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Fergal Keane: 'My grandmum joined the IRA and my great-grandfather was an RIC sergeant'

Fergal Keane, one of the BBC's most celebrated foreign correspondents, talks to Barry Egan about his new book which examines how the conflict of the past in Ireland affected those involved, the legacy of seeing atrocities at first-hand as a reporter and why he stopped drinking


BBC special correspondent Fergal Keane at Whiting Bay, Ardmore, Co Waterford

BBC special correspondent Fergal Keane at Whiting Bay, Ardmore, Co Waterford

The young reporter with his wife Anne and their baby son Daniel

The young reporter with his wife Anne and their baby son Daniel

Fergal Keane has reported from troubled places such as Rwanda and South Africa and the Darfur region

Fergal Keane has reported from troubled places such as Rwanda and South Africa and the Darfur region

Fergal Keane has reported from troubled places such as Rwanda and South Africa and the Darfur region

Fergal Keane has reported from troubled places such as Rwanda and South Africa and the Darfur region


BBC special correspondent Fergal Keane at Whiting Bay, Ardmore, Co Waterford

I missed my train back to Dublin. Over three hours one afternoon in Cork, Fergal Keane had so much to say - and a way of saying it - that time got away from us. Primarily because the man I expected, unfairly, to be a bit of (as he says himself) "a hand-wringing bleeding heart" - and therefore not at all funny - turned out to be, in fact, very funny...

"I believe the lighter side is far stronger than the dark," he says. "If you were to speak with my friends, I don't believe they would describe a haunted, introspective person. I like bracing debate with friends. I was trained as a reporter on the Limerick Leader, where no pretension was tolerated and the junior in the office was on the receiving end of much ribald slagging.

He met Clare-born reporter Anne Flaherty in Limerick and married her. They have two children, 21-year-old Daniel, and 14-year-old Holly, adopted from an orphanage in southern China in 2005.

Keane is meeting his mother Maura and Holly later in Cork city. Eighty-two years of age "and going strong", Maura Hassett hitchhiked around Europe at the age of 18 - "a great adventure for a young Irishwoman in the 1950s". He describes her as "determined, passionate about what she believes".

Keane believes he inherited that same determination about what he believes from her, as well as "a love of language and the importance of trying to see both sides of an argument, to be fair-minded. I also got her stamina. She is a formidable figure".

As was Fergal's father, Eamonn, who died of a heart attack in Kerry in 1993. Fergal broke down in tears when I asked him about his father. "I often hear his voice in mine," he says.

Born on January 6, 1961, the eldest of four children, Fergal comes from two families (Hassetts and Keanes), who "both burst with a love of life, who love to joke and sing, who are close and loyal". Fergal tells of the Keanes' heightened sense of mischief and a detestation of pretence.

"I like to play guitar and sing and, occasionally, try to resurrect my career as a rock 'n' roller," he adds. "The last time out was my 50th birthday when we put a band together and lashed out Rolling Stones covers - Jumpin' Jack Flash, You Can't Always Get What You Want, among them - at a marquee in Ardmore."

Keane was here in Cork ostensibly to declaim his views on Wounds: A Memoir of War and Love, his haunting and bloody story of the Irish people enmeshed in the revolution in Ireland that followed the 1916 Rising, and in the ruthless violence of civil war in north Kerry and beyond after the British left in 1922.

Wounds tells the story of Fergal's grandmother Hannah Purtill, her brother Mick and his friend Con Brosnan. Along with their neighbours, they picked up guns to fight the British Empire and forge an independent Ireland.

Wounds is also the story of Tobias O'Sullivan, a 38-year-old married man with three young kids, an Irish Catholic from Cornamona in Co Galway. A District Inspector of the Royal Irish Constabulary, he was murdered on January 20, 1921, by an IRA unit that, says Keane, "included a family friend with whom my grandmother and her brother had soldiered".

But first, I am curious about Keane's own wounds.

"You don't spend decades of your life often looking at the worst people can do to each other without creating scar tissue of your own," he reveals. "That said, I went into war reporting escaping older wounds. A lot of my childhood was defined by conflict."

I ask him to explain what he meant when he said his childhood was "defined by conflict". The break-up of his parents' marriage, following their separation in 1972? His late father's alcoholism?

"Conflict around and within me," he answers. "It came with the territory of alcoholism."

Keane adds that "all of life is about processing the past and present", and he is not sure the pain of childhood was ever buried. It manifested itself in anxiety and melancholy, in facial tics that are still there - "the twitches in the face. But it also gave me a pretty fierce determination to achieve my goals and an understanding of suffering. I think I learned to read people's emotions very early on."

Asked about the personal toll his work has had on him - the killing of innocents in conflicts around the world, from Rwanda to Kosovo to South Africa to Darfur he has witnessed - Keane says that he is always wary about this, "because I am acutely conscious of the toll on those who cannot get on a plane and leave the war zone. I can. I could also access therapy. I have seen some terrible things."

Keane, one of the BBC's best known foreign correspondents, was named overall winner of the Amnesty International Press Awards in 1993. A year later, he won an Amnesty television prize for his investigation of the Rwandan genocide, Journey into Darkness, and received an OBE in 1996 for services to journalism.

"I have seen hatred, the war in Rwanda and other places, in the north of Ireland too," he says. "What messes with my head is that most of the time the people doing the killing and torturing are not psychopaths. They are people who can go home to their families at the end of a day of butchering and carry on normal lives.

