Local hero with global reputation

Gay Byrne, Niall Tóibín and Brenda Fricker recount lasting memories from their meetings with John B Keane

AS HOST of The Late Late Show, Gay Byrne knew that the introduction of John B Keane as his next guest would always make his audience smile. Over several appearances on the Late Late, John B covered a range of subjects in his own inimitable fashion, including match-making, marriage and the nine types of Kerry hoors.

“I first came in contact with Keane in 1963, when he asked me to chair a meeting in the Mansion House for the Language Freedom Movement,” Byrne says. “The Movement were people who loved Irish, but felt compulsory learning in schools was counterproductive and was turning a generation of children away from the language. I refused initially, but then a senior civil servant came out and said that the Movement shouldn’t be allowed to use the Mansion House for the meeting as it was a public building. He also suggested that the Beatles, who were due to visit, should be proscribed. I was so incensed I agreed to chair the meeting, which turned out fairly fractious.

“I think it is fair to say that John B was a man who didn’t suffer fools lightly. But whenever he came on The Late Late Show, there was a huge welcome for him; he always had something unexpected and funny to say. If you went into his pub, it was always full of the most wonderful people and there was a great sense of fun. It was a very special place.”

Over the years, Byrne has seen many memorable productions of John B’s work, from Sive and Big Maggie on stage, through to the film version of The Field. “I think that, like many great writers, including Shakespeare, he realised that the local has a global dimension,” says Byrne. “Human nature doesn’t change that much, whether you are in Japan or Kerry. We all have the same emotions, and although we are capable of great acts of kindness, we are also capable of awful acts of cruelty. All of this was grist to Keane’s mill, and he was a great observer of people and a great judge of character. On his long walks along the river, which he spoke about often, he did a lot of thinking and the end product was some great work.”

John B had a huge impact on those who were required to interpret his words for the stage and screen. Perhaps it is those who are charged with presenting his work to the general public who best appreciate his keen understanding of character and use of the vernacular language of rural Ireland.

Niall Tóibín is one of Ireland’s best-known actors and comedians, a star of stage and screen whose credits included roles in Ryan’s Daughter, Far and Away, The Irish RM and Brideshead Revisited.

Tóibín’s turn as the Bull McCabe in The Field at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1987 was described by one critic as “steady, brooding savagery”. It was a part that perhaps suited his own sometimes truculent and anti-establishment persona. “I worked with John’s brother Eamonn in Radio Éireann and he was a very entertaining man in his own right,” Tóibín says. “I would have met John B many times over the years in Dublin and Kerry, in my drinking days and afterwards, and he was always great company. When I was playing the Bull, he came up to me and said I was the smallest Bull he had ever seen, but that I would scare the shite out of the devil. It is probably one of the best compliments anyone has ever paid me in all my years on stage.”

For Tóibín, it was Keane’s grasp of character and language that differentiated him from other writers. Keane, he says, brought a new realism to the stage. “Sive was the first play to put him on the map and it was very new at the time,” he says. “Synge used a very colourful form of language, which he believed represented the language of the Irish peasantry, and this was often reproduced. It became a standard way of playing certain parts. But Keane understood the brutality of Irish life; he could be highly poetic, but it was real and raw. My mother was from Kerry and I am not unaware of the intricacies of rural life. His language may have been slightly exaggerated, but it also seems very natural; at least to the thundering hoors of north Kerry.”

Tóibín remembers John B best for his wit and the pleasure he gave to people across the country, and recalls an incident that he knows John B would have appreciated. “I was in Listowel to unveil the stature of him and I travelled down with Jimmy Deenihan in the car,” he says.

“On the way, I told two stories about John B that I was intending to use. However, when Jimmy introduced me he used both my stories and I had to stand up in front of a huge crowd scrambling hard for something to say. Jimmy was looking across at me and smiling, as if to say, ‘get yourself out of this one, sonny boy’. I think John B would have been pissing himself laughing if he had seen it.”

Dubliner Brenda Fricker has consistently been one of Ireland’s most powerful actresses and has appeared in more than 30 film and television roles, including My Left Foot, for which she won an Oscar. In 1990, she starred in Jim Sheridan’s film adaptation of The Field as Maggie McCabe, the long-suffering wife of the Bull, whom he has not spoken to in 20 years, following the death of their first son. It was a role that Fricker typically underplayed to perfection. In 1999, she starred as Aunt Maeve in Durango, which was adapted from the John B Keane novel of the same name.

Fricker remembers John B with great affection. “I loved John B and Mary,” she says. “I am honoured to have worked with his beautiful words, so full of music, sadness and joy. I regarded his talent as huge, long before many others. I hold his friendship alive in my heart and miss him every day. He was unique in his combination of humour, understanding, awareness, observation, and in finding the right words to put between full stops. There is no one like him. And there never will be.”


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