Out To Lunch: Brian Keenan

Writer, survivor, inspiration - Brian Keenan returns home for a spot of lunch

Even after writing An Evil Cradling - the cathartic account of his time spent as a hostage in Beirut - Brian Keenan understandably had demons left to face. On revisiting the city in 2007 (where he was kidnapped and incarcerated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1990 whilst working there as a teacher), Keenan wrote in the Times: ’Although I had left Lebanon some 17 years ago, if had not left me.’

Now, those demons have been consigned to history - or a place, at least, where they no longer prey on the man’s daily thoughts. Of his captors, he insists: ‘I don’t think about them. I don’t wish ill on them… If I wanted Saiyed and Safi and Bilal all dead, then I would still be in that hole in the ground. I don’t. I kind of understand why they did the things they did.’

Keenan is in conversation with broadcaster William Crawley for the Out To Lunch series at Queen’s University. The Out To Lunch audience have never been so attentive, the Great Hall so cavernous or quiet - and Keenan himself, perhaps, never so forthright or garrulous.

Indeed, Keenan is now so comfortable with talking about his past that Crawley barely gets a word in edgeways - although the audience themselves are afforded the opportunity to ask their own questions at the end of the session.

Born in Belfast in 1950, Keenan recalls his ’ordinary’ childhood and the process of revisiting it for his latest book, commissioned by Johnathan Cape, entitled I’ll Tell My Ma: A Childhood Memoir. The book focuses on the years 1950 to 1965, before taking ‘a giant leap forward to the last few months of my mother’s life’.

Characteristically (for a Belfast man) Keenan refers to his captivity as his ‘holidays’ in Lebanon, and describes the different approaches to writing both books, the first of which he dictated into a tape recorder, the second of which he typed.

‘When I sat down to think about [writing An Evil Cradling], I thought, “How can you write about a time in which nothing happens, but everything happens?”’

After a difficult, unproductive struggle with note taking, Keenan ’tore all of the pages out of the book, laid them on the bed and switched on the tape recorder… It was like Vesuvius coming out of [me]… From then on I just worked with tapes… The tape gave me the immediacy of experience and the cleanness of me talking out of that place that written words wouldn’t have done.’

Memory is a strong theme throughout, as Keenan explains the process behind writing his second memoir - a story of 'plague dead in the cemetries, the family dead in the scrapbooks, a witches box discovered under the stairs, the giant bonfires every 12th of July to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne'.

I'll Tell My Ma was an exercise in recollection for Keenan, a challenge he was well prepared for. He recalls travelling home from his 'holidays' in Lebanon 'with this absolute firm conviction, which no-one has been able to dissuade me of, that the mind forgets nothing.'

How Keenan met and fell in love with his wife Audrey Doyle (whom he married in 1993) is a particularly poignant reminiscence. ‘I liked the woman,' remarks Keenan. 'I liked that we had similar interests in music and stuff, but there was another thing that happens which I was probably unconscious of. In a way, Audrey was the first person [who] laid hands on me physically with tenderness... [In] my life previous to that, touch was brutal and unkind.'

Certainly one of the most revealing conversations in the Out To Lunch series thus far, Brian Keenan needed no prompting from Crawley - 'I only got three questions in!' Crawley bemoans good-naturedly at the end - as will no doubt be the case with the next subject, one Ian Paisley Snr.