Remembering Seamus Kelters: Pioneering Trauma Journalist
Seamus Kelters, who died suddenly on September 27, 2017, was an influential chronicler of Northern Ireland’s civil conflict and co-author of Lost Lives: The Story of the Men, Women and Children Who Died As A Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles. An early Dart Center Ochberg Fellow, he played a central role in the evolution of trauma-aware journalism. We asked several friends and colleagues for remembrances of Seamus and his work. Below, reflections and recollections by Susan McKay, Scott North, Donna DeCesare, Frank Ochberg, Joe Hight, Elana Newman, Gavin Rees and Bruce Shapiro. Scroll down for excerpts, and click to the right to read the full pieces.
SUSAN MCKAY, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR
His own family had suffered during the conflict and he brought a great deal of empathy to his work. Had he been at work today he would have been covering the sectarian expulsion of families from a housing complex that was meant to showcase the new integrated Northern Ireland.
SCOTT NORTH, LOCAL NEWS EDITOR, THE DAILY HERALD
"No one from outside could ever match the timbre," he said in one letter. "That comes with knowing your readership -- your own families, friends and communities."
DONNA DE CESARE, DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHER AND ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF JOURNALISM, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
Seamus Kelters could make me laugh till my sides ached. His vivid imagination and comedic timing made him a practitioner par excellence of the art of entertaining conversation the Irish call “the craic.” Seamus could also turn on an emotional dime, switching his tone to encouragement or comfort, intuiting when words would be superfluous.
FRANK OCHBERG M.D., PSYCHIATRIST AND CHAIRMAN EMERITUS, DART CENTER FOR JOURNALISM AND TRAUMA
He wouldn't mince words. He had strong opinions. He encouraged us to be active, engaged and outspoken. But he knew when to hold his tongue and he helped us be persuasive rather than polemical.
JOE HIGHT, COLUMNIST AND FORMER PRESIDENT of executive committee, DART CENTER FOR JOURNALISM AND TRAUMA
He was tenacious, he had grit, but he also was sensitive to the plight of people suffering because of conflict. He had personal experience.
ELANA NEWMAN, PHD, MCFARLIN PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY, THE UNIVERSITY OF TULSA AND RESEARCH DIRECTOR, DART CENTER FOR JOURNALISM AND TRAUMA
He was always willing to help colleagues improve their stories, angles, and sources as well as treat his own sources and the people he covered with profound dignity.
GAVIN REES, DIRECTOR, DART CENTRE EUROPE
Seamus had a flawless knack for finding the telling detail, and to compress it into brief, arresting prose.
BRUCE SHAPIRO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, DART CENTER FOR JOURNALISM AND TRAUMA
Seamus Kelters was a local journalist covering his home turf for his entire career. But his home turf happened to be Belfast.
Susan McKay: Rigour, Compassion and Solidarity
By Susan McKay
On the morning of what was to be the last day of his life, Seamus Kelters retweeted the following from Susie Dent: ‘Logorrhoea’: incessant and usually incoherent talking. Goes well with ‘throttlebottom’, an inept person in public office. Morning. He was a journalist, and had plenty of experience of both of these phenomena. He loved witty ways around the tedium of dealing with idiots, and he was very, very funny himself.
We met through work. He was an exceptionally good journalist. He invited me to Kerry as part of a Dart gathering ten years ago. There were about 10 of us, all veterans of horrific Troubles-related stories. I had just finished writing a book of extreme bleakness and felt frail and chastened. We had a ball. Wild children let out to play. Laughter from morning til night. But Seamus also made sure we talked, and talked seriously. He had learned a lot from his work with Bruce Shapiro and others at the Dart Centre. He cared about his colleagues, and wanted us to understand that work related trauma had to be addressed, other than just with pints and hilarity.
He talked to me from time to time about his own struggles. He was proud of having been part of the Lost Lives team of authors, and he recognised that this magnificent book was a great achievement. But wading through that cacophony of murder and violence had left him with what he described as “persistent low level depression.” He was from working class catholic west Belfast. His own family had suffered during the conflict and he brought a great deal of empathy to his work. Had he been at work today he would have been covering the sectarian expulsion of families from a housing complex that was meant to showcase the new integrated Northern Ireland. He would have done so with his characteristic mix of rigour and compassion.
