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John McCarthy speaks of his experiences in Beirut

More than 1 500 pupils, teachers, parents and special guests gathered at Haileybury’s annual Speech Day last Saturday to hear a talk by John McCarthy, the journalist who was held hostage in Beirut from 1986 to 1991.

Mr McCarthy spoke extensively of his "truly awful" ordeal, adding that a return to Haileybury (he was a pupil there from 1970 – 1974) had brought back many memories.

"When I told my parents I was going to be talking at Haileybury today, they were amazed as I hadn’t been a star pupil," he joked. "However, it’s an honour to be back and has given me a chance to reflect on how I have adapted through life’s experiences."

Mr McCarthy said that when he first realised he was being taken hostage, he had not wanted to take in what was happening to him. "I felt as though I was in a movie but I was actually being transported into another world. And the world as I knew it had stopped."

His time in captivity allowed him to look back at his life and he realised the key part of it was his education. "I realised that I had wasted so much of the opportunities presented to me. But Haileybury did help me out as I still had my sense of humour – one day I awoke from a nightmare, thinking I had to retake my A Levels! But then I remembered where I was and things were a lot more serious – that was when I began to build myself up again."

He said that the lessons he had learnt at Haileybury were invaluable – how to adapt to one’s circumstances and to have patience. "I had to come to terms with myself, something I hadn’t done before. Then I met Brian Keenan (an Irishman also taken hostage), and we learnt to respect each other; we argued incessantly but listened and respected each other’s viewpoints.

"I was also able to bring my social skills to the strange community I was in. Again, Haileybury had taught me to recognise people’s differences and to adhere to fair play."

The most crucial lesson, he said of his time in captivity, was to maintain his humanity and dignity at all times, not only of himself but of those around him.

He was freed in 1991 and eventually life "settled down in a different way". "I now find I am able to cope with anything and I set myself targets and focus on the positive."

Mr McCarthy advised the pupils to have a proper sense of who they are and how others see them. "Experience all life has to throw at you," he concluded.