Statue of John B Keane, Listowel
THE JOHN B KEANE BAR, LISTOWEL – PART TWO
John B’s had the almost unique atmosphere of the true Irish pub. It was so traditional that at first I suspected it to be a tourist fix until it turned out that the customers were mostly Kerry people. It was rather like a family party in someone’s front room with ages ranging from eleven to ninety.
As the evening wore on, the circle of people around the fireside began singing a weirdly mixed medley of songs. ‘Those Were The Days’ was followed by ‘The Minstrel Boy To The War Has Gone’, followed by Elvis’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, followed by ‘The Croppy Boy’, followed by a painful attempt at Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’. The best singing came from a Canadian tourist doing ‘Raglan Road’ until he forgot the words and faltered into silence. What made it all so pleasant was the respectful hush offered to anyone who was willing to entertain the company – no matter how good or bad they were, everyone was allowed their space. What made it even more pleasant was the steady arrival of free pints from Billy – “as you are a performer”.
One of the singers sat down beside me and we talked. His name was Sean O’Neill, aged about thirty, with long hippie hair and a guitar. He had performed some of his own compositions and they had turned out to be excellent. On hearing of my trek, he gave me the phone number of a girlfriend in Skibbereen.
“She loves the arts and I reckon she’d help the cause.” He mentioned that he was travelling through and staying overnight in Listowel. “At the Lumberjack Hostel.”
“Oh, that’s a coincidence.” I replied. “So am I. In the Cedar Room.”
“I’m in the Cedar Room as well.”
He fell rather quiet. I concluded that maybe he wasn’t entirely welcoming the fact that he was sharing a tiny bedroom with a large stranger who’d just announced that he was Oscar Wilde.
At half past eleven, the company stood to sing the National Anthem – ‘The Soldiers Song’ – and I left to find curry and chips. Sean stayed behind for a late session. Back in the Lumberjack, I found that it was another non-smoking establishment. Bugger. To avoid the smoke detector, I opened a corridor window and leaned outside, flicking ash into the yard below. I was feeling dog-tired. It had been one hell of a long day since the Aran Islands show. Hummed ‘It’s A Long, Long Way from Clare to Here’ – rather appropriate. Climbed up to the top bunk in the Cedar Room and slept immediately.
DAY THIRTEEN – THURSDAY.
8 30 am. Woke to the sound of gentle snoring from Sean down below. Awake and relatively refreshed, I began to appreciate the full horror of the Cedar Room. On the previous night’s cursory glance through a wall of tiredness, I’d fancifully thought of it as a cell. In the light of morning, it turned out that it bloody well was a cell. It measured eight feet long by six feet wide with two double bunk beds in it. With a potential four people quartered here, it was worse than Pentonville.
The only decorations were one bare light bulb, the ubiquitous ‘No Smoking’ sign, and a tiny alcove containing a toilet bowl and a shower head. There were three coat hooks – with four beds. Why on earth only three? No window other than a ten-inch square skylight in the ceiling. A line from Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ ran through my mind: ‘That bowl of blue that prisoners call the sky’. I reckoned that, without exaggeration, the Cedar Room was literally in breach of the Geneva Convention.
Went outside to the corridor in search of a bathroom. The doors of the Oak, Elm, Willow, etc, Rooms were open; their interiors were vastly larger than the Cedar and also obviously empty. Unbelievably, in a vacant hostel, both Sean and I had been installed in what amounted to a broom cupboard. Brilliant! Dressed and stalked off into town in search of a Full Irish Breakfast.
Found one and with good humour and cholesterol levels restored, I strolled around the charming little streets and glanced into a couple of bookshops. The works of the famous author and owner of the eponymous pub, Dr John B Keane, were on display everywhere. After a while, I looked more closely at his photograph and realised who it was. He had been the old man to whom Billy had introduced me last night. One of the greatest living Irish writers. Oh well, so much for hobnobbing with the great? I didn’t recognise them even when I did meet them. Another disaster on the net-working front. In any case, I’d always suffered from a certain amount of timidity in the face of the famous. I can never think what to say. I’d once been struck dumb in the presence of the bloke who used to play double bass in the New Seekers.
Another beautiful day. Pottered about on various errands – sending postcards to England, checking the tourist centre, photo-stating programmes and sticking up posters. Found that I was having much more trouble understanding the accents here. Because of thirty years of TV news, most Brits can understand the Ulster accent and, because of having friends from Connaught and Dublin, I found no problem with either of those pronunciations either. But Kerry was difficult. I was continuously having to ask people to repeat themselves.
Took a walk over the river to look at the racecourse, then returned past the graffiti-daubed Listowel Castle. A notice was affixed declaring that ‘restoration work on the castle had been delayed due to a refusal of council planning permission’. (Wondered if Oliver Cromwell had ever encountered this problem?)
Sat on a bench in the market square to contemplate the situation. Things seemed to be set fair for the next two days, presuming that the Dingle show was still OK for tomorrow. Some of the paving stones in the square had various literary quotes carved on the surface – a great idea. Noticed one slab with a poem by John B Keane.
‘A golden mellow peace forever clings
Along the little street.
