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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

John B. Keane

"He'll be elected all right if he gets the Jewish vote in Lyreacrompane".

One of the many memorable quotes of the late John B.

John B. Keane was born in Listowel on Saturday 28th July 1928. He was fourth in a family of five boys and four girls. Those who knew him in later life were surprised to learn that he didn't speak until he was three.

As a child, living in the town, he had a great love of the countryside. In "Self-Portrait " he says, "Always as a small boy I had a longing to go to the mountains, particularly on sunny mornings when the air was fragrant and the skies were blue".

Towards the end of his life I interviewed him for my radio programme, "The Story and The Song". He told me about how he was dispatched "on the Creamery lorry" to his relatives in the Stacks Mountains during the summer holidays. " . . . I was dropped off at the Ivy Bridge which for me was to turn out a magic bridge, because the minute I crossed over that bridge I became a new man. I began to know something about country people. And they had a beautiful language, all of their own; half Irish, half English . . . and when that was fused with the language of Elizabeth . . . it became a beautiful language altogether, with great range. You'd never be stuck for a phrase or a word. It's such a beautiful language. I was never as happy as when I was up there. If I hadn't crossed the Ivy Bridge on that day long ago . . . I wouldn't have been a writer".

He met and observed some very interesting characters in the Stacks. He told a story about a German named Karl Gutthind who acted as technical advisor to Bord na Mona and, "When the second World War came he left for Germany. The Russians, I'm sure, must have been surprised at his Lyreacrompane accent and wondered what strange business a Stacksmountainman might have in Stalingrad. He gave me a small flashlight which I swapped a week later for ten Woodbines . . . "

Writing was to become his life. One early experience would probably have turned a lesser person against the pen. During an elocution class in school each pupil was asked to recite a poem. John B. recited "Church Street" which was his own composition. When asked who wrote it he replied,

"I did Father". " . . . there followed the worst beating of all and ejection from the class". During school holidays he worked at many jobs from fowl-buying to toiling on a farm in Wicklow.

He wrote a one-act play, "The Ghost of Patrick Drury" which was performed on the top floor of the Carnegie Library, Church Street, Listowel. After leaving school he worked as a Chemist's Assistant in his native town for five years. When he said that he wanted to be a writer and that he was going to England his boss pointed out a fact that John B. was to fully agree with later in life, " It's as easy to write here as there".

It was about this time that, with Stan Kennedy, he started a local Newspaper, The Listowel Leader. The first edition sold 960 copies. There was no second edition simply because the Editorial, in the first edition, told the truth about some local Councillors.

Prior to the 1951 General Election he set up a fictitious political party, the Independent Coulogeous Party, complete with a fictitious candidate, Tom Doodle, who appeared in Listowel.

(It's a long story but if enough readers petition the Editor I may be permitted to tell it in a future edition)

During Writers' week 2007 a life-size statue of John B. was unveiled in the small Square, Listowel by his friend Niall Toibin. (John B's son, Billy, told me, with true Keane solemnity, that "the statue moves at night"



And this year a limestone monument by Kerry Sculptor, Padraig Tarrant was unveiled in the European Garden by Oscar-winner Brenda Fricker.


(left)Billy Keane with father's statute

The following is by no means a comprehensive list of his works but it gives an idea of his prolific output:

Sive (first staged 1959)

Sharon's Grave (1960)

The Highest House on the Mountain (1961)

No More in Dust (1961)

Many Young Men of Twenty (1961)

Hut 42 (1962)

The Man from Clare (1962)

Seven Irish Plays (1967)

The Year of the Hiker

The Field (adapted later as a film of the same name starring actor Richard Harris)

Big Maggie

Moll

The Crazy Wall

The Buds of Ballybunion

The Chastitute

Faoiseamh

The Matchmaker

Novels

The Bodhran Makers

Durango

The Contractors

A High Meadow

Letters of a successful T.D

Essays

Love Bites

Owl Sandwiches

I was always fond of quoting from his works and once when I was spouting a piece from "The Chastitute" the motley gathering listening to me shooting my mouth off thought I was making a boastful autobiographical utterance. The line in question was, " I was seduced by a sixty-two year old deserted wife when I was fifteen. After that auspicious beginning I never looked back".

While he could be hot-headed in matters such as Gaelic football, in the area of understanding the shortcomings of others and forgiveness he was out on his own. Didn't one of his Characters in "The Bodhran Makers" point out that no man should be penalised because he had an industrious penis? He laughed heartily when a person, who hadn't seen "Sive" condemned it on the grounds that, "'Tis all about bastards isn't it?"

During Writer's Week 2002 I walked behind the coffin of this, the humblest of men, who only wanted to be remembered as.." . . the player who scored the winning point in the North Kerry Intermediate Football Final against Duagh in 1951".

I was moved to take up my pen and make a feeble effort to commemorate him:

JOHN. B.

By Mattie Lennon.

Chorus

Before you went you told us not to cry.

On that sad night.

"Let the show go on" you said and then "goodbye".

We shouldn't question why you had to die

Before you went you told us not to cry

As Writer's Week had opened,

For it's thirty-second year,

Where poet and peasant mingle

To absorb Listowel's good cheer.

A cloud crossed hill and valley

From Carnsore to Malin Head,

As news went 'round our island

"The great John. B. is dead"

Chorus.

He who walked with King and beggar

Will lift his pen no more,

To bring out the hidden Ireland

Like no one did before.

He banished inhibitions

To put insight in their stead.

The world stage is brighter

But The "Kingdom's King" is dead.

The dialogue of two Bococs

Is known in every town.

Now the Ivy Bridge links Broadway

To the hills of Renagown.

While men of twenty emigrate

And Sharon's Grave is read,

Or a Chastitute 's forlorn

His memory won't be dead.

Chorus.

They stepped out from the pages

Of The Man From Clare and Sive

To walk behind his coffin

Each character alive.

His Soul, with One-Way Ticket

To The Highest House has sped,

And this world has lost a genius;

The great John. B. is dead.

Chorus.

Copyright Mattie Lennon 2002

(Put to music by John Hoban.)


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