John B. Keane Remembered

John B. Keane reads from Bennet & Company by the late Jerry O'Neil while professor Brian Farrell, chairman of the arts council of Ireland, looks on.

By Victor Walsh, Contributor
October / November 2002

On May 30, 2002, John B. Keane, author, raconteur and much-loved Kerryman, passed away. Keane, at 73, had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1994. The author of 18 plays and 32 works of prose and poetry, including Big Maggie, which played on Broadway in 1982, and The Field, which was made into an award-winning movie starring Richard Harris Keane captured the soul of rural Ireland.

Two years ago, Victor Walsh dropped in to John B. Keane’s pub in Listowel, which is run by Keane’s wife, Mary. He found the author, though ailing, in good humor and agreeable to an interview, which follows.


VICTOR WALSH: Could you tell us about the state of Irish writing today. How has it changed in the last 20 years?

JOHN B. KEANE: Right now Irish writing is in a very healthy condition. It is bursting at the seams. Almost everybody in the country is writing. And at the moment we are in my native town celebrating our annual festival of writing known as “Listowel Writers Week.”

It’s the writing of plays that is really at the moment the gem in Ireland’s crown, because all over the world Irish plays are enjoying unprecedented critical acclaim and unprecedented success, including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Lonesome West both by a young playwright named Martin McDonagh. I could go on and on. It’s inconceivable, people don’t seem to understand it — that the state of writing in this part of the world where I live, has produced so many fine writers of international importance, the oldest of whom was Maurice Walsh, who died quite recently. His short story The Quiet Man was used for the film of the same name. It is a beautiful story and I do think the film did it justice. I am one who actually liked the film. It’s a bit exaggerated, a bit “stage-Irishy,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. Exaggeration is a beautiful commodity, provided it’s kept in control, and it is kept in control in The Quiet Man.

In this locality you also have George Fitzmaurice, regarded as one of the greatest Irish playwrights. His play The Country Dressmaker ran in the Abbey Theatre in 1917 for six months. Then you have from my native town Bryan MacMahon, another famous playwright and novelist who won many awards. You also have the local poet Brendan Kennelly from Ballylongford, who lectured in English at Trinity College. I could go on and on and on.

Writing is second-nature to the Irish, and Irish writing is rooted in the tradition of storytelling. Even in a little town like Listowel, storytelling went on night after night after night. Everyone gathered by candlelight and by the light of small peat fires to listen to a “shenacie” recount great deeds of the past.

So oral tradition plays a very important role?

It plays a major part. One of the greatest books I’ve ever read is a book called Independent People: An Epic, written by Halldór Laxness, who belatedly won a Nobel Prize. The year he was first nominated for the prize (1953), Winston Churchill won it. But after a great public outcry on his behalf, Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. He would never have written this book and never won the Nobel Prize but for the oral tradition of the Icelandic people, who are, of course, Celtic people. This is very important to remember: The Celts, from whom all the Irish are descended, are great weavers of words. This is, I think, a Celtic trait.

Myself, for instance, I am convinced that I have a tail, an invisible tail, and when I’m addressing an audience this tail twitches and wags itself. It frequently wags me into trouble. Sometimes I find it very difficult to extricate myself because we also have a lot of belligerence in the Irish make-up and some gentlemen are not above resorting to a belt with a fist when they’re confronted by a know-all writer.

When I go out walking in my native town, every time I meet little children in the back roads playing football they’ll stop me and say, “John, tell us a story.” And I sit down there, wet or dry, and I make a story up. And it had better be good because there are critics even among them. So it gives me great hope for the future — not just of the Irish people, but for the future of humanity — to know that interest in literature is mounting everywhere and that there’s such a high regard for it.

Could you tell us about your pub? Why did you buy a pub and how important is it to your writing?

I bought a pub, I suppose, to subsidize my writing. A few years after I bought it I signed it over to my beloved wife. I had complete freedom to write. I had been writing in those early days with empty pockets. And the filling of those pockets was more important to me at the time than writing, because mouths had to be fed and later children had to be educated and I wasn’t making any money. People were praising my work, but I was getting peanuts.

