John B. Keane
By Brian Lavery of The New York Times
John B. Keane, an Irish writer who recorded the voice of a disappearing generation from his pub in County Kerry, died on Thursday in his beloved hometown, Listowel. He was 73.
Mr. Keane died of complications from prostate cancer, which he had been battling for eight years and had mentioned in his writings. Known to his friends as John B., he wrote 18 plays and 32 works of prose and poetry, including ''The Field,'' which was made into a Hollywood film in 1990.
Mr. Keane's death came on the eve of the annual Listowel Writers' Festival, a weeklong event at which he had long been a dominating and avuncular presence, holding court at the famous watering hole that bears his name. He gathered the voices for his characters over its counter and wrote on a manual typewriter in an office above the bar.
Mr. Keane's stage writing struck a nerve in Irish society. Plays like ''Sive'' and ''Big Maggie'' offered an intimate yet unromantic view of Irish country people, reaching mass theater audiences in an era when few Irish had television sets.
While Mr. Keane embraced the power of myth and the irrational, he explored the complicated psychology of the Irish countryside through straightforward tales: a matchmaker who sells a young girl to an old farmer; a domineering matriarch vainly fighting against her age; a farmer who confronts an outsider over rights to his land.
''What made him a genuine folk dramatist was his refusal to take on face value the notion that Irish country people were simple, devout creatures,'' the critic Fintan O'Toole wrote in The Irish Times. ''He imagined their world as an almost medieval one, in which the forces of darkness and of light, the devils and the angels, were at war. Monsters from the psychic deep . . . interested him far more than the angst of modern living.''
Born in Listowel in 1928, Mr. Keane grew up in a family of 10 children. He came to adore Kerry, a fiercely proud and independent county that juts out into the Atlantic on Ireland's southwest coast. His parents had been actively involved in Ireland's struggle for independence from Britain and its subsequent civil war in the 1920's. He remained a lifelong supporter of Fine Gael, the party founded by Michael Collins.
He lived briefly in England in the 1950's, but returned to live the rest of his life in Listowel. A road that circles the town's outskirts is named after him.
Mr. Keane wrote ''Sive,'' his first play, when he was 30. It was rejected by Ireland's national theater, the Abbey, but the play put him on the map when it won first prize at the amateur All-Ireland Drama Festival in 1959. He then wrote at a breakneck pace, producing seven plays over the next four years. His output slowed somewhat in the mid-1970's and 80's, but a 1986 novel, ''The Bodhran Makers,'' won new audiences and is regarded as among his best work. A lighthearted stage comedy, ''Matchmake-Me-Do,'' had its debut in 2000.
In a 1994 interview about ''The Bodhran Makers,'' he said, ''I was writing about people I knew, people who lived about two miles from Listowel, and that I'd grown up with. They're all gone now, but they made me their spokesperson and I felt a responsibility to tell their story, to preserve a wonderful tradition in written form.''
Mary McAleese, the president of Ireland, and the prime minister, Bertie Ahern, both offered tributes to Mr. Keane after his death was announced.
As he wished, his death did not stop the annual writers' festival in Listowel. A performance of a Keane play quickly sold out on Thursday evening, and the atmosphere in the town has been described as a lingering wake celebrating his life.
Mr. Keane is survived by his wife, Mary; three sons, Billy, Conor and John; a daughter, Joanna; and a large extended family.
A nephew, Feargal Keane, a reporter for the BBC, recounted Mr. Keane's advice on writing in an article in The Irish Times: ''Don't mind the big fellows. They can look out for themselves. Listen out for the small man. He'll tell you the truth.''
