Breda Joy pays tribute to the late Mary Keane, wife of playwright John B.
Kerry-based journalists, including myself, were occasionally tasked with ringing John B Keane’s bar in Listowel to get a quote or comment from the great playwright. This involved the herculean hurdle of ‘getting past’ his wife, ‘Mary John B’. Whenever I heard Mary’s voice at the other side of the line, my heart sank because, in the words of President Michael D Higgins, she was ‘that great gatekeeper’.
“Dad was not to be disturbed at all costs,” said Mary’s daughter, Joanna Flynn. “If the Pope himself called, he was not to be disturbed.”
Delivering the eulogy at her mother’s Requiem Mass on Monday, August 17th, 2015, Joanna related how Actors Gabriel Byrne and Ellen Birkin were once refused access to the author. Mary did not recognise them but, in any event, no interruption of the flow of inspiration in the room above the bar would have been brooked.
In an interview in the 2013 Cork Literary Review, Mary told Writer and Family Friend Gabriel Fitzmaurice, that it was a hard task to protect John (he was always John to her) because he was a ‘divil out of hell’.
“With all the hiding, I’d have him in hiding for four hours and at the last minute he’d appear and get me made into a liar,” she said.
At a launch of the Review in the bar, I repeated an anecdote, claiming that whenever Mary got too busy in the bar, she would tap the ceiling with the sweeping brush to summon John B.
Mary quietly called me aside after the speeches and explained that her husband would never have countenanced such a summons.
But the brush did feature in the offertory gifts brought to the altar when over 1,000 mourners overflowed from Saint Mary’s Church into Listowel’s Georgian Square. It had greater significance than Mary’s pride in keeping her bar and home spick and span.
“The sight of the Knocknagoshel woman with a firm look approaching with a brush was enough to send the most recalcitrant customer home,” Celebrant Fr Tom Leane said.
Joanna Flynn said her mother could ‘clear a pub better than any guard’.
Before the Mass, a couple sitting beside me smiled at the sight of two high-ranking Gardaí passing up the aisle and quoted a saying of Mary’s, ‘You can pat a dog all your life but I’d never put my hand in his mouth.’
Mary Keane was a publican, shopkeeper, muse and inspiration to her husband, a strong woman in her own right, a mother and grandmother whose care extended far and wide.
Growing up between Abbeyfeale and Castleisland in the parish of Knocknagoshel, Mary O’Connor was the fourth of five children. Her mother died of toxaemia after the birth of her fifth child when Mary was a two-year-old.
She told Gabriel Fitzmaurice there was always ‘a bit of a yearning for a mother in our house’.
As a child, she would touch the door knobs in the home, wondering if her mother had touched them before her. “Ironically, the woman who had no mother was a mother to many,” Joanna said.
Mary was an apprentice hairdresser when she beguiled John B with her blue eyes at a dance in Listowel. The aspiring writer and assistant chemist published a poem, ‘Two Eyes’ in The Kerryman shortly afterwards.
“He was always writing poems and songs for me,” she said. “And writing me beautiful love letters.”
After they married on January 5th, 1955, they opened the bar cum grocery shop.
“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,” she said. “It was just working all day and waiting for that.”
During the annual Listowel Races, they always took a minute out of the fray in the bar to mark the anniversary of their first meeting.
“Theirs was a glorious, lifelong love affair that we as their children had the joy to witness,” Joanna said.
The couple were blessed with three sons, Billy, Conor and John, daughter, Joanna, and their grandchildren. After John B was diagnosed with prostate cancer, husband and wife were more united than ever.
“We were together day and and night and I bought next door a rocking chair and at three and four o’clock in the morning he’d say, “Mary are you still there?” And I would be there,” she told the Cork Literary Review.
The shadows lengthened, the evening came. John B (73) passed away in 2002, and Mary followed him on August 15th, 2015, at the age of 86.
‘Two eyes that beam with early dawn…Two eyes that gently break on me’.