Sunday 18 August 2019

Billy Keane: 'Record the memories of your elders - they will never die if their stories are kept alive'


A word of advice from a man who puts things off; get out the phone, or better again a good camera, and shoot the stories of the older people. Photo: Stock photo
A word of advice from a man who puts things off; get out the phone, or better again a good camera, and shoot the stories of the older people. Photo: Stock photo
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

This old man came into our pub in the company of a matchmaker. The old man was a well-off farmer. The matchmaker was a bad man. My parents were wary.

They had cause to be. In came a young girl in her school uniform. She had been taken out of school that morning. I'm not quite sure who was supposed to be looking after her. My dad wrote his first play 'Sive' after that encounter in our pub.

The young girl never knew her father and her mother died. She was vulnerable. The Church and the government looked down on children born out of wedlock. They were sent off to mother and baby homes. As most of you know, they were treated like prisoners and thousands of the little babies died due to neglect.

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Dad and Mam tried to stop the horrible match that was being made in our pub. The girl was legally old enough to marry. Her guardians were bought off and I am fairly certain the priest was well paid for solemnising the mismatch.

When Dad and Mam objected, the whole sordid business was moved on to another bar. Mam had Dad write about the story of the young girl. So far as I know, this was the first time an Irish writer told the story of the abuse of kids whose dads weren't around to back them up. That was nearly 60 years before #metoo.

One of the regrets is that I didn't put more time into asking Mam and Dad more about the history of the plays. My Mam's people had a country shop and I have many of the stories of the goings-on.

We are lucky in that Dad was on television so much. He was some performer. Mam didn't give any interviews until she was in the last few years of her life.

Anne Cassin, Deirdre Walsh, Ryan Tubridy, Mickey Mac Connell and Miriam O'Callaghan interviewed my Mam. Their archive is of the finest quality. Mam had hundreds of stories, though, and I'm sorry now I didn't film or tape her. I kind of hated asking her to do it then when she was dying. I know Mam wouldn't have minded. Her energy levels were low. I was afraid we would wear her out.

It's only lately that I have been able to look at my Dad on YouTube. I was too lonesome. I have had trouble dealing with grief. I'm writing this on the Thursday, and it is Dad's anniversary. He died in 2002 and the years have passed as quickly as if we were scrolling through an online calendar.

Nowadays I'm able to enjoy him. I give thanks for that. For a good many years, I had to run out of the room when he came on TV.

But now Dad puts me in good form as he did when he was living here with us up over our little pub. But it is one of the great regrets of my life that I didn't start filming or taping Mam in time.

A word of advice from a man who puts things off; get out the phone, or better again a good camera, and shoot the stories of the older people.

The younger generation could do the recording and so there would be a master class in life skills.

We are all the sum of the parts who came before us.

There could be a nationwide project with the aim of establishing a national archive based on the stories of parents and grandparents. The resource would be there forever for historians and the families of those who take part. Assistance in direction, sound and filming techniques should be offered.

The plan could be extended to the families of the Irish living abroad whose families would be made more aware of their Irishness and the keeping of their stories would lead to more visits to the homeland.

History is not just about big battles. The film makers would learn social history and how it is they are the way they are.

There would be life lessons and a shared experience between young and old.

We entertain a good many tour buses from CIÉ in our pub. You have to think of something new in pubs these days or the doors will close.

It's a constant source of worry to me. I'd hate to be the one who lost John B's.

I tell the Americans about 'Sive'. The Irish-Americans in particular have a passion for our history and culture. More so than many of our own who curiously enough are more immersed in American culture. I give it to them straight and tell the story of how it was the women used to come in to the little shop at the front of our pub, and tell their secrets to my Mam who was great to give advice.

I tell the Americans Dad was able to write funny about sad stories. There was the woman who told him she was expecting her 19th child. Dad was shocked. The woman was only skin and bone. "Ah sure John B," she said, "I love having the babies. It's the only holiday I get all year long."

I tell the Americans my Mam's mam died in childbirth. My nana had only four children but every time one of Mam's customers died after having a baby too many, a little bit of my mother died too. There was no contraception in Ireland and this was a death sentence passed by the Church and State.

The Americans are here for the real Ireland. I have never heard mention of a leprechaun. They too could be part of the project of recording the stories of our older people. There would be a massive tourism pay-off, but most of all, the struggles of their ancestors would be acknowledged.

The lawyer Robert Pierse is well in to his 80s and last week he published his autobiography. The story of an independent thinker is there forever now.

My favourite part is his mother's account of the burning of her home by the Tans and the British army. Robert's mother was only a child but she never forgot the night Woodfield was destroyed. Woodfield was the family home of Michael Collins, her uncle.

Many of the older people can see just how busy we all are and they do not want to impose. Go ask. My guess is those who came before us will only be too delighted to give an account of their lives and times. The story gathering could be done in small bits, and before long all the pieces will come together.

And if you think about it, our loved ones will never die as long as their story is told.

Irish Independent

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