Original manuscript of John B Keane’s play Sive uncovered

Work found in house clearance in Cork city now on display at Kerry Writers’ Museum

The original manuscript of John B Keane's play Sive, which was sent to the Abbey Theatre and rejected by it, has been uncovered.

One of Keane's best loved and most performed works, the manuscript was found in a house clearance in Cork city and has gone on display at the Kerry Writers' Museum in Listowel.

The story of the beautiful young orphan, Sive, who takes her life rather than consent to a match to an old man, the play explores dark themes in rural Ireland including attitudes to poverty and to women, love, sex and those born out of wedlock, matchmakers and Travellers.

Sive was put on stage by the local amateur drama group, the Listowel Players, in early February 1959, and became a huge success, playing to packed houses in amateur drama theatres and ballrooms across the country, despite much controversy over its subject matter.

The manuscript sent to the Abbey, signed by Keane, was discovered during a house clearance in Cork and was presented to the Keane family. When the Listowel playwright sent the manuscript to the national theatre on February 17th, 1959, he signed it and added, in his distinctive handwriting, “submitted to Abbey Theatre”.

Book lover Karl Harding was clearing out an old house in Cork city when he discovered the play on the floor of a dilapidated old house he was helping to empty.

The manuscript was in good condition, surprisingly, as lots of other material in the house was unsalvageable.

“I picked it up and I thought this must have been for a school play and then I saw Sive and was amazed to come across John B’s signature,” Mr Harding said.

Mr Harding made contact with Fergal Keane of the BBC, a nephew of John B Keane, who put him in touch with the Keane family in Listowel.

Gratitude

John Keane, John B’s youngest son, said the family owed Karl and his wife Mar a huge debt of gratitude for returning the unique piece of social history to Listowel.

“There is no doubt he would have received a five-figure sum for this collector’s item at auction,” Mr Keane said.

It has now gone on loan at the Kerry Writers’ Museum in The Square, Listowel.

Speaking at the handover of the manuscript, director of Kerry Writers’ Museum Cara Trant said: “We are honoured that the Keane family have entrusted us with this unique piece of our literary history, for the local community and visitors to witness. We are indebted to Karl Harding for bringing it back home to Listowel.”

The Listowel Players won the All-Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone with the play and were invited to present it at the Abbey Theatre in May 1959. They were the first English-speaking amateur group to perform in the national theatre. Eventually in 1985, the Abbey staged its own production of Sive which ran for 42 performances.