Summer has truly descended upon us here in South Limerick and as if the beautiful long evenings were not evident enough, the convoy of tractors and silage equipment on the roads around our parish is testament to the arrival of Samhradh. For many years this weather has been known as “exam weather” and as the contractors and farmers try to beat the clock that is the breaking weather, the many Junior and Leaving certificate students rush to beat the clock until English paper 1 is placed before them.
Throughout the reams of notes on Shakespeare, Frost and Harding which to us in South Limerick seem to speak in foreign tongue we hold a soft spot for one man that for a long time has been associated with the English paper, John B Keane.
John B Keane was a marvelous playwright, storyteller and all-round entertainer whose turn of phrase, sharp wit and understanding of rural Ireland has made him an endearing part of rural Ireland in particular southern rural Ireland. Although the thatch cottages and matchmaking have all but disappeared from our countryside, the turn of phrases, interblending of English and our native tongue and the eternal worry about the animals and the land remains.
John B. became so well known that often people will omit his surname as if he were an old friend, neighbour or Seanchaí calling to the house to entertain us in our sitting rooms. How many times have trips to Ballybunion or the famous Listowel races have resulted in all the passengers in the car returning a salute to the great man as he now stands immortalized in his own beloved hometown of Listowel? The YouTube videos of John B discussing topics such as drink, marriage, Listowel Races and the ‘greater hard neck ring tailed Atlantic warbler that is Kerryman’ are still popular as ever in bringing the great man to life.
And why wouldn’t the man be recognized by us here in Limerick? It was in the late 1950’s that the young playwright, fresh off the success of Sive, was approached by the Buckley family to write a weekly column for their newspaper the Limerick Leader in an attempt to boost the popularity of the paper in West Limerick and along the Kerry border. John B had already known this audience quite well and Abbeyfeale is even mentioned in jovial song by the character Carthalawn in Act I Scene 3 of Sive. The move was a resounding success with the Limerick Leader soon overtaking the well-entrenched Kerryman newspaper around West Limerick. John B continued to write for the Limerick Leader in his column ‘Out in the Open’ for up to 30 years, sending his column up on the Listowel bus to Colbert station for it to be welcomed by the eagerly awaiting Limerick Leader staff and subsequently its readers.
His column was wickedly funny with it said that John had ‘the ability to write 2,000 words about a snail, a person’s nose or farting’. However, despite his ability to produce pieces of literary greatness from the mundane, it was his pub in Listowel which served as his center for research in constructing his plays. It was said that the plots for Sive and Big Maggie were both loosely conceived from events that occurred in and around Listowel with his award winning play the Field being largely based on a real life murder in Reamore, North Kerry which is believed to have stemmed from a land war which erupted between two former friends and neighboring farmers Moss Moore and Dan Foley. Although the case was never officially concluded it proved fertile ground for the literary imagination of John B.
The literary greatness continues with John B’s sons Billy writing for the Irish Independent and having released two books similar in writing pattern to his late father and his other son Conor being an award winning journalist and documentary maker.
With all the hubbub of silage and exams that inflict themselves annually upon our own little patch of South Limerick it is often forgotten that the man who entertained many of us here in Bruff, Grange and Meanus had passed away at this time in 2002. Two days ago marked twenty years since the Keane family laid John B to rest but he still lives on. Mercier Press, who would have published John B reckoned that every house in Ireland had a copy of the bible and at least one John B. Keane book.
John B once wrote the line in Big Maggie that ‘there are enough lies on the headstones of Ireland without me adding to them’. It was therefore fitting for the great man’s headstone to hold a line as true as steel “There are so many lovely songs to sing”.
On behalf of the entertained people of South Limerick, John B we thank you.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.
Written by Cian Mulqueen