Mastery of poetry was this playwright’s secret weapon

A writer begins life as a poet, progresses to being a playwright and ends up as a novelist, John B Keane once revealed to me.

This, in many ways, could be said of John B himself.

He wrote poetry from an early age, publishing his work in local newspapers and magazines from the early 1950s: he published Two Eyes, dedicated to Mary O’Connor, who would be his wife, in the Kerryman newspaper in March 1950.

At the age of 17, as a student in Saint Michael’s College, Listowel, he wrote his widely celebrated poem, The Street. At an elocution class in his leaving certificate year, the boys were asked to recite a poem. John B recited The Street. When asked by his teacher, Fr Davy O’Connor, president of the college and a violent man with a savage temper, who wrote the poem, John B informed him that it was his own work, whereupon the priest beat John B black and blue for reasons known only to himself.

John B would publish The Street in the Shannonside Annual of 1957, a local scholarly journal, four years before his book entitled The Street and Other Poems appeared from Progress House, Dublin, in 1961.

The Saint Michael’s experience wasn’t all bad, however. There the students, all boys, studied the classics, Latin and Greek, thereby, as John Moriarty, the philosopher and another alumnus of that institution used to opine, receiving the same education as John Milton. Whatever about that, it is true to say that the classics rubbed off on the young John B Keane. It has been recognised that the two tinkers in his play Sive (1959), fulfil the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy. When I asked John B about that, he concurred, informing me that he studied Euripides’s Iphigenia in Tauris for his leaving cert. But if that is so, the influence of local poets and ballad makers who commented on the events of the day, blessing or cursing as they saw fit, is also much in evidence.

Consider the following cursing verses from Sive:

May the snails devour

his corpse, / and the

rains do harm worse, /

May the devil sweep

the hairy creature soon,/

He’s as greedy as a

sow, / as a crow behind

the plough / The black

man from the

mountain /Seánín Rua

May he screech

with awful thirst, /

may his brains and

eyeballs burst, /

That melted amadán,

that big bostoon, /

May the fleas ate up his

bed, / and the mange

consume his head,/ The

black man from the

mountain, Seánín Rua.

Compare it with the following verse cursing the hamlet of Knockanure, a few miles outside Listowel, composed by a local poet:

Knockanure both

mane and poor, /

A church without a

steeple / And bitches

and hoors looking out

half doors / Criticising

dacent people.

They are of a piece. So John B was as influenced as much by local poetry and balladry as he was by the high classics.

To John B, a fine singer himself, a poem was a song and a song was a poem. Throughout his life, John B would write songs — indeed, Christy Moore recorded John B’s The Buck Navvy Song as Cricklewood, Johnny McEvoy recorded his Many Young Men of Twenty and a number of local recordings have been made of Sweet Listowel, his paean to his native town.

He incorporated songs and ballads into his plays. For, if John B is justly celebrated for his plays, he is first and foremost a poet.

His use of language in his plays makes a literary language of the north Kerry dialect which flourished in his youth and early manhood.

So adept was he at using that dialect that he was once told by an old timer in his pub — “you takes down what we says and you charges us to read it”.

John B Keane’s The Street and Other Poems was published in 1961.

It consisted of 29 poems written in traditional form. Most of them rhyme and scan regularly. Some are freer verse.

He writes of love, his father, his street, nature, music, drink, emigration. His first ‘Letters Of’ appears here: the correspondence between Jack McIntyre, Esquire and Katherine Margaret McHugh prefiguring his famous Letters series he would publish, and which would be widely performed, later on.

John B Keane is a love poet, first and foremost: writing of love of his wife, his family, his native town, nature.

He wrote poetry and songs throughout his life and it is fitting that Mercier Press, Cork, collected them in The Street: Poems & Ballads published in 2003, the year after his death. This volume contains many previously uncollected poems written in his youth as well as poems, songs and ballads written later on. It also includes the poems from his 1961 volume.

John B loved poetry. He could recite reams of it.

His taste in poetry was what one might call traditional but none the worse for that. Without John B the poet there would have been no John B Keane playwright or novelist.

More in this section

Click and connect: 100 places in Munster to shop locally this Christmas