Thursday 18 July 2019

The silent keys and lost plays: inside John B Keane's study

With Listowel Writers' Week in full swing, a new production of 'Moll' at the Gaiety and two unperformed works about to be dusted off, the great man is in more demand than ever. Graham Clifford reports

Literary history: Graham Clifford and Mary Keane in the study, Listowel, Co Kerry. Photo: Dominick Walsh.
Literary history: Graham Clifford and Mary Keane in the study, Listowel, Co Kerry. Photo: Dominick Walsh.
Popular playwright: John B in his study, left, with his beloved and trusty old typewriter, and the pen he used to mark corrections. Photo: Don MacMonagle.

Graham Clifford

The worn keys on his typewriter tell their own story. Blank sheets of paper he hadn't yet used sit unadorned on his desk. In John B Keane's study, above his bar and laughter emporium in Listowel, the great playwright's haven is frozen in time.

"This is basically how he left it", explains his son, Irish Independent columnist Billy.

John B's cherished domain, which overlooks the bustling streets of Listowel, was generally off limits to journalists during his many decades of creation and since his passing on May 3, 2002 – but the Keanes very kindly allow me in.

As the town celebrates Listowel Writers' Week, stories of John B, the man and the literary genius, will fill the bars and cafes of the area.

On the bookshelves sit many of his well-known works: Moll, The Man from Clare, Big Maggie, The Field, Sive, Values and The Year of the Hiker. There's a statuette of Michael Collins, a smattering of sports books and, on the walls, newspaper clippings which show how popular his works were, especially in the early 1990s. An adoring audience couldn't get enough of his work.

But what you won't find in this little room are two plays he wrote in the early '70s: The Vigilante and Piseogs – they've become known as the lost plays – though, in fact, they were always carefully stored by the wordsmith in his archives.

But now plans are being put in place for both plays to be read through by actors in the Gaiety theatre.

John B, a staunch opponent to the GAA ban that prevented members of the association from playing or even attending 'foreign' sports, was once sanctioned for playing a game of rugby in nearby Castleisland. After the ban was then lifted in 1971, he wrote The Vigilante, a play that focused on the oppressiveness of the diktat.

"The ban annoyed him so much, he was partly responsible for the ending of it," explains wife Mary.

"We got awful pressure from people because of his stance. Some would give him hassle in the bar and it was picketed."

"Every five or six weeks some fella would come in trying to fight him because of his opinions on the GAA ban", recalls Billy.

"The play is about the intimidation of people, sinister republican elements and the whole notion of covert pressure that was being put on people in Ireland at the time."

In the bar downstairs, Mary (85), tells me how the ban ruined people's lives including that of a girl she knew well during her youth.

"I'd a great friend who was going (out) with a rugby man in the late '40s, early '50s," she says.

"Her father was a mad GAA man altogether and he broke the romance and sent her off to America. Can you imagine? All because the boy she was seeing was a rugby player. That's the way it was then and John B couldn't stand it."

The other lost play, Piseog, has been performed just once – by the Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

It looks at the superstitions or 'piseogs', which once carried so much power in rural Ireland. The focus is on a farmer who loses his cattle and blames it on a curse. It's a very dark piece of work – perhaps so dark that he thought it would remove hope from people who were already struggling and so decided not to do anything with it," says Billy.

"The dark plays took an awful lot out of my father – it took him over, I recall how intense he became when he was writing those kind of plays."

Since John B passed away, the family have debated whether or not to make the plays available to producers.

"The plays might need some fine-tuning," adds Billy. "We'll have to decide as a family if we'll let someone do that.

"I spoke with director Ger Barrett about it. Perhaps someone like that could have a look. Then again, the family might decide we should just leave it to the scholars to look at in time to come. We're still deciding what to do."

Caroline Downey, the Gaiety's managing director, hopes that in time The Vigilante and Piseog will play at the famous old theatre.

"The family are sending them up to me at the moment," she says. "One of the plays is in Irish, so they are having it translated for me. We would hope to stage them in the future, if that is possible."

Mary hands me an early unpublished novel John B penned entitled The River People and a book of poetry he compiled – again, never put to print.

The spirit of John B Keane is still very much present in his study. For Mary, the love of her life remains with her constantly, and today an anniversary Mass will be held for John B in his native town.

"The anniversary is a lonesome old time", she says. "No matter how long your loved one is gone, the pain is there. I feel him with me. I sense his presence in the house when everyone is gone home. You see, we were so very fond of each other, we were together a long time."

Listowel Writers’ Week, which began last night, features readings by writers; plays; poetry; competitions; storytelling; and book launches. John B’s nephew, Fergal Keane, will discuss war stories from his years as a war correspondent. For more details of events, visit This week John B’s comedy ‘Moll’ opened at the Gaiety, starring Frank Kelly and Mary McEvoy. Due to phenomenal demand, an extra week of performances has been added and it will now run until June 21.

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