"I would say the psychological effect has been at times a wearing away of my capacity for hope in humanity. That and nightmares which come and go. Sometimes the dead revisit in the middle of the night, faces and voices from years ago. I am also hyper-vigilant. Sudden loud noises terrify me and set my heart racing."

"But," he adds, "I really don't want to sound like a martyr here. I made the choice to go and keep going to these places."

The book searches for a deeper sense of personal history that made this colonial war but Wounds also seems to be searching for a deeper sense of the author.

"I was constantly seeing the links between the violence of the revolution and the wars I have spent my adult life reporting on," he says. "Also I kept wondering how I would have acted in 1920, the same year my grandmother became fully active in the IRA. I am sure I would probably have been swept up in the revolutionary fervour of the time."

Keane kept thinking about this young woman "who came from a typical conservative farming family and who in this period of rapid change found herself risking her life in the cause of her nation". Keane also thought of his great-grandfather, Patrick Hassett, who had been a sergeant in the RIC and "of how he had chosen to serve under the British empire". The past is complex," he says, "personal and public."

Keane posits the question of how do people live with the act of killing? But how does he himself live with it? "I have never killed so there is a level of knowledge that I don't have," he says. "But I have seen how people make their accommodations with past violence.

"The most common - and you find this with people who have killed in all wars - is the rationale that you were following orders as part of an army in the service of a noble cause. That was certainly what most of those who fought in 1919-23 believed."

But memories of Keane's own wars are still vivid. "There are many images locked away in my brain," he adds. The dead of all ages and races. Mutilated. Burned. Shot. Piled up. Left to rot. War is obscenity."

Keane deals with those awful memories, he reveals, "in a number of ways. You don't self-medicate. That is the road to destruction. There is nothing in my head that wouldn't be made 10 times worse by drinking. I deal with the memories of war by remembering the great people I've been privileged to meet over the years. I also compartmentalise. I make a real effort to try and be present in the place and moment that I am in".

Keane once said he drank "like a dog". He says now: "I think the drinking was in me. I don't blame anybody for that. It was part of my make-up from the day I was born. I also think the life on the road in war zones was heavily conducive to heavy drinking, particularly in the early 1990s before the explosion of social media and much more constant demands on your time."

Keane stopped drinking because "those close to me were brave and loving enough to be honest with me and wanted me to stop before it got a really heavy grip. I was still highly functioning and still winning awards, so it would have been easy to delude myself that everything was okay. It didn't feel that way inside, and that is why I gave up."

As a child, Keane insists he was a mixed character: "I was shy as a younger kid. I tended to withdraw into books, into my secret world of adventures and far away places. I was a dreamer. The older I got, the performance gene kicked in ... I became a debater at school. I formed a rock band. I wrote short stories and poetry. I felt ambition growing in me. I felt I had things to say, stories to tell, places I needed to see."

So what would the young Fergal Keane would think of him now? "He would be glad I had survived," he says.

His book Wounds deconstructs how people and nations live with "the blood that follows deeds - a story that, in one country or another, I have been trying to tell for the last 30 years but not, until now, in my own place. It has been a journey of unwilling ghosts," meaning that his grandmother and her brother left behind no diaries or letters.

In terms of the legacy of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath - appalling, pitiless blood-letting with neighbour turning on neighbour, brother against brother - Keane believes "civil wars are the most intimately vicious conflicts of all. I've seen that in so many countries. For a start, the sense of threat that comes from somebody who lives close to you is inevitably greater. Also, the sense of betrayal when the close neighbour is your enemy and has perhaps once been your ally.

"And there is also the dimension of how resentments fester in small communities. Buried grievances over land, past injustices. It is toxic territory when the shooting starts."

Munster rugby is his religion. But does Keane believe in God? "I believe that God is love, the power of love in our lives," he says. "So, yes by, that definition I do. But I am always mindful of Graham Greene's great line from The Quiet American, when the main character is asked if he believes in God and replies, 'God is for leader writers. I'm a reporter'."

I assume that his lack of faith in a conventional idea of God is because if there is a God, where was he at Rwanda or Auschwitz?

"Well, love was absent among the killers in Rwanda," says Keane. "But it was present in the people who hid those fleeing the violence. It was there in those who sacrificed themselves to save others. It is there in every squatter camp I visit, in every home broken by war. People keep going not because they have no other choice but because they love.

"Let me tell you a story about that. In 1972, my grandmother's beloved son Michael was killed in a fire in New York city. He had been due to come home for good later that year. It shattered my beautiful grandmother.

"I remember a terrible silence in the house for days and how she retreated to her bedroom. We were living with her at the time - and then one day, she came out of her room and went into the kitchen and began to prepare food. In this way, she signalled her love for us meant she could not do what so many would have done, retreat into depression and prolonged withdrawn mourning. I am awestruck still by that gesture of pure love."

In his book Letters Home in 1999, Keane remembered the exact moment at the age of 12 when his parents broke up.

"Behind the bedroom door you are sleeping," he wrote. "I can hear your snores rattling down the stairs to our ruined sitting-room. Here among the broken chairs, the overturned Christmas tree, we are preparing to leave you. We are breaking away from you, Da."

Does he ever regret writing those words? "It was a poem filled with pain," he says, "the pain of a younger man struggling to find someone he loved and had lost, a young man also fighting to find himself, a man a long way from healing.

"Would I put that level of personal pain - not only mine but of others - into print in such an intensely focused way now? No, I don't believe I would."

Fergal Keane's new book, Wounds: Memoir of War and Love, is published by HarperCollins

Belfast Telegraph