Triumph of the human spirit: hostage John McCarthy at Stonyhurst

John McCarthy with some of the Stonyhurst Sixth Formers
John McCarthy with some of the Stonyhurst Sixth Formers

John McCarthy, who spent six years in captivity in Lebanon between 1986 and 1991, has shared his experiences with Sixth Form pupils and staff at Stonyhurst College. Despite being the United Kingdom’s longest held hostage in Lebanon, he was able to express his lack of bitterness towards his captors and tell the students how humour and conversation with a fellow captive helped him cope.

A former journalist with United Press International Television News, John McCarthy was kidnapped by Islamic Jihad terrorists in Lebanon in April 1986. For several years, he shared a cell with the Irish hostage, Brian Keenan, before being released on 8 August 1991. The account of his years in captivity was subsequently published as a memoir entitled Some Other Rainbow, co-authored with Jill Morrell.

On his visit to Stonyhurst College, John shared his moments of reflection with the Sixth Form pupils. He described his coping strategies during the darkest moments in captivity, as well as the torture – both physical and mental – that he went through. Speaking of the first few months in solitary confinement, he described the cramped, damp cell in which he was held: no larger than six feet by four feet. But when he was moved to a larger cell, he met the man who was to become his saving grace in coping with the rest of his time in captivity: Brian Keenan.  

“For one and half years we had no natural light or fresh air,” he told the students. “We would talk about the things we would do once released and the places we planned to visit together.  This was our way of keeping hope and remaining optimistic.”

The strength and dignity to copeJohn McCarthy shares his experiences with the Stonyhurst pupils

Conversation was one of the main ways that John and Brian prevented the onset of insanity, he told them; since the two men were from two very different backgrounds, it guaranteed good heated debate!  They also shared detailed stories of their different experiences, people they had met and stories about family and friends. John went on to explain how humour played a huge part in coping with the mental and physical torture they endured.

Yet, despite these unimaginable experiences, John McCarthy’s lack of bitterness towards his captors was what astounded the Stonyhurst pupils and staff most.  The years in captivity had taught him to respect himself as well as the others around him, he told them. Even the guards. 

Today, John McCarthy is an acclaimed broadcaster and author, who specialises in motivational speaking. He wins the respect of audiences who admire his lack of bitterness and marvel at the human lessons to be learned from his triumph over terrible adversity. As one student at Stonyhurst College commented after his talk: “Incredibly, he takes the positives from his experience and now, through his public speaking, hopes to teach others that even in the face of adversity we have the capability to find the strength we need to cope with anything, whilst remaining dignified and respectful to others.”