Seamus respected his profession and had a strong sense of solidarity with fellow workers. He encouraged and supported hard, diligent craft in pursuit of the truth. He was flintily loyal to those whose work he trusted. He loathed those within the management level of our industry who were motivated by profit rather than enabling journalistic excellence, who shafted people and pushed them around. He was disgusted when mediocre people got promoted. He was a trade unionist through and through, a good man to have on your side.
Camilla, his wife, kept him steady. If you got to know Seamus at all, you knew about his great love for Camilla and for their boys. They moved out of Belfast and he loved the countryside. In recent years there were health problems, including a catastrophic fall which he survived. He started to write plays, and to take extraordinarily beautiful and accomplished photographs of foxes and wild birds and the sun setting over Lough Neagh, near his home. He was changing, evolving. This was a man of soul, a lovely and noble human being. On his last day he also tweeted Edvard Munch’s painting “Four Ages in Life.” He did not reach the final one, and that is unspeakably sad for all of us.
Scott North: When It Comes to Reporting Trauma, All Stories Are Local
By Scott North
Seamus made friendship easy. We met in 2003, when I was improbably plucked from my mid-sized daily newsroom in the Pacific Northwest and brought to Chicago to join a cadre of newly-minted Dart Center Ochberg Fellows.
We went around the room, each of us making introductions and talking briefly about our careers. Seamus was the senior fellow that year, which meant he'd help select us.
Several of those fellows had done jaw-dropping journalism in big places on big stories.
When I finished speaking, Seamus told the group that he knew me, or at least knew people with careers like mine, who find in one small place enough worthy stories to fill a lifetime. His big story was the Troubles, and it had taught him that when it comes to trauma and violence, all stories are local, unfolding on a human scale.
We spent the week talking about the craft, our fondness for good scraps, the joy of using the tools of journalism to confront bullies and to call attention to human suffering.
I told Seamus about a story I had begun reporting. It was about an ex-convict, then approaching 70, who was grieving the deaths of two sons. The man had spent much of his life behind bars, and had made plenty of mistakes. The year prior, one of his boys died during a violent struggle with police and the case was headed toward a federal civil rights trial. The man spent his days tending to an elaborate garden created in memory of his sons. He wrestled daily with anger and loss, but also gratitude for the love he'd known.
Seamus and I kept talking about that story in the months that followed, the themes at play, the possible approaches. With my boss' permission, he read drafts and offered ideas. He was a tough editor and pressed to not only make sure we were telling the story true, but also telling it right. The result was a narrative, presented in chapters, about the beauty and redemption one man found by taking a full measure of his life.
Seamus and I didn't get to see each other much, but we kept writing as the years passed, sharing news of our families and friends, the work we were doing. In 2014, a mudslide tore through a rural neighborhood in my community, ending 43 lives. A few months later, a young man brought a handgun into an area high school and shot five other teens, killing four, before he ended his own life.
Seamus was with us from afar, reading the stories and regularly sending encouragement. I'd read excerpts to my colleagues, always describing him as my cool friend at the BBC in Belfast.
Journalists from around the globe descended on our community to tell those stories. Pay them no mind, Seamus exhorted. Keep reporting and writing for the people in this place. "No one from outside could ever match the timbre," he said in one letter. "That comes with knowing your readership -- your own families, friends and communities."
He also urged us to keep the work in perspective. He'd nearly died in an accident a couple of years before.
Time, he wrote, "trundles along like a train and we always take it above all else for granted. It will always start at the same time, make the stops, overcome the twists and reach the destination."
That's illusion, Seamus wrote.
"My boys will not remember the great story I landed or the bullets I dodged or the intros I've written. They will remember I walked on a mountain with them and chased a dolphin. Those things are more important to me now and I'm just praying we'll all have the health to see more times like that."
My friend was wise and wonderful. I was blessed that he spent some of his time with me.
