“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.” –John B. Keane
John B. Keane was one of ten children and his father was a local schoolteacher, while his mother was an actress. He lived in England briefly in the 1950s but spent the rest of his life in Listowel where he presided over a pub. This was a vantage point from which he watched the changes in Irish rural life.
Best known for his plays which include: Sive, Sharon’s Grave, The Man from Clare, The Year of the Hiker, The Field (which was adapted as a film of the same name), Many Young Men of Twenty, Big Maggie, Moll, The Crazy Wall, The Buds of Ballybunion, The Chastitute, and Faoiseamh. His plays touched the common thread of experience in mid-twentieth century Ireland. They also appeared to be the successors to the peasant plays of Synge and Lady Gregory that had been produced specifically for the Abbey, being similar in style and theme. However, while his popularity grew, critical acclaim eluded him. This lack of recognition disappointed Keane who felt it was necessary for his future success. After the rejection of Sive, he sent the Abbey five more plays, including his favourite Sharon’s Grave, which he described as ‘A weird play about a little cripple who goes around on his brothers’s back and who has no means of acquiring a woman because of his deformities.’ The Abbey failed to produce any of them on submission.
Despite this, Keane’s popularity grew, and it endures today, with his plays continuing to represent a disappearing Ireland. He paid close attention to the spirit of place, and his cottage settings arouse a familiar image of rural Ireland. Within this setting Keane challenged traditional expectations and gave his characters the ability to clash with the spiritual and historical context of their lives. Keane’s work reflects conflicts of identity, language and culture suffered by his characters and a conservative Ireland struggling to deal with the rapid onset of modernisation. It was his childhood visits to a place called Renagown in the Stack’s Mountains that influenced his plays. What was happening at the time was that a way of life was changing, not from rural to urban but a change within that rural community itself. There he came across people who were ‘post-Great Hunger’ in their way of thinking, who through technology and through turf cutting, which was an integral part of the economic set up of the Stack’s Mountains at the time, dragged themselves out of the past and into the present, I fear rather too hastily.
In 1985 John B. finally saw his wish of having his plays produced for the Abbey fulfilled, when Sive was performed there for the first time. In 1987 he received a special award for his enduring place in Irish life and letters from the Sunday Independent. In the same year he won a Sunday Tribune Arts Award and in 1988 he was the recipient of the Irish American Fund Award for literature. In 1999 he was presented with a Gradam Medal, the highest award from the Abbey. He was also a member of Aosadána and the recipient of honourary doctrates from Trinity College Dublin, Limerick University and Marymount College, New York.
John B. died on 30 May 2002 at the age of seventy-three, after a long and difficult battle with cancer.
John B. Keane photo, courtesy RTÉ Stills Library