Celtic Junction Arts Review
Issue 17, Samhain 2021
Archiving and Articulating Celtic Heritage
A quarterly publication of the Irish College of MN
“There is money-making everywhere. The face of the country is changing,” snaps the elderly tinker, Pats Bocock in the 1985 Abbey Theatre production of John B. Keane’s classic play, Sive (1959) summing up a central theme in his work.
Caught between the ancient rural world and a money-obsessed modernizing Ireland, how can an authentic Irishness survive? John B. Keane (1928-2002), the shrewd and wily publican playwright universally known simply as John B. was an Irish national treasure. He personified Count Kerry’s wit and candor in an inimitable fashion during his forty years of literary success following the 1959 milestone production of Sive in his native town of Listowel. Dr. Steven Griffith, the Irish College’s drama teacher, argues that Keane’s death in 2002 perhaps represented a symbolic death of a connection to the rural roots of an increasingly internationalized, Americanized, ironic, hip, and (perhaps?) vacuously postmodern Ireland.
On a personal note, I corresponded with Keane when producing and directing plays for the Titanic Players in the Titanic Lounge in Kieran’s Irish Pub in Minneapolis in the late 1990s. Having arrived in Minnesota in August 1993, I was hoping he would offer a reasonable discount to a recent Irish emigrant. I was naïve in my expectation (and not for the last time). When permission to produce and direct The Chastitute (starring local Dubliner Eddie Owens) arrived from the Listowel oracle himself there was a robust price tag in his short businesslike handwritten letter: $400. After a second note seeking payment arrived, I hurried to send the check. No further correspondence ensued. In the spirit of the tinker Pats Bocock who hammers the floor with his walking stick to get attention, let’s admit: the production made money and all were satisfied. He knew his worth and fair play to him.
His plays had already frequently been produced in Minnesota. Na Fianna Irish Theatre – a community theatre group operating from 1987-2002 – presented in the Weyerhauser auditorium in St.Paul’s Landmark Center well-rounded and insightful renditions of Moll, The Field, and The Year of the Hiker, usually directed by Kerry architect, Dan Gleeson. Their productions are fondly remembered. They donated their archive of posters, programs, and video recordings to the McKiernan Library over the past summer so Keane’s presence here will be properly documented.
In our next article, Jackie Hesse, a writer with a sharp predilection for how the Gothic and strange arise in the everyday turns her mind’s eye to memories of Halloween which she expertly peels back to reveal layers of eerie cultural history and lore. Halloween, she argues, is a “mosaic or patchwork of Greek, Roman, Catholic and Pagan holidays” rooted in the ancient Celtic celebration of the end of summer: Samhain.
Returning to the Arts Review is the veteran stalwart of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Clive Geraghty who offers us humorous reminiscences of an actor’s escapades. The heart of his memoir piece is a celebration of the great Dublin playwright and satirist, Hugh Leonard (1926-2009) who almost visited Minnesota in 2001 for the Guthrie Theater’s production of Da but was prevented by the 9/11 attacks.
Leonard was another towering figure in Irish literature who like John B. Keane was a returned emigrant to Ireland who made his home in a small village, – in his case the small fishing village of Dalkey south of Dublin. He cast a very cold eye on Irish life while scoring many popular successes, particularly with his classic of a character torn between the worlds of the past and present, Da (1973).
Keane was a rural humorist and Leonard an urban satirist – both wrote with a hard-edged compassionate wit. Both were popular playwrights neglected by academics.
Mary McCormick, the Irish College’s fiction teacher, evokes the life and times of the great Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), creator of the “first Irish novel, the first socio-historical novel, the first Big House novel, and the first saga novel.” Admired by such giants of nineteenth-century fiction as the Scottish Sir Walter Scott (who affectionately addressed her as “the great Maria”), the English Jane Austen, her younger contemporary, and the Russian Ivan Turgenev, Edgeworth was ironically a tiny woman – less than five feet tall – but irrepressible, witty, and hugely intelligent. She eluded the heavy-handed supervision of her inventor father to write arguably the foundational novel of the Irish novel tradition, Castle Rackrent (1800).
Regular Celtic Junction Arts Review contributor, Réamonn O’Ciaráin, director of Armagh’s Irish language cultural centre, Aonach Mhacha, who visited us in St. Paul in August 2019 offers a nuanced meditation on nationalist history in a review of Professor Gregory Knipe’s The Fourth Northerners: and the Irish Revolution. This comprehensive history looks at the IRA’s regional Fourth Northern Division spread across Counties Louth, Armagh, and Down and later along the borders of Antrim, Monaghan, and Tyrone from 1913 to the 1920s. It was a tumultuous time in Ireland’s history and this substantive documentation is to be welcomed even as the pain experienced by both sides in the conflict is acknowledged.
We hope you enjoy this rich array of articles from authors in Minnesota, Armagh in Northern Ireland, and Dublin in the Republic of Ireland showcasing the international conversations animating Irish literary and historical traditions.
Patrick O’Donnell – Editor, contributing writer, and founder of the Celtic Junction Arts Review; Director and founder of the annual Irish Arts Week; and, Director of Education and founder of CJAC’s Irish College of Minnesota.