Donna De Cesare: Photography As Anchor of Understanding
I met Seamus Kelters through the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in 2003. We were part of a cohort of journalism fellows coming together to share our experiences reporting trauma, and the impact it had had on us. Seamus opened up about the harrowing ethical dilemmas he and his BBC TV newsroom colleagues faced reporting on sectarian violence in tightknit enclaves of their city—Belfast, Northern Ireland. Often the victims and perpetrators would be people with whom Seamus and his team of reporters had some direct personal linkage-- through family, friends or because they’d been classmates at school.
In that first encounter Seamus and I connected through photography. He loved images and enjoyed making photographs. I’d spent most of my reporting career covering Latin America, but I’d included a handful of images from early 1980s Northern Ireland in my presentation. Two images in particular ignited Seamus’ enthusiasm.
The first, taken during a day of loyalist riots in Portadown Northern Ireland in 1984, shows a line of policemen in riot gear headed down a street as people take refuge in a local eatery. Its name “The Tasty Takeout” is emblazoned above the glass plate windows which separate the expressive onlookers from events on the street.
In the other photograph a sleeping child in Divis Flats on Belfast’s Falls Road lies on a bench beside a bag of trash. The reality of boy’s poverty is foregrounded. However, painted on the wall behind him is an Irish fiddler, larger than life, who seems to elicit a blissful expression from the dreaming child. Seamus savored the irony in the first image and the magical realism of the second. Photography anchored our mutual understandings of the worlds we explored. I discovered in Seamus a kindred spirit.
Seamus Kelters could make me laugh till my sides ached. His vivid imagination and comedic timing made him a practitioner par excellence of the art of entertaining conversation the Irish call the craic. Seamus could also turn on an emotional dime, switching his tone to encouragement or comfort, intuiting when words would be superfluous. He made people feel special and he lodged in the heart. I suspect these qualities are what made him singular-- not only was he special to family and colleagues but he connected and made an impression on those whose stories he treated as treasured gifts.
In 1999 Seamus and four reporting colleagues published their monumental compendium chronicling each death attributable to the Northern Irish “troubles.” It was a decade in the making, and his colleagues credit Seamus with being the heartbeat of the project, the one who kept everyone focused and producing through years of searching for names, faces, facts, stories. He was tenacious, mastering contour, scale and granularity.
The last time I saw Seamus, we were in Cambridge at a conference hosted by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. We talked about my making a trip to visit Northern Ireland to see how much it had changed. I regret that I never did see Seamus in Belfast. But I cherish the gift he brought me. A work both painstaking and heartrending, Lost Lives is a reckoning with immeasurable suffering. It is also a pillar of historical memory and the great gift and legacy Seamus leaves us all.
Frank Ochberg: A Seeker of Elusive Truths
We are lucky to have Seamus etched into the fabric of our lives - an indigenous leader of this tribe, a skilled seeker of elusive truths, an irreverent, witty, articulate author, and a compassionate friend. He brought me close to his heart and and he was there for me when my heart needed repair. Seamus invited me to Belfast several times and, thanks to him, his family and his mates at the BBC, I think of that corner of the world not as a sea of Troubles, but as place where we can laugh at ourselves into the wee hours of the morning.
Some Seamus Kelter quotes:
I'm taking the unusual step of writing to all three of you at once because of another unusual step. It was the one I took two Sundays back when putting away Christmas decorations and managed to go through the attic ceiling between the joists and down the stairwell of our house, making it right as far as the stone floor in the hall.
You hear about these stupid things but you now can claim to know such an eedjit first hand. I still don't know how I did it but it wasn't good. My left hamstring may have smacked on a bannister partially breaking my fall. They measured the first drop at 23 feet. Fortunately I landed on my head. There's an indentation the size of my head on the first floor wooded landing. It's soft wood but hasn't stopped colleagues saying they have proof I'm thick as a plank.
Several years later, responding to the 2016 American election:
When does it stop getting worse?
This regime has two 'R's at core - racism and Russia.
