Celtic Junction Arts Review

John B. Keane, Publican and Playwright

Dr. Steven Griffith

John B. Keane at his pub. Posted on Facebook by “John B. Keane’s Pub, Listowel, Co. Kerry”

When John B. Keane died on May 30, 2002, at the age of 73, the nation of Ireland went into mourning. Even his closest friends were surprised at his passing. Of course, most knew that Keane had struggled with prostate cancer for several years, but there was something about John B. (as many called him) that suggested he would last forever. At his passing, tales were told of his life, his dedication to his wife, Mary, and three children, his kind heart, and the hours he spent listening to the troubles of others as he leaned on the bar of his pub in Listowel, in the “Kingdom of Kerry”.

Playwright of the People cover art

Many of Keane’s friends, both famous and not-so-famous, contributed to a moving volume of tributes titled, Playwright of the People, published in 2004 by the North Kerry Literary Trust to benefit the Kerry Literary and Cultural Centre in Listowel which Keane co-founded. But in a very real sense, when Keane passed away, something else in Irish culture died. For most of his adult life, John B. Keane was not only a prolific playwright, novelist, newspaper columnist, essayist, and guest on countless Late, Late Shows with Gay Byrne, he was observer and spokesperson for the people outside the big cities of Ireland. A chronicler of the life in the small towns and villages of rural Ireland, Keane drew on both the ancient folklore of the country, and the life stories of the ordinary people who entered his public house to share good times and weep during bad times. Keane’s death silenced an often lone voice that, although often critical of rural Irish life and mores (including the Catholic Church and the sometimes small-mindedness of rural people), would not let the Ireland of the Celtic Tiger forget its rural roots.

On their wedding day, 1955. Tweeted by their son Conor Keane (@ConorKeane)

John B. Keane was born July 21, 1928, in Listowel, County Kerry, fourth of the ten children in his family. His father was a teacher in the local national school. His mother, Hannah, came from a nationalist family and worked as a draper. During the Civil War, Hannah was a member of Cumann na mBan and ran messages for the IRA. Keane was a good student, but a prankster, who sometimes got into trouble for talking back to his teachers. As a student, he had some success writing poetry, winning competitions and publishing a few of his poems. After leaving secondary school, Keane apprenticed to a local pharmacist, hung around town with his mates playing football and for a time, rugby, and fell in love with Mary O’Connor, a beauty from a nearby town.

Times were tough in Ireland after “The Emergency” (as WWII was called in neutral Ireland) and like so many of his generation, in 1951 Keane decided to leave Ireland and find work in England. His goal was to make enough so that he and Mary might marry. After working all day in a hot, dirty, foundry in Northampton, Keane would often find himself alone in his room, writing poetry and dreaming of Mary. His life in exile was not a happy one, and later as a lifelong member of the Fine Gael party, Keane would rail against the scourge of emigration and the Fianna Fàil government that couldn’t provide decent work for its citizens. Finding it difficult to be apart from the love of his life, in 1954 he returned to Ireland and eventually returned to his job as pharmacist in Listowel. Just before they married in 1955, John and Mary invested their savings (including Mary’s dowry) in The Greyhound, a small pub in Listowel. By day, Mary and John would tend bar. After the pub closed, in a room over the pub, Keane would write.

Kerry Playwright: Sense of Place cover art

But what was it about Keane that resonated in such a profound way with the Irish? Why have his plays been produced in almost every town in Ireland, but have been lackluster on Broadway in the United States and elsewhere? Why has so little been written about Keane by the academic community? Keane’s lone biography titled, John B. by Gus Smith and Des Hickey (1992, 2002) reads more like a reminiscence about an old friend, than a typical academic biography. Although much beloved at the time of his death, appreciation for his plays was not universal and most were rejected early on by the Abbey Theatre and Dublin’s theatre critics. Why this is so likely has more to do with the love/hate relationship the urban Irish have with the rural Irish than anything else. This divide has existed for generations, even though almost all city dwellers in Ireland have roots in the country. Keane’s lukewarm reception in the United States, even among the Irish diaspora, may be due in part to the fact that his theatrical work often comes off as highly critical of rural Irish life. Like J. M. Synge 50 years before him, Keane’s truthfulness works against the nostalgic vision of Ireland held by many Irish-Americans. Or, it may be as Sister Marie Hubert Kealy argues in her book, Kerry Playwright (1993), understanding the work of Keane is dependent on understanding mid-century rural Ireland.

