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21 February 2008 Edition

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Le ChÉile Ulster Honouree : Brian Keenan

A revolutionary strategist

BRIAN KEENAN, from Belfast, is the 2008 Le Chéile honouree for Ulster. Brian was one of the IRA’s foremost strategists for most of the last 40 years. He was one of the first and longest-serving activists to live his life on the run, being sought by the British crown forces shortly after he joined the IRA. He spent much of his time on the run in the occupied Six Counties, living with supporters. Brian spent 16 years in Special Secure Units (SSUs) in various jails in England. He spoke to JIM GIBNEY ahead of the Le Chéile celebration.

BRIAN KEENAN, now in his late 60s, joined the IRA in 1968. He devoted himself to the Army and to the struggle for independence while being a husband and a father of six children.
On the run from the British forces for 27 years, he did not live at home with his wife, Chrissie, and their children. He went home to live with his family in 1995 for the first time since 1968 after coming out of jail in England.
Born at the start of the Second World War on Belfast’s New Lodge Road, Brian’s family home was bombed by the German Luftwaffe. The family spent the remainder of the war living in South Derry. They did so without their father, Harry, who spent the war as a member of the RAF based at Packlington in England. From there the RAF ran regular bombing raids on Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe.
Brian’s father was awarded a medal for bravery when he and a colleague saved the crew of a bomb-laden aeroplane which had crash-landed on take-off. 
One of life’s interesting twists of fate is that Packlington aerodrome became the site on which Full Sutton Prison was built. Brian’s father would have walked the base on duty – as indeed did Brian many years later when he was held in Full Sutton as a political prisoner. Their feet traversed the same piece of ground separated by nearly 40 years of time and two entirely different types of war.
Brian’s family lost two homes in those wars: the first at the hands of the Luftwaffe, the second at the hands of loyalists when they forced his mother, Jean, and father to leave their Belfast home in early 1969. This was also the first time that Brian carried a gun. With other IRA Volunteers, he protected his family and brought them to safety.
As a youth growing up in Belfast, Brian experienced the raw sectarianism that led a group of loyalists to his parents’ home with a death threat.
He is a Gael and played hurling. He carried his hurl with him, especially when he was training at the GAA’s Corrigan Park on Belfast’s Falls Road. To get there he had to cross the Shankill and Springfield roads. The hurl was a magnet for the attention of sectarian bigots and Brian was often attacked.
The influences which shaped the young Brian Keenan’s outlook were the social conscience of his father, his interest in GAA sports and trade unions.
Republicanism did not come into Brian’s life until his mid-20s when the Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy.
Brian’s father involved himself in community politics and housing issues; GAA interests satisfied Brian’s nationally-minded views and membership of a union helped fashion his class perspective on life.
It was the interplay between his class analysis of society and his republicanism which endured the challenges of being a leader of the IRA since 1968.
Capitalism, the exploitation of working-class people, and British imperialism were the source of Ireland’s problems back in the 1960s and Brian believes they remain so to this day. For him, republicanism should be an ideology grounded socially and economically in a radical alternative to what currently exists.
Brian’s introduction to the violent nature of the Six-County state happened in 1964, the same day the RUC attacked Sinn Féin’s election office on the Falls Road to remove a Tricolour at the behest of a young firebrand preacher named Ian Paisley.
He was coming home from a night out with a friend when they were set upon by an RUC patrol. They were beaten, charged with assaulting police officers and sentenced to three months or an £85 fine. Unable to pay the fine, Brian spent two weeks in Crumlin Road Jail until the fine was paid.
The late 1960s was a time of great upheaval for the people of this country. The Civil Rights Movement brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets of the Six Counties.
At that stage the IRA was practically non-existent and was going through a transformation after the failure of the 1956-62 Border Campaign. The IRA leaders of the time appeared not to realise the impending crisis and the extent of the violent threat that was coming from the unionist state towards the Catholic people as a result of their support for the Civil Rights campaign.
The split in the IRA made a bad situation worse. In Brian Keenan’s assessment, the split was a disaster for the Republican Movement and the struggle for civil and national rights. He is convinced the split was personality driven  – although there were political issues, ego had a big part to play.
Out of the chaos of the time, IRA leaders like Brian Keenan emerged to reorganise the IRA, prepare it for war and set it on a course of armed struggle that would last for 25 years.
“Those were incredible days,” Brian recalls. “All of a sudden, the IRA was in your street, your next-door neighbour was in the IRA, and your mate’s son was in the IRA. The community were the IRA.”
It was a time when the IRA did what needed to be done and were right to do so.
Had it not been for people like Brian Keenan with a singular focus on establishing the IRA as a formidable fighting force, the opportunity created by the popular uprising of the nationalists in the Six Counties might well have fizzled out after a few years.
Looking back on those years his greatest admiration is for the people who took to the streets in support of civil rights, those who supported the IRA, individual Volunteers who made the IRA the force it was, those who died in the ranks of Óglaigh na hÉireann, and the heroic sacrifice of the 12 hunger strikers, the prisoners in the H-Blocks and Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg.
Brian’s life in the Army would have been made much more difficult without the support he got from his wife, Chrissie, and his children on the outside but particularly while he was in jail.
“My family is well adjusted, socially conscious and involved in things that matter. I obviously regret not being with Chrissie and the kids when they were growing up. For many families and for my family it was a nightmare.”
So is revolutionary life worth it in the long run, given its negative impact on family life?
“I would do it all again – but not make the same mistakes.”

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
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