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A wordsmith whose great legacy will live forever

A LIFE LESS ORDINARY: In the fifth in a series chronicling the stories of remarkable people who lived remarkable lives, KillarneyToday.com reflects on the life and times of the wonderful John B Keane – a true Kerry genius whose remarkable work as a writer, playwright, essayist, novelist, balladeer, wit and rogue was a never ending gift to the world

The late great John B Keane

GENIUS – Kerry style – drew its first breath on 21 July 1928 when John B Keane arrived with a healthy bawl, tipping the scales at twelve pounds, at a far from ceremonial weigh-in at 45 Church Street, Listowel.

He was one of 10 children – one died in infancy – born to schoolmaster Williiam and Hannah Keane (nee Purtill) and it was his experiences, growing up in that happy household, that shaped the opinions and the impressions that were later put to such incredibly good use by a gifted man of many parts.

His father, who filled the house with books to provide inspiration for his children, was headmaster of Clounmacon National School and, in the times that were in it, he cycled or walked the not insignificant distance to and from school every day.

John B’s mother, the daughter of a small farmer from Ballylongford, worked as a draper’s assistant before her duties in the home became all-consuming and demanded her undivided attention.

Young John divided his time during his early schooldays moving between his family home on Church Street and that of his close relatives, the Sheehys, at Ivy Bridge in the Stacks’ Mountains.

The status of the great man ensures his memory lives on everyday in his beloved Listowel

It was there that he sampled his first experiences of great Kerry cultures and traditions, like the straw boys and the matchmakers, subjects which he frequently revisited with such flair during the course of his long and exceptionally distinguished career.

A bright pupil at school, where Bryan MacMahon was among his teachers, the young John B also excelled on the football fields and often fantasised about becoming a famous Kerry footballer.

In 1938 he commenced his secondary school education at St Michael’s College in Listowel where he quickly established a reputation for being “a bit of a rebel”.

Later in life he divulged, in his own inimitable way, that he had been subjected to corporal punishment and was suspended from school on a number of occasions for “smoking, speech-making, ballad-writing and play-acting”.

But his mischievous nature was complemented by a great fondness for learning and he had a particular grasp of Irish and Latin as well as English and history.

His work has graced the globe and it is a great tribute to his ability that at least one of his books can be found on dust-laced bookshelves in virtually every house in the country

In his early teens John B developed a great affection for penning his own poetry and short stories as well as orchestrating letter-writing campaigns from the kitchen of the family home.

His first published work appeared in Ireland’s Own and he was overjoyed to receive the princely sum of five shillings in the post for his efforts. By the time he left school at 18, he had won numerous awards for his original poetry.

With a love for writing coursing through his veins, after a brief and unsuccessful career as a foul-buyer, he and a friend opted to launch their own newspaper, The Listowel Leader.

But that venture died a quick death, after just one edition, when they discovered that Listowel was not quite ready for razor-sharp exclusives about his neighbour with bandy legs and the misfortunate local woman who had, somehow, misplaced her bloomers.

He later found more security as an apprentice in a local chemist shop but, all the time, he kept on writing and hoping for that elusive big break.

It was slow in coming and, in 1952, he took the boat to England where he landed a job sweeping floors with a construction firm owned by a relative. But, all that time, his short stories and poems were regularly being published in newspapers and periodicals back home, keeping a constant flicker in the candle of hope that a meaningful career might follow.

“If I hadn’t been a writer, I’d have gone stone mad. I’d have been in jail somewhere,” John B once reflected

“If I hadn’t been a writer, I’d have gone stone mad. I’d have been in jail somewhere,” he later reflected.

Back at home in Listowel in the mid 1950s, the then 26-year-old John B returned to his old job in the chemist shop and proposed to the love of his life, Mary O’Connor from Castleisland.

They combined their life savings to purchase the then Greyhound Bar and grocery shop in Listowel and they were wed on 5 January 1955 in Knocknagoshel Parish Church.

His first play was broadcast on Radio Éireann in 1958 and then he turned his attention to the creation of the masterpiece that is Sive.

