Eoghan Harris: In Memory of Justin Keating and What Was Serious Politics
by Eoghan Harris, Sunday Independent January 03 2010
FIVE patriots died over the New Year: Cahal Daly, Dermot Nally, Michael Dwyer, Dick Hill, Justin Keating. Whether as clerics, civil servants, film critics, broadcasters or politicians, all five took the public sphere seriously. All of them improved Irish public life.
Alas I was not lucky enough to meet either Daly or Nally. And while I respected Michael Dwyer as a film critic, I did not know him well enough to write anything exceptional about him. Dick Hill was close to me and I hope to write about him another week. This week I want to share some memories of Justin Keating.
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We first met in RTE in 1968. He was the famous television presenter of Telefis Feirme, and I was one of three turbulent young producers (others were Sean O Mordha, Brian MacLochlainn and Dick Hill) whose ambition was to transform the Irish imagination through television.
Apart from being in awe of his republican and socialist credentials, he also struck me as indifferent to respectable opinion. This quality was caught well by a confidential report from the American Embassy which remarked that Keating's marriage to Loretta Wine, a beautiful Jewish woman from a famous Dublin family, was "slightly unusual in the Irish context, where most people marry within their religious communities".
We met on a fortnightly programme called Work, to which I had been assigned following my resignation from 7 Days, which had been transferred to the news division in what was perceived as an attempt to inhibit its investigative edge. Fortnightly programmes were dead ends, punishment postings for troublesome producers. I was determined to change all that.
But when Justin and myself set out for Bantry, to look into the workings of Gulf Oil at Whiddy, I was amazed to find that the presenter was more radical than myself. The result was that while 7 Days did an anodyne film about the arrival of the tanker Universe Ireland, Work gave such a sharp profit-and-loss report that the programme was censored for a week before it was finally transmitted.
Nothing bonds like a shared battle. After that, despite our later disagreements on everything from Northern Ireland to Israel, Justin and myself felt we were on the same side. Above all, we shared an antipathy to Charles Haughey.
This antipathy ante-dated the Arms Trial and had more to do with Haughey's mohair-suited Taca mafia than with his nationalist politics. And it links to my second memory and a story that gave Justin much grim amusement.
* * * * *
In 1969, on the eve of the General Election, I met Professor Sean O Tuama of UCC on the Cork train. The papers that day reported that Justin had offered to sell some of his zoned land in north Dublin to the county council at agricultural prices. By contrast, Charles Haughey, who was also flogging some land, was demanding top dollar. Thrilled by Justin's selfless gesture I priggishly informed O Tuama that Keating would head the poll at the forthcoming election. O Tuama tartly told me that the Irish people still shared the values of peasant proprietorship, would consider anybody who did not sell his land for the highest price to be a complete fool, and would give Justin no thanks for his grand gesture. As Justin acknowledged to me, O Tuama turned out to be right.
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Justin's father, Sean Keating, the famous painter, once wrote: "The results of licence are awful -- but not so awful as the results of complacency, and immunity from the necessity to defend a point of view. For this reason I would promote discussions and controversies on everything under the sun, and the more controversies the better. One never knows how much illumination can come out of a royal row until one has had it."
That was his son's view as well. Unlike most Irish people, Justin could have a "royal row" with you while observing all the decencies of public discourse. I can recall three examples of this. The first was in 1989 when I published a pamphlet called The Necessity of Social Democracy in which, after some soul-searching, I rejected socialism
The ideas were immediately buried beneath the personal abuse which is the bane of Irish polemics. Only two commentators -- Fintan O'Toole and Justin Keating -- welcomed a debate on the issues involved, while not giving up their own beliefs. Our debate is still worth accessing in the Irish Times archive.
* * * * *
In 1997 I presented a Frontline programme for Channel 4 which rejected the grip of my respected grandfather's 1916 generation on Irish nationalism. In the course of it I offered a caustic commentary, from the Crawford Gallery in Cork, on Sean Keating's famous painting of an IRA column, The Men of the South.
Singled out for special sarcastic mention was the figure of an IRA intellectual dandling a revolver and wearing a foppish neck scarf. To me it summed up the radical chic republicanism of those upper-class IRA types I would later call Ailesbury Road republicans -- the fanatical egomaniacs like Ernie O'Malley and Sean Moylan who were educated enough to move beyond brute nationalism but never did so.
Justin wrote me a letter which defended his father's fine painting. But it also revealed a shift in his relations with Conor Cruise O'Brien. Their relationship had been rocky when both were serving in Liam Cosgrave's cabinet in the early Seventies. But now, in the late-Nineties, he had warm words of admiration for O'Brien, while not quite abandoning his own Roman notion of a Republic ruled by politicians of high moral principle.
* * * * *
Luckily, the Keating pictorial gift -- which made Sean Keating a great painter, and Justin a great communicator -- lives on in the work of Justin's son, the film director David Keating. Recently I sat rapt at a showing of his latest film, Wake Wood, which showed a mastery of that most difficult of all genres: the intelligent horror film.
The late Michael Dwyer liked David Keating's first film, Last of the High Kings. But he would have loved Wake Wood. My condolences to his partner Brian, who loved and was loved by Michael Dwyer, a man who took life and films as seriously as Justin Keating took life and politics. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.
Obituary Page 37
Naturally I would also like to wish that Justin's soul stood at the right hand of God. But Justin was president of the Irish Humanist Association. As a committed atheist he would not welcome any soft words from me in relation to the whereabouts of his soul.
So let me simply say this. Justin Keating took politics seriously. He remains a role model for all who aspire to do some service to the State.
- Eoghan Harris