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A 'field' still growing strong

One night in November, 1958, a 46-year-old Kerry bachelor, Maurice "Mossie" Moore, finished a game of cards in a friend's house, and left on foot with a neighbour.

At the crossroads near his home, they separated. "Good night, and we'll meet again tomorrow night," said Moore, as was his custom.

But this time, they didn't.

Two days later, gardaí were alerted that Moore was missing. For a week, search parties combed the wild boglands around his home.

Then, on November 15, they found him, wedged in under the bank of an overgrown, narrow stream at the bottom of a 10-foot-deep ravine. The post mortem later revealed he had been strangled.

There were signs of a break-in at his house, but no obvious theft. When detectives arrived the following day to search for fingerprints, they found it covered with those of the community. "The whole place could have been found guilty," one local jibed.

That may have been somewhat close to the truth. Though much of the above details were reported in the newspapers, a key piece of local information was omitted.

The stream in which Moore was found marked the boundary between his land and that of one Dan Foley. There was bad blood between the two, and Foley was known for his temper. And the local community believed Moore had been murdered by Foley.

John B Keane had followed the story in The Kerryman, and one day shortly after the discovery of the body, he drove the short distance from Listowel to the scene of the crime.

"I put myself in the shoes of the accused in that bleak landscape," he said. Foley was guilty, he thought.

The investigation went nowhere. The gardaí were outsiders, and no one would talk to them, Keane speculated.

(This account comes from the biography, John B, by Gus Smith and Des Hickey.)

A year later, the Bishop of Kerry made a public appeal for information, and upped the stakes. He made crimes to do with disputes over land "reserved sins" in the relevant parishes: this meant that only the bishop or his deputy could absolve them.

Still, no one provided any substantial information. Foley was never charged, but he grew increasingly isolated in the community. He died, alone, in the early 1960s.

If he was innocent, he has been severely wronged in the folk memory.

For John B Keane, though, one thing was certain: "the drama was there for a stage play, and I wanted to avail of it."

John B and his wife, Mary, had bought a pub in Listowel in 1955; four years later, the local theatre group staged John B's first play, Sive, and it stormed the country's amateur drama circuit, winning the All-Ireland title.

He had since become a prolific and popular playwright, though as yet neglected by the arts establishment.

Keane had struck up a friendship with a young Kerry poet, who often stopped in for a drink on his way home from work at Trinity College in Dublin -- Brendan Kennelly. They would swap writings, and it was Kennelly who saw the potential in Keane's new script.

With Kennelly's help, a production came together, to star Ray McAnally as "The Bull" McCabe, and directed by Barry Cassin. It opened at the Olympia in Dublin on November 1, 1965.

John B's wife was uncomfortable about his writing a play so closely based on local events, that effectively took sides. In the days before the opening, he got a phone call suggesting that his pub could be bombed, and another that threatened his family.

Fortunately, no such thing happened. The opening was a resounding success. "Author! Author" cried the audience at the end. The Field quickly came to be seen as his best work, and the Bull a triumph for McAnally.

Still, John B was neglected by the Abbey, which had famously rejected Sive. Eventually, in 1987, artistic director Joe Dowling had Ben Barnes direct a revival, with Niall Tóibín as the Bull.

Keane took the opportunity to regale journalists with stories of how he had been portrayed by the Dublin media as "a literary gombeen", and as wearing "pinstripe wellingtons".

The production was a success, and soon earned a unique endorsement: it was invited to Russia by the Soviet Ministry of Culture, along with the production then showing downstairs at the Peacock Theatre, Tom McIntyre's avant-garde The Great Hunger.

The Abbey played at the Bolshoi in the then-Leningrad (now St Petersburg), and at the Moscow Arts Centre. Overall, the tour was a cultural and diplomatic success. It was "a step in the left direction" for the Abbey, quipped the actor Eamon Kelly.

If that was the case, The Field subsequently lurched sharply to the right, as Noel Pearson gave it the Hollywood treatment with Richard Harris as the Bull in the 1990 film, earning an Oscar nomination.

Keane thought the film "a bit stage-Irishy in places," but said he was pleased overall. Harris's performance is over the top, but captures a ferocious nobility in the Bull which is crucial: he is an elemental force, who demands empathy, not derision.

Now, director Joe Dowling brings The Field back to Dublin, this time with the Irish-American actor Brian Dennehy, veteran of Hollywood and Broadway, as the Bull.

Dennehy's is a more understated, brooding presence than that of Harris, which could suit the role well. He has played Irish before: he made his Broadway debut in Brian Friel's Translations, in 1995; he has also played in Dublin, in The Iceman Cometh at the Abbey in 1992.

After a decade in which we made ourselves rich, and now poor, buying fields from each other, but never growing anything in them, it will be intriguing to see how John B's great play resonates today. And in Dowling and Dennehy, we may have another great director-actor pairing at its heart.


Indo Review