When I was young and a bit scary-looking I used to hitch-hike round the West of Ireland and I once spent a couple of nights in a small town in deepest Kerry called Listowel. I went there because I’d read some plays and stories by a funny and clever and sentimental writer called John B. Keane (the Irish Dylan Thomas if you ask me). Keane, I knew, kept a pub in the town (called, as you’d expect, John B. Keane’s).
I arrived in town on the last night of an amateur run of one of Keane’s plays (I wish I could remember which one) in a freezing church hall. I saw the play (laughed like a drain) and then went back to Keane’s pub for what turned out to be the private cast party. I have no idea how I got in but it’s a proper testament to the generosity of the Irish (and their unwillingness to mix it with a twenty year-old spotty skin-head in camouflage and ten-hole Martens) that I didn’t learn it was a private party until I read the notice on the front door on the way out.
In fact, I had a lovely evening, got a bit drunk, talked for ages with the man himself and felt privileged to be included in a quite sophisticated, quite introverted, quite alien, provincial bubble – a community that, back then, before EU money translated the whole of Ireland into Barcelona or Helsinki or Toulouse or somewhere, seemed like the very final edge of the European literary universe – what with The Atlantic and all