Kevin Keating: A Tribute
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
18 May 2020
I once wrote an obituary about the US musician Pete Seeger. I enjoyed doing it and there was sufficient material to work with. Writing about Kevin gives me no pleasure, but it will give me the satisfaction of paying tribute to a great man, a man I was honoured to call a friend and a comrade and there is so much material to work with, I couldn't do him justice in a book, never mind a short piece.
I first met Kevin in 1984 on the eve of me leaving Fianna Eireann and joining People's Democracy, I recall his friendly smile. Kevin had an easy relaxed way about him, that those who only knew him through political activity may have missed out on. He was easy to talk to, interesting, inquisitive with a humane touch.
He was a thoughtful man his interventions at public meetings, discussion groups were always full of thought and insight. In discussions on the left he could cut to the chase. I remember once at a conference of the Left where we were discussing opposition to Social Partnership, Kevin pointed out it wasn't just a pay issue but a profound assault on the working class. He said public service charges were there to prepare the way for private companies taking over. Time proved him right on that. He finished off with one of his turns of phrase "Oliver Twist, asked for more, but it didn't bring down the workhouse system" It got a laugh, and even though he didn't sway the floor with it, some would later use the phrase themselves.
His interventions at meetings earned him a reputation as a pessimist. He used to laugh about it, and say, "If you're a socialist, then you have to be an optimist by definition, but a pessimist is just a well informed optimist." He wasn't a pessimist, he was a realist, in that he looked reality in the eye and thought about what was needed, not what was easy, fancy or to his own personal benefit, it was the realism of a fighter, not that of the gas and water pragmatist always looking for the easy path, or their own personal benefit. In that he fought against the Trade Union bureaucracy all his life. I recall when Jimmy Summers of Siptu proudly declared at a May Day rally that they had bent over backwards to the government, Kevin shouted "Try and stand up and fight for a change". There is nothing pessimistic about wanting to fight and willing to take on the union bureaucracy either, rather than accommodate to them.
It wasn't that he was a harsh man, he wasn't, but he believed in the struggle and held people to the standards they themselves claimed to represent. He took people as they were, not through the prism of some unattainable ideal. His motto was like those lines from Phil Ochs' song, When I'm Gone, "I can't say who to praise and who to blame when I'm gone, so I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here." He did, he not only criticised but was fulsome in praise for those he admired.
Kevin fought hard all his life, never seeking the easy path, not because he didn't want things to be easy, but because he knew it lead nowhere. He was a man full of hope about the future, but not given to wishful thinking. He also knew that the struggle for socialism was a struggle for humanity and he was a humane individual. He came to Colombia in 2005 and met with people here, people whose life experiences showed that wishful thinking got you nowhere. He was particularly impressed by a young woman who was kidnapped by the paramilitaries and tortured by repeatedly pouring scalding water over her feet. He was impressed that she was still involved in struggle. He met with the Coca Cola workers, one of whom had spent six months in jail on trumped up charges, his involvement in the Coca Cola campaign was part of his internationalism. Kevin fought all his life for the working class everywhere, all of the time, not just some of the time.
There are not many like him, he is in the words of Bertolt Brecht one of the essential ones who fight all their lives. His resolve, his determination were remarkable, he faced his diagnosis the way he faced everything, with the realism of a fighter and was brave in how he did it. I saw him in March this year when I went back to visit my own Da' who was dying. He talked politics, he joked about creationists thinking creation was awesome when life coming into existence on this planet of the billions upon billions planets was what was really awesome. When we were saying goodbye, I knew it was the last time I would see him, but I tried to be upbeat and said that I hoped to see him again and he replied "It is highly unlikely". That was Kevin, even facing death he was brave, looked at reality and dealt with it, no short cuts, no wishful thinking, no flights of fancy. He faced his own death the way he had faced political struggles all his life. A truly remarkable, brave and kind individual. I miss him.