By John Scally
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death John B. Keane. He was born on 30th May 1928 in Listowel, County Kerry and it was here that he spent his literary career, running a pub which provided him with inspiration for his characters and ideas. His first play, Sive, was presented by the Listowel Drama Group and won the All-Ireland Drama Festival in 1959. It was followed by another success, Sharon’s Grave, in 1960.
The Field (1965) and Big Maggie (1969), are widely regarded as classics of the modern Irish stage and jewels in a crown which includes such popular hits as Many Young Men of Twenty, The Man from Clare, Moll, The Chastitute and The Year of the Hiker. His large canon of plays have been seen abroad in cities as far afield as Moscow and Los Angeles.
In 1987 John B. received a special award for his enduring place in Irish life and letters from the Sunday Independent/Irish Life. In that year he also won a Sunday Tribune Arts Award and in 1988 he was chosen as the recipient of the Irish-American Fund Award for Literature. In 1999 he was presented with a Gradam medal, the Abbey Theatre’s highest award. He was a member of Aosdana and the recipient of honorary doctorates from Trinity College, Dublin, Limerick University and Marymount College, New York.
His good friend Brendan Kennelly passed on a piece of mine in the magazine to John B. and the great playwright sent me a note in response. With his note was a poem about Christmas focusing on the fact that for people who were in poverty it was a difficult time and essentially there are two types of people: those who are able to celebrate Christmas and those who are not because they are too poor. This began a friendship formed on a mutual interest in both Gaelic football and religion.
John B. put the Kerry landscape on to the literary stage. Yet while he had no peers when it came to writing about landscapes his real genius is the world of inscapes. The ‘inscape’ describes the world inside each one of us, the secret world of our memories, dreams, feelings, hopes, fears and emotions. It is our inscapes which determine whether we feel confident or vulnerable, valued or inadequate, happy or sad. It is through our inscape we encounter our real selves, other people and God. If Ireland is to be changed, our inscapes must be changed. Never has our country needed attention to inscapes more badly than it does today.
John B. once told me: “I am obsessed with all the people I had lost.” He
was not alone. His greatest achievement was to take the traditional ingredients of the Irish novel: love, loss, family, religion and death and serve them up in a new and wonderful dish.
He spoke softly though confidently with gentle humour, patent sincerity, and above all warmth. In conversation he could be amazingly open, even dangerously unguarded. He abhorred the safe paths of convention. Although he was a fantastic writer when I met John B. what struck me most was that he was a brilliant social commentator. He didn’t give sermons. Instead he recalled incidents from his life which highlighted some of our problems as a people. One story I will never forget was about a boy he went to school with.
“Don’t talk back to me about poverty. I remember a time when there was nothing anywhere. Only the very few had more than enough to eat. Only half the population had barely enough. The rest were simply hungry and broke. One of the saddest memories of my youth was the national school. The teachers were, for the most part, caring but often caring with too much force.
The sad part of school was the hunger of small boys who came from impoverished backgrounds. I remember when I was first elevated to the upper classes, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, I was approached by the smallest scholar on the upper floor. ‘Keane!’he called listlessly. ‘Any chance you’d bring us a cut of bread and jam.’ This was during the morning break. Every so often I would bring him something to eat. He died from diphtheria in the late 1930s. He was a lovely soul. His emaciated face is still with me. He had a voice like a lark and a spirit that was pure and free but he was no match for poverty and indifference”
John B.’s acclaimed writings often focused on a character reliving the past with a proliferation of missed opportunities and secret griefs. The narrator wanders between two worlds via two stories of love and loss from his past, both of which end in violent death. A fascinating area of exploration in his work is the way love and death both inspire and drain hope. Indeed some of his writing has many parallels with the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. Death and love achieve redemption and heal the sores of the past.
John B. would probably have agreed with the old adage that religion is for those who are afraid of going to hell: spirituality is for those who have been there already!
He is sometimes linked with the late Leitrim writer John McGahern in terms of themes. His writing on nature mirrors McGahern in places.
As John B. Keane’s wonderfully evocative play, The Field demonstrated land is crucial to Irish people not just in economic terms but in terms of identity. Nature opened up new avenues of exploration for him in his attempt to interpret the meaning and truth of the Christian experience with the God of Jesus Christ for him.
John B.’s parting words to me were his unique blessing: “That the frost might never afflict your spuds: that your cabbages will always be free from worms: that the crows might never pick your stack: that your she-goat might never dread the puck – and should you by good fortune come into possession of a mare donkey, may she be in foal.”