John B Keane’s pub in Listowel remains the haunt of poets, storytellers and musicians, writes Dónal Hickey
It’s the photograph of Dan Paddy Andy, the matchmaker immortalised in the writings of John B Keane, that stands out among the images of many luminaries hanging on the walls.
The eyes of the auld rogue with the ‘roundy’ glasses gaze out at you from under his countryman’s peaked cap. A bit like the Mona Lisa, in the Louvre, he seems to be watching you no matter where you position yourself in the famous Listowel public house: as if still sizing up potential matches.
Dan, also a dancehall-owner who is credited with getting well over 300 couples to form life-long partnerships, is vying for attention with actors, writers, leading politicians and footballers.
But the compelling man with the triple name is the first many people are drawn to when they enter the Keane premises.
The walls are cluttered with Keane memorabilia and the place has become a shrine to the writer who lived there for 47 years. All this in a town which has two monuments and a road dedicated to him.
Talk in the bar often provided inspiration to Keane, with stories, colourful language and phrases straight from the tongues of north Kerry folk finding their way into his plays and books. Today the customer base was international, with bookish and artistic types from different countries popping in to see the place and mixing with the regulars.
Getting on the wall is an honour in itself — Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney has been waiting for a year, or two, but is going up shortly.
Bearded Richard Harris has a menacing look as he glares from a poster for the movie, The Field, and there, too, are other screen stars: Brenda Fricker, Gabriel Byrne, Mick Lally, Patrick Bergin and John Hurt, to name just a handful.
An eclectic political mix includes Gerry Adams, Charlie Haughey, Mary Robinson, Dick Spring, Bertie Ahern, Mary McAleese, Jimmy Deenihan and Garret FitzGerald.
Billy Keane, who now runs the bar, loves to rest his elbow on the counter and tell a yarn, like his late father.
When the late Charlie Haughey came to Listowel to open the annual Writers’ Week, he had to make an obligatory call to Keane’s, which left the family in something of a dilemma.
Conscious of the then Taoiseach’s liking for expensive wine, they purchased the best vintages they could get. They were surprised to find he was easy to please, however. “When he was asked what kind of wine he’d like to have, he just said ‘whatever yeer drinking yeerselves’,” Billy recalls, with a chuckle.
Small by today’s standards, this is a warm, cosy bar with a homely feel. Billy and his mother, Mary, put the emphasis on chat, craic and songs — all garnished, unsurprisingly, with a little dollop of drama. They don’t have Sky Sport.
“This is a talking pub. There are loads of television pubs and is there anything worse than watching a bad soccer match on a wet Tuesday night?” Billy suggests.
He has introduced pub theatre two nights a week at certain times of the year. Performances, which last for around 45 minutes, might include extracts from plays by Keane, or other dramatists.
Singers such as Mickey McConnell and Eoin Hand, the former Irish soccer manager, and north Kerry poet Gabriel Fitzmaurice are among the regular entertainers.
When John B and Mary Keane bought the premises in 1955, there were 72 pubs in Listowel. Today, there are 19, reflecting the huge decline in the licensed trade which has accelerated in recent years.
“February and March this year was the worst ever period for the trade and February was the worst in living memory,” Billy says.
“But, I think we will survive if we keep doing things differently and having events like pub theatre. Pubs have to be clever to try and entice people out of their living rooms and away from the red wine. The challenge is to get them to come back to pubs again.” Listowel publicans are lucky, he adds, in that they have two ‘bail-outs’ each year — Writers’ Week and Listowel Races.
John B Keane’s close friend, the poet Brendan Kennelly, also features prominently in the bar. A framed and impeccably hand-written tribute by Kennelly has a special place. The last verse runs:
God bless your heart,
God bless your pen,
God keep your spirit free.
I thank the God
who gave my world
The Spirit of John B.
JOHN B: in his own words
* On the Kingdomof Kerry:Addressing the Old House of Parliament in Dublin in 1793, the great Irish advocate, John Philpot Curran, commented adversely that the magistracy of the county of Kerry were so opposed to the laws of the land that they were a “law unto themselves, a Kingdom apart”. The name stuck and at balls and banquets thereafter the Kingdom was toasted roundly. In fact there are many Kerrymen who say there are only two real Kingdoms, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Kerry.
* On the Irish accent:It is still the same in the Stacks Mountains, all through Renagown, Glounamucmae and Tubbernanoon as well as Dromadomore and Knockadirreen. The Irish accent remains, and you cannot but fail to hear it should you care to sojourn in Carrigcannon or Knocknagoshel. It’s alive and well and beautiful, this language with the English words and the Irish accent. It’s as though the accent was waiting for the Irish language to return.
* On Kerry footballers:A Kerry footballer with an inferiority complex is one who thinks he’s just as good as everybody else.
* On bringing home a drunk: My advice to you would-be benefactors in this respect is to convey the misfit to the vicinity of his home. Mark well the word vicinity. Under no circumstances convey him to the door itself. Dislodge him at least one door away from the one which is his. Prop him against the wall or, better still, seat him gently on his posterior with his back to a solid surface where he can come to no harm. Then draw breath as the man said and knock upon the fellow’s door. Having executed a substantial knock withdraw as though you had deposited a lost lion cub at the entrance to its mother’s den. In other words, run for your life.
* On Kerry tackling:Now listen lads, I’m not happy with our tackling. We’re hurting them but they keep getting up.
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