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Brian Keenan visits HMP Magilligan

When our creative writing teacher told us that Brian Keenan was visiting the prison to speak to us it took me a minute or two rewinding through the murky archives of my mind… Brian Keenan…Brian Keenan… and although I was only a child when Brian was taken hostage in Beirut, I recalled his ordeal and an image of his pale and haggard face on the television flashed in my mind.

‘Here, Glen, take this book and have a read at it’ our teacher said as she handed me a softback copy. I looked at the title ‘An Evil Cradling’

I read the book in a prison cell. The green, steel door slammed behind me at six thirty and I threw myself on the bed and opened the book that was to change a part of me forever.

Days later, I felt compelled to compose a poem for this man; a homage to his honesty, vulnerability, his unbending Belfast bravery.

The day of Mr Keenan’s visit arrived. I half expected the younger Brian to come strutting through the prison visiting room. I hadn’t considered the years that had passed since his release. He had aged.

He wore a suit and sat at the table next to ours with an overcoat draped across his lap. His legs were crossed and his shoes were immaculate. Some of the prison guards flitted by and nodded at him. Governors stopped to shake his hand and engage in casual chit-chat. Mr Keenan seemed relaxed and content to meet and greet them all.

And then I noticed his eyes. (The mirror to the soul) I’d seen these eyes before; on the prison wings, in old friends, in the mirror…

Before Mr Keenan went to the microphone to speak to us, our creative writing teacher, Pamela read out the poem I had written for him just days after reading his book. I watched his face, his body language, his eyes… and then the man’s soul was there for the entire visiting room to see; tears welled as he absorbed the words of the poem. The look of fragility I’d noticed earlier faded and was replaced by that Belfast grit that saw him through five years of hell. He shook his head, stood up and straightened his suit trousers and walked towards the microphone at the top of the room to speak to us.

For me, all sound except the sound of his voice ceased; the whispers of prisoners to their loved ones, the whir of the fluorescent lights above, the opening and closing of doors as security officers flitted in and out of the room scanning for wrong-doings. The light straining through the windows became obsolete and even my wife and my Mother sat next to me weren’t there anymore.

My eyesight’s not great, but I could see the man’s body language, the look in his eyes. My breathing became ragged like his breathing through the micro-phone. I could almost hear the palpitations of Brian’s heart as he relived the memories of his ordeal I knew were as vivid in his mind as the memories of what he had had for dinner the previous evening. I knew…because I’d been there myself. Our souls and minds and palpitating heartbeats and ragged breathing connected.

Mr Keenan left. I returned to my prison cell.

The poem I wrote for Brian came from my heart. And I know it resonated within his. And it will live with me forever his reaction to those few verses. It showed me the connectivity of the human soul.

And…Brian, if you are reading this right now, I would like you to know something; your story, your words and the way in which you ordered and put them onto paper, have had a profound effect on my life and in the battle I have been fighting with the traumas of my past.

The letter you sent me afterwards, the picture you took from the wall of your study and sent to me with the message that you had replaced it with the poem I wrote for you; I shall never forget such a gesture.

But…it was one small sentence, chosen from the many thousands in your story, that has shone a light on the long road to my recovery; I see you looking through the window of that little house given to you by a friend, I see the look in your eyes as you begin to write, and then the words your fingertips tapped out that touched my soul and will remain with me forever, you said;

“My healing really began when I put my words on to paper”

I haven’t stopped writing since. And please know that every word, every paragraph and comma I ponder over….I dedicate to you.

PAF writer HMP Magilligan

Hear from Brian Keenan about his visit to Magilligan Prison

Hear Magilligan Prison Governor Andy Tosh highlight prisoners’ achievements in the Koestler Awards

Click here to read All Souls – For Brian Keenan