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Where the devil has the best quotes: Fergal Keane interviewed

12 June 2024

Fergal Keane’s upbringing in Ireland and his exposure to war zones around the world shaped his view of religion, he tells Susan Gray

Fergal Keane

Fergal Keane

Fergal Keane

THE TV war reporter Fergal Keane spent his early years in Dublin, moving to Cork when his parents’ marriage ended. As a separated woman in the 1970s, his mother, Maura, had difficulty in finding employment, but the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne & Ross, Richard Perdue, suggested her for a teaching post at the Church of Ireland school where she went on to teach French for 40 years.

Protestants give a good disco, Mr Keane discovered. Or that was the case when he socialised as a teenager at that school, Cork Grammar School, while attending Presentation Brothers College for his own education.

“My introduction to school discos and to girls all took place courtesy of Protestant Ireland. Protestants seemed a lot more relaxed — I can only talk as a teenager meeting other teenagers and teenage girls. I was terrified of girls as a young Catholic boy, and I would go to discos at the Grammar School, and it was evolutionary for me. When you went to a dance in Catholic Ireland, the boys lined up on one side and the girls on the other; there was none of that.”

Of his own childhood, he says: “It wasn’t a typical Catholic upbringing. My parents were thoughtful and questioning; there was an anti-clerical strain in the Keanes, [his father was the actor Eamonn Keane, and his uncle the writer John B. Keane], and there was exposure to the southern Protestant world, which was very different to the Catholic world.”

Immersion in religion shines through in his writing, which is full of reflection on prayer, souls, redemption, and saviours. “The [spiritual] world in which I grew up has probably shaped me more than I realise, which, I stress, was not an exclusively Catholic world. It was influenced by my mother’s school’s Protestant tradition of questioning and dissenting. I’m only realising now the degree to which it shaped me. It’s about answering to your conscience.”

He started his journalistic career at the Limerick Chronicle, aged 18. In 1989, he began reporting from Northern Ireland, delving beneath the “tyranny of the dramatic” to show the effect of the Troubles on everyday life. His long involvement in reporting on Northern Ireland’s communities makes him reject assigning the roots of their conflicts to religion, posing the question: “Is the issue with faith itself, or those who manipulate it?”

Mr Keane continues: “I covered my first conflict in Northern Ireland, and I’m reminded of that line in The Merchant of Venice: ‘The devil cites scripture for his purpose.’ And many a place in the world I’ve seen that done, whether you’re talking about Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, or Orthodox Serbs versus Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats in the former Yugoslavia, or Muslim versus Jew in the Middle East, or different sects of Islam fighting in Iraq. It always strikes me that the fundamental driver of killing is fear and inherited resentments.

“And it takes human beings, not faith, to keep alive hatred and to keep resentments going. It takes human beings to inflict injustice, pain, and cruelty on others. And it is too much of a cop-out to say ‘I blame it all on religion.’ That allows us, people with freedom of choice, off the hook. There are many places where faith has been manipulated, used as a banner, a suit of armour, as something to drive people on to hate their neighbours.”

IN 1990, Mr Keane became the BBC’s South Africa correspondent, and went on to report from conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and the former Yugoslavia. Four years later, his investigation of the Rwandan genocide, Journey into Darkness, won an Amnesty International television prize. He says that, in the long aftermath of war, those involved sometimes employ the language of religion or the supernatural, to come to terms with their actions.

“Then you go back five or ten years later, as I did in Rwanda, and they’re still in a state of shock over what overcame them. In Rwanda, a lot of the people I spoke to who had participated in group massacres spoke in religious terms: they spoke of being taken over by the devil.

“One might say that that was self-serving: let go of my own responsibility and blame Satan. But it wasn’t entirely self-serving: this is how they really conceived what had happened to them. They were taken over by something — they were taken over by hatred, and they choose to put the word Satan on it. And that drove them to acts that, had they not lived in a society which wasn’t convulsed by fear, which wasn’t ruled by a cult which wanted to keep all power to itself — a murderous genocidal cult — they would have lived out their lives perfectly normally, probably never harming their neighbours.”

He says that, ultimately, it is always human beings who choose to commit atrocities or not. “It’s always more than an ethnic conflict, wherever you’re talking about. It’s terribly reductive when people talk about an ethnic conflict or a religious conflict. Get to the fear. There are many other factors, of course — economic, social, land — but it’s fear: fear of what the others will do, fear of what the others have taken away from us, or will take away from us, that drives people.”