And then one night downstairs in the bar, after a few pints, I was regaling some friends of mine with some fanciful tales about my travels in England. And an old man said to me, “You know, John, you’re shagging phantasms. You should write a play.” And it stayed with me. And I remember going to see a play in 1958 called All Souls’ Night by a remarkable man called Joseph Tomelty, whose daughter is now a distinguished actress of stage and screen. I was very impressed, and I said to my wife Mary on the way back from the theatre, “I can write a play as good as that.” That night at the bar I began to write my first play, The Sive, and after that I never looked back. I wrote 19 plays. A number of them have been made into films. The Field, probably my best-known work, was made into a film and Richard Harris got a nomination for an Oscar for the main role of the Bull McCabe. Then another novel of mine about the town Durango was made into a film by Hallmark Productions. They made a beautiful film, and they intend to do some more.

I’ve always said that there are three forms of writing that compare with horse racing. First of all is the poem, which is sharp and tricky. There’s a science to it. If you fall from a horse in a fast race, you defeat the objective. I regard a poet to be like the fast horse. Next you have the hurdle. To hear the smack and the slap of the hurdle as the horses go over, if you’re a racing fan like I am, is a wonderful experience. I believe that the jumping hurdle is like writing a play. If you take the hurdle badly, horse and rider can be damaged. It’s the same with a play. If you foul up a play, it perhaps will be seen by the astute and unbridled critic. And finally there’s the novel. I was talking about this only last night to the Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham, a brilliant man and a great conversationalist. I compare the novel to the steeplechase because in a steeplechase, if you meet a tough fence, you might fall off but you can remount. That’s why the novel would suit many a man who doesn’t like to be corralled or hemmed-in by accuracy. Accuracy is a fine thing in precision instruments but not in a novel to a writer who doesn’t like to be pinned down. I think that those are three analogies that are well-constituted.

Mary and John at the John B. Keane tribute night.

What are your thoughts about John Synge? Some scholars claim that he was closest to the Irish people as a writer and yet, he was an uppercrust Protestant, removed by religion and social class from them. What explains this irony?

George Fitzmaurice was closer to the Irish people. He was a Protestant too — a descendant of the landed gentry. He and his family lived in the Bedford House near Listowel all their lives. He had a more authentic voice because his was the “spoken language.” His writings showed not only the traditional life of the people, but the lyricism and nuances of their speech.

Our language here, and in many parts of Ireland, is a “spirit language”; that is to say, it runs like a river, a river with high waters. It gurgles, it chortles, it whispers in wisps, and makes all sorts of wonderful sounds — beautiful sounds of the water spilling over and lapping against the stones — all different because of the ebb and flow of the water.

The language of this region (North Kerry) is the love child of two languages: the Elizabethan English and Bardic Irish. The Bardic Irish is court Irish, distinct from the Irish spoken by ordinary people in the 1600s. The castles in this town were sacked by Cromwell’s soldiers during the reign of Charles I in the 1640s. At that time the government used to hire bards to do their office work, to write their letters and their histories and to draw up agreements. These people were known as an bhairdne. They were the Irish literary people. They adopted and used Elizabethan English — it was Shakespeare’s time. It was a beautiful, romantic, colorful language, the most beautiful in the world at that time. And when these two languages fused, it begot a new language, a love child, as we would say here in Ireland — not a bastard, mind you, but a love child. That love child is the language that has assisted every writer in Ireland, one way or the other, but especially here over the centuries. It’s a wonderful language, passed down from one generation to the next, so that people are very fond of using the colorful phrase.

I remember one time I knew an old matchmaker in the Stack Mountains just down the road here, a man called Dan Paddy-Andy — a beautiful sounding name. He made lots of matches in his time, but all his life he had courted a woman called Maire Din and eventually he won her over. And when he was dying, his barber — Sweeney was his name — said to him, “God damn you, Dan, there are two black curls on the back of your coat.” And Dan looked around and said, “Sweeney, you see these curls. They are the very same curls that brought Maire Din down from her perch and brought us sane and safely together.” He could put together a phrase like that, an insignificant phrase.

So the language we use here is vivid, it’s colorful, it’s highly charged with romanticism, but it’s not anachronistic. It suits, I would say, the poet, the playwright, the novelist, and the storyteller. Lying is one of the greatest attributes of the storyteller. A couple of good liars in a community will keep smiles on the people’s faces. I’m glad to say that we have a number of first-class liars left in the western seaboard.

Could you talk about some of your own work and the importance of land to the traditional people? The characters seem ruthless, obsessed. They go to great lengths to fulfill their goals, even to the point of sacrificing others, in The Field, Bull McCabe connives to take a plot of land away from an old widow, which results in the death of a rival — a stranger from England. And Mena in Sive is a scheming matchmaker who plots to sell her daughter to a lecherous old man.

