Friday 22 February 2019

Lover of hard work, drink, conversation and laughter

In this piece, first published in 2004, Brendan Kennelly reflects on the secret of his friend John B Keane's success

Laughter is the best medicine: Brendan Kennelly and the late John B Keane in Listowel, Co Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle
Laughter is the best medicine: Brendan Kennelly and the late John B Keane in Listowel, Co Kerry. Photo: Don MacMonagle

Brendan Kennelly

John B found his own true world when he left Listowel and went to work in England. In exile, he discovered the world where his imagination was most at home, that is, Listowel and other parts of North Kerry. His work shows that he is as deeply and revealingly at home in North Kerry as James Joyce was in Dublin. Joyce discovered Dublin in exile. John B discovered North Kerry.

Like Joyce, he was a great listener. He also had an extraordinary memory. He could recall whole conversations; he could actually re-create conversations as if they were small dramas, little one-act plays stitched together with humour, compassion and unfailing skill. This wonderful memory worked in other ways, too. He had a startling capacity to remember poems, songs, proverbs, wise old sayings full of insight, cunning and wit. His conversation, at its most fluent and eloquent, was unforgettable. It was lit up with songs, poems and vivid phrases, and, of course, frequent jokes. When I think of him (which is very often), I see him laughing, his head thrown back, the joy and pleasure pouring out of him, the humour dancing in his eyes, animating his voice. His love of laughter was epical. I think he loved laughter as much as he loved a good drink, or several good drinks. And it was the laughter of a man who discerned the shrewd perceptions, the cutting insights, surprising revelations that frequently led to sustained outbursts of wild laughter, electric with delight.

The other side of this was his temper. He could flare like a flash of lightning. And nothing caused his splendid temper to flare like football, and of course, especially when Listowel were playing. I think that any man who doesn't occasionally lose his temper while watching football is not to be trusted. For this reason, John B was a man who could be trusted to fulfil any promise he made. He put the energy that sparked his temper into the fulfilment of his promises; this is one of the reasons why he was such a good friend.

I remember the first day I saw him it was in Listowel. Ballylongford were playing Listowel in the North Kerry League of 1953. He played in midfield for Listowel. I noticed his knees; they were wobbly in a truly interesting manner; they were full of character; they suggested strength, endurance and the passion of a pilgrim embarking on a long and exacting pilgrimage.

Many years later, a German critic asked me what I considered to be the source of John B's powerful dramatic instinct. I replied instantly 'His knees'. The German critic was taken aback and asked me why I thought the way I did. I explained the pilgrim character of John B's knees, and added that their capacity for endurance, passion and unfailing strength enabled him to stay up late every night and write for hours with remarkable vitality and precision. I added that I had seen him play football with the same gusto and determination.

The German critic, while not convinced, was interested enough to smile; he continued to discuss the plays. I was happy to participate in that discussion.

Many times I kidded John B about his knees. He replied by saying that I diverted his attention that footballing Sunday in Listowel by talking to him, in the course of the match, about Keats's poetry.

Almost every time we met, this happy banter passed between us. I am proud to say that now and then I managed to make him laugh. I loved to do this because John B in full laughing spate was one of the joys of God creation.

Creation. Creator; John B was a truly creative spirit. When I look at the range of his work, I am struck by the sheer creative, experimental energy of the man. He wrote more than 20 plays, several novels, collections of short stories, many poems, ballads and songs, dozens of fascinating essays, hundreds of extremely journalistic articles, and what is probably the most dramatic, funny, searing, revealing body of letters about people, society, values materialistic and spiritual, poverty, sex, money, greed, politics and religion, ever to come out of Ireland. These letters are a special kind of history and will be read with joy, shock, amazement and delight by generations as yet unborn. Today, the letter is almost a dying art. John B's letters are, literally, a living treasure.

As the years went by, I noticed how much he loved life. Some writers tend to become disillusioned, even embittered, with the passing years. John B's love of life, of language, of people, of drink, of conversation simply deepened with time passing.

I am convinced that this is so because of his wife, Mary, the loving force behind John B's devotion both to living and to writing. Without her, I think he would not have worked so resolutely or lived with such exuberance. Mary encouraged him to live and to write. Once, when he was worried about drinking too much, he simply decided to give it up, to stay sober all the time. This new commitment to sobriety made him so touchy and edgy that Mary ordered him to take a drink or two. He did, and in no time he was back to the familiar John B - the hard worker, the lover of life, people, words, sport and stories.

Mary gave John B both encouragement and control, stimulation and discipline. And this combination was precisely what he needed. Add to that the invaluable gift of Mary's love, and we can begin to see how this son of Listowel went through the many trials of more than half a century, always devoted to writing, surviving all kinds of criticism, and emerging as one of the most exciting Irish dramatists of the 20th Century.

A publican's life is hard and unrelenting. John B worked hard in his pub and also worked hard at being a good husband and father. He explored and developed his own humanity with care and thoughtful concern for others. He didn't carry grudges; he spoke often of forgiveness; he wanted to discover what it means to be a full human being, and to that end he used his own, personal living skills and his genius as a writer to deepen his interest and his knowledge.

He never ceased to learn about the complexities and contradictions of people.

That hunger for learning is, I believe, the basis of his wisdom and the source of his compassion. He is a rare combination: a great writer and a splendid, lovable human being. He gave us his best; and, much of his time, his almighty best.

This is an extract from 'Playwright of the People: A Collection of Tributes to John B Keane', published by North Kerry Literary Trust.

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