Keane's body of work:
1. Letters Of A Successful T. D (1967)
2. Letters of an Irish Parish Priest (1972)
3. Letters of a Love-hungry Farmer (1974)
4. Letters of an Irish Publican (1974)
5. Letters of a Matchmaker (1975)
6. Letters of A Civic Guard (1976)
7. Letters of a Country Postman (1977)
8. Letters of an Irish Minister of State (1978)
9. Letters to the Brain (1993)
The Celebrated Letters of John B. Keane (1991)
Man of the Triple Name (1984)
Owl Sandwiches (1985)
The Bodhran Makers (1986)
The Power of the Word (1989)
The Contractors (1993)
A High Meadow (1994)
The Street (poems) (1961)
Irish Short Stories (1976)
Death Be Not Proud and Other Stories (1976)
Irish Stories for Christmas (1977)
Stories from a Kerry Fireside (1980)
More Irish Short Stories (1981)
Three Plays (1990)
Love Bites And Other Stories (1991)
The Ram of God and Other Stories (1992)
Christmas Tales (1993)
Sharon's Grave (1994)
Innocent Bystanders and Other Stories (1994)
The Field and Other Irish Plays (1994)
Inlaws and Outlaws (1995)
The Voice of an Angel (1995)
More Irish Stories for Christmas (1996)
Under the Sycamore Tree and Other Stories (1997)
A Warm Bed On a Cold Night (1997)
John B. Keane's Christmas (1997)
The Best of John B. Keane (1998)
Irish Stories (1998)
A Christmas Surprise (1999)
An Irish Christmas (2000)
The Little Book of John B. Keane (2000)
The Teapots Are Out and Other Eccentric Tales from Ireland (2001)
A Christmas Omnibus (2001)
Year of the Hiker / Change in Mame Fadden / Highest House On the Mountain (2001)
An Irish Christmas Feast (2002)
Short Stories of John B. Keane (2012)
Many Young Men of Twenty (1961)
The Man from Clare (1962)
The Year of the Hiker (1963)
Hut 42 (1968)
The Rain At the End of the Summer (1968)
Big Maggie (1969)
The Gentle Art of Matchmaking (1973)
The Change in Mame Fadden (1973)
The Crazy Wall (1974)
The Field (1975)
The Good Thing (1979)
The Buds of Ballybunion (1979)
The Chastitute (1981)
The Highest House in the Mountain (1994)
The Ram of God (1996)
Strong Tea (1963)
Is the Holy Ghost Really a Kerryman? (1976)
Unlawful Sex and Other Testy Matters (1978)
Unusual Irish Careers (1982)
Dan Paddy Andy (2003)
Pints Of Porter (2004)
"We might be the literary capital of Ireland but we are also the character capital of Ireland”
Billy has been a barman since the age of 10 and he jokes that his life hasn’t changed very much since. He got involved in the pub again on November 1st, 1993. He cannot say that he took over the pub, because his mother, Mary, was the real boss. At this time there were 41 licences, now there are 14 or 15. Business has gone down a bit but Billy says that “There is hope for rural Ireland, pubs are the parliament of the people, where people get together and chat.”
Running a pub can be tough at times, especially with all of the late nights and while Billy describes himself as the storyteller in the house, he credits his wife Elaine with doing all the really hard work. For a pub to survive, Billy says, “you have to think differently. For example, Mike the Pies was always a great pub and still is, but they have made a name for themselves as a live music venue and are hugely successful.” When Billy got involved in the pub, 26 years ago, he knew that it is best to play to your strengths and started Pub Theatre, “We have a huge reservoir to draw from and incredible local actors who are all friends, because this is a drama pub”. Pub Theatre runs June to August, Tuesdays and Thursdays and the beauty of Pub Theatre is that it is regulars in the pub that make up the performers. Poets, singer songwriters and actors like Gabriel Fitzmaurice and Mickey MacConnell take part each week of the summer, and draw crowds both nationally and internationally. Billy also greets bus tours, who visit throughout the year to hear about the history of the pub and taste Phil’s delicious homemade scones. The local trade is still strong, Billy says, “The farmers are the mainstay of North Kerry and I don’t think they get enough credit for it, if they made money they’ll spend it.
As a writer, Billy writes a column for The Irish Independent newspaper two, sometimes three times a week. He has been writing for the Irish Independent for 17 years, and has a great freedom to write what he wants, and also to mention Listowel on a national platform. He has also written novels, and a selection of his weekly columns, “The Very Best of Billy Keane” has recently been published. As Billy lives in Listowel, he works remotely for the newspaper. While Billy has been working remotely for almost two decades, it has become easier to work from a rural town in recent years. HQ Listowel has opened, providing a workspace for individuals who have decided to live and raise families in Listowel, and technology is making it easier to stay connected. Billy’s advice for working remotely is not to stay remote, “You must meet the people you work with, and get to know them socially. Pick up the phone and speak about the work you have submitted, that way you are connected and they feel like they know you.”
Listowel is a great place to be creative, “You see kids coming from football practice with boots in one hand and a musical instrument in the other, or going to see Jo Jordan for acting lessons in St. Johns. Creative individuals like Aoife Hannon and Olive Stack add to the supportive, creative atmosphere of the town.” Listowel is a town that works together to create a place that people want to visit.