Poster from the original production of Sive. Tweeted by Conor Keane (@ConorKeane)

Sive (old Irish for Sheila), Keane’s first major play was rejected by the Abbey Theatre before being produced by the Listowel drama club in 1959. The play exposes the dark side of the Irish customs of arranged marriage and land primogeniture. Although it is likely that at the time of its production, not many in Ireland were subject to arranged marriages, such events were part of the memory and landscape of rural Ireland. Sive went on that year to win the All-Ireland Drama Festival. After a successful tour throughout Ireland, the amateur company was hosted at the Abbey Theatre, where it was cheered by the opening night audience packed with Kerry friends and family, but received mixed reviews from the critics. The Abbey Theatre kept Keane at arms-length for years after, and it wasn’t until Joe Dowling (later artistic director at the Guthrie Theatre) became artistic director in the late 1970s that Keane’s work became part of the Abbey Theatre’s regular repertoire. In 1999 the Abbey gave Keane its highest award, the Gradam Medal, for his outstanding contribution to Irish theatre. Even so, only a few of his plays have been produced at the Abbey, the most recent being a revival of Sive in 2014.

Keane’s second play, Sharon’s Grave (1960) drawing on Irish folk mysticism and the Irish obsession with the land was also rejected by the Abbey Theatre. According to Smith and Hickey, the Abbey’s managing director, Ernest Blythe, felt that some of the characters were “too grotesque for words” and may have rejected the play without fully reading it. Keane himself told the story of gluing two pages of the play together before submitting it to the Abbey and getting it back in the same condition! In the play, Trassie Conlee and others of her family are psychologically tortured by cousin Dinzee who can’t walk and is carried around on his brother’s back. It is a deep, dark play that also uses a common theatrical device (the arrival of a stranger) to add to the drama and danger. In Many Young Men of Twenty (1961) Keane writes from his own experience and takes on the subject of emigration, and in The Highest House on the Mountain (1961) the playwright deals with repressed sexual desire (the character of Mikey Bannon substitutes a love of food for his lost wife), something Keane returns to in The Chastitute (1981).

John Hurt with Richard Harris in Jim Sheridan’s 1990 film The Field
Letters of a Successful T.D. cover art

Although his early work may be his best, in the ensuing 40-plus years, John B. continued to create vivid and unique characters in his over 19+ plays, most rooted in rural Ireland. In the United States, if recognized at all, it is for his play The Field, which was made into a movie of the same name in 1990 by director Jim Sheridan starring Richard Harris as the Bull McCabe. Bull is a violent man who hasn’t spoken to his wife in 20 years, although they coexist in the same house. Although substantially altered by Sheridan for American audiences, the film captures the closeness of small town Ireland and the Irish obsession with the land. In addition to coveting land, another through-line in much of Keane’s theatrical work is the role of women in rural Ireland. From Maggie, in Big Maggie (1969) to the title character in Moll (1971) Keane created women who are not afraid to assert themselves, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Keane was a master storyteller, both in his audience pleasing plays and his other prose. His Letters of a Successful TD in 1967 was the first of many such books using back and forth letters to tell of life in rural Ireland. In addition, Keane wrote several story collections centered on Christmas, and four novels.

Tweeted by Conor Keane (@ConorKeane)

Much like America’s Neil Simon and England’s Ray Cooney, the work of John B. Keane reliably draws audiences, but seldom receives praise from high-brow theatre types, academics, and professional critics. His plays come from a time and place in Ireland that, if it still exists at all, is fast fading away. Plays about ornery parents, matchmakers, banshees, celibate bachelor farmers, and funny priests may no longer be relevant in a post-Celtic Tiger, post-Catholic, post-rural, post-COVID, EU Ireland. Minnesotans might see a similarity with the work of Garrison Keillor and the tales of Lake Wobegon. As we come up to the 20th anniversary of his passing and the 100th anniversary of his birth, it will be interesting to see how the work of John B. fares. Has the distance from Ireland’s small town, rural past become too great for modern audiences to relate to Keane’s folksy, quirky characters, and their struggle with long gone cultural mores? Or, will his work join that of Synge and O’Casey in expressing universal, ageless truths about the human condition? Only time will tell.

The author encourages anyone interested in learning more about the work of John B. Keane to enroll in John B. Keane: His Life and Work, a three night course offered by the Irish College of Minnesota which begins on November 15.