John B Keane writer, Professor Brendan Kennelly Poet and Literary Listowel
Listowel of the Writers
Listowel of the Writers
John B Keane once summed up the Kingdom of Kerry by saying Killarney has its lakes, Tralee has its Roses and Listowel has its writers. The Seanchai Literary and Cultural centre museum is a celebration of the writers who have forever immortalized both the literary town of Listowel and the Kingdom of Kerry. This Writers museum is situated on the forecourt of Listowel castle which itself rests on the steep bank of the River Feale.
Sometime ago I decided to take a tour of the Seanchai Literary and Cultural Centre which also is home to the ever industrious Writers Week office. My tour began upstairs in the landscape room. Here I watched a documentary presentation showing the panoramic beauty of Listowel, the unspoiled black cliff’s of Ballybunion and the serene Carrig Island in Ballylongford. The scenery is brought to life and vividly portrayed by quotations and descriptive passages from many of Kerry’s finest and best loved writers.
The first writer I encountered was Maurice Walsh. His waxed likeness is portrayed as a contemplative figure sitting at a table. His pen was poised in his hand and he was pondering over a crossword. On the table in front of him lay his writing notebook, his pipe and a bottle of Scotch whiskey.
I browsed the room for a while listening to recordings of his many works. Maurice Walsh is probably best known for his short story which was first published in 1934. Had he any idea then that The Quite Man, would immortalize his name forever?
Maurice Walsh was born in Ballydonoghue on the 2nd of May 1879, after leaving St. Michael’s College in Listowel in 1901 he commenced work in the British Civil Service. He began working in the Excise Department in Scotland. Subsequently he returned to Ireland in 1922 to work in Customs and Excise in the new State. All his novels were set in the highlands of Scotland or the lowlands of North Kerry. He wrote twenty novels and many short stories. His novel Trouble in the Glen, was filmed in England in 1954. He died during the same year on the 18 of February.
The Brendan Kennelly room was next on my agenda. Brendan Kennelly is one of Irelands most renowned and distinguished poet. He is an Associate Professor of English at Trinity college and became the first occupant of the newly-created Chair of Modern Literature in 1973.
His moulded likeness stood at a lecturing podium. From here he shared his knowledge and wisdom with countless would be students. He hails from a small village seven miles from Listowel called Ballylongford. It is apparent from his poetry that his emotions are still deeply rooted in the village where he grew up.
In all he has published six volumes of selected poems, his best known works are also his most controversial i.e, Cromwell, and The Book of Judas, this was followed by Poetry My Arse, which was even more notorious. Critics have hailed his work as being highly significant.
The next room I visited was the George Fitzmaurice room. I studied him standing by the window in his single bedroom, his suitcase lay open on a small single bed. He was born on January 28,1877. There were twelve children in his family. After his father died he had to move to Kilcara outside the village of Duagh. Growing up he was known to be a book loving loner.
He started to write in his twenties and had some short stories published between 1900 and 1907. He worked in Dublin in the civil service. In October 1907 he had his first play The Country Dressmaker, staged at the Abbey Theatre. It was very successful. However his second play The Pie Dish, was seen by some as being blasphemous. His next play The dandy dolls, was rejected because of the ensuing bad publicity from his earlier play. He had three more plays staged between 1913 and 1923 but never really recovered from his earlier misfortune.
He fought in World War I but after his return he retreated from the general public and wandered aimlessly from place to place. His final days were spent alone in a small bed-sit huddled near a sparse gas fire. George Fitzmaurice died of a heart attack in 1963 and sadly it was a couple of days before his body was discovered.
When his belongings were examined an old suitcase was discovered with seventeen unpublished plays with a note offering them to anyone who was interested. Most of them have since been published. Also an unsent letter to his sister was found explaining that he suffered from neurasthenia which caused his shyness and fear of people.
When I opened the door to the next room and felt that I was a child again. There were a number of desks lined up, a blackboard and some school books on a shelf. At the front of the room a figure stood in front of the blackboard. Who else could it be but, the Master, Bryan McMahon.
