23 January 2018

Five great writers
who shape Listowel’s
literary heritage

The statue of Bryan MacMahon in the grounds of the Seanchaí Kerry Writers’ Museum in Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Listowel often boasts that it is the ‘Literary Capital’ of Kerry – perhaps even the ‘Literary Capital’ of Ireland, and I was reminded of those claims last week when I visited the Seanchaí Kerry Writers’ Museum, beside Listowel Castle on the Square.

Listowel plays host to the Listowel Writers’ Week in May each year, and five writers in particular are celebrated and feted at that festival: George Fitzmaurice, Maurice Walsh, Bryan MacMahon, John B Keane and Brendan Kennelly.

A statue of Bryan MacMahon stands in the grounds of the Seanchaí, which presents the works of many of these Kerry writers. The museum brings to life the rich literary creations of these authors, playwrights and poets, described as ‘characters full of humour, romance and tragedy.’

The first of these, the playwright George Fitzmaurice (1877-1963), was born at Bedford House in Duagh, near Listowel, the son of a Church of Ireland priest, the Revd George Fitzmaurice of Saint John’s, Listowel, and the of tenth of 12 children.

His father had married Winnifred O’Connor, the daughter of one his Catholic tenants. When his father died in 1891, the family moved to a cottage near Duagh, where the young George discovered rural traditions among visitors to the farm kitchen. He began writing for the Weekly Freeman and the Irish Weekly Independent and Nation.

His play The Country Dressmaker (1907) was an immediate success when it was staged at the Abbey, rescuing the theatre after the publicity fiasco of John Millington Synge’s Playboy of the Western World earlier that year.

At the Abbey, he worked closely with Lady Gregory and WB Yeats, and his plays were staged in Manchester, Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Fitzmaurice enlisted in the army in 1916 and returned from World War I fearful of crowds. When one of his plays was rejected by the Abbey in 1923, he became increasingly reclusive at his flat in 3 Harcourt Street, Dublin, and led an increasingly isolated and eccentric life. He refused Radio Éireann permission to broadcast The Dandy Dolls and The Magic Glasses, although The Country Dressmaker was broadcast.

He died in 1963 in his Harcourt Street, and was buried at Mount Jerome where his grave remained unmarked until 1995.

Maurice Walsh (1879-1964) was born near Listowel, the third child of 10 of John Walsh, a farmer. He took little interest in farming, however, and his main interests as a child were horses and books. After going to school in Lisselton and Listowel, he joined the Civil Service as a revenue officer in Customs and Excise and was posted to Scotland, where he worked for many years.

Many of his novels are set in north Kerry, although they were often written in his summer house in Scotland and in Dublin after he returned to Ireland in 1922. He is best known for his short story The Quiet Man (1935), which became an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie directed by John Ford in 1952 and starring John Wayne as Sean Thornton and Maureen O’Hara as Mary Kate Danaher.

His novels include The Key Above the Door (1926) and While Rivers Run (1928). He retired from the civil service in 1933 but continued writing until he died over 30 years later in Blackrock, Co Dublin, in 1964.

Bryan MacMahon remembered in s shopfront window in Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Bryan MacMahon (1909-1998) was a school teacher from Listowel who rose to prominence as a writer for the magazine The Bell.

He later published several novels, plays and short stories, including the autobiographical The Master, The Lion Tamer, The Bugle in the Blood and The Red Petticoat.

His work also includes an English translation of the autobiography of Peig Sayers.

A statue of John B Keane in the centre of Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John B Keane (1928-2002) was a novelist, short story writer, poet and playwright, whose writings are based on characters he met and events he witnessed while running his pub on William Street.

Born John Brendan Keane, he was the son of a National School teacher, and went to school at Saint Michael’s College, Listowel. He worked for a time as a chemist’s assistant, and he lived in England for several years before opening his pub in Listowel in 1955.

He is particularly known for his popular plays, including Sive, The Chastitute, Big Maggie and – most of all – The Field, which was turned into an Oscar-nominated Hollywood movie starring John Hurt and Limerick-born Richard Harris as the ‘Bull McCabe.’

He wrote of his home town:

Beautiful Listowel, serenaded night and day by the gentle waters of the River Feale. Listowel, where it is easier to write than not to write. Where first love never dies, and the tall streets hide the loveliness, the heartbreak and the moods, great and small, of all the gentle souls of a great and good community. Sweet, incomparable hometown that shaped and made me.

John B Keane’s pub on William Street in Listowel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Brendan Kennelly was Professor of Modern Literature at Trinity College Dublin until 2005. He is one of Ireland’s most highly regarded poets and is a prolific writer who has published more than 20 volumes of poetry.

He has also written two novels, The Crooked Cross and The Florentines, three plays, and he has edited many poetry anthologies.

Brendan Kennelly was born in Ballylongford, Co Kerry, in 1936, and many of the references in his poetry are based on listening to the stories told by local men and the songs they sang in his father’s pub. Since his retirement he has continued to tour as a visiting lecturer.

He writes of Listowel:

When a Listowel man takes a drink
from any tap in this lovely town,
’tis not only water that is going down,
but the purified secrets of the dead,
flowing into his belly and through his head.
No town here or in any land,
will do this for your body and mind.
Inspiration flows through the graveyard sod.
Turn a tap in Listowel, out flows God!

‘Beautiful Listowel, serenaded night and day by the gentle waters of the River Feale’ … John B Keane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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