LORD OF THE KINGDOM

 

CRITICAL recognition was slow in coming to playwright, essayist and novelist John B. Keane. Possibly because powerful, raw folk dramas such as Sive (1959), Sharon's Grave (1960) and The Field (1965) represented an Ireland from a past which was still too close for comfort. There was not sufficient distance to allow comfortable nostalgia to take over from the embarrassment of exposure.

Belated literary status and inclusion in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991) makes Keane feel neither justified nor vindicated. "I never resented those critics who didn't like my plays. I don't see the point of grudges. Useless things."

His personal demeanour may have impeded his acceptance. Witty and laconic, above all the definitive Kerryman, and a publican as well, Keane certainly paid artistic price of being too public a man; too visible, too outspoken and familiar. Rollicking plays such as The Chastitute and Moll: were too popular; The Year of the Hiker overly melodramatic. Keane was insufficiently remote to be celebrated as a dramatist.

There was also the near comical element of his alleged match making abilities. A healthy awareness of potential reprisals, claims, ensured that he never practised match making. "I never made a match out of fear of facing the disgruntled participants." However with characteristic shrewdness he stresses: "Most arranged matches tend to work out quite well as the couple approach the business with low expectations."

Any attempt to come close to Keane the individual must begin with his feeling for Kerry, his world, "a place with subtle variations". He opens our conversation with a story: "Addressing the Old House of Parliament in Dublin in 1793, the great Irish advocate, John Philpot Curran, commented adversely that the magistracy of the county of Kerry were so opposed to the laws of the land that they were a law unto themselves a Kingdom apart ... In fact some Kerrymen say there are only two Kingdoms, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Kerry."

All said with good humour, Keane's pronouncements are sharp, perceptive and exact but his unfailing realism and irony have never abandoned him. During the past two years even his sense of irony has been harshly tested. Having survived two major operations for prostate cancer, Keane remarks: "I believed I was going home to die. You could say I was a goner and I knew it."

Despite an impressive recovery, he says with some regret: "I haven't my old energy or nothing like it. I get very tired, very suddenly, especially after a long walk or an outing. I feel very bad about all the invitations I receive to open things, to speak at this or that . . . It is not so easy now. In fact it has become mostly out of the question and it has been hard for me to accept this."

Also it has curtailed his literary career, "just as I was beginning to master the novel" he has written four, The Bodhran Makers, Durango, The Contractors and A High Meadow "the illness intervened. It is a setback from which I have not yet recovered."

CONFIDENT that Pat Laffan will prove "the best Bull McCabe yet", Keane is looking forward to the production of The Field which opens at the Cork Opera House on the 13th of this month, before transferring to the Gaiety, Dublin, on April 30th.

The famous little pub in the market town of Listowel is quiet on a Saturday afternoon. While the streets outside are busy with shoppers, marching through the light rain, two men are sitting at the bar conversing in low voices. John B. Keane is in the small kitchen at the back with Mary, his wife. They have been for a drive along the North Kerry coast: "It's a largely sandy coastline with long beaches, along the Shannon estuary with the Clare hills beckoning modestly, concealing the many wonders of our illustrious neighbouring county at the other side."

He is 68 and looks better than he has for a long time. As Mary makes tea, he sets about charming the determined toddler intent on climbing up on the table. Patiently removing the various potentially threatening items the child is reaching for knives, forks, china cups and saucers, while all the time maintaining a steady, elegant flow of the anecdotal conversation of which he has made an art. His grandchildren think he is a god, his children treat him as an equal.

The conversation is open, lively and bounces about like a ball on a football pitch. Keane is discussing rugby as played in the locality, in the Kingdom. Primarily a Gaelic player, Keane played rugby in the winter: "Even at my soberest, I was an indifferent winger." Sport, books, music and walking are his life's interests: "If I was able I'd walk forever."

Listowel is a writer's town, between Keane and Bryan MacMahon, who once taught J.B., the tradition is assured. Keane describes the town as "my native, beautiful Listowel, serenaded night and day by the gentle waters of the River Feale; Listowel, where it is easier to write than not to write, where life is leisurely and beauty leads the field, where first love never dies and the tall streets hide the gentle loveliness, the heartbreak and the moods, great and small of all the gentle souls of a great and good community."

Of his early years he recalls being "desperate to express myself. I think it's part of the Celtic heritage, this need to rise words." Desperation seems an incongruous choice of language from the relaxed Keane; "I always wanted to be a writer. I even went to England in 1951, to the English midlands, in order to write the Great Irish Novel."

Although his observations are sharp, his language is forma yet also unashamedly colourful, often lyrical. Describing the many nights, after some hours of writing, he went walking through Listowel in the early hours, he says: "The time when only lovers and cats are out. The night belongs to them. Many dramas I saw enacted. Romances beginning and romances ending." Life there is dominated by the soothing presence of the River Feale: "It influences the disposition of the people. There is a great, all round tolerance in Listowel." Bardic Irish and Elizabethan English have shaped a spoken language unique to Listowel.

His involvement with the Language Freedom Movement did not endear him. Aware that there are those who still maintain he resents the Irish language he says: "I have always loved Irish; I objected to it being compulsory. I felt this was damaging it. Now it looks like we have won, as Irish is making a definite comeback."

John Bernard Keane was born, the fourth of nine children, in his father's house at 45 Church Street, Listowel, in 1928, "the year of the Communtag in China". His father, William, was a schoolmaster, presiding over Clounmacon National School, about three miles from Listowel.