There are so very many lasting things
Beyond the wall of strife.
In our beleaguered life
There are so many lovely songs to sing
Of God and his eternal love that rings
Of simple people and of simple things.’
Looking up the ‘little street’ ahead, I think that I caught a glimmer of what he meant.
Read a copy of the Kerryman newspaper. Glory be, there was an article about the show and a plug for the Dingle performance. Very unusually, every single fact mentioned was correct. In my experience of press articles, either the date, the title, the time, the venue or the ticket price was wrong. But this was immaculate. The only mistake was that my name had been changed to ‘Alan’ Titley. What was it that Noel Coward had said? ‘They can print whatever they like about you as long as they get the name right’?
The problem of accommodation loomed again. I couldn’t risk camping again this soon. Despite the continual sucking of cough sweets, my voice was hoarser than ever. It was becoming a real worry – I needed shelter or this could turn into full-blown laryngitis. Despite the limitations of the Cedar Room, decided to re-book it for the night. Besides, I had new plans about the Cedar Room. Returned to the hostel, paid over another nine pounds and had a siesta.
Arrived at John B’s for the show at 5pm and sat talking to an elderly rubicund Cheeryble of a man called Sidney. He was an actor cum playwright and he detailed at length the plot line of his latest play. It involved a house that straddled the Ulster border with the IRA occupying the southern section and the UDA the northern section.
He enthused: “The comic possibilities are endless.”
At 6pm, apart from Mary Keane behind the bar, there were only three people in the pub. One of them was a ninety-year-old gentleman who sat nodding quietly in his chosen chair by the fireplace, as he had done at this hour, according to Sidney, for the previous two decades. However, the fireplace area also happened to be the performance space. With bewildered reluctance, he suffered himself to be moved to an unfamiliar table where he sat regarding me with venerable disfavour. How to alienate one third of the audience before you’ve even started.
At six fifteen, there was no choice but to begin, otherwise I would have risked colliding with the next show.
“Three of my reviews included the following comments.
‘There are three rules for writing plays. One is not to write like Henry Arthur Jones. And the other two are exactly the same’.
‘K.E. Venables little book is a series of poems on the saints. Each poem is preceded by a brief biography of the saint it celebrates – which is a very necessary precaution as so very few of them actually ever existed. It does not possess much poetic power and such lines as those on Saint Steven could be said to add a new horror to martyrdom’.
‘This book has taken four people to write it. And even to read it requires assistance’.
Despite the lovely evening outdoors, the onlookers increased gradually during the show. By the time I reached the ‘Oscar in Exile’ sequence, there was a decent sized crowd. All the same, the performance was decidedly odd. The audience, consisting almost entirely of latecomers, naturally squashed into the furthest section by the door. This left most of the pub empty in front of me. Performing across the gap felt rather like playing slow motion badminton. Half way through, there was some heckling. This was incomprehensible to me, spoken as it was in a Kerry accent. I beat the interruption down by raising my voice and riding over the top of it. Other than the heckles, there was very little response and practically no laughter. My involuntary reaction was to start fluffing the lines. Managed a final flourish with the last few speeches but generally it had been a dismal show.
To my surprise, it received a very strong burst of applause. Eh? Where had I gone right? Made the donation plea speech and strolled into the audience. A man rose to his feet and came towards me. He placed a ten-pound note in the hat, shook my hand and said quietly:
“That was excellent.”
Then he walked off to the private quarters at the rear. It was John B Keane. I don’t think that I’d ever treasured a gesture as much as that, or had a less deserved one. For generosity and simplicity, it was hard to beat. It was rather like being tipped by W.B. Yeats.
Then the money started to flow in – fifty four pounds in all – the rickety old barge of finance was afloat again.
Drank at the bar counter with three of the audience. One of them, Paul, suggested that I did a show for the Yeats Summer School up in Sligo.
I hesitated “But why would they want Wilde?”
“After a solid fortnight of the Lake Isle of Innisfree,” he said darkly “Wilde would be a welcome respite.”
One of his companions turned out to be the heckler.
“Don’t worry about it. I was just testing you.” he smiled, then stood to walk to the Gents.
The third man took his arm and guided him there. I assumed that the heckler must be mildly pissed but Paul explained that he was blind.
On their return, I tried to buy a round but was sternly rebuked.
“The troubadour is bought drinks. He does not buy them. That’s the tradition.”
By 8pm, the group decided to leave on a pub crawl and the blind man again was helped to the door. His guide turned to wave goodbye and accidentally walked straight into a pillar. Paul helped them both outside, while trying to keep a straight face.
The conversation continued, this time with a party of golfers from Cork. The topic shifted round to aspects of nationality. One of them said:
“I reckon the Scots and the English are pretty much the same.”
Another gave a short laugh and replied:
“When was the last time you went to Murrayfield, Dermot?”
The next chat was with a Dubliner called James who occupied the neighbouring barstool. He remarked that he always came to Listowel for his holiday.
“There’s something different about this town. There’s a real esteem for writers and poets here.”
I had a feeling that he might be right about this. If you were asked about your occupation in England and you replied that you were a poet, people would assume that you were either joking or nuts. But in Ireland, the poet was regarded as a sort of lay priest – there was a genuine respect for the trade.
