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Mary's genius was to simultaneously restrain and nurture family's madness


Playwright John B Keane with his wife Mary

Playwright John B Keane with his wife Mary

Playwright John B Keane with his wife Mary

All families face the loss that accompanies death. We wait for the last breath of the old. We mourn by the terminal beds of those who cannot fight illness any longer. And we are shocked and our faith betrayed by the sudden loss of the young.

Death is the immense unavoidable truth of our human story. But there's no getting used to it. What a summer it has been. Some of our very best have gone, young and old. I am in Thailand at the moment, where my cousin Nicc Schuster spent part of his gap year. I look out at the sun setting on the Gulf of Thailand here in Koh Samui and say a quiet prayer for Nicc who so loved this place. He was planning to come back before his life was cut so tragically short in the Berkeley tragedy. Nicc was just 21 years old.

Last weekend, I was in Nanning, China when my cousin Conor texted me with news of my aunty Mary's death in the Bons in Tralee. She was 86, at the end of her natural span. We grieve her in a different way to Nicc, but with no less love. For my generation, something of our own childhood has gone with her passing.

It was Conor, that lovely kind man, who broke the news of my own father's death to me more than 25 years ago.

He is the steadiest of the lot of us. No man knows better how to keep a secret or when to be by your side in adversity.

His mother, Mary, was a force of nature, a woman to be reckoned with. She took no nonsense from anybody. In defence of her tribe, she could be fierce and always fearless. She prized loyalty to her own. That instinct has spread through the present generation of Keanes who regard a slight to one as a slight to all.

I have Mary and John B to thank for the fact that I am able to earn a living in journalism. One August evening, many summers ago, she ushered myself and John B out the door to the Railway Bar in Ballybunion. She had asked him to set up a meeting for me with the owners of the Limerick Leader and over a few civilised pints, my future was settled.

John and Mary were proud of me. Whenever I had a success of any kind, I would call. But also I went to them in the depths of a terrible depression one winter more than two decades ago. They asked no questions but opened their arms. I never forgot their loyalty and kindness. They could love equally in victory and defeat.

Their love for each other was passionate and unsentimental. They looked each other square in the eye, and until the day they were separated by death, they loved what they saw. Mary knew that there was a strong streak of madness in the Keanes. Her genius was to simultaneously restrain and nurture that madness to great creative effect. She held the door against all comers while John B wrote. But she was never the "woman behind the man". They stood as they walked, side by side. I see my aunt and uncle as representing an Ireland that defied the stereotype. They had faith but they were not priest-ridden. They were republican but in the true sense of wanting the idea of an Ireland big enough to cherish all traditions. They loved fun.

John B has a beautiful love poem written in exile in which he remembers his beloved back in Listowel. It has these lines: "Deep in Shanowen the vixen is calling and shadows are falling all over Feale River."

They fell long and lingered all over Feale River the night aunty Mary died.

* * *

We were up early with jet lag. Already the noise of the city was rising 14 floors to wake us. Yet on the streets by the Kowloon promenade we saw only a handful of Chinese migrants and few Indian street traders starting their day. Daniel and I caught the first of the Star Ferries across to Hong Kong island. I love the Star Ferry. It is one of the great romantic journeys still left, in the higher sense of that word.

Flickering here on the morning tide is the memory of days when men of adventure might make their way in the rapidly growing empire of the east. The boats are ancient and summon up a pre-war world when Hong Kong was a vibrant outpost of an empire that felt secure.

The empire is gone. I watched the last flag come down a rain-drenched night in Hong Kong in 1997. Nobody that I met is remotely sentimental about that.

My Daniel is a child of the post-imperial world, but he is fascinated that he was born here in the last days of colonial rule. He cannot quite fathom a world in which one set of men ruled over another by virtue of their confident belief in the superiority of the English race.

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The Chinese world co-existed alongside the colonial world in relative harmony. But what Britain thinks or says is an irrelevance here now. These days, Hong Kong worries about the far-away emperors of the Communist Party in Beijing. There is a steady campaign here to mobilise support for the pro-democracy camp ahead of elections. But Beijing will not allow any movement that threatens to export, even by example, a democratic possibility to mainland China.

For Daniel, it was a glorious visit to a place he could not remember - we left before he was two. On the Star Ferry, he watched the sun glinting on the skyscrapers of Central and whispered: "Amazing, dad."

I took him to Wanchai market and we passed writhing eels, baskets of prawns and crabs, crates of live hens, sides of pork, hucksters offering clothes from the sweat shops of China. We drank tea in a noodle shop and lingered over a drink in one of the newer cafes on the market's edge.

He struggled, as I did when I first came, with the commercial drive of the place. But the Hong Kong of conspicuous wealth and endless striving is only a small part of the story.

The real Hong Kong is bigger than money. It sees material gain as an insurance against a history of war and upheaval. Wealth is for the creation of stable and lasting family units.

I feel the better for having been back. And for Daniel, it is his hometown after all. He'll be back, again and again.

Fergal Keane is a Special Correspondent with BBC News

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