Fergal Keane: ‘I found myself having nightmares, flash backs…Trying to cure it with drinking’

TV review: Living With PTSD is a gripping exploration of inter-generational pain

Early in Fergal Keane: Living With PTSD (BBC One, Monday), the Cork-raised BBC correspondent explains that one of the driving imperatives behind his lifetime covering war zones was ego. “I wanted to be seen, to win awards,” he says of a career that has seen him report from the frontlines of Rwanda, Kosovo and, just this year, Kyiv.

Keane is aware he is potentially open to charges of solipsism by making a documentary about his struggles with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – in light of the fact that the communities from where he was reporting invariably endured far greater suffering. He seems uneasy, for instance, giving an interview from Ukraine at the end of the film, surrounded by women and children fleeing Russian bombardment, saying “I don’t feel I have a right to talk about trauma”.

That ego surfaces once or twice – such as when he sits down with PTSD sufferers in Belfast and steers the conversation back around to himself. But after a career spanning decades Keane is nothing if not self-aware and what could have been an exercise is navel-gazing is instead a gripping and generous exploration of inter-generational pain and of how the demons of childhood (his father, actor Éamonn Keane, was an alcoholic) can haunt us in later life.

The searing fracture-line in Keane’s life is Rwanda, to where he was sent to witness the genocide of the early 1990s. He was, he admits, gung-ho about the gig. As a radio reporter in South Africa, freshly arrived at the BBC from RTÉ, the opportunity to present a Panorama documentary on BBC One was a big break.

“I went to Rwanda as somebody thinking that I knew what war looked like,” he says. “Genocide was something very different. I found myself having nightmares, flash backs…Trying to cure it with drinking.”

PTSD for Keane manifests in many unexpected ways. There was the alcoholism and the nightmares. He can also be triggered by something as innocuous as clattering crockery. “Sitting in the room where someone is trying to do the dishes and flinching,” he says. “Can’t you hear how loud that is? No-one hears it as loud as it is in my head.”

There was an inevitable breakdown, in 2008, when he went sober and was formally diagnosed with PTSD. But one of the questions he sets out to answer in the new film is whether his mental health issues are entirely attributable to his war reporting – or if they are rooted in the traumas passed down from a family which lived through the Famine in north Kerry and then the War of Independence and the Civil War.

“What did the history do not just to the country but to the minds of the people?” he says driving to Listowel (the home and spiritual heartland of his uncle, the playwright John B Keane).

Keane ultimately doesn’t have any firm answers. Nor has he completely freed himself of his addiction to war reporting. In Kyiv on the eve of the Russian attack, he confesses he is torn about leaving. And in Lviv, where he talks to refugees, he acknowledge that he is a long way from finding peace. “I’m a reporter but war is my subject. I rationalise it,” he says. “This is going on – it’s not finished, the story of me and PTSD.”