Mr Keane’s inner battles with alcohol addiction, war-zone addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder are chronicled in his 2022 memoir The Madness: A memoir of war, fear and PTSD, and he says a bedrock of spiritual practices now keeps him well. He is also wary of defining himself by what he is not, and prefers to talk, spiritually, about what he is.

“I am someone who makes my own conscious contact, the best I can, with a higher power; who, having realised what an arse I was for so many years when I was a functioning alcoholic, and when I was in the grip of addiction to war zones, realised the mess I was capable of making. I’ve tried to find a way of living decently, day by day. A part of that involves prayer, meditation, and reflection. I’m a much more content person as a consequence. If you’d suggested that to me ten years ago, I’d never have thought it possible.”

HIS love of poetry is well known, and he enjoys the strong spiritual and religious inclination of the poets Gerard Manley Hopkins and the late Mary Oliver. He reads Teresa of Ávila, and her connection of our deeds with our souls, and declares the poetry of the Old Testament “quite magnificent, but I dip into the New Testament more than the Old”.

And he would be delighted to find an afterlife that is an improvement on earth.

“I read about the writing on a flak jacket in the Vietnam War, ‘When I die I’ll go to heaven, because I’ve spent my time in hell.’ I’ve been in a few hells. I do not believe in a vengeful God. I don’t believe in a God that will consign people to the flames. If I believe in an afterlife, it is the good that I do in this life, the kindness I show, that lives on in my children, and they will send to their children. And, if I depart and find myself in a better place, I will be very, very happy.”

Rejecting the term à la carte Catholic, Mr Keane says that he is a classic dipper in and out, attending churches all over the world where work takes him. “If I’m somewhere and I need somewhere for reflection, I don’t differentiate between a Catholic and a Protestant church. I will go and sit, reflect, meditate, pray, and feel better after 15 minutes, particularly if I’m feeling stressed.” He emphasises the necessity of an open mind and interfaith approach. “No faith owns the truth: that’s dangerous. I’m open to all who are tolerant to others.”

Going to mass at Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s former church in Soweto is seared on his memory. Was it special? “God, yes. In South Africa, you would go to mass in Soweto, at the height of the township violence, when thousands of people were being killed — just the sense of life. It was the church Desmond Tutu had been in when he was based in Soweto, and it was just electrifying — the sense of life and laughter.”

He later got to see the Nobel Prizewinner’s ministry up close in Northern Ireland. “I got to know Tutu when we did a series on Northern Ireland, Facing the Past. Every morning, he would have a service, which meant getting up at 6 a.m., before the day’s filming began, because that was his way. He wasn’t a man at that stage of his life you could shift out of his way. We were in a big country house, Ballywalter, and just being in that blessed space with him — that’s a really strong memory. It was prayerful and wonderfully enriching.”

MR KEANE’s children, Daniel and Katie, have been given a grounding in all faiths. “I’m a great believer in allowing people to make their own relationship with God or not. I encourage them to read about other faiths and make their own way; to know right from wrong; to have a dimension in their lives that is spiritual.”

And he sees the Christian message as being one of love. “When I talk to them about Christianity, I stress the message ‘Love one another.’ That’s what all the years in war zones have taught me: it’s the central message by which we must live. I’ve earned the right to say that: I’ve seen enough cruelty and barbarism to see that that is the essential truth.”

Fans of his unsparing memoir about his father’s alcoholism, and his own experiences of fear in war zones, and spells as a psychiatric inpatient, may be disappointed to hear that The Madness is his last autobiographical work. “My memory of childhood is mine. I cannot speak for others, or say they would have remembered things the same way. One of the core issues with memoir-writing is I have to say it in my voice, and nobody else’s. I think I’ve done memoir now, that part of my writing career is done. I’ve said all I have to say.”

He is now working on a history of the Elizabethan plantation of Ireland, and a novel set in the Irish Civil War. “After the last book, I went into a deep low, a really deep low, and people were saying ‘Was it cathartic to do that?’ Absolutely not: it stirred everything up, and I felt awful afterwards. Now, 18 months later, I feel it is something that’s done. Memoir is done, and I don’t need to do any more. Maybe that was cathartic. It didn’t feel it at the time, but it does now.”

Fergal Keane will be discussing
The Madness: A memoir of war, fear and PTSD at the Belfast Book Festival on 13 June.


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