John B Keane’s classic tragedy Sive returns to Abbey stage

As John B Keane’s classic tragedy Sive returns to the Abbey stage, his family hope that two of his unseen plays will also be produced, writes Pádraic Killeen

IT is 55 years since John B Keane’s play Sive premiered in Walsh’s Hall in Listowel, Co Kerry. It was a modest debut for a play that was destined to become a landmark of 20th century Irish drama. Keane, a young publican, had sent the play to the Abbey Theatre only to have it returned without comment by the Abbey’s then director, Ernest Blythe. Instead, it fell to Listowel Drama Group, an amateur company, to take on Sive and to make history with it.

Billy Keane, the late writer’s eldest child, was only six months old at the time but he was caught up in the whole thing just the same.

“My mother has the story that I was in the cot the night it opened,” he says. “She was going up to Walsh’s Hall and she looked in on me before going out. She kissed me goodbye and said: ‘Well, when I come back to see you again your father will be a great success. Or else everybody will be laughing at him’.”

Mary Keane needn’t have feared. There was nobody laughing at John B. Sive — a powerful tragedy about a girl being sold against her will in a match to an elderly farmer — was a raging success in Listowel. It was a raging success everywhere the Listowel Drama Group brought it afterwards and it would go on to sweep the All-Ireland Amateur Drama finals in Athlone. In the end, if there was a joke on anyone it was on the Abbey. Swallowing his pride, Blythe invited the amateur players into the national theatre for a week to stage the play. John B Keane had arrived.

In the following decades, writing from his study above the pub in Listowel, Keane turned out countless hits, among them Sharon’s Grave, The Field, and Big Maggie. Along the way he became one of the country’s most beloved personalities, a man admired for his splendid wit, a man with a deep affinity for traditional life, even while at heart he was a social reformer. The Abbey, too, came around to Keane, even if over the years the dramatist’s work has appeared at the national theatre less than it might have done. A new production of Sive, directed by Conall Morrison, has just got underway there this week. The play remains Keane’s most shocking work. In it he exposes all the insidious greed in the Ireland of the 1950s.

“In the play, money is the most important thing,” says Billy Keane. “You’d sell everything — even a young girl — to get on. And if you think about it we never got away from it. The fault of the boom was that we were greedy. We wanted riches without having to work for it. The theme in Sive is that there are more important things than money, such as love, family, and loyalty. And if you don’t put those first then you’ll suffer.”

The inspiration for Sive had come from an encounter Keane had in his own pub with an elderly farmer who asked the playwright to help him pick out a ring for his new bride.

“He was horrified,” says Billy. “It was a match, and a lot of the matchmaking was very successful. But this was just all about money. It was about greed for the land. Nobody had ever written about this before.”

Since their father’s passing in 2002, Keane’s children and his widow Mary have managed the rights for the plays. They remain a special favourite with amateur groups up and down the country.

“If you’re driving through any part of rural Ireland you’ll still see a sign up for one of his plays,” says Billy. “What we do if we’re driving past is take a photograph and bring it back to our mother, because it still means so much to her. As far as she’s concerned, it’s a duty to keep his name up there and keep the work being produced. She knows how much it meant to him.”

Significantly, the family have just struck a deal with MCD Promotions to stage an annual John B Keane season at the Gaiety every summer. Up first this May is a revival of Keane’s religious comedy Moll, a sort of spiritual predecessor of Father Ted. Tantalisingly, the arrangement may eventually see the premiere of two never-produced Keane plays, Piseog and Vigilante.

“That’s a big possibility,” says Billy. “Piseog was written around the time he wrote The Field. It was about superstition and he felt uneasy about it. So he left it. Vigilante was about the GAA ban and how nationalism is defined. But he’d had a lot of controversy over The Field and I think he wanted a rest from it for awhile. So the two plays were lying in the corner and he’d say ‘Will I do these?’. I remember asking him, ‘Dad, do you stand over them?’. And he said, ‘Ah, yeah, they’re good’. He was never one to boast, but he said they were good and by that he meant they were good enough to produce. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens. We feel we’ve got serious people who might be willing to take a gamble. A new John B play is going to be a huge thing. But it’s a bit down the line yet. It could be another year or two before we’re seeing them on the stage.”

Meanwhile, Billy Keane is doing his part to keep the Keane writing tradition alive. In addition to tending the family pub Keane the younger is a well-regarded newspaper columnist and has just published his second novel, The Ballad of Mo and G. He keeps as his mantra the advice his father once gave him: ‘Just write the fecking thing’. “It’s great advice for any writer,” he says. “I don’t think I could ever aspire to the lengths that he went to, but you try to do your own thing. I think I’ve managed to forge my own identity.”

Meanwhile, like his auld lad before him, he’s not above poaching wonderful dialogue straight from the pub. “If you listen for them you get some deadly lines and whenever you get one there’s a great buzz. It’s as if you’ve been out mining for gold up some creek in the Yukon and then all of a sudden a little nugget comes into your pan.”

Here’s to the Keane mining company, then. Still going strong, 55 years on.

* Sive runs at the Abbey, February 12 – April 12; Moll runs at the Gaiety, May 27 – June 7


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