Sometimes in life it is just right to storm the barricades - believe me I've been there, physically, in the face of armoured cars, guns and bombs - when there is no hope of success. Achievement comes with leadership. Those kids out protesting are crying out for leadership. I despair at the DNC's lack of vision and chaos. Perhaps the leadership needs to come from the kids - the kind of people you have been inspiring? I hope things are happening there because I don't see much at all elsewhere.
I heard a strong point recently - someone said the satirists are coming to the fore in pointing up all the contradictions, lies and incompetencies of this iniquitous regime. One said Trump is a 'bull carrying around his own China shop'. But the point that struck me was someone saying that the satirists can only go so far before, with their style and humour, that they make us feel all will feel okay, will turn out right in the end. This commentator described that as a false sense of security - things might not end up okay unless someone calls halt.
Trump thrives on enemies - North Korea, Hillary, journalists, intelligence agencies cable channel hosts, environmentalists. The list gets longer by the day. His base finds shelter there.
As another song says, wake me up when it's all over.
Most recently, provoked by Trumps' anger at the athletes kneeling during our anthem:
The NFL is another distraction issue but it inevitably it sucks people like me in because of my cross over interest in both politics and sport.
I have actually refused to stand for three national anthems.
The first, God Save the Queen, will likely be no surprise. I boycotted my university graduation. Other friends went and sat. I probably regret not doing the same now because it deprived my parents of the day. They would have sat as well. Later, when reporting, I sat when surrounded by quite a number of hostile people.
The second was the American anthem. Before I knew better and saw Blackfish, we took the boys to Seaworld. They featured servicemen and women who were there in uniform having served in Iraq. Disagreeing profoundly with that intervention, Camilla and I remained seated when the anthem played and we got some dirty looks but not much else. She has a track record of not standing having taken part in a protest when back at school.
The final one might surprise you. I would not stand for the opening bars of the Irish anthem which are played - similar to the use of Hail to the Chief - for the Irish President's arrival at events. The president in question was Mary McAleese. She was in a prominent position at Queen's University in Belfast when I was reporting on institutional religious discrimination on campus and in the administration. Unlike others, both Protestant and Catholic, who helped the reporting and campaigned, she kept her head down but then went on to present herself as a campaigning when successfully running for presidency. When she entered Croke Park, 70,999 stood whereas I remained seated. I had no respect for her and got a few odd looks. My best friend stood out of respect for the Office, his choice.
I never disrespected, I felt, my country or any other by my actions.
It seems such a legitimate form of protest and not an issue the president should be anywhere near. By far the most serious situation he has contrived would seem to centre on North Korea. Experts are said to be 'freaking out' now by what's going on. Poking a madman with a stick is not good politics. The problem is that I am not sure which leader is the maddest.
At the moment I'd vote - or at least try to persuade Camilla and the boys to vote - for an Al Franken/Bill Maher ticket. Actually, I'd currently vote for Bart Simpson if it could rid us of the daily social media onslaught of insanity, the practical out working and stress of attempting to restrict voting, disaster aid, health care and rights and the implicit but writ-large interference in the political process from foreign agents and polemic media whether it be from the right armed with hate or the left armed, mostly, with facts.
My reporting has always been, I like to think, straightforwardly facts and I have always considered any reporters' opinion as of least importance compared to the rest of society. Our job is to report on both the high and the humble and to leave out our own views. At the same time, privately, I have always shared the opinions of those who speak truth to power and, like yourselves, stand for something - even when they are kneeling.
Keep up the good fight.
There is so much more in a trove of letters from Seamus. He wouldn't mince words. He had strong opinions. He encouraged us to be active, engaged and outspoken. But he knew when to hold his tongue and he helped us be persuasive rather than polemical. We friends of Seamus also helped him. He had one foot out the door of journalism before the Fellowship. I believe we mirrored his ideals and, together, we made a difference in one-another's lives.
Seamus, you lit up my life and you still do.
Joe Hight: Tenacity, Grit - and Sensitivity
By Joe Hight
Seamus Kelters personified what I mean when I talk about how the modern journalist can be tough and sensitive at the same time.
He was tenacious, he had grit, but he also was sensitive to the plight of people suffering because of conflict. He had personal experience.
