Brian Keenan

Brian Keenan launches his novel Turlough
Courtesy of Nobber Harp Festival Committee
Brian Keenan with Tony and Anne Finnegan
Courtesy of Nobber Harp Festival Committee

It is remarkable that in the year 2000 a writer from the Protestant Unionist tradition of Northern Ireland should find himself repaying a debt to Turlough Carolan. Yet that is what Brian Keenan does in his novel, Turlough, launched at the Festival of 2000, in Nobber

As a hostage of Muslim fundamentalists for four and half years in Beirut, Keenan was haunted and sustained in imagination by the presence of Carolan. Keenan describes graphically the unending darkness, isolation and deprivation of his narrow cell. His loneliness was relieved only by chance ghosts of the fragile mind. Carolan was one of these, and Keenan found himself strangely drawn to him. Sometimes he would hear Carolan whisper to him excitedly "you see now, do you still not understand?" And even if Keenan did not rationally understand, he felt emotionally as if he grasped the reality of Carolan.

After some months of being held with John McCarthy, the British hostage, Keenan began to discuss with him his ghostly companion, Carolan. The clash of politics and religion in Carolan's Ireland was acutely resonant for them in that prison cell, under guard by Islamic zealots and revolutionary gunmen.

The book on Carolan was one Keenan never really believed he would write. However, even in freedom, Carolan continued to pursue him. Driving once in Leitrim, the writer took a wrong turn and ended up in Mohill. Rounding a corner, he came face to face with a large bronze sculpture of Turlough Carolan, sitting on a rough-hewn stone. Later on, while lecturing on writing in Alaska, he mentioned the difficulty he felt in writing the Carolan story: He was no musician; he had sight; he knew no Irish, and Carolan spoke little else. How was he to find an imaginative approach to encompass the whole of Carolan's life, remain true to historical fact and endow the character with emotional and psychological vitality?

The solution came by sheer chance. An Innuit woman, who had heard Keenan speak, wrote informing him that Carolan was a Dreamwalker. The writer then realised he had been visited by Carolan for a reason. Carolan had walked in Keenan's dreams and enriched them. "He threw his own special light into my dark place. So if I was to do justice to his story, if I was to put flesh on the myth of the musician, if I was to reveal the man in all his faulted complexity, then I needed only to reveal his dreams."

Keenan's achievement was to disinter from the grave of history this human being who seemed to him a perfect metaphor for the age in which he lived. In making Carolan live again through his novel, he had a sense of having repaid his debt to a man who kept him sane, as he insanely explored his story, in the dark isolation of a Lebanese dungeon. Keenan movingly evokes for us the redemptive inspirational power of Carolan's legend at the end of the twentieth century.

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