Friday 22 June 2018

Brian Keenan: 'I don't know why people think I'm a surly recluse'

Twenty five after his release from captivity in Beirut, Brian Keenan tells Joe O'Shea about going to see his hero Van the Man play their home town, and his very normal family life in seaside Dublin

Focused on the future: Brian Keenan who gained his freedom in 1990, after a four-and-a-half-year hostage ordeal laughs that his two teenage boys are holding back his writing projects. Photo: Mark Condren
Focused on the future: Brian Keenan who gained his freedom in 1990, after a four-and-a-half-year hostage ordeal laughs that his two teenage boys are holding back his writing projects. Photo: Mark Condren
Brian Keenan following his release in 1990

Joe O'Shea

Brian Keenan will mark the 25th anniversary of his release from captivity in Beirut by watching his music idol celebrate one of his own, on the streets where they both grew up. Keenan, now living in Dublin, will be back in his native Belfast on August 31 to see Van Morrison perform a special concert on Cyprus Avenue, the leafy suburban street that was just a short walk (but a world away) from his own childhood home in the tight terraced streets of East Belfast.

It will be Van's 70th birthday. And just over 25 years to the day since Keenan came back into the world after four-and-a-half years of captivity in the hands of a radical Shia militia in the Lebanon.

"I suppose it's closing in the circle in a way," says Keenan.

"Van and I grew up a few streets from each other and Cyprus Avenue is well-known territory to the both of us.

''For us, it was this amazing place with trees and big houses, very different to the streets we knew only a short walk away. Van and myself both went to the same school and all the rest of it.

"So it'll be his 70th birthday and my 25th anniversary of coming home. And I can't think of a better way to mark it and a better place to celebrate it. It'll probably be a bit emotional."

Van Morrison's music and their shared childhood experiences mean more to Brian Keenan than just happy memories.

During the four-and-a-half years he spent in captivity in a series of underground cells in and around Beirut, Keenan would often "play" his favourite Morrison songs from memory and even teach them to fellow hostages including John McCarthy, who has since joked that after sharing a cell with the East Belfast man, he became something of a world expert on the life and works of Van the Man.

In An Evil Cradling, his acclaimed account of his years of being blind-folded, chained and often in solitary confinement in what amounted to bare dungeons, music also became a refuge and a way to raise his spirits and the morale of those western hostages who shared his fate.

While Keenan would often sing old Van Morrison songs, his fellow captive John McCarthy would perform almost silent Mick Jagger impersonations (their Jihadist guards preferred them to be silent).

Now living in Dún Laoghaire with his wife Audrey and their two teenage boys Cal and Jack, the 64-year-old former hostage says he is very much focused on the future, rather than thinking of the past.

But while he is looking to the years to come, he is also taking inspiration from those now receding into the past. And from the city and country that left him a "living corpse".

"I'm working on about three writing projects at the moment, and I'm not getting anywhere with any of them," he says with a deep chuckle at his failure to knuckle-down and meet his deadlines.

"In my defence, I've got two occasionally sulky teenage boys in the house, one who's just done his Junior Cert and the other heading into the anxiety of his Leaving Cert year.

"The big project, I'm working on a book of short stories - which should have been finished but it isn't - which are all based in Lebanon.

"I've been back three or four times on my own. And because I have a particular antenna for Lebanon, I go back there to see what the antenna is giving me".

Keenan says the title of the collection of short stories will be Ghost Gallery. And he has been deeply inspired by the "best Lebanese writer that I know, a guy called Elias Khoury".

"He writes like Tolstoy, a superb writer. The first time I went back, he had been interviewed by the New York Times. And a line in the interview from him stood out, when he said: 'There are many stories lying about the streets of Beirut and the hill villages of Lebanon, if people cared to pick them up'.

"I decided to take him at his word, travel around Lebanon and pick up, metaphorically, the stories that were lying in the street".

It was on August 24, 1990 that Brian Keenan finally tasted freedom after a long campaign by his family and friends to have him released.

The Belfast writer and teacher had been abducted by the radical Shia militia Islamic Jihad on April 11, 1986 and spent most of his time in captivity in chains, blindfolded and often in solitary confinement in a series of underground cells.

His release, after a long campaign by his two sisters Brenda and Elaine, backed by friends and supporters all over the world, became an international news story.

And the subsequent release of his friend and fellow hostage (and the longest held western hostage in Lebanon) John McCarthy a year later, saw the two men who had shared a cell and supported each other through a terrible ordeal, finally reunited in freedom.

Keenan had only been in Beirut for four months, teaching English at the American University, at the time of his abduction. And he had only decided to go after the death of his father.

While Margaret Thatcher's ­government held a strict and ­controversial "we don't negotiate with terrorists" line on the hostages, the fact that Keenan held both ­ British and Irish passports led the Irish government, through our embassy in Syria, to work on the Hafez Al-Assad regime to intervene with the militias.

When he was finally transported - by Syrian agents - from his prison in Lebanon to the capital Damascus, Keenan was released into the custody of the Irish ambassador at the time, Declan Connolly.

An Irish government jet had taken his two sisters to Syria so that they could be amongst the first to see him after his captivity.

He met his future wife Audrey while she was the physiotherapist charged with building back up his wasted muscles, and they married in 1993.

These days, he keeps a relatively low-profile, even though, as he says himself, "people always see me in the supermarket and come over for a chat".

"I don't know where people got the idea that I am some sort of surly recluse," he says.

"I just don't go chasing celebrity, I never have. I learnt, soon after I came back and I did go into a kind of hiding in the West of Ireland, that fame or notoriety can become its own kind of prison.

''And I have had enough of that."

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