Seamus had other great qualities, too. He was a leader. I saw this when we held a conference in County Kerry, Ireland, with Northern Ireland journalists who had covered the decades of violence during The Troubles. I sincerely felt how The Troubles had an impact on their community as the Oklahoma City bombing had on my own.
He also had a welcoming and caring spirit that represented to me the true character of Northern Ireland journalists. My oldest daughter, Elena, and I saw this personally when we visited Belfast. Seamus took the day off to show us not only the sites of The Troubles but the rich history and culture of his country. We then were treated to a feast at his home with his beautiful family. It will be a day I will always remember, because of Seamus.
The Dart Center has lost a great member of its community. Journalists like me have lost a friend who we admired and respected for many reasons. My sincere condolences to his family and to the Dart, BBC and Northern Ireland journalism community.
Elana Newman: Analytic Mind, Compassionate Heart
By Elana Newman
This is the kind of asset Seamus Kelters was to the Dart Center: As an Ochberg Fellow and Senior Fellow, he fostered a collegial atmosphere, with unwavering dedication to creating the best journalism possible. His humor and righteous indignation- his willingness to argue and analyze each problem and concern - were steadfast. He had the rare combination of an analytic mind and a compassionate heart. He was always willing to help colleagues improve their stories, angles, and sources as well as treat his own sources and the people he covered with profound dignity.
In my own case, Seamus helped improve my research. He asked the difficult questions without apology but did it with generous curiosity, good will, and integrity. As a Dart Center strategic adviser he was a rational problem solver- laying out points of agreement, points of disagreement, and points where he was skeptical that consensus could be reached. In an email on October 8, 2008, he wrote, “So - as the guy said when the only public restroom in Belfast was bombed - where do we go now?” One could not resist confiding and trusting Seamus. His gift for writing was not only in the professional; his off the cuff emails and remarks were pure works of linguistic beauty.
Despite Seamus’ professional contributions, I most treasured our personal conversations – about family, illness, grief, faith, and resilience. Several years ago, we both went through a period of recovery from physical injury at the same time, sharing our experiences with each other in ways that were humbling, reassuring, funny, and honest. Just this summer, when he was weak and struggling with his own cancer and treatments, he reached out to me during a period of personal grief – being generous in ways that touched me to my core; I reread those emails often for solace, humor, caring and the wisdom in them. I know I am not alone in receiving and cherishing, and the benefits of his generosity, kindness and astuteness– whether professionally or personally. He will be missed.
Gavin Rees: Those Bullets Never Stop Traveling
By Gavin Rees
Some years ago, Seamus write a piece for the Dart Centre website on the challenge reporters face when covering anniversaries. He recounted a father the words of a father speaking of his teenage son’s death: “The bullets that killed James didn’t just travel in distance, they traveled in time. Some of those bullets never stop traveling.” I think that’s something that’s very easy for journalists to forget."
That story also gives just one hint of Seamus’s skill at his craft. He had a flawless knack for finding the telling detail, and to compress it into brief, arresting prose that would unfold in your head, like a de-concertina-ing route map that opens up to show a landscape wider than the headlines alone might suggest.
I first met Seamus playing the role of a real tour guide around 2005. He was co-hosting a Dart Centre workshop in Belfast, and he had offered to give the out-of-towners a spin around the sites in his car. He showed us the territorial fault-lines, the spaces were the divisions between the two communities were at their most intense, where people had been put out of their houses in the 70s, a street corner where a solider had been shot, a bar where drinkers had been gunned down by paramilitaries, and many more things. One couldn’t have had a more insightful - or a more generously given - introduction to how the violence in the city had gathered force.
Those unlucky enough not to have met Seamus and driven with him around Belfast should read Lost Lives. It is what my friend Gill Moreton, a psychologist with family connection to Northern Ireland, calls simply “a work of humane genius.” Seamus and his co-authors hang the story of what happened, not around politicians’ speeches, acts of government and the brute mortality statistics, but around the individual lives of the 3600 people who died. In its restraint and humanity, and its conviction that the past and present do necessarily live inside one another, it is an astonishing example of what journalism can do and what it is for.
