She was a woman of many names. Also known as ‘Mary O’Connor’, ‘Mary the Shop’, and ‘Mary the Pensioner’, it was the title of ‘Mary John B’ that charmed her the most.
Mary Keane’s daughter Joanna told mourners at her mother’s funeral how her parents’ great love story began when playwright John B Keane was “knocked off his perch” at Walsh’s ballroom during Listowel Races in 1949 when he clapped eyes on his future wife, Mary O’Connor, for the first time.
She then became his inspiration and the love of his life.
Mrs Keane, 86, died at the Bon Secours Hospital in Tralee on Saturday morning — Pattern Day in her native Knocknagoshel.
Nursing staff form a guard of honour at the funeral.
More than a thousand mourners packed into St Mary’s Church yesterday, spilling out on to The Square. Among them were some familiar faces from the worlds of theatre, politics, and sport, including artistic director of the Gate Theatre Michael Colgan, diaspora minister Jimmy Deenihan, MEP Seán Kelly, and legendary Kerry footballers Mick O’Connell, Maurice Fitzgerald, Sean Walsh, Kieran Donaghy, and Marc Ó Sé.
Although her mother was a great raconteur, Joanna said she selflessly gave her father the space and liberty to work as a professional writer while she ran the shop and pub on William St, Listowel, and raised their four children.
President Michael D Higgins, who was represented by his aide de camp, Lt Cmdr Patricia Butler of the Naval Service, once referred to Mrs Keane affectionately as “that great gatekeeper”.
Under no circumstances was her husband to be disturbed when he was writing, no matter who the caller was. On one occasion, it happened to be Hollywood actors Gabriel Byrne and wife Ellen Barkin who called in to the pub to meet the man himself.
Not realising their fame, they were told John B wasn’t in. A conversation ensued and Byrne was asked to mind the bar while she ran an errand.
The next time she met her ‘helper’ was at the opening night of The Man from Clare, when he was guest of honour.
Siun and Maire Ó Sé, daughter and wife of Kerry GAA legend Páidí, at the funeral of Mary Keane.
“She backed our father and stood by him through thick and thin,” Joanna said. “She coaxed and cajoled him to drive on relentlessly in spite of rejection and unfavourable reviews, and even when threatened with excommunication.”
At the same time, her mother was no saint and took no prisoners.
“She could clear a pub better than any guard. She dearly loved Conor, Billy, John, and myself but she was always one step ahead of us,” Joanna said, adding that Charlie Haughey once said of her: “I’ll get the kiss and the welcome from Mary but that’s all I’ll get.”
Up until the age of 86, Joanna said, their mother often threatened to pack her bags and leave and go back to her own people.
Chief celebrant and parish priest of Ballyheigue, Fr Tom Leane, a first cousin of Mrs Keane, revealed the tragedy that shaped her life.
Music promoter Denis Desmond was among the many mourners at the funeral.
Her mother, Bridget, died shortly after the birth of her youngest brother, Tim. Her father, Con, died when she was only 16, leaving five children.
Fr Leane spoke of her great faith and spirituality and her certainty of the afterlife. The news of her death was broken to him by Joanna with the words: “Mom’s gone to heaven.”
Her daughter finished her eulogy with some ‘classic Maryisms’, sayings her mother used that revealed a sharp wit and tongue, such as: “A woman’s no good without a bit of temper”; “shop in your own town or you’ll have no town”; and “throw on the coat and go out with your husband or else he’ll go astray”.
No doubt this week when faced with adversity, the Keanes will heed their mother’s advice, repeated daily: “Put on your shop smile and hoor it out.”
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