Interview: Landlord, tell us a tale of old Ireland

John B Keane has at least one better claim to be considered Ireland's leading dramatist over young Martin McDonagh: he was born in Kerry, not Camberwell. Mic Moroney talks to him down the line to his pub in Listowel.

In Ireland, John B Keane is one of the popular greats of the theatre. Yet abroad, apart from Jim Sheridan's film of his play The Field, he remains a relative unknown. Tonight's London revival of his first play, Sive, should, however, show him up as the genuine article: the grandaddy of the satiric, folk-myth stage-Ireland of the young "Irish" playwright from Camberwell, Martin McDonagh, whose Leenane Trilogy so recently took London by storm. And if a new lease of life for Sive sparks interest in Keane's other two "big plays", Big Maggie and The Field, another Irish "trilogy" might not be far away.

A canny, sharp-witted old guy with the common touch, Keane spoke to me from the pub he runs in the market-town of Listowel in Kerry. Polite and careful in his utterances, he teases out his phrases in a lilting, melodic, buttery accent that puts you at your ease - even if you're often left guessing at the exact puckish spike of his nuance.

How does it feel to be characterised in London as "the missing link" between JM Synge and Martin McDonagh? He chuckles. "In the Neanderthal sense? Ah, it's a great compliment, and a tribute to the Irish audiences who have stuck with my play for so long."

And what does he think of McDonagh's work, which bears many resemblances to his own - not least the plot device of the fatal interception of a love-letter which crops up both in Sive and (coincidentally, the younger writer maintains) in McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane? "I've read it," chuckles Keane, "and I love it. I could have been like him, maybe today, but I was there earlier, you know."

Born in 1928, the fourth of nine children (his father a local schoolteacher; his mother a woman of Basque origins and a member of Cumann na mBan, a women's auxiliary of the IRA), Keane remembers school as brutal, preferring summers spent in the Stacks Mountains, where the old culture impressed itself on him. "People chose words with great skill, and a commonplace conversationalist got no great welcome in the houses there.

"There was a thing called a bothan toireacht, someone who rambled from bothan [hut] to bothan, telling stories around the fire, bringing the news, like the two tinkers in Sive," he says, referring to the pair of ritualised mummer characters who regularly appear in the play, intoning their curses over the beat of a bodhran, or goatskin drum.

"I remember people like that calling at the house, and they'd bring wonderful news. Highly exaggerated, of course, and designed to please the owners of the house in queston. It was how they earnt their crust, you see."

After a brief emigration to work in England, Keane returned to Listowel to marry local girl, Mary O'Connor. In 1955, they bought the pub, where John B fed off the stories he heard over the counter, and sat up late into the night, writing away over a few pints.

Sive, his first play, was originally produced by the Listowel Drama Group, and won the All-Ireland amateur drama festival of 1959. Subsequent years saw a prodigious tally of work: over 20 plays, four novels, 30 years of assorted newspaper columns, and a stream of humorous books - Letters of a Love-hungry Farmer and Letters of a Matchmaker being the best-remembered.

Critical recognition, though, was slow in coming, partly because, as a "humorist", Keane's work was seen as slight. In his heyday, the 1960s, Ireland was on the cusp of two worlds: the new, modern Ireland of aeroplanes and John Hinde postcards, and the persistent, agonising rump of post-Famine rural poverty. Keane took angry relish in showing up the faultlines between the two, particularly in the theatre, where his microscopic analyses of human weaknesses were served back up as exaggerated, tragicomic folk-theatre, part-drawn from the story-telling tradition.

Yet even then, to urban eyes, his work seemed to hark back to the stage- Ireland of old. His first six plays were all turned down by the Abbey. Instead, they were picked up by Cork's Southern Theatre Company, and toured with wild success around the country, packing Dublin's big 1,000-seater Victorian theatres, the Gaiety and the Olympia, for months on end.

"I remember the Abbey saying the language in Sive was used nowhere. But, I tell you, it was the spoken language of the people in this part of the world - and still is in isolated areas. It's a cross between Elizabethan English and Bardic Irish, a thing called an bhairdne, the official, court Irish used by the poets. When the Elizabethans came to Listowel in the 1600s, and overthrew the castle, the two languages fused into the language of North Kerry.

"But Sive was crucified by the critics. I think they felt I shouldn't be going back, that you should write modern plays. But while I would accept critics saying it was larger-than-life and melodramatic, I've always argued that melodrama is the base of theatre - not the poor relation. Critics used to apologise for melodrama as if it were a sort of freakish aspect of the theatre, whereas it's the very foundation, the very soul of it."

Given that, of his other two big plays, The Field is now on the Irish secondary school curriculum, it's astonishing that the Abbey wasn't to touch his work until 1982, when Ben Barnes was invited in to direct Sive. Barnes, whose hallmark is an exhaustive attention to text, has since enjoyed an on-going relationship with Keane's work, paring and editing the three big plays down to what are now the standard editions.

During the 1990s, Barnes's Groundwork company at the Gaiety has mined many of Keane's skittish, and sometimes anguished, comedies. They look dated now, but they have still provided Groundwork with a succession of popular hits, including The Year of the Hiker, The Man from Clare and Moll, a daft comedy about a priest's housekeeper that prefigures Father Ted.

But Sive penetrates far deeper, with its raw tale of a young schoolgirl sold into an arranged marriage to a wealthy old farmer through the connivings of a snivelling matchmaker and the girl's hardened aunt and foolish uncle.

The lush poetry and humour of the language - there's a lot of talk in a Keane play - disguise the astonishing narrative undertow of the storytelling. When Barnes's new staging of Sive was first seen in Watford last month, it reportedly had audiences gasping in tension before the harsh core of the tragedy came hammering home.

This is Barnes's fourth go at directing the play, and his honing of the script highlights the context of brutalising poverty that motivates the cruelty of the characters.

Keane sparks on that subject: "The most grinding period I remember was from the mid-1930s up to the beginning of the war. Our house was on the way to the graveyard, and I'll never forget the sight of the white coffins going past day after day, and the people dying from diseases like scarlet fever and diphtheria - which I myself contracted. In our street, three young people died from it, it was a terrible reaper. Of course it was all due to malnutrition...

"That poverty demeaned the people. I remember at Christmas seeing old women in shawls and bare feet in the snow and rain, calling at doors for a few pence: they'd take a bottle of stout if they got it. And the way they'd give thanks, the promises of prayer and salvation...

"We were sort of in the well-off bracket, but it was still a constant struggle, and all the neighbours had it the same way. In that street, there was a kind of old jaded grandeur and pride, but, underneath it, there was always the pall and threat of starvation."

Currently, Keane is recovering from a long bout of radiotherapy, after a relapse of the prostate cancer he suffered a couple of years ago, and so won't be in London for tonight's opening. "I think I'm nearly back to normal, but I haven't really had any energy, so I've just been writing short stories" - a volume has just been published in Ireland, America and Germany, where his work is, perhaps surprisingly, popular in translation - "but I'll be getting back to writing plays again in the New Year. I want to write one good comedy before I expire."

Gosh, I counter, hopefully that won't be for a while yet.

"I hope so too - even more fervently than you do..."

`Sive': to 17 Jan, Tricycle Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 (0171-328 1000)

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