Mary Keane: A remarkable woman who moved quietly with style

Brenda Sexton opened her women’s shop on Saturday morning, as she has for 60 years. But that day it changed, sadly.

Her neighbour and buddy, Mary Keane, widow of playwright John B, had died at the Bons, in Tralee, after a short illness.

Mary, like Brenda, was a great businesswoman. She had run the pub as long as Brenda had her shop and every morning they would meet for a chat.

Mary Keane: A remarkable woman who moved quietly with style

The sign outside John B Keane’s pub in Listowel last night.

They were the matriarchs of a marvellous band of women in Lower William St, Listowel, who ran businesses, reared families, and got on with life.

There was Mrs O’Shaughnessy, Mrs Browne, Mrs Keane-Stack (mother of Maria, mother of the Brogan brothers, the Dublin footballers), Mrs Broderick, Mrs Scully, Mrs (Jer) Broderick, Mrs Crowley, Mrs Dillon, Mrs Kearney (whose husband, Bill, appeared with the Listowel Drama Group in the first production of Sive), Mrs Canty, Mrs (James) Keane, Mrs O’Carroll, Mrs Hanly, Mrs Guerin, and Mrs Woulfe (my late mother).

They formed the hub of commerce in Listowel. Mná Lios Tuathail.

Mary was better known to the outside world as the wife of John B. But we who grew up in Lower William St knew John B was married to Mary.

While he crested the waves of literature, Mary kept a firm hand on the the rudder.

Mary Keane: A remarkable woman who moved quietly with style

She gave John B the space and freedom to do what he did, while she ran the pub and shaped their three sons and daughter into the fine, grounded people they grew up to be.

Mary was always at John B’s side at big opening nights. There were many, in Cork, Dublin, and New York.

But wherever John B’s success took Mary, she never delayed too long and got back to ensure it was business as usual at the pub. As a neighbour’s child, Mary always took an interest of where life took us and had an uncanny memory, remembering the names of our children.

Mary Keane: A remarkable woman who moved quietly with style

Some years after I started out as a reporter in the Limerick Leader, when I called to see her, she let me into the 10th secret of Fatima. “It’s geat you’re getting on,” she said, and added: “I was with John B and your father when they were up late drinking after we closed one night and your father said there was no way he was going to leave the pub or the business in Ballybunion to Jimmy.

“John B said to him ‘Jimmy is mad into sport and politics, he’s getting into the odd scrape and drinking life a fish. There’s only one thing for Jimmy — journalism.’”

Within weeks, with the help of old-fashioned nepotism, I was dispatched to Limerick.

Last year, Mary appeared on The Late Late Show with son Billy. She was sparkling. I dropped her a line to say how well she did on the show. A few days later I received a letter, a real letter, which I shall treasure for as long as I live. She signed off ‘Thanks, your friend Mary’.

Mary like her old comrade in business, Brenda, moved quietly with style — very much their own women.

Brenda is mother of Willie, former Irish rugby international and grandmother of Jonathan the current international. Today her door like the Keane’s door will not open.

The businesswomen of Lower William St will join many, many more to say farewell to a their neighbour and a remarkable woman.


She will join her beloved John B under the headstone with the words ‘There are so many lovely songs to sing’.

And tonight I’m sure there will be a song or two breaking out to celebrate a great life well lived .


From Tom Waits and Kurt Cobain, to Bertrand Russell and the Big Lebowski, singer Mick Flannery tells Richard Fitzpatrick about his cultural touchstones.Culture That Made Me: Mick Flannery

Esther N McCarthy is starry-eyed for prints, eager for elephants and jealous of a toaster this weekWe're all starry-eyed for prints, eager for elephants and jealous of a toaster this week

Cross rope bridges strung across the Atlantic or visit reimagining of time gone by; whatever you fancy doing, you’ll find it in Ulster.Staycations 2020: Take your pick from these great things to do in Ulster

I can’t eat anything without chilli flakes stuffed into itShape I'm In: Novelis Emma Murray

More From The Irish Examiner