A friend of mine “introduced” me to Irish writer and broadcaster Fergal Keane in the late ’90s; his BBC Radio 4 broadcast of his emotional essay “Letter to Daniel” had recently caused an enormous stir the British Isles. (Forget the stiff upper lip; when a man waxes profound about his newborn, folks get a little worked up.)
Keane was born to Irish parents in London, but grew up in Ireland. His father was the locally famous radio and stage actor Éamonn Keane; more importantly to our story (his father’s career and alcoholism having made him nearly a stranger to the family), his uncle (and surrogate father) was the playwright and author John B. Keane. (His play The Field is one you might be familiar with; it was made into a 1990 movie starring Richard Harris, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. You should have a look.)
A way with words apparently ran in the family. Young Fergal started his career as a newspaper journalist, then moved to broadcast journalism, first with Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) and then the BBC, which sent him to South Africa, where he covered the end of apartheid. He made his name reporting the “hot” wars on the BBC and writing about them in the Independent, where he was a weekly columnist for years. If there was a war zone, Fergal Keane was there: Sierra Leone, Burma, Congo, Angola, Bosnia, Afghanistan, the genocide in Rwanda.
He also had a rep for getting too involved with his stories. “Keane has been scorched by criticism of his heart-on-sleeve broadcasting style and accused of believing he has a monopoly on the moral high ground,” the Telegraph’s Elizabeth Grice writes. “Some of his reports … have exposed his own feelings, it’s said, at the expense of professional detachment and a proper account of what is going on.”
Personally, I like that depth of involvement. I like that he cares. His writing is evocative, engaging, humane, and just gorgeous. He makes me cry. (But who wouldn’t cry about what happened in Rwanda in 1994?) Keane himself says, “The best correspondents for me are those who haven’t been afraid to be human.” Yes.
I’ve read two collections of his columns, Letter to Daniel and Letters Home, and his memoir, All of These People. I would recommend these, certainly. I don’t know if I can bear a whole book about Rwanda (Season of Blood) but I intend to try; Keane has said, “Rwanda was the defining experience of my adult life. … Nothing prepared me for what I saw in Rwanda.” He wrote some truly memorable columns in the aftermath of 9/11, including his first reaction on 13 September, “There is only one way to defeat such hatred.” That was eleven years ago today. And here is one about the IRA’s announcement, in late October 2001, that it would decommission its weapons. The line “A vast pasture of sacred cows has been dispatched to the abattoir” is classic Keane (read it a couple times to appreciate the craftsmanship).
Fergal Keane has given up chasing wars now—he’s won awards and accolades enough—and is doing more writing. Lucky us! Whether you’re a writer or a reader, I urge you to seek out his books.
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