Searching for Gerard Keenan

Posted on: 10 July 2018 by Dr James Gallacher in 2018 posts

Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh, poet. File photograph: The Wiltshire Collection, National Library of Ireland.

Kavanagh’s Weekly is arguably the closest literary approximation to a barroom brawl ever put to print. When I first saw the name of Gerard Keenan in its pages, the feeling was akin to the sensation of the corner-eye-sighting of a reflection in a dusty mirror.

Given the overwhelmingly pseudonymous nature of Weekly, in which the vast majority of essays, articles and letters were the invention of either Patrick Kavanagh or his brother Peter, it was tempting at first glance to dismiss Keenan’s first contribution to the magazine, a piece titled ‘Refugee From Mars’, as just another Kavanagh broadside. However, upon noticing the regularity with which Keenan’s name appeared, the realisation dawned that I was likely dealing with a real contributor, not a pseudonym.

I began some intensive academic detective work, scouring various archives, pulling on seemingly disparate threads for any record of literary or journalistic output beyond Kavanagh’s Weekly. Eventually, after several missteps and byway of a brief reference in an exhibition of paintings by the ‘Belfast Boys’ group, I came across an archived entry in the National Library of Ireland database for a largely forgotten collection of essays compiled from Northern literary magazine The Honest Ulsterman titled The Professional, The Amateur, and The Other Thing. Alongside Keenan’s name it also listed a bracketed entry for ‘Jude the Obscure,’ the sobriquet for a longstanding columnist during the magazine’s extensive print run from 1970-2003.

Following this lead, I contacted the current editor of the now digital Ulsterman, who in turn put me in touch with several former editors who led me ultimately to Gerard’s son, John. He confirmed that his father had indeed been the author of the magazine’s ‘Jude’ columns as well as having contributed to Kavanagh’s Weekly several decades earlier.

The extracts from Keenan’s work currently being serialised in the Ulsterman are taken from a large cache of unpublished manuscripts that contain a series of biographical novels concerning Keenan’s interaction with many leading literary and artistic figures from mid-to-late twentieth-century Ireland, including Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien, Bill Naughton, and Gerard Dillon. In addition to weighty literary merit, these texts represent a valuable and heretofore unknown resource for understanding the nature of recent Irish literary history. I hope that their publication, now underway, will provide an opportunity for new insights and understandings of the period.

In addition to serialisation in The Honest Ulsterman, a collection of Keenan’s creative writing is currently being prepared as a collected volume titled Bohemian Belfast and Dublin: Two Artistic and Literary Worlds in the Work of Gerard Keenan, to be published by Edward Everett Root in 2019.

Discover more