John B. Keane, one of the greatest of Irish writers, the son of a national school teacher, who recorded the voice of a disappearing generation from his bar in County Kerry, was born in the Town of Listowel in 1928.
Known to his
friends as John B he came to adore Kerry, a fiercely proud and independent
county that juts out into the Atlantic on Ireland's southwest coast.
His parents had been actively involved in Ireland's struggle for independence from Britain and its subsequent civil war in the 1920's. He remained a lifelong supporter of Fine Gael, the party founded by Michael Collins.
Keane was educated at Listowel National School and then at St Michael`s College Listowel. He worked as a chemist's assistant for A.H. Jones who dabbled in buying antiques. Keane had various jobs in the UK between 1951 and 1955. When he returned he put his meagre savings into buying a public house in Listowel, and settled down to the off-duty task of writing plays rooted in the urban-rural divide of his childhood.
John B Keane's literary background was similar to that of many other writers whose achievements contributed to "the Listowel phenomenon". His particular skill lay in depicting the close commerce between town and mountain, the tensions between an ostensibly civilised Catholic urbanity and its underlying paganism.
Tinkers, matchmakers, brutal farmers and wily women populate these dramas, which Ernest Blythe, the dictatorial director at Dublin's National (Abbey) Theatre, considered unrepresentative of a peasant society anxious to transform itself into a modern industrial economy.
In a 1994 interview about ''The Bodhran Makers,'' he said, ''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 wrote ''Sive,'' his first play, when he was 30. It was rejected by Ireland's national theatre, the Abbey, but the play put him on the map when it won first prize at the amateur All-Ireland Drama Festival in 1959.
He then wrote at a breakneck pace, producing seven plays over the next four years. His output slowed somewhat in the mid-1970's and 80's, but a 1986 novel, ''The Bodhran Makers,'' won new audiences and is regarded as among his best work. A light-hearted stage comedy, ''Matchmake-Me-Do,'' had its debut in 2000.
In all he wrote 18 plays and 32 works of prose and poetry, including ''The Field,'' which was made into a Hollywood film in 1990.
There were many enthusiastic supporters of his work: Siobhan McKenna was an early champion of Sive; Ray MacAnally created the role of Bull McCabe in The Field; while, in 1969, Marie Kean played the title role in Big Maggie- in a cast that included Brenda Fricker, who was brilliantly to recreate it in 1988. The play had a Broadway run in 1982.
Besides plays, Keane also produced a series of epistolary squibs, such as Letters Of A Successful TD (or member of the Irish parliament) and Letters Of A Love-Hungry Farmer, which ridiculed those who seek respectability in the mistaken belief that they are acquiring dignity.
He was a lifelong opponent of unfeeling orthodoxy, and his four novels display compassion for other's suffering, particularly at the hands of those in authority. The Bodhran Makers (1986) portrayed the vivid clash of ultramontane, hardline Catholicism with the spontaneity and freedom of ordinary life.
John B Keane was a popular figure, who took his public responsibilities seriously. For five years from 1974, he was a member of the Irish Arts Council, and, in 1971, became a founder of the now internationally renowned Listowel Writers' Week.
In 1966, he became involved in the Language Freedom Movement, which sought to put the teaching of Gaelic on a voluntary, rather than a compulsory, basis. His advocacy of the movement involved Keane in several unpleasant situations, and, at one stage, his life was at risk from extremists.
He was, however, tenacious in his support for the individual conscience when he felt it was threatened by the dangers of collective willpower.
He married Mary O'Connor in 1955 and had four children: Billy, Conor, John and Joanna. He was an Honorary Life Member of the Royal Dublin Society from 1991, served as president of Irish PEN and was a founder member of the Society of Irish Playwrights as well as a member of Aosdana. He remained a prominent member of the Fine Garl party throughout his life, never being shy of political debate.
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