Justin Keating: completing his life’s work

This delighted me. We can’t know what else he might have added (or indeed altered, come the revision stage). Much was written “in flow” or while Justin was far from his library. His widow Barbara recalls how he would settle at the table on holiday in southern France and become wholly absorbed in his writing. At the heart of Justin’s book – indeed, his stated motivation in writing it – is the call for each of us to continuously question the set of assumptions and beliefs we were born into

His tone is largely warm and conversational, but at times passion blazes through, or tenderness melts in; in passages that disturb his strict sense of honour, such as those on war or the institutional abuse of children, he is acidic. Since I had never heard him speak in person, and dictation software cares not for punctuation, in order to “hear” him and take in his rhythms and syntax I watched a selection of clips from the RTÉ Archives and later interviews. Barbara had kept Justin’s notebooks together and safe through several relocations. At one point Justin wryly refers to himself as “a small opinionated man giving out unpopular opinions in public places”, while John Boorman’s welcome is warm: “What a delightful surprise that Justin speaks to us from beyond the grave, as it were, with all the old brio and wit and wisdom”. There were events or themes he would certainly have wished to cover, given time. Within a dozen pages he might explain the unseen challenges in bringing a pioneering farm school to the fledgling RTÉ or describe the unfolding of the Arms Crisis. Using dictation software, she converted the notebooks to digital files and shared them with Justin’s children, who were encouraging. If a word in Justin’s hand was indistinct, we would retrace our steps to the original copybook to decipher it. Justin Keating’s notebooks: in their raw form, they were a work obviously interrupted

The manuscript was utterly fascinating. I said yes. In this, the idea was to strike a balance between providing accessibility for readers and honouring Justin’s firm belief that his own story was of less consequence than his conclusions, but that the path between the two was paramount. Nothing is Written in Stone: The Notebooks of Justin Keating, edited by Barbara Hussey and Anna Kealy, was published by the Lilliput Press last month The one diktat I was given was that Justin’s distinctive voice not be dimmed or blunted in the process. He had left gaps or notes to himself where he had intended to confirm details or statistics, to later expand upon a topic, or to connect it to another theme. The text in our hands demanded a bespoke structure. He had filled eight simple copybooks in his expressive longhand when he died on New Year’s Eve 2009, one week shy of his eightieth birthday. Justin had envisioned a bibliography; this too was compiled and included. In one from 1965, having just demonstrated how to adjust a then-rare television set, he confides to the camera: “We hope that when people forget almost all the facts that they come across in the programme, they will remember the habit of asking ‘why?’ about everything, even the most obvious things – or seemingly obvious things”. Among the topics Justin addresses are the senselessness of war and the importance of a federal Europe, corruption within the Garda Síochána and the callousness of the Irish Catholic Church, the decline of the United States and the urgency of environmental action. As an editorial process it was perhaps uniquely complex, but highly collaborative. Life episodes, vivid anecdotes and impassioned arguments unfurled in no sequence beyond that in which they had come to Justin with pen in hand. On some topics he had composed multiple drafts – consistent in fact, but varying in context or intricacy – and these had to be streamlined or merged as seamlessly as possible. He had been addressing a public readership, and what he had to say was still relevant. It was an extensive work in progress by a significant and sometimes controversial Irish public figure, one whom I had never met and who could not be consulted at any stage of the process – and it would form part of his legacy. To resolve lingering queries, Barbara invested long hours of research, visited libraries and archives and corresponded with dozens of helpful individuals. Over four decades later, at the heart of Justin’s book – indeed, his stated motivation in writing it – is the call for each of us to continuously question the set of assumptions and beliefs we were born into: our paradigm. It is striking. He would undoubtedly be pleased to “have his spake” one more time. What a delightful surprise that Justin speaks to us from beyond the grave, as it were, with all the old brio and wit and wisdom

Along the two-year road to publication, no week passed without some national or international event relevant to the notebooks’ contents. In his last three years of life, Justin Keating began to compose his memoirs. I very much approved; he was a masterful communicator in life – in political debate, as an educator, as a broadcaster – and had pitched his notebooks to engage with all readers. Within a dozen pages he might explain the unseen challenges in bringing a pioneering farm school to the fledgling RTÉ or describe the unfolding of the Arms Crisis

When Barbara approached me to edit Justin’s notebooks for publication, I was intrigued, and also a little daunted. He might illustrate a point with a poem or playful joke, evoke wartime summers cutting turf or fishing, or argue for religion’s removal from education. Ostensibly, he had been discussing the housing of farm animals, yet even there his philosophy was apparent. Today our headlines are full of Syria, Brexit, Maurice McCabe and the latest tribunal, the Tuam Babies, the Trump era and imminent tipping points for climate change. I devised this: nine chapters progressing chronologically, each containing a section of personal narrative and a corresponding thematic segment. Where a glancing reference was made or where additional information would be necessary or illuminating, footnotes were composed; never again will my search history be so relentlessly interesting. Justin had jotted down a few notes on his intentions: major themes, a skeleton structure and some keywords that now tantalise. Her dining-room table gradually vanished under stacks of papers. Of course I did. Uncharted waters; a delicate responsibility. In their raw form, the notebooks were a work obviously interrupted. The day came when she sat down to read them and found that the voice in his writing was vividly, evocatively his own. Alex White on Justin Keating’s Nothing Is Written in Stone

I created a searchable document noting every topic he touched on, in sequence, and dubbed it “my map”.