The play, performed by the Listowel Drama Group, triumphed at the All-Ireland Drama Finals in Athlone in1959. And the rest is history.

His list of timeless masterpieces is endless: Sharon’s Grave, The Man from Clare, The Year of the Hiker, The Field, Big Maggie, Moll, The Bodhran Makers, Durango and, of course, the brilliant series of Letters, including those of a TD, a Parish Priest and a Love-Hungry Farmer.

So many absolute gems flowed, with ease, from the pen of one of the greatest wordsmiths Kerry, Ireland and the world has ever known.

One of the proudest moments of his career was when The Field was adapted by Noel Pearson for the big screen for a memorable 1990 movie epic starring Richard Harris, Brenda Fricker, Tom Berenger and John Hurt. But, somehow, one always got the impression that he preferred the stage version to the drama of the big screen.

He was, unquestionably, Ireland’s most prolific and humorous writer whose great legacy to the world is hundreds of incredible plays, books, short stories, essays, newspaper columns, poems, ballads, letters and novels.

The Field: Based on John B Keane’s great work

His work has graced the globe and it is a great tribute to his ability that at least one of his books can be found on dust-laced bookshelves in virtually every house in the country.

Most of his great work was crafted on a manual typwwriter in a small, cluttered room over the family pub in William Street, Listowel from where John B watched the world pass by from behind lace curtains and wrote about what he witnessed as only he could.

“I am never stuck for words. All I have to do is look out the window,” he once said.

It was in that house that John B and Mary reared sons Conor, Billy and John and daughter, Joanna, and it was there too that John B and Mary played host to all those who flocked to the William Street hostelry just to catch a glimpse of or shake hands with the great man.

A difficult eight-year battle with ill health forced John B to abandon his writing but it couldn’t prevent him from continuing to exhibit his wonderful humour, his unrivalled witticisms and the words of wisdom which have been, and will continue to be, passed on from generation to generation.

John B Keane, author, playwright, poet, novelist, letter writer, essayist, balladeer, humourist, husband, father, man of the people, passed away at his home on 30 May 2002, the age of 73, but the rich legacy he has left the world will always be cherished.

JOHN B’s LEGACY

PLAYS

  • Sive (1959)
  • Sharon’s Grave (1960)
  • The Highest House on the Mountain (1961)
  • No More in Dust (1962)
  • Many Young Men of Twenty (1962)
  • The Man from Clare (1963)
  • The Year of the Hiker (1963)
  • The Field (1966)
  • The Rain at the End of the Summer (1967)
  • Hut 42 (1967)
  • Big Maggie (1969)
  • Moll (1971)
  • The Change in Mame Fadden (1972)
  • The One-Way Ticket (1972)
  • Values (1973)
  • The Crazy Wall (1974)
  • The Good Thing (19750
  • The Buds of Ballybunion (1976)
  • The Chastitute (1981)

POEMS

  • The Street (1961)

ESSAYS

  • Strong Tea (1963)
  • The Gentle Art of Matchmaking (1973)
  • Is the Holy Ghost Really a Kerryman (1976)
  • Unlawful Sex (1978)
  • Stories from a Kerry Fireside (1980)
  • Unusual Irish Careers (1982)
  • Owl Sandwiches (1985)
  • Love Bites (1991)
  • The Ram of God (1992)

BIOGRAPHY

  • Dan Pheaidí Aindí (1977)

SHORT STORIES

  • Death Be Not Proud (1977)
  • More Irish Short Stories (1981)

LETTERS

  • Letters of a Successful TD (1967)
  • Letters of an Irish Parish Priest (1972)
  • Letters of an Irish Publican (1973)
  • Letters of a Love-Hungry Farmer (1974)
  • Letters of a Matchmaker (1975)
  • Letters of a Civic Guard (1976)
  • Letters of a Postman (1977)
  • Letters of an Irish Minister of State (1978)

NOVELS

  • The Bodhrán Makers (1986)
  • Durango (1992)

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

  • Self-Portrait (1964)

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