Bruce Shapiro: Journalism As Alternative To The Gun
Seamus Kelters was a reporter, a local journalist covering his home turf for his entire career. He was a lot like other first-rate local reporters: that well-attuned eye for the absurd and the hypocritical; that stubborn sense of justice; and that intimate knowledge of people, places and enough backstories to end careers and marriages if he not been such a generous soul. But Seamus’ hometown was Belfast. When Seamus was nine his family and neighbors evacuated from their homes in one of Belfast’s few mixed Catholic-Protestant developments, because British soldiers and contending paramilitaries turned it into a free-fire zone. In his first days as a newly-hired reporter at the Irish News he was covered an IRA funeral in Milltown Cemetery when a loyalist hitman rained bullets and grenades down on the mourners. Being a local reporter meant scooping the competition in an exclusive interview with the newly-freed Birmingham Six (portrayed onscreen in “In The Name Of The Father”), beating the competition just because he’d treated those families decently throughout their years-long courtroom ordeal. It meant carefully calibrating words at press conferences during the most anguished, nerve-wracking days of the Good Friday peace negotiations, when even a needlessly provocative question from a reporter might send the whole thing off the rails.
I first met Seamus in 2002 in one of the first Dart Center Ochberg Fellowships. He was wary; he had come reluctantly, at the behest of his bosses at BBC Belfast, and figured he was in for a week of soft-headed do-gooderism. A day or so in, a lightbulb switched on; he embraced the idea of reporters learning about trauma from the best minds in psychology and psychiatry, and applying that knowledge to our own work. From that moment on there was no stopping him.
Seamus introduced me to the remarkable generation of Northern Irish journalists who chronicled brutal civil conflict afflicting their own community. We brought many of those reporters and editors together over a weekend in 2004 that I still contemplate and draw upon. People wander into journalism from all kinds of backgrounds and for all kinds of reasons. In the crucible of the Troubles, Seamus had decided that reporting with depth and integrity was the best response to sectarian violence. For him, and many of his colleagues, journalism was not only a profession but the alternative to picking up a gun. Seamus was an Irish Republican who worked side by side with unionist and loyalist colleagues covering marches and massacres, peace negotiations and parliamentary stalemates. He often told me that he and his best friends in the newsroom trusted one another with their lives yet never discussed how they voted. He was constantly alive to contradictions and inner conflicts; I remember him saying about the Omagh bombing, the single most deadly attack of the Troubles, that while reporting at the ghastly scene he wanted to be nowhere but home with his wife Camilla and his sons Brendan and Michael - but that once home, he was equally desperate to get back to covering the story.
Seamus liked to tell long, funny yarns and I guess they were mostly true. He was a ruthless pool shark - I watched him pummel all comers in a Chicago neighborhood bar, with an intimidating ferocity of gaze over the cue that I think he learned from staring down cops and Provos. He loved photography and all the secret crafts of television and radio production - he could work himself into hilarious outrage over someone’s badly edited tape.
Seamus’ monumental contribution was Lost Lives, 1 million words compiled with David McKittrick, Chris Thornton and Brian Feeney which will be studied 100 years from now by people trying to understand how civil conflict spins out of control. Among other things Lost Lives is a masterwork of investigative journalism, based on a database Seamus began compiling long before “data journalism” was a buzzword. Seamus didn’t talk much about all the labor involving in researching and tracking 3,700+ killings, but he talked a lot about the passionate, granular arguments he and his co-authors had in trying to ensure the accuracy and even-handed treatment of each and every case.
Today Northern Ireland is more famous as the set for the fantasy battles of Game of Thrones than the setting of real-life bloodletting. Thanks to the Good Friday peace process – still unfinished and newly stressed by Brexit - Seamus was able to turn his investigative talents in recent years to officials’ funny-money deals, to animal abuse and environmental crime and other targets. Young reporters in Belfast now work among smart glass-fronted office towers unimaginable in the bad days of bombs and bullets. But the standard Seamus and his colleagues established in the worst years of the Troubles still sets Northern Irish journalism apart. We shall not see his like again.