I sat down at a desk and waited for the class to begin. The inscription on the blackboard read, ‘Praise youth and it will come: disparage youth and it will wither.’ Bryan McMahon felt teaching and writing went hand in hand and he derived as much pleasure from nurturing his pupils as he did his writing.
Bryan McMahon was born in Listowel on September 29, 1909 and went to the local boy’s national school and onto St. Michael’s college. He then went to Dublin to study teaching and on his completion returned to Listowel.
In 1936 he married Kitty Ryan and they subsequently had five sons. He also became the Principal teacher at Scoil Realta na Maidine, in Listowel. Bryan McMahon seemed able to delve into every area of writing and be successful. He wrote short stories, poetry, plays, novels, radio features and television scripts to name but a few.
He was the founder member of Listowel Writers Week in 1973 and Kerry person of the Year in 1988. He loved short story writing and two of his best known are The Lion Tamer and The Red Petticoat.
Some of Bryan McMahon’s most famous plays were Song of the Anvil, The Bugle in the Blood,and The Honey Spike. They were all staged at the Abbey Theatre. He also had a profound love for drama and founded the Listowel Drama Group.
Bryan Mc Mahon was also a passionate and fluent Irish speaker and he loved spending time on the Islands and in other Irish speaking areas. He translated the famous story of Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island, into English and it was subsequently serialized by Radio Eireann. He was also renowned for being one of the very few people who could speak Shelta, the secret language of the Irish Travelling people.
In 1952 his novel, Children of the Rainbow, was published in Britain, the US and Canada. He also wrote Brendan of Ireland, a book about the life of a boy living in the Irish countryside. Above everything else Bryan McMahon achieved during his life he was at heart a schoolteacher and will be forever immortalized as, The Master. He died in February 1998.
After such an intense journey I have to say the final room really appealed to me. It was a cozy country pub with only one man propped up on a high stool at the counter and one other anonymous character sitting at a table. I must be at John B. Keanes public house.
Near John B Keane is a black manual typewriter, the first one he ever used when he decided to chance writing. He was born on the 21, of July 1928 and was the fourth of nine children. He first began to gain inspiration for his writing from spending his summers with relations in the Stacks Mountains. Here he met a hospitable and down to earth generation of people who were a lasting source of inspiration to him.
He was bitterly disappointed when his first play Sive, was turned down by the Abbey Theatre. However it later went on to win the All Ireland Amateur Drama Festival in 1959 and its enormous popularity ensured his growing recognition as a playwright.
In all he wrote nineteen plays including Sharon’s Grave(1960), Many Young Men Of Twenty(1961), The Man from Clare(1962), The Year of the Hiker (1963), but it was The Field, in 1965 which once again won him international acclaim for it’s strong characters and intriguing storyline. It was later adapted for film in 1996 and gave the Kerry writer worldwide exposure.
His novels included The Contractors(1993), The Bodhran Makers (1986) and Durango(1987), which was adapted into a highly successful film in 1999.
He will always be best remembered for the apparent love he had for his local town and its people in all their baffling diverseness. He wrote about the average man, and everyone could easily relate to his characters.
During his life John B Keane was president of Irish PEN, a member of Aosdana and received many awards including honorary doctorates from Dublin University, University of Limerick and Marymount, Manhatten College, New York. He was also the Co-founder of the still immensely popular Listowel Writers Week which remains to be an annual writing festival that attracts many of the world’s most prominent writers and literary figures.
John B Keane died on the 30 May 2002 which was to be the opening day of Listowel Writer’s week. True to his character he said he wanted Writers Week to continue as normal. Thousands turned out to say farewell to a writer who had always lived and wrote among the local people whose fascinating typically Irish lives were a great source of inspiration to him.
It was an aspiring journey revisiting the lives of these famous writers. I took the lift back down to the ground floor where I was free to browse in the book shop. I completed my tour by having my lunch in the restaurant which comes highly recommended for its traditional Kerry warmth and hospitality.