His plays, novels, poems, songs and essays are among the best-known and the best-loved in Irish literature, but it is unlikely that anyone will ever found a summer school to honour his achievements. Put simply, such a move would be superfluous: John B passed away at his home in Listowel on the eve of Writers’ Week, an event he helped found and at which he will always be a presence. He will be remembered tomorrow and Friday with two literary walking tours, around the town, that will take in his birthplace and the schools he attended, as well as the sculpture by Pádraig Tarrant erected in his memory in the Garden of Europe.
Today and tomorrow, in these pages, we celebrate the life and work of John B Keane with tributes from his widow Mary, his son Conor, Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan, author Joseph O’Connor, the director of the Abbey Theatre, Fiach Mac Conghail, the director of Druid theatre company, Garry Hynes, broadcaster Gay Byrne and many others. We include, also, extracts from John B’s writings, including his poem The Street, composed when he was just 17.
John B’s play, Big Maggie, was revived by Druid in 2011, and proved to be a highlight of Irish theatre, both at home and abroad. The Field, starring Brian Dennehy, was revived the same year. Both still stand as essential works of Irish drama, touching a nerve today just as when they were first performed in the 1960s. Other works of John B’s, such as Sive, Sharon’s Grave and The Year of the Hiker, have graced the stages of the finest theatres in cities across the world as well as those in parish halls all over Ireland. It was a measure of John B’s unsung generosity that he waived his royalties for many amateur productions of his work, thus aiding the construction of community centres up and down the country.
John B was a prolific author — he wrote 18 plays and 32 works of prose and poetry — and he won many honours, both in Ireland and abroad. In 1988, he was presented with the Irish-American Fund Award for Literature. In 1999, he won the first Irish PEN Award and was also presented with the Abbey Theatre’s highest honour, the Gradam medal. He received honorary doctorates from Trinity College Dublin, Limerick University and Marymount College, New York, and was an early member of Aosdana.
Like all great artists who achieve success, John B was not without his detractors. The most common charge against his work was that it seemed too parochial, which is to misunderstand it. John B’s language was rooted in the vernacular of north Kerry. You may have to have lived in such a place to appreciate fully the love of words that informs the everyday speech of its people. The tirade of Nanna in Sive against her daughter-in-law, Mena — “Your father, a half-starved bocock of a beggar with the Spanish blood galloping through his veins like litters of hungry greyhounds” — might well sound to an urban audience like its author had lost the run of himself, but rural audiences knew it to be the kind of thing an old woman in Kerry could come out with any evening of the week.
As it happens, John B’s work was anything but parochial. It was informed by an intimate knowledge of Irish and European mythology, the classics of Greek and Latin literature, and William Shakespeare.
It was full of life and love and humour, and it was also fearless. Who else but John B would write so furiously about forced marriage, in Sive, or emigration, in Many Young Men of Twenty and Hut 42, or the murderous lust for land, in The Field? And as he demonstrated so memorably in Big Maggie, John B was well ahead of his time in championing female emancipation.
If John B was guilty of anything, it was of being too giving. No other writer of his standing made himself so available to so many. He seemed willing to reply to every letter addressed to him, to offer encouragement to anyone who ever picked up a pen, and to stop and chat with anyone who hailed him on the street.
Most importantly of all, perhaps, he presided over the greatest literary and social salon in the country, his pub in Listowel, where he could be found most evenings, revelling in the company of men and women who, like himself, loved stories. His greatest works were inspired by the extraordinary tales of ordinary people, just like those who drank in his bar.
Patrick Kavanagh was another who knew well how a local story could impact at a universal level.
In his poem Epic, Kavanagh describes a feud between neighbouring Monaghan families over a boundary line:
“That was the year of the
Munich bother. Which
Was most important?
To lose my faith in
Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came
whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad
A local row. Gods make
their own importance.”
It is no exaggeration at all to state that north Kerry had its own Homer in John B Keane, a writer who gave us heroes and villains and ‘local rows’ every bit as compelling and unforgettable as those in the Iliad.