John B and Mary Keane: a marriage of like minds

“I miss him every day and when I wake up in the morning I think we’re going to be having our breakfast together. His presence is still here. I can feel him around the place.” — Mary Keane

MARY KEANE sheds a tear when she talks about her late husband John B.

Ten years after his passing, someone from some part of the world still strolls into the Keane bar in Listowel most days to look at the establishment and talk about the literary man, preferably with Mary or a member of the family.

She is pleased that interest in his work continues, pointing to Des Keogh’s recent success with Letters of a Love Hungry Farmer at the INEC in Killarney.
Now 83 and recovering well from a hip-replacement operation, she is gently matriarchal and continues to be a powerful influence in the family. Quintessentially Kerry in her accent and use of language, she has a delightful turn of phrase.

But that’s not to say that all her words accord with meanings given in the Oxford dictionary. “We were wicked friends,” she says of her relationship with John. When a quizzical eyebrow is raised about the ‘wicked’ part of it, she hastily says she means ‘great’. She loves to chat about him and the days they spent together. You’re left in no doubt it was a happy partnership, though Mary concedes they had the ‘odd barney’ — differences that didn’t last too long.

“Making up was better again. All our fights would be short… he’d come over with a kiss and away we’d go again,” she says. She relates how a man came into the bar once and sensed tension between the couple. The man nursed his pint and boasted that he and his wife never had a row, to which John retorted straight away: “What a boring marriage”.

John would say she was the boss, but Mary disagrees, saying all the household fell into line with him. She likes to tell stories, especially about a fateful autumn night, in 1949, when she was at a dance in the Astor ballroom during Listowel Races. The second night of the races was always one of the big occasions of the year in the north Kerry town and ‘the whole world’ came there.

This gangling fellow emerges from the crowd, walks up to the then Mary O’Connor and asks her to dance. Being from Ahaneboy, in the Knocknagoshel area, more than 20km away, she did not know him, but felt he had a fair idea who she was. He travelled around in a van, part of his job as a chemist’s assistant.

John was a thin, black-haired man of 20 years, six months older than her. They clicked almost immediately. “What attracted me most about him was his total honesty and his openness. I was to learn later how remarkably generous and decent he was, as everyone who knew him will say,” she says.

You could say it was love at first sight, she says, but they did not get married for six years. During their courtship, John, growing ever more tired of pharmacy work, went to England and found a job in a ball-bearing factory, in Northampton. He earned good money doing shift work there, which helped them to purchase the public house in Listowel for £1,800, in 1955.

It was a small, traditional grocery-cum-pub, with swing doors, and they settled down quickly to running the business.

“This was in the middle of a mad recession, worse than now, but the business flew,” she says. “We had wicked sessions of music, cards and, of course, wrenboys. John put the wrenboys at it and got them going again around here. The wrenboys became a huge thing.”

While John enjoyed the pub, his vocation was writing. Sometimes, he would sit by a blazing fire in a room behind the bar, after closing time, and would write undisturbed through the long, still hours before dawn.

Later, he worked on a more structured basis, writing mainly during the day and taking breaks for meals and walks. At about ten o’clock at night, he would join customers in the bar for a few pints, revelling in their company.

The couple had a family of three sons, Billy, Conor and John, and a daughter, Joanna.

When John was diagnosed with prostate cancer, in the mid-1990s, he was planning two novels.

“One of the novels was going to be about the street where he lived and all the characters he knew there. It would have been pure true and from the salt of the earth. He really loved Listowel,” says the soft-spoken grandmother of 13.

“But, after the diagnosis, he wrote very little. It seemed to knock the heart out of him. I felt very sorry for him because it must have been frustrating to have all this stuff in his head and not be able to write it.”

He battled the disease for eight years and the family had hoped he might have been given a few more years before he succumbed in May, 2002.

John’s writing room, on the floor above the bar, is much the same today as when he last sat behind the desk that faces a window looking out over the street. The Brother typewriter is still there, shelves are lined with books, and ‘Sellotaped’ on the walls are press cuttings and memory notes with addresses and phone numbers.

It was also from this little room that he observed his beloved corner boys in Market Street, whose words sometimes provided him with literary inspiration on days when his pen did not flow with its customary fluidity. “You can see the mark on the wall from the corner boys putting their backsides up against it,” says Mary.

A devout woman, she says John was also a religious person who believed in the hereafter. “I’ve something to show you before you go. Give me five minutes,” she says, before hurrying up the stairs.

Back she comes clutching a folded white page. Hand-written during John’s illness in the presence of his close friend, the late Fr Kieran O’Shea, it is signed by John.

The note tells how impressed he was by the character and nobility of Christ.

He was also moved by the story of the crucified Christ on Calvary turning to the thief on a cross beside him and telling the thief they would be together in paradise.

John’s note concluded: “Imagine a man of the quality of Christ making a promise like that on his death cross. We know he is going to keep it. I’m sure Christ in his infinite forgiveness won’t keep anyone out of paradise.”

Mary Keane, wife of the late John B Keane at her home, The John B Keane Bar, in Listowel, Co Kerry, with her son Billy. Picture: Domnick Walsh / Eye Focus

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