Friday, February 27, 2009
A life well-lived
February 27th 2009
I got word the other day that Eddie Keenan is dead. Eddie was 88. A few years ago when I was paying for petrol in a lonely garage in the west of Ireland who was in the place but Eddie and his old friend Cathal Holland. They had been up all night singing and swapping yarns and were now about buying bacon and eggs and bread and butter for breakfast for themselves and whatever household had had the privilege of their company. We three were delighted to see one and other.
‘A bullaí, Gerry’ Eddie exclaimed ‘Fear maith thú! Cad é an craic leatsa ar an mhaidin gheal seo?’
Good man yourself Gerry. What’s the craic with you on this bright morning?
‘Bhí muidinne ag damhsa an oíche ar fad’ explained Cathal as I eyed their slightly dishevelled appearance.
Cathal and Eddie are both small, white haired men. Both were in the eighties.
Still I wasn’t surprised to learn that they had been dancing all night. In fact with little or no encouragement from me they slipped into a set dance and footed the floor, lilting away seán nós style to the delight of everyone in the garage shop. That’s the way Eddie was. Cathal wasn’t much better.
Eddie was a singer, dancer, Irish language enthusiast and seanchaí – a story teller. I met him first when I was in my teens. I remember him singing ‘The Rocks of Bawn’ upstairs in a session in The Oul House here in west Belfast around 1968 or so. He was a fine singer with a huge repertoire of songs in Irish and English.
He was also a lovely man, good natured, funny and caring. He was a former political prisoner here in Belfast Prison. He was interned in November 1940 and seven months later along with four others they scaled the wall using a wooden hook and a rope of sheets.
One year later he attended a protest meeting in Dublin which had been called to protest against the execution of George Plant from Tipperary. Brendan Behan addressed the meeting. As he left the meeting Eddie was stopped and arrested. Brendan Behan was arrested the following night and the two were brought to Mountjoy prison together. Eddie was incarcerated in the Curragh where he learned Irish and spent some time with Máirtín Ó Cadhain.
Among other things Máirtín taught Eddie the Internationale in Irish.
Some time in the middle of all this Eddie married Mary – herself a former republican prisoner - and they raised five daughters and three sons. Eddie was among the first wave of men arrested under the internment swoops in August 1971. He spent almost a year in the cages of Long Kesh.
In July 1976 one of his daughters Rosaleen and her husband Mervyn were killed in their home by a unionist death squad.
Eddie and Mary bore all this with great grace and dignity. Eddie threw himself into the Irish language revival which surged in the north after the 1980s hunger strikes. He was also a stalwart at ceilís throughout the country, often taking dancers through their steps as the music and Eddie swirled around them.
Eddie became famous for singing a lovely wee come-all-ye called ‘I Was There’. Written by his friend Theresa Donnelly, this humourous but defiant song was performed by Eddie and Theresa’s husband Jackie, to acclaim everywhere progressives gathered.
Mary died last October. Eddie never fully recovered from that.
So now he is dead. Or as we say in Irish Eddie is on slí na fírinne – the way of truth.
He will be missed. By his family. Of course. Including grandchildren and great grand children.
And by everyone who knew him.
In an interview with An Phoblacht in December 1999 Eddie spoke of his optimism for the future. He said: “The greatest challenge we face will be dismantling sectarianism in the six counties. Unity of a land is nothing without unity of a people. That’s the real challenge. We’ve all come a long way and it isn’t over yet.”
Pictured are Geordie Shannon, myself, Eddie Keenan and Liam Hannaway.
Belfast Media Group picture shows Eddie blowing out the candles on his 84th birthday in February 2005.