I’ll Tell Me Ma– book review

Along with John McCarthy, Brian Keenan spent four and a half years in captivity in Beirut.  Isolated from the world, frequently blind-folded, transported in car boots, never knowing if he would be alive on the morrow, Keenan survived an experience which would have broken many.  The immediate literary result was An Evil Cradling.  At Aye Write, the Glasgow Book Festival, Keenan spoke of his new book, the story of his boyhood, I’ll Tell Me Ma (Jonathan Cape, £16.99).

It was as moving a performance as the book itself.  Keenan is warm, voluble, enthusiastic, emotional, a man who reaches out to whomever will listen to or read what he has to say.  He told the audience that the book was the story of his boyhood but the central figure was his mother and he shocked the audience by stating that he did not like her.  It’s not what an admiring audience expects from a much admired man who is so obviously kind, affectionate and loving but it drew every listener up short.

The book is a series of vivid snapshots of boyhood in two Protestant, working class communities in Belfast.  Although no sectarian bigot (far from it!) Keenan is rooted in the culture of the skilled Protestant tradesmen, hard and unforgiving but with a work ethic second to none.  His father was a kind, warmer character than his mother.  He had served in the RAF during the war and had seen the world.  He had a regular job as a telecommunications engineer.  He had a sense of justice and a sympathy for wounded things and young Keenan inherited these in good measure.  He made model aeroplanes with the young Keenan, took him to the park, the cinema and the market and nurtured the boy.  In the first instance however the memories are of place of time.

I’ll Tell Me Ma tells the tales of the neighbours, including the pigeon keeper who initiates him into the mysteries of the birds and the magical cinema projectionist.  Keenan recounts the tales of Sunday School and of holidays in the country.  He recalls how he was never a sporty lad but was always in love with words and images.  His growth through boyhood is marked by great adventures including his working on Saturdays at the docks, unloading pigs from the boats. The long weeks leading to the 12th of July and the bonfire are recalled with the affection of a memory of innocence but Keenan became aware of the darker side of Orange parades and bonfires and ultimately rejected that tradition before he could enter it as an adult.

Growing up in a skilled but far from affluent background in the 1950s and 60s, Keenan did not suffer from abject poverty but it was a world where affection was limited and seldom demonstrated openly.  Keenan’s mother was the daughter of a remote, authoritarian father and had been the oldest child in her family and had had to grow up young and take on responsibilities beyond her age.  She had worked in the linen mills, had been a powerful voice for her fellow working women and, in marriage, was a tower of strength for the women of her neighbourhood.  She was also a cyclone of ceaseless domestic energy.  She was a fighter, for herself and for others, but particularly for women.   There was also an always present pain which the young Keenan only gradually understood.  As well as his older and his younger sister, there had been another baby, a stillborn son for whom she still grieved and hurt.

The book takes us through young Keenan’s experiences at Orangefield, a progressive secondary school in East Belfast and then jumps decades.  It returns to Belfast, after what Keenan calls his ‘holiday in Lebanon’, as his mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is slowly fading out life.  She had forgotten her late husband.  She often could not recall her son but, even close to the end, her determination was still apparent.  One of her doctors, noting that determination, said to Keenan that he had read his book about Beirut.  ‘Now I know where your strength comes from.’ Her memories were from her childhood and youth and as they tumbled out in disorder and confusion, as she simultaneously shrank into herself and lost herself, Keenan came to know his mother for the first time.  ‘Only fools believe the umbilical cord is ever truly severed.’

Brian Keenan’s wise and witty book is a powerful work of self-reflection, of reconciliation and of love.  That a man who suffered so much can produce a work so life affirming is a credit to his nurturing father, to his determined, cyclonic mother but also to his own humour, strength and creativity.

I’ll Tell Me Ma: A Childhood Memoir is available here from Amazon

Published by

Alex Wood

Alex Wood has had a varied career in education. He started as an English teacher at Edinburgh’s Craigroyston High School in 1973 and completed his school-based work as Head Teacher at Wester Hailes Education Centre in 2011. In between he worked in community education, was a Learning Support teacher, headed a behaviour support unit, was Head of a special school and worked in Edinburgh’s Education headquarters. He is a member of the Education Committee of St George’s School. Alex is now an Associate at the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration (SCSSA) at Moray House and is Secretary of the Scottish Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society (SELMAS) as well as being a free-lance writer. His experience however ranges well beyond the worlds of schools and education. For seven years in the 1980s he was an elected member of Edinburgh District Council and he retains a keen interest in the political world. He has a long involvement in genealogy and family history, as a researcher, teacher and writer. He is a member of Edinburgh Common Purpose’s Advisory Group and of the committee of Linlithgow Book Festival. Although he has lived in Linlithgow for over 20 years, and in Edinburgh for the previous 18 years, he remains a loyal fan of his home town football club, Brechin City.

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