politics of Ireland of the day that one wondered how on earth he had got into government”. He was Boorman’s hero since the film director was preparing to shoot Zardoz at Ardmore Studios with Charlotte Rampling and Sean Connery. With the Troubles in the North at the time, importation of guns, even as props for a movie, was banned. The carpenters at the studio were also on strike, so Boorman turned in desperation to the newly appointed minister. Keating, ultimately, bought the studio for Ireland. 

His narrative voice is vivid and conversational and he comes across as an empathic intellectual with no holds barred. In the chapter ‘Snakes and Ladders’ he mourns his decision to leave vibrant London in 1955 and return to a stagnant Dublin where he joined the veterinary college in Ballsbridge. He was distraught at the haphazard faculty, run by civil servants from the Department of Agriculture, with no serious budget or direction. In the alternative, his praise for architect, Andy Devane, who designed his house in Tallaght, is superlative. He describes Devane as “one of the noblest, kindest and generally most decent men I ever met”. Devane was also one of the most devout Catholics that Keating had ever met, and after the traumatic death of his wife, Devane gave up architecture and went to work with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Of the nun, Keating was inclined to agree with Christopher Hitchens, and wrote: “I think she is a phoney, more concerned with snatching souls than with saving bodies.” As an atheist, he felt that Judaism, Christianity and Islam demonstrated a hatred of women.

And that, because of the ‘sin of Eve’, women were condemned to bring forth children in pain and danger.

When he and Loretta decided to have children back in the 1950s, they began investigating ‘painless childbirth’ and discovered the book L’Accouchement sans Douleur by Dr Fernand Lamaze. They managed to practice the technique, which involved the father being present at childbirth, something that really only began to occur in the late 1980s. Love is an enduring theme in his notes, there is much detail about his youthful marriage and his three children, and his last 17 years with Barbara Hussey.

While still in his 40s, Keating was diagnosed with Paget’s disease, a progressive, destructive and very painful bone condition, resulting in “deafness, damage to the heart and the loss of his balance at times”.

He died a few days before his 80th birthday and at the heart of his posthumous message is a reminder for each of us to continuously question the set of assumptions and beliefs we were born into: our paradigm. “It is a point of honour,” he says, “not to remain ‘true to my beliefs’. On the contrary: the honour lies — if you show me better — in changing”.

It is perhaps a sad reflection on Irish politics today that such advocates for social justice will never run the gauntlet of an election campaign. Keating was one of Ireland’s most outward looking intellectuals. The type we are at a loss without today.

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