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Article first published in the Irish Political Review, December 2021

The last time I met Joe Keenan he was in hospital. This would have been around 1990. I was living in France at the time and I can't remember why I was visiting Belfast. I do remember having some malicious pleasure at the thought that Joe would be surprised to see me and probably wouldn't be pleased. We were quarrelling at the time. Joe had started his paper The Heresiarch with the idea, as I understood it, of launching a theological attack on theology. Instead of attacking the corruptions of the Church(es), which could be corruptions of something in itself noble and good, he would go for the jugular - the intellectual nullity of Christian theology and in particular the old problem of 'theodicy' - how can a God who is a) omniscient, b) omnipotent and c) created the world ex nihilo not be guiltily responsible for evil and for the eternal suffering of the damned? A problem that in all honesty Christians have never been able to solve. The Russian Christian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev, following a lead given by Jacob Böhme, proposes that it can only be resolved by dropping the ex nihilo and presupposing that God created the world from a material - he calls it 'freedom' - that is refractory to His will.

I shared Joe's interest in theology but was headed in the opposite direction, towards engagement with the Church. I can't remember what stage I was at. I think I was drifting out of the Baha'i World Faith but hadn't yet committed myself to Orthodox Christianity. I had thought Joe might welcome contributions from me as a foil to his own ideas and for a while it looked as if that might work. But we fell out over Augustine of Hippo and it started to get quite heated. Then Joe used as a motto Blake's phrase (from Jerusalem): 'I care not whether a man is good or evil; all that I care / Is whether he is a wise man or a fool. Go! put off holiness, / And put on intellect.' I expressed outrage at using Blake in a defence of atheism and wrote on Blake's religious belief (particularly evident in the passage from which the quote is taken). Joe had got fed up with me (understandably under the circumstances) and declined to publish it and I was feeling aggrieved.

Perhaps had I been living in Belfast and we had been able to meet more often things might have improved but as it was, that was it. Which I regret very much because I always liked him. We worked closely in Belfast branch of the British and Irish Communist Organisation through the 1970s and 1980s mainly on the Workers Weekly with Joe often manning the printing machine. He wasn't very good at it but he was a lot better than I was and his contributions to the - I think very entertaining - Weekly were undoubtedly the funniest. He was the most mischievous member of the branch. When we read in an English paper a journalist describing in shocked tones his encounter in Robinsons' bar with a 'Stalinist' who spent his Summer holidays liquidating kulaks we knew exactly who he was referring to.

I remember sharing accommodation in London with Joe and Madawc Williams at a time when there was quite a lot of IRA activity going on. We were watching the TV which was telling us how to spot a possible IRA suspect. He (gender neutrality hadn't yet caught on) would have arrived recently, have a Belfast accent, no visible form of livelihood, spend a lot of time in betting shops and pubs and play a lot of pool. The description half fitted me but it fitted Joe to a 't'. While in London I found that Joe was writing poetry - very simple straightforward accounts of his infatuations with various girls and his love of the horses. He had a particular liking for the American poet Gary Snyder. The poems were, I thought, lovely, and I still have a small collection of them. I don't know if he kept that up, I hope so. I tried to interest the poet Michael Longley in them. He dismissed them with contempt - one of the moments when I realised just how far removed I was from the world of what might be called mainstream Belfast poetry even though, socially, I had once been quite close to it.

I should stress that Joe's commitment to politics was very serious, not just Northern Ireland politics but British politics in general. He was particularly active with Conor Lynch in exposing the incompetence and irresponsibility of Arthur Scargill's miners' strike and - also with Conor - he did what he could to keep the idea of industrial democracy alive after the trade union movement as a whole and the panoply of left wing organisations failed to support the Bullock Report. 

He was what was needed - an intelligent class warrior, doing what he could with very limited means. I regret losing touch with him, but I still feel very lucky that I knew him when I did.

10, Athol Street, for some fifteen years the centre of our universe

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