Tuesday 25 June 2019

Diary: Fergal Keane

Bright future: City Hall in Belfast. The city has come a long way since the signing of the historic Anglo-Irish Agreement
Bright future: City Hall in Belfast. The city has come a long way since the signing of the historic Anglo-Irish Agreement

Fergal Keane

I don't take well to immobility. My nature is too restless. But here in my bed in the Ulster Hospital in east Belfast I am becalmed. There is nothing too seriously wrong but an ailment substantial enough to warrant confinement for a week.

It has been 36 years since I last lay in a hospital bed. That was in Jervis Street one hot summer in the early 1980s. I had a broken ankle and lay in a ward full of old men who had - in Paddy Kavanagh's phrase - "fallen in love with death".

There was a double amputee who harangued the nurses for their perceived failures (they were living saints every one, but could not satisfy our angry friend) and a long-term patient who had been transferred from Grangegorman psychiatric hospital and prayed loudly into the night. Long into the night. I felt as if I would never escape. The nurses opened the windows to relieve the heat. In came the noise of buses, trucks, street traders, seagulls.

I remember that summer in Dublin and my longing to break free, to be out and across the river and heading down the quays to Heuston Station and the train south, free to roll across the Midlands and into the Golden Vale to Cork. I had never quite made my peace with Dublin. It was the city of my childhood but a place febrile with ghosts where I was always conscious of the echo of troubled ancestral voices.

All of that came back last week. I had gone to Belfast to accept a prize and before the night was out found myself sitting in A&E with a swollen leg and a sinking feeling that I would not leave the premises for some days. An old man lay groaning on a bed "crucified", as he put it, with arthritis, with his hands shaking because of some deeper, more ominous affliction. There was a young couple with a wheezing baby, a girl pale and shivering and folded inwards away from the world, lost in some private misery, and all the time, through the hours after midnight the methodical business of the hospital went on. Patients were called, assessed, placed in order of medical importance, reassured, taken care of.

I was in a bed by 3am and in the care of the best people you could hope to find: nurses from the Newtownards Road, Fermanagh and the Philippines, support staff from Slovakia and Bangor and Kerala. The doctors were all young and friendly and willing to answer questions.

Do you remember the consultants of old? That secret society of the patrician and the aloof, from whom fragments of information were extracted under extreme duress. This past week I have experienced the very best of a public health service. Long may it last.

No matter how benevolent were my hosts they could not assuage the tedium of confinement. But here is where an old association saved the day. Several days. Back when I first came North, the year before the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, I made the acquaintance of a taxi driver by the name of Ken Kelly. Ken was an east Belfast Protestant who drove me to every corner of the north, blagging his way past loyalist checkpoints and deep into republican west Belfast on days when many other taxi drivers stayed at home for fear of hijacking or worse. He was the first Ulster Protestant I would befriend and through him I escaped the trap of seeing those northern brothers of ours entirely through a narrow prism of bowler-hatted bigotry. Ken was irreverent. He cursed all sides. He scorned the absurdities of tribal politics. By instinct, he was a dealmaker and wasn't bothered what flag you flew. I left the North for distant places at the beginning of the 1990s. But Ken stayed in touch. He was a better friend than I was. He had consistency.

When I think of what made the Good Friday Agreement happen the larger-than-life figure of Ken Kelly always comes into mind. Beyond the high and low politics there were the thousands of citizens like Ken who stayed the course in the North, the great 'middle' tribe of the civilised without whose generosity and faith the peace would never have been made.

Ken pitched up at my bedside in Dundonald last week. We laughed so much my aching body rebelled. He told the story of the time he took a woman on a date to the Lion Park in Portrush - a long-lost attraction of the Troubles era - and one of the beasts bit the tyre on his car, leaving him trapped, surrounded by the ravening beasts until they were driven off by the stone-throwing yokels who ran the park.

Ken was there to pick me up yesterday when I was discharged. He drove me down the Ormeau Road where I had once listened to the rattle of helicopters and Orange drums in the marching season and covered sectarian murder and riots.

But the confessional geography had altered beyond my imagining. New arrivals from China, Eastern Europe and Africa had opened shops and small businesses. I had come out of hospital hobbling on a crutch, feeling a bit worn and forlorn. There will be more of this, I thought, as the years progress. The old man shaking in A&E came back to mind.

But now, out in the air and sunlight of a new Belfast and laughing with Ken I could indulge my lifelong talent for avoiding the harsher truths. It is easy in the company of a great friend. To hell with my ailments, I thought. I'll hobble to hell and back if I need to. And I will do it smiling.

Fergal Keane, a BBC Special Correspondent, was awarded the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize for his book Wounds

Sunday Independent

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