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11 May 2022

Fergal Keane’s Diary: My fears for Northern Ireland, confronting PTSD, and the dog that keeps me on an even keel

Belfast was my first encounter with the violence humans inflict on each other – I am gripped by anxiety for our peace process.

By Fergal Keane

With age the ghosts of Dublin have become more daring. Crossing St Stephen’s Green at dusk I see my father – dead these past three decades – pointing to the statues of our doomed rebels Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, then pausing beside the bust of James Joyce. The writer is touching his chin with his left hand, contemplating the building that housed University College Dublin, his alma mater, on the other side of the green.

From there Joyce declared – via Stephen Dedalus, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – that he would embrace “silence, exile, and cunning”. I am suddenly carried back to a spring evening when I was a young boy in the late 1960s, skirting the duck feeders and the chattering lovers, listening to stories of rebels and writers, before life changed abruptly and I left Dublin and my father forever. That was another country.

Bound by violence

I am walking across the green to reach Iveagh House, the home of the Department of Foreign Affairs, where I am to present a literary prize. Among the assembled poets, pundits and historians there is much worry about the state of Anglo-Irish relations.

The Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize recognises work “that promotes and encourages peace and reconciliation in Ireland, a greater understanding between the peoples of Britain and Ireland, or closer cooperation between the partners of the European Community”. It is a reminder of what so many have sacrificed in the long entanglement between the countries. The prize is named in honour of a British ambassador murdered in Dublin. In the south, the killing of an ambassador was a very big deal. What would happen, we wondered at the time. Nothing did. Nobody was ever caught and convicted.

The prize goes to Gail McConnell, whose poetry sequence The Sun is Open is simply beautiful. It is wise and sad, and full of love. Gail writes of her prison officer father, William, who was murdered by the IRA in 1984. She was three years old and witnessed the killing with her mother.

Preserving the peace

At dinner, fortune smiles. I am seated between Gail and Anna Burns, whose novel Milkman won the Ewart-Biggs prize last time around, as well as the Booker Prize in 2018: she is as clever and engaging a dinner companion as she is a writer. The three of us talk about Belfast, the Troubles, and trauma.

I have just finished a BBC documentary on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and am writing a book on the subject. Belfast was my first encounter with the violence humans inflict on each other. Anna grew up in the nationalist area of Ardoyne in the north of Belfast during the Troubles, across the city from Gail in the predominantly unionist east. We recall the claustrophobic, nervy atmosphere of those days, waiting for the next killing, the way the sound of an explosion rolled across the estates on still nights.

Sitting there, I am gripped by anxiety for our peace process. After all this sorrow, the thousands murdered and maimed, it is a sacred thing. May those who are its custodians show urgency and see beyond the politics of now, to the Ireland – north and south – we want our grandchildren to inherit. As the poet John Hewitt urged, let them all “bear in mind these dead”.

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The solace of a spanador

Back to London and early morning and late night writing. The last weeks finishing a book are a trek through a swamp of panic. What have I forgotten? What should I leave in, leave out?

I am distracted constantly by thoughts of Ukraine. I think of friends there in the front-line towns of the east: Anatoly, the kind beekeeper of Peski, and his wife Svetlana, and long lunches around their kitchen table. Will I go back? Not to the east, where the fighting is happening. My nerves could not take it. But there are other ways to tell the stories of war.

Before I can start writing there is a daily ritual. Our two-year-old spanador (half spaniel, half Labrador) Deilo leaps from his basket and drags me across Barnes Common to the Thames. We bought him in the Welsh mountains. I asked the breeder what she had done in her previous life. “I was a combat medic in the army,” she said. But serving tours in Afghanistan and Iraq left her with PTSD.

So now she lives in the peace of the mountains, and the dog I got from her helps me through anxiety and bad dreams, and through the good days too, for they are many and bright.

“Fergal Keane: Living With PTSD” is available on BBC iPlayer. His book, “The Madness: A Farewell to War”, will be published by William Collins on 13 Octobe

[See also: Angela Rayner: “The smear that I am behind Mailgate shows how desperate Tory MPs are”]

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This article appears in the 11 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Stalling Starmer