I explained, yet again, about the tour of Ireland. James had read ‘Round Ireland with a Fridge’ and said:
“Is that why you came here to John B’s?”
“Do you not remember the book?”
I had to confess to an awful short-term memory. I could recall the general outline of it but not the details.
“Well, Tony Hawks came to John B’s. He brought that feckin’ fridge right in here. It was a right laugh.”
Looked around the pub with fresh eyes. So, my famous precursor had been here as well. Felt an odd sense of kinship.
I was handed a further pint by Mary Keane. [I was later to find out that she was responsible for one of the great quotes of Irish life: “The best way to get your husband to do something is to suggest that he is too old to do it.”]
As the bar became increasingly crowded, three young women drew up stools and sat between James and myself. They were sisters and were quite obviously much more interested in talking to each other than to us. James tried to break the ice by pointing to me and saying:
“I don’t think you realise, ladies, that you are sitting next to somebody famous.”
A disaster of a line if ever there was one. As James explained about the tour, their initial mild curiosity dwindled to blankness.
The eldest asked: “Where’s your fridge, then?”
On my admitting that I did not possess one, her attitude slid into lofty dismissal. The youngest politely kept up some conversation but I found her Kerry accent difficult to follow. I enthused for a few minutes about world trade under the impression that she had just passed her degree in Geography. It turned out that the degree had been in Photography.
Any further attempt at intimacy was drowned out by Billy Keane’s announcement of the main event of the evening. It was an adaptation of one of John B’s books, ‘Letters of a Successful T.D’. An American man behind me asked Billy what the show was about.
Billy replied: “A T.D. is like a Senator or a Member of Parliament. The play is all about politics. Do you have politics in America?”
The American gave a snort of laughter: “Oh, indeed we do.”
The show began at 9 42pm sharp – the advertised start had been nine pm. It was going to be damned hard, I reckoned, re-adjusting to British theatrical punctuality after all this. The play was a two-hander for an actor and actress and concerned the problems of a T.D. obsessed with vote-catching but hindered by a wife, who was a glorious mixture of Kerry broth and Jewish angst, and a son at college, who bombarded him with importunate demands for cash: ‘Da, I need the money to buy some more books, Da.’. The show was genuinely funny and rapturously applauded.
10pm. As Billy handed me the seventh free pint of the evening, James said:
“There’s a line in your act when Wilde says ‘I don’t want to become a monument for tourists’. It’s a funny thing but I saw John B prick up his ears at that. I think he recognised that’s what is happening to him in Listowel.”
I thought about it. “Maybe you’re right, but I think it’s better to be remembered as a real breathing human being than to live in some cocoon. Otherwise, you could end up being stuffed into isolation by your own reputation”.
Decided to call it a night at 11pm. Rose unsteadily from the barstool and called goodbye to Billy.
“Hang on a moment. I’ve got something for you.”
He disappeared into the back room, then re-emerged and handed me a card. On the back was a written message:
‘To Certify that Neil Titley Played Oscar Wilde in John B’s. With Great Distinction. Signed John B Keane.’
Felt extraordinarily honoured and moved by that scrap of paper. Whatever else happened from now on, the tour had been worth it just for that.
Returned to the Lumberjack and decided to take unilateral action over the sleeping quarters. No way was I going to suffer the Cedar Room again. Packed all the bits and pieces into Bosie and wheeled it along to the Sycamore Room. This was about four times the size of the Cedar and also boasted a window. Settled into one of the beds. Twenty minutes later, there was a sharp knock on the door and a woman’s voice rapped out authoritatively:
“Who’s sleeping in that bed?”
Resisting the desire to reply ‘Goldilocks’, I opened the door and explained. The woman’s expression softened.
“Ah yes, you’re right. It was stupid of the maid to put two of you in the Cedar. I only ever use it in emergencies. Go ahead and sleep. You’re welcome.”
All the bile that I’d built up about the Lumberjack dissolved. On a backwash of lager and goodwill, I reflected that it was the best possible of hostels in the best possible of worlds. Slept.
DAY FOURTEEN: FRIDAY
Woke feeling very groggy at 8.30am and only partially recovered over a Full Irish Breakfast in Lynchs Café. The travel choice today was not difficult. There was a fixed show to do tonight and the hangover clause could be fully justified. Despite the sunny morning, this would be a public transport day.
Waited at the bus shelter, looked around the market square, and began to reflect on the relationship between John B and Listowel. Obviously, his writing had been inspired by the town and by Co Kerry. But surely the inhabitants, particularly the young, must have read his work? It was about their world, after all. But how far had their self-image and behaviour been influenced by what John B had written about them in the first place? The writer and his people – who creates who? Was it all simply reflecting mirrors? A difficult cultural question.
And totally insoluble with a thumping headache.
Caught the Tralee bus at 10.30am. As we drove out of town, I watched a man strolling along the pavement in the sunshine. By huge coincidence, the last person that I saw in Listowel was Dr John B Keane.
NJT with John B’s statue in 2014
Next Tuesday April 2 – On to Dingle.