Magic of Pagan Ireland dies with playwright


With his mixture of melodrama and myth, John B. Keane will always be the man who brought the buried energies of Pagan Ireland onto the stage and into the heads of a generation., writes Fintan O'Toole

The deathof John B. Keane is also the death of Pagan Ireland. He may have been a good Fine Gael Catholic publican, a much-loved public figure and a comfortable presence on The Late Late Show or on the pages of the Evening Herald and the Limerick Leader. He may, as the years went by, have lost the power to disturb and infuriate which he had in the late 1950s and early 1960s. But he will always be the man who brought the buried energies of Pagan Ireland onto the stage and into the heads of a generation.

Keane was the most conservative radical and the most radical conservative of the generation which watched the difficult death of traditional Ireland and the hard birth of modernity. The key to his achievement was that he criticised the emerging new Ireland not from the perspective of 19th-century orthodoxy but from that of the medieval world view encapsulated in the stories from Lyrecrompane in the Stacks Mountains which filled his childhood imagination.

In his first and most famous play, Sive, written when Keane was a 30-year-old returned emigrant, the evil matchmaker who sells a young girl to an old farmer is not criticised. He is cursed.

The man of the roads, Pats Bocock, puts a hex on the grasping cynical Thomasheen Sean Rua: "You are the bladder of a pig, the snout of a sow; you are the leavings of a hound, the sting of a wasp. You will die roaring." This is not subtle psychological drama. It is the voice of a pre-Christian world where words are magical weapons.

The force that Keane unleashed on the Ireland of the late 1950s was one against which it had no protection because it came not from the new ideas of urban intellectuals but from the depths of a dying tradition. In another society, a play like Sive could have been dismissed as a wild melodrama, complete with scheming money-men and impossibly innocent endangered virgins. In an obvious sense, it does indeed derive from the great Victorian melodramatist, Dion Boucicault. But it fills this borrowed form with a vivid north Kerry style forged by the neglected genius George Fitzmaurice and carried on by Keane's contemporaries, Bryan MacMahon and Brendan Kennelly.

The mix of melodrama and myth in Sive was a cocktail so powerful that it blew the head off a country that was tired of a stifling orthodoxy that offered the young people of Keane's generation nothing more exciting than the boat to England.

It was entirely appropriate that Sive should be rejected by the Abbey - then mired in the inertia of orthodoxy - yet understood by the audiences that flocked to see it in parish halls all over Ireland.

Its impact was best captured by another young writer who knew better than most the struggle to articulate an aeon of silences, the novelist Christy Brown.

Sive, Brown wrote, "appeared at a time of theatrical stagnation in Ireland when . . . the name of the Abbey Theatre had become a dry, dusty sound in many a throat, rather like a death-rattle that refused to stop . . . Into this enclosed arid wilderness Sive roared like a strange savage incantation, a raw wind from the broader, wilder spaces of the land, with its terrible immemorial message of love sold for silver pence, the casual betrayal of principle to the blind dictates of custom".

No one dramatised the clash between tradition and modernity in the era of Lemass, Whitaker and the First Programme of Economic Expansion with such psychological clarity and such visceral force.

In The Field, Keane did for the new frontiers of the Irish economy what the old westerns did for American expansion, creating an over-arching myth in which the tough old Bull McCabe, appealing to the rights of blood and soil, was the Indians and the businessman who wants to buy his field for a quarry is the cowboys. Except that in Keane's world it was the Indians who got to be John Wayne.

Keane was no romantic, and knew that the world he was writing about was already on the way out in the 1950s. He knew, too, that as time went on the distance between contemporary audiences and that world was growing ever wider. In a programme note for Shelah Richards's 1979 Irish Theatre Company production of Sharon's Grave, written 20 years earlier, he wrote that "the situation and characters are now infinitely more remote than when I first developed them which is satisfying because if I had not recorded them then they would have receded beyond recall".

He was, for this dead world, at once a forensic pathologist and a necromancer, a scientist objectively determining the cause of death, and a black magician recalling the corpse to life.

In his four best plays - Sive, Sharon's Grave, The Field and Big Maggie - he did both of these jobs at once. On the one hand, they chart the psychological journey through which one world dies and another is born. On the other, they completely subvert the official version of that old world.

Instead of the romantic, sanitised vision of Catholic rural Ireland that pious orthodoxy liked to peddle, he dug right down to the pagan roots and pulled up a world of gothic archetypes.

For all his later reputation as a recorder of the everyday, for all his image as a comfortable mainstream figure, Keane was at his most electric when he was connecting with a mythic world of grotesque forces and wild imaginings.

Again, that programme note for Sharon's Grave is his own truest testament: "Having been weaned on a fairly consistent diet of myths and legends it was inevitable that I should endeavour to dramatically document the affairs and aspirations of the outlandish denizens peculiar to the remote countryside of my father's people."

Outlandish denizens were his true people. 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.

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 like Bull McCabe in The Field and the eponymous Big Maggie interested him far more than the angst of modern living.

His own description of Sharon's Grave sums up both the extreme lack of subtlety and the ferocious power of the world view he put on stage: "Basically the play is a conflict between a physically abnormal, sex-crazed delinquent and a young, upright lad whose heart is pure.

"It is simply an extension of the everlasting clash between the diabolical and the angelical in the Pagan more than the Christian sense. The Celtic or Pagan part of my own make-up has always been drawn more to the contrary and the macabre."

That was not the ideal mindset with which to approach the complex, urban Ireland that was emerging as Keane drifted into middle age.

He didn't follow the twists and turns of a changing society with the well-tuned antennae of Tom Murphy. He wasn't shocked into new thinking by the Northern Ireland conflict like that other Angry Young Man of the late 1950s, Brian Friel.

His finest achievement after the mid-1960s was not a play at all, but the novel The Bodhrán Makers.

Yet those four big early plays remained curiously undated. Indeed, they seem to become more powerful as the outward coating of contemporary detail falls away and the ageless pagan core of the plays, the macabre dance of the holy and the grotesque, stands out with even greater clarity.

When the genial, witty, eloquent, astute Listowel publican is forgotten by all but his own descendants, the wild forces that somehow worked their way inside his head will still retain their fascination.