"He was a quiet man, an avid reader. He had a small but very comprehensive library in the front room. Everything from Dickens, Thackeray, Scott - right up to the fiction of the early 1950s." This private library proved to be J.B. Keane's first important source of reading material. "And of course you had Danny Flavin's famous bookshop across the street."

AS a boy, Keane wrote a poem about his father. "I was 17; it goes like this: His waistcoat I remember/Tobacco perfumed parallelogram/Of pennied pockets. He was the most lovable and gentle man you could meet. Again, fond of a drink like myself. And like myself, maybe too fond at times."

The character of Michael Barnett in Keane's favourite play, The Crazy Wall (1974), is the closest he has come in his work to a portrait of his father. Standing outside his rural canon, it has not been professionally produced since 1973. Barnett is a schoolmaster and well adept at avoiding the harsher realities of life. This is symbolised by his decision to build a wall, supposedly protecting his garden but really to shield himself. Bit by bit his world collapses, largely through the failings of his sons and his long suffering but finally exasperated wife's eventual rejection of her husband's evasive behaviour.

"I was a happy boy," says Keane. "Like Barnett, my father was a romantic. My parents stayed in love until he died in 1963. His memory dominated my mother's life until she died herself in 1988. She was a great character; lively, very beautiful and a lovely singer with a vast repertoire of Irish songs.

Much of his childhood was spent in his maternal grandmother's townland of Ballydonoghue, midway between Listowel and Ballybunion: "She was near neighbours to Maurice Walsh who wrote the The Quiet Man and some 20 other novels, and a play or two. He was one of the first writers I ever met and a most sympathetic man. He was very encouraging to young people - Maurice never lost his youth. He gave me a good piece of advice - `to watch the drink'. I think he knew from my attitude that I was inordinately fond of it, a fondness which persists."

Equally important to the young Keane was Lyreacrompane, in the heart of the Stacks Mountains between Listowel and Castleisland. "I spent my early childhood summers there with my relations on my father's side." It was very remote, a big open countryside where the dependence on neighbours was the be all and end all, there was quite a lot of bogland but also many fine farms of good arable land where the milch cow ruled the roost as usual." He points out that within a 20 mile radius of Listowel, the local economy is based almost entirely on the milch cow and there are now about 3,500 farms of varying sizes where there was previously about 7,000.

"During the war, the turf gave a great boost to the economy. Everyday you'd see donkey and pony carts, and lorries converging on Listowel with their cargoes of hard won turf. All for despatch to Limerick and on to Dublin, to the great turf depot in the Phoenix Park. As well as that, they would supply farmers in north Cork and east Limerick where boglands were scarce."

In Lyreacrompane Keane found "a very tranquil loveliness, dominated by varying shades of brown which gave it a muted quality, except for the hundreds of streams which churtled all day and all night, wilder than the more placid waters of the Feale back in Listowel to which they contributed". Most important of all for Keane was the language spoken there: an eloquent mixture, half Irish, half English.

"Commonplace language seemed to be outlawed there. Every phrase was coloured and filled with subtleties. The language I encountered in the Stacks Mountains had an extraordinary influence on my early plays and on my own speech thereafter. For all its raciness, it was still a very measured language."

Having failed in his efforts to write The Great Irish Novel, Keane returned to Listowel and married Mary in 1955. With little money, they talked their way into buying their pub and Keane acknowledges Mary's vital role in running the pub which supported his writing.

"It was hard. We'd little money for a long time." They have three sons and a daughter. It was not until 1986 that Keane found his ideal collaborator, director Ben Barnes, who could see the value of Keane's folk melodrama. Barnes and Groundwork, the company he founded with Arthur Lappin, have become synonymous with Keane's work.

It was not a Keane revival, more a discovery; a severe re working of his major plays, trimmed down from three acts to two. "For the first time, I was financially independent." While he sees himself as a playwright, he is honest about his technical skills. Asked about his approach to stage craft, he replies with mock seriousness: "What's that? Never heard of it." His gift is for catching vernacular speech. If he is a storyteller, he must also be regarded increasingly as a Cassandra figure.

Ireland's ugly secrets and the legacy of sexual repression are making Keane's harsh, sentimental, human stories unnervingly authentic. "I might have been writing before my time. The Ireland of today seems to confirm that. The so called evils of my theatre are nothing compared with the evils now emerging."

The story of Sive, the abuse of a young girl by her own family, "could be happening now and probably is". The opening scene of an old woman bickering with her embittered daughter in law in a shabby, cottage kitchen seems to offer yet another evocation of a long dead, Irish, peasant life. This illusion is shattered when, as in the 1993 Abbey production, Sive walks on stage wearing a modern, school uniform. Keane's Ireland is not dead.

The calculating materialistic tensions and craving for security which dominate Big Maggie (1969) featured throughout last year's divorce referendum. "Ireland is not a safe place for a woman to walk alone in. The chivalry and dignity for which we were once noted have evaporated. When a community loses its chivalry there is little left. Although there is a very real body of innate goodness in the country, with beautiful children, we must be concerned because in the Ireland of today, we have become greedy; we have become cruel."

Content to have his plays viewed as social documentary as much as art, the playwright believes; "History is staid and distant. Literature tells us more about how people live. Most writers are doing this; telling us about life, whether they know it or not."