By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — President Mary McAleese led thousands of mourners when playwright John B. Keane was laid to rest in his native Listowel, Co. Kerry, at the weekend.
Keane, 73, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1994 and his death came as many friends had gathered in Listowel for the Writers Week festival he had done so much to inspire and support. He had left instructions that the show must go on.
Heartfelt tributes were paid to Keane, one of the country’s most prolific and respected literary figures.
He wrote 32 works of prose and poetry, 18 plays and numerous newspaper articles over five decades, including a column for the Irish Echo in the late 1980s into the mid-’90s, and was regarded as a master for his portrayal of his beloved rural Ireland.
With humor and a biting insight, he explored themes of greed, forced emigration, politics, loneliness, sex and match-making in an Ireland that is vanishing.
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He was a regular social commentator and was steeped in rural lore and legend particularly in his home county.
After early rejections, he became a grand old man of letters and received many awards, including honorary degrees in Ireland and the U.S., membership of Aosdana and Kerry Person of the Year.
Thousands followed the cortege as his funeral passed through Listowel on Saturday, pausing at a number of locations, including outside his famous pub on William Street. His son Billy told the mourners his father “never went on a long journey without stopping at a pub.”
McAleese said the most fascinating aspect of his genius was his ability to observe and reflect so accurately the wonders of life around him. His work gave an accurate insight into human strengths and frailties, she said.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern described Keane an “immense talent” who loved life, language, literature and learning.”
“He was a colossus of the Irish theater whose writing has provided a wealth of material for those who wish to learn about Irish life, or simply have a love of Irish literature,” Ahern said.
Keane was a lifelong supporter of Fine Gael and leader Michael Noonan said he would be remembered “with great affection by everybody in Ireland who had fallen under the spell of this most masterful weaver of the tapestry of rural Irish life.”
Tanaiste Mary Harney described him as “one of the great treasures of modern Irish writing.”