Early works by John B Keane discovered in a long-lost book left with close friends

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An act of neighbourly kindness has resulted in some of the earliest work by beloved Irish playwright and novelist John B Keane being unearthed after 72 years.

Billy Keane was stunned when his Kerry neighbours, Matt and Nellie Kennelly, contacted him to say they had discovered his father’s long-forgotten copy book of poems, the outline for a play and handwritten notes.

Mr Keane, a Listowel publican and columnist with the Irish Independent, had written a special piece about Matt and Nellie, both in their 80s, after they retired from their drapery business in Listowel. The Cloth Hall had been in operation for more than a century.

When he went to meet the couple, he was astounded to be handed a copy book that had been given by John B to Matt’s brother, Stan, eight decades ago for safe keeping while the poet went to work in the UK.

“It contains work by my father when he was 18 years old,” Mr Keane said.

“He was very friendly with Stan, Matt’s brother, and he gave it to him before he went to the UK. When the copy book was rediscovered by Matt and Nellie, they had a family meeting and decided it should be given to us.”

The copy book was discovered when the couple, after their retirement, were sorting through old documents and files.

It is believed the copy book dates from October 1948 , with John B having moved to the UK for work in 1951.

In his late teens he focused on writing poetry, much of it inspired by the local Kerry countryside, history and folklore. He returned to Listowel in 1955 and began running Keane’s pub until his death aged 73 in 2002.

His first work was Many Young Men of Twenty in 1946 but he soared to national prominence with his second work, Sive, in 1959.

His subsequent catalogue of work, including Sharon’s Grave, The Field, Big Maggie, The Chastitute and Moll, established him as one of Ireland’s most acclaimed and beloved playwrights of the 20th century. The great Kerry artist is now celebrated with a special statue to his memory in Listowel

“We were totally taken aback because we didn’t even know it [the copy book] existed,” Mr Keane explained.

Now running his father’s famous pub, he said he was touched by the kind-hearted gesture of the Kennelly family.

The copybook contains a number of poems, including one his father had written called The Valley of Knockanure. “My father was very interested in the case of Paddy Dalton, Paddy Walsh and Jerry Lyons who were killed by crown forces during the War of Independence in May 1921. They were killed at Gortagleanna in the Valley of Knockanure,” he said.

The poem outlines the fate that befell the three young men that day when they were unfortunate enough to come upon several drunk members of a Black and Tan patrol.

Mr Keane said a family meeting would be staged with his siblings Conor, Seán and Joanna to decide what to do with the material in the copy book. “We are determined to get it out there but we must have a family meeting about it first,” he said.

It remains unclear whether the copy book contains sufficient work for a publication in its own right or whether the material might be added to future anthologies of his work.

Mr Keane said he was eager to see the long-lost copy book take a place of honour in a temporary exhibit in the Listowel Writers’ Museum before returning to the family archive.

“It is a fantastic museum and I think it would be wonderful to see it displayed there for a few weeks,” he said.

Irish Independent

Source: Irish News