Fascinating insight into life of the Keane family

Donal Nolan

JOHN B Keane's narrow escape from a dangerous mob at the height of the Language Freedom Movement; election candidate Tom Doodle's effect on Irish politics and the joys of growing up in the Castleisland area - these are just a few of the nuggets contained in a new interview with John B's widow Mary Keane.

Published in one of Ireland's leading journals, the Cork Literary Review and conducted by family friend Gabriel Fitzmaurice, the interview offers fresh insight into the life of the one of the best-known couples of the region.

It's possibly the most in-depth interview Mary has ever given, throwing a fascinating light on her life and times as much as it does the figure of her late husband.

Born on the Abbeyfeale side of Castleisland, Mary was only two-years-old when her mother passed away, leaving a void in the household. "There was always a bit of yearning for a mother in our house," she says.

Her first job was picking potatoes for her brother, but it wasn't to last long. "I hated it, and when I came back from picking potatoes my legs were all wet and I said 'I'm going no more' and I got my newspaper and it advertised 'apprentice to hairdresser required in Castleisland'."

She applied, moving into town and embarking on a brave new adventure; one that would ultimately lead to meeting a certain man at the Listowel Races.

"Then I saw this fellow walking, walking, walking towards me, it was a big hall, I was away up on the seats...and this fellow asked me to dance and I said 'I'd better dance to him because he came so far, he seems to be all right, I'd better dance to him.' And that was our meeting."

He was more than all right, he was John B Keane, and the couple 'did a line' for a long time due to the 26 miles between Castleisland and Listowel.

Mary had no idea in the first few weeks that her new inamorata was already a man of letters, but found out soon enough about the appearance of John B's poetry in The Kerryman - with a focus very close to home.

"He had a poem in the Kerryman, they told me, and he said that he met a lady from Castleisland at the Races, so I bought my newspaper. 'That's your man', I said to myself. He started writing to me then, and I answered but I wasn't able to write to him as fast."

Little could Mary have known then how much John B's writing would come to inform their lives, helping them buy their Listowel pub and completely transforming everything in their lives with the first production of John B's play, 'Sive'.

She recalled a man full of mirth. "He was full of fun and lovely, a lovely person, very popular."

An early highlight of their life came with the arrival of Tom Doodle - the fictional election candidate who was created by John B and friends and who is still remembered to this day.

"There would be a fight in every pub now and then over politics - Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael - it was bitter and when Tom Doodle came it eliminated all that...Tom Doodle stopped people fighting about Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael," Mary explains.

She also recalls how John B's involvement in the Language Freedom Movement many years later very nearly resulted in a nasty incident at Dublin's Mansion House - but for a quick-thinking Ballybunion garda who would himself go on to become a playwright.

"It was a holy terror altogether and only for Tony Guerin, Tony swears to this present day that John would have been dead. He was a detective sergeant and he was off duty and he hid him in a chip shop that he knew... I nearly died here waiting for a phone call."

Above everything, the interview is a moving tribute to what was clearly a very warm and close relationship: "We had love for each other through thick and thin and we would work away all through the day until we would be together at night and it was beautiful - the two of us, we might lie together or sit together or talk together."

The Cork Literary Review, with the interview at its heart, is to be launched in John B Keane's pub in Listowel by Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan at 10pm on Friday, November 1.


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