THE PLACE THAT CHANGED ME: BRIAN KEENAN
The former hostage and now author looks for inner peace on the western edge of Ireland
Sunday 26 September 1999
As a child I left home before I left home. Other kids were playing football but I kept taking the bus to Holywood, the port a few miles outside Belfast. What did I do with the hours there? I really don't know. I think I just walked around the harbour looking at the sea and the boats. Later, I got into hitchhiking, up to the north Antrim coast, walking the beaches and the hills. I had no special destination. I just wanted to go as far as I could go.
People think that Lebanon must be the place that changed me, but I don't think so. The place that changed me was not a place out there. It was a place inside me. What Beirut did was open up my interior vistas. For four and a half years I travelled a subconscious landscape. All those days and days mulling over things and retreating into my shell. I was trying to find an emotional compass point.
At that time I didn't have the equipment for it. When I was kidnapped in Beirut I had been on my way to Australia, New Zealand and China. But what for? I didn't know. In Lebanon I began to understand that what I wanted was not a place outside me at all.
When, eventually, I came home to Ireland I spent three months driving round looking for a place to settle. I remember the simple thing that a friend told me after I had asked him where I should live. He said: "You'll know when you find it."
After my release, I spent all the time driving around, foolishly. I was so unaccustomed to hearing music in those days that when I drove I used to dance on the pedals. One day I ended up in County Mayo near Westport, driving by Croaghpatrick, the oldest, holiest mountain in Ireland. As I came over the brow, I saw the cone of the hill. But it was triangular and covered in snow. It didn't look Irish at all, but Asian. I really took a deep breath. This did not feel like the west of Ireland. Where was I? Not in a place I expected to be.
I kept returning to Westport without really knowing why. I felt as though it had chosen me, rather than me it. I began to see landscape for the first time. I became alert to the bigness of small things, like strange shapes on the foreshore. My eyes had suddenly become microscopes and tiny things underwent miraculous transformations.
I was offered a priest's cottage and I began to stay there. There was no television or radio, nothing to pull my compass point into the wrong position. But I soon began to feel very unsettled again. Things about it reminded me of places where I had been held in Lebanon. There were noises outside, then nothing. White walls and sticks of furniture, a few candles.
One night I felt very trapped and uneasy, so I walked out looking for help. It was at the back of Croaghpatrick, which looked so black. I felt an awful loneliness. Then I looked up and saw the sky ablaze with stars. I felt that I wasn't alone. I can't comprehend the universe but it did seem to be laying its hand on me in its own way.
I used to spend a lot of time driving through the Doolough Valley. It's edged by two very bleak mountainsides. In the old famine days peasants tried to walk through it in the hope of getting to the coffin ships that would take them to America.
I could really sense these people all around me. Skeletal, barefoot, naked. They would never find help, but just trudge back to die. Sometimes, while I was there, I saw the wind snarling through the hills. It seemed to pick up the water of the lake. I am told that the wind sometimes used to pick people up and throw them into the water. But whole families must have been glad to die there. Why should people receive death with joy? The whole area seems to embody the question. But not in a fierce way. As a gentle place of sorrow.
Once in the Doolough I saw the wind lift up the surface of the water of the lake in a spiral, 12ft or 15ft high. The sunlight caught it, like a dazzling column. You can understand why rural people are religious. Croaghpatrick was holy long before Christianity. It doesn't need my sullied feet on it.
I had a friend, a painter. He was always up walking in the hills, then coming down with muck up to the eyeballs. One day I asked him where he had been. He said he had found an old graveyard up there, 150 years old. "You know what I found?" he said. "There's a Keenan up there. A stone with your name on it."
How could I think of leaving this place? I seemed to belong here. The famine land was pulling me into it. It wasn't the politics of the story that agitated me, just the pain.
Weeks later I was still having restless urges. Then the barman in my local pub told me a strange story about an old woman of the area, who had recently died. This woman, he told me, once had as neighbours a family with a son called Brian. And years ago, the family had all left and gone to England.
So, when this woman started reading news reports about a Brian Keenan who was being held hostage in Lebanon, she for some reason became convinced that this Brian was the same one she had known. And so she prayed for him three times daily. In fact, it wasn't really me she was praying for. But the barman said to me: "Brian, it was really you."
I felt like this was the place addressing me, again. It was my inner compass point, pointing. Something saying to me, without shouting, this was home.
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