No, you have it wrong. Bull McCabe is a driven man, a ruthless man, who is capable of inflicting injury, but he has to have the land for he is its tenant, its protector. The outsider who tries to buy it and pave it over has no rightful claim to the land. All down through history, that theme has been repeated. It is especially true of men, and I wrote the play as a man.

I have seen men kneel down in a green field of fleecy grass to see if it’s ripe for meadowing. They feel the texture of it between their hands, and they stroke it as if it were a woman’s hair. I’ve seen them stroke ripened wheat as if it were golden tresses. Their gestures transcend affection, even love. They cherish everything that grows on the land. They cherish the land itself. It’s their way of responding to the nerves of nature. Nature doesn’t speak, but it can communicate beautifully with people who appreciate it. There’s a line in my play The Field that says, “Listen to the whisper of grass, for that is the first real music that was ever heard.”

I remember taking a break from my writing once and taking a walk through my field after a near deluge of rain. As I proceeded through the soggy field I heard all around me what sounded at first to be witch whispers. But when I stood and listened more carefully and gave my undivided attention to the sound, I discovered it was the field drinking. It began absorbing the rain. The field was totally enjoying itself. I myself, when I drink beer, which I love, I make a lot of noise, and I do this deliberately because I derive greater satisfaction that way and it takes me much longer to get drunk. But it’s the same with these fields. It’s as though they were human on that particular day. And ever since then, whenever I am in the countryside after a rain and I hear this magnificent magical whisper of rejuvenation, of restoration, I just know that it’s the refurbishment of the greens — the grasses and the leaves. I’m overjoyed. It is, as the Bull McCabe said in The Field, “the first music that was ever heard.”

I’m a writer and my wife is a cook. I have in me a great love of land and a great appreciation of land and, while I know it’s necessary, I often resent seeing land being plowed up. I know it looks beautiful afterwards with the glinting plow cutting through the lonely land and the glinting, shining furrows, and the flocks of crows following. And it’s good for the workers, particularly people who are dependent on the land. So it’s very difficult for an outsider — one who is not a farmer — to comprehend this obsession the Irish people have for land.

You’ll remember in Ireland in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, there was a mass emigration, a mighty hemorrhaging to England and America. They left at a rate of 60,000 people a year. Most of these people left because there was no land for them. Ireland was never an industrial country, so there were no jobs and no opportunities for those without land. When you meet Irish immigrants abroad — and many of these are millionaires now — they’ll always tell you, “I wish I was on a little farm at home, with the hills behind me and the river below me. I wish I was there listening to the winds whispering through the grasses.” It’s a thing that has moved me on more than one occasion to tears. We are very near the land, we are part of the land, we are its tenants, it sustains us, it speaks to us. The color of my speech and my heightened spirit is due in part to the winds that whisper through the grasses of the green fields.

John B. Keane – photo by Dominick Walsh.

When The Field premiered in Dublin I was asked to write a short piece for the program and I titled it “The Earth’s First Music.” [Keane reads]

Men have killed for land since grass grew — the growing grass, sweetest music ever heard. Some have killed for greed. Their appetite for land became so insatiable that murder became second-nature to them, and yet every man must settle for a few square feet of land. Some have killed for the preservation of cherished pastures. Others so that concrete might not triumph over a field. The same concrete that is anathema to every man who knows the soil. But there has to be concrete, so where does the concrete end and who decides? God made the land, but man made the concrete.

Concrete. In the eyes of the Bull McCabe it buries the grass in spite of people going starving. He found himself with his back to the wall. All that he ever held sacred was being challenged. It must be said that the Bull did not kill for greed. He did not desire the field for himself, and he did not hope to gain in any way from the fact of it. Rather, he wanted for his sons and his sons’ sons just a grass field and nothing more. The field for which he killed was of modest proportions, consisting of three acres, one rood and 32 patches.

For those who understand the land know that there is more to a field than mere acreage…A field that may seem lonely on the banks of a stream is a gem indeed. There are many such fields, and there are as many covetous pairs of eyes watching. For those to whom land means survival, such a feeling is at the very core of human life. Its value can not be reckoned in pounds and pence. To destroy such afield with concrete would be sacrilege.

The field today remains unchanged. The texture of the grass is the same and the Bull, in contented chastity, will not come suddenly to his ownership. When all is said and done, the vast majority of men, even the modern man, will be quickly forgotten. Not so the man of The Field.

The field represents perpetuity, passing from one generation to the next.

Yes, that’s what it is. ♦

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