“History has always been my great passion,” says Fergal Keane, the BBC television reporter who has recently become a professorial fellow in the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies.
“It was history that drew me to conflict, not the other way round. I have long been aware that conflicts have their roots in competing versions of history, and different groups trying to own competing narratives. Wherever I’ve reported from, I’ve always tried to ensure that the historical context is well understood.”
After failing French in his school leaving certificate - at that time an essential requirement for admission to an Irish university - Keane decided to go into journalism and got a job on the Limerick Leader before later switching to radio.
He joined the BBC as Northern Ireland correspondent in 1989, but was sent to South Africa the following year and soon shot to fame with his coverage of the closing days of apartheid and the genocide in Rwanda. He also wrote books on both these themes.
This set what has become the pattern of his life for almost 20 years. Although he has “made a vow I will no longer work in places where they shoot at me”, Keane still spends much of his time in conflict-ridden countries, “because that is where history is happening. I had to cover farm-price negotiations for the Irish press a lifetime ago, and it was the most tedious thing I’ve ever done.” Yet he is able to intersperse long periods on the road with stretches of time devoted to writing.
“There’s a part of me that always wishes I’d gone to university and had that kind of rigorous academic training,” reflects Keane of his new part- time role at Liverpool. “It couldn’t but have helped make me a more rounded and thoughtful journalist.” His latest book - an account of an episode during the war in Burma, Road of Bones: The Siege of Kohima 1944 - has also given him a taste for “the joys of archival research”.
So what can a journalist bring to the academic table?
Keane has already spent several days at Liverpool and given a seminar on the idea of a united Ireland, where he hopes “we were ahead of the game and the debate. That’s one of the things that you can do if you’re out there and not an academic, if you’re a journalist engaged with the major players. You can try and anticipate things and say: this is what we need to be discussing.”
Courage and convictions
He hopes shortly to bring an insider’s perspective to a masterclass on “the role of the media in improving and exacerbating the atmosphere during the Anglo-Irish war and Northern Ireland conflict, how the telling of the Irish story has changed and the impact that has had on the ground…Because of the caricatures of Paddy and Mr Punch we tend to overlook the role played by newspapers such as The Guardian and The Times in telling the true facts, bravely at times, of what was happening in Ireland…
“My general view, enhanced by watching the peace process in Northern Ireland, is that in responding to great moral issues, the politicians can be courageous - it’s the day-to-day niggly business of government that can make them seem small. Confrontation with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring peace tends to bring out the best in people. I’m sympathetic to them, more sympathetic than I might have been 20 years ago.”
More ambitious are plans for a larger conference and then a book of essays on the theme of Facing the Past, using the Irish experience as a basis for a much wider exploration of, as Keane says, “how countries with a serious history of violence have dealt with that past”. This should bring in academics and perhaps politicians from areas such as the Balkans, Latin America and Middle East. Keane hopes to offer “practical experience, wide reading and a knowledge of other countries that have gone through similar experiences so we can try to get a synthesis and larger view.
“I’m passionate about the whole issue of people’s sense of what their story is, why they hate other groups and how they deal with the past. You need to take that process apart, consider why the foundational myths are so important - deconstructing them might be the bravest thing we ever do.”
In the meantime, Keane is pursuing his broadcast work, noting how “the families divided by conflict” in Syria today remind him of other places where he has worked: “The younger generation are saying we are not putting up with this, while their parents, who have lived and prospered within the old system, see it as a source of their stability.
“It is like the township generation in South Africa who grew up after the 1976 riots and rejected what they saw as their parents’ massive acquiescence in the system. I see it as much more than just a human interest story.
“If the children of an educated elite can get into positions of power, they can act as some sort of bulwark or counterweight to the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.”
In parallel with this, Keane is working on a book provisionally titled The Golden World: The River That Flowed Everywhere. This uses the original Elizabethan settlement of Blackwater Valley, near where he grew up, as a way of exploring “the critical moment when the imperial project begins. We see Sir Walter Raleigh, with land in Ireland, casting himself out to the Americas. Another character called Humphrey Gilbert, who is a notorious slaughterer in Ireland, becomes the man who claims Newfoundland for the British Crown. My own connection is that my great-grandfather was an imperial policeman in the valley.”
Despite all these other commitments, Keane plans to be far more than a nominal presence at Liverpool, with “a door open to students who want to collar me, ask me to read things and make comments - I’ll do as much as I can”.
So how many students are taking the BA and MA courses there?
“I don’t know - and I’m not going to guess,” Keane responds with a smile. “That’s part of my new academic rigour.”