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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

Fear Of Big Words And
Love Of The Words Of John B.

“Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking.” (I had to throw that in.)

Anyway, when encountering a big word while reading aloud I’m always afraid that I will pronounce it wrong. That fear is classed as a social phobia. And I only discovered recently that there is a word for the fear of big words. Here it is;

Try pronouncing that one.

Speaking of words. There are very few people on this green and misty island who haven’t seen “Sive” by John B. Keane. A rural drama about a young and beautiful girl who lives with her uncle Mike, his wife Mena and his mother Nanna. And there is hardly a parish hall on this island where it hasn’t been staged. But where did it all start?

One night, sixty four years ago, 30 year old John B. went, with his wife Mary, to the Listowel Drama Group’s production of All Souls Night by Joseph Tomelty. On the way home he said to Mary, “I could write as good a play as that.” On arriving home he reached for his favourite Biro. By 6.30 next morning, as dawn was breaking over Gurtenard wood and footfall was starting in Market Street, he had completed Scene One of Sive. A fortnight later he had finished the first draft, he showed it to a few close friends and, as if with one voice, they told him that it wouldn’t work. He was given different reasons by different people; the names of the characters were ridiculous. The theme was outgrown. The language was too flowery. He re-wrote it and submitted it to the Abbey Theatre. The script was returned to him without any comment.

It was first staged by the Listowel Drama Group in Walshe’s Ballroom, Listowel on February 02nd 1959. They later put it on in the Abbey Theatre for one week. (When the Abbey Company eventually produced the play in 1985 it ran to packed houses for 42 weeks.) John B. said,” They got the harshness, the bitterness, the poverty of the period . . . At long last a few elderly and semi-elderly playwrights are getting *Cothrom na Feinne “). There was an Off-Broadway production but John B. was probably more impressed when the Listowel Drama Group won the All- Ireland Drama Final in Athlone with it.

Listowel people who visited Leinster House as the guests of Dan Moloney TD after their victory in Athlone in 1959

When the group was touring north Kerry with the play the playwright was playing Carthalawn, the singing tinker. He gave an unforgettable performance in Ballylongford. One unscripted scene drew mixed reactions from the audience. As the slender John B. was about to leave the stage at the end of Act two, gently singing what should have been the curtain-line, “And they laid her dead, to bury in the clay,” there was a wardrobe malfunction. His borrowed trousers, which were several sizes too big for him, headed towards Australia. Despite frantic, whispered, instructions to “get off ye eejit” he stood his ground. Most actors have adlibbed at times but this was different. Without missing a beat John B. composed an additional verse to the theme song, in seconds, and sang it with his trousers around his ankles before his exeunt stage left. Do you know how many times Sive has been staged? Neither do I but in 2018, the year that that he was nominated for Kerry Person of the Year, John B’s son Billy, put out a call on RTE radio asking any actress, amateur or professional, who played Sive at any time in the previous fifty-nine years to make contact.

The search resulted in an assembly of 50 “Sives” in the Gaiety Theatre on Sunday 11th February 2018. They ranged in ages from . . . Well! This national gathering of Sives met each other over a cup of tea in the John B. Bar and had a group photograph taken on the Gaiety stage. The group included Margaret Ward who played Sive in that very first production

I have read the script of Sive many times; both the three act version and the later two act version. I have now just finished one with a difference. Sive is published by Mercier Press with introduction and commentary by John B’s daughter Joanna. The word “commentary” doesn’t fully describe her input. She expands on the description of every character which is given in the stage directions and analyses each of those multi-layered characters who show every emotion to which human beings are heir. It is as if every one of them has the benefit of a psychoanalyst’s report. She explains in detail the imagery and language which was still alive in North Kerry when the play was written and set, quoting her father who said, “The North Kerry dialect was the love-child of two languages –Elizabethan English and Bardic Irish.” He said much the same to me when I interviewed him for a radio programme the year before he died when he was in constant pain. He told me that he certainly would not have been a writer if he hadn’t been introduced to the people in “the land of Dan Paddy Andy” as a ten year old in 1938. “I was introduced to new people and a new language.”

While he admitted that people are entitled to talk anyway the like, (he supported the Language Freedom Movement, when it was founded in 1966) he went on to say that in his time with the people of the Stacks Mountains, “I never in all my years – even now- heard the four letter word used. Although he was always a champion of free speech, (he backed the Language Freedom Movement when it was founded in 1966)he went on to say, ” . . . I think it sounds wrong . . .People who have God-given speech and literacy that they can’t think of something better than that “F” word.”

Joanna points out her father’s fairness when she says that he, .” . . .does not overtly condemn the Catholic Church in the play but rather subtly brings to light the dominant, controlling influence this powerful bastion brought to bear on Irish life at the time.” It couldn’t have been put better. I have yet to meet a person with a more balanced view of the Catholic Church in Ireland, than the late John B.

Earlier this year Joanna ,who is an English teacher and was four times Chairperson of Listowel Writers’ Week was dismissed along with her fellow veteran members when the voluntary committee was “unceremoniously disbanded without explanation” on foot of a consultant’s report which recommended restructuring . The “restructuring” took place and resulted in a 2023 festival which wasn’t a patch on any of the 51 Writers Week festivals which went before it and a lot of bad feeling in Kerry and beyond.

“The rapturous rat-a-tat-tat of his typewriter will stay with me forever,” Joanna says. It is not the only thing that stayed with her. His influence had the same effect on her as the people of Stacks Mountain had on him. It made a wordsmith of her .This publication is described as “suitable for both Senior and Junior cycle classes” but I believe that no actor, director or producer involved in a future production of Sive should stage it without reading this revealing work.

See you in October.

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