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Thanks goodness John B took his own advice – never give up

"NEVER give up." He looked up with eyes that gleamed fun and seriousness in the same breath.

My uncle John B Keane was holding court in the old kitchen at the back of his pub in Listowel. I was a young aspiring musician. I had recorded my first few songs, sent them off and gotten no response from record companies. I'd also written two very successful children's musicals, but a third had been hammered by a critic.

John B was on the rise again, however. His classic play The Field had been optioned to be made into a movie and productions of his plays were being staged everywhere from Moscow to the USA.

He was humble in the way that true talent is – it never needs to shout for itself or put on false modesty. I listened intently as he spoke about coping with rejection.

One of the things he told me about was his struggle in getting Sive staged. Sive was John B's first major play and he completed it in 1959. It was staged by the Listowel Drama Group, who then took it to the All-Ireland Drama Festival in Athlone, where it won the competition for them.

UNDERBELLY

However, the letters from our national theatre, The Abbey, were not too pleasant or subtle – John B should really look at another career and give up these minor rural writings.

Boy were they wrong. Sive was a sensation wherever it was staged. To portray the underbelly of Irish life, to feature Travellers as he did, to tackle taboo subjects in a wildly lyrical naturalist way, stunned audiences.

The Abbey later found some sense and went on to stage his masterpiece.

The theatre had also rejected another of John B's plays, Sharon's Grave. Thank God because I wouldn't be here if they hadn't. Let me explain.

After Sharon's Grave was the subject of another rejection letter from the Abbey, two Cork men, James N Healy and Michael Twomey, saw an opportunity. They raised funds and through the Little Theatre of the South put the play on in Cork.

Then disaster struck. One of the female leads fell sick. The lead actor was John B's brother, Eamon, and he was very worried. A succession of young starlets tried for the part, but none fitted the bill.

A young UCC drama student decided to audition with little hope. They loved her. She loved Eamon. My mother Maura got the part. Six weeks later she married Eamon. A few years later I made my own world stage debut on a Christmas morning in St James's Hospital.

I can't claim any insider knowledge of what drove John B to write Sive. That is best left to his sons and daughter and wife Mary (if you want to get a good understanding of the play, read his daughter Joanna's marvellous introduction to the new edition of Sive).

I do know that its themes of poverty, money, land and betrayal are as relevant today as they ever were.

But let's go back to that morning in the kitchen in Listowel with John B. His wife Mary made a great fry-up for breakfast as we were talking - John B. and my father Eamon both loved the black pudding.

INCREDIBLE

Mary heard him telling me about the rejection from the Abbey. "He's incredible alright – he'd lose his own head, but he found those letters" she said.

Mary explained this to me years after John B passed away. In order to protect and encourage him, she would hide the rejection letters around the house. But he always tracked them down

Fast-forward to today. Next month the Abbey will stage its first major revival of Sive in 20 years. Credit to the Theatre, they staged the play after the initial rejection and now it has returned for a new run. Don't miss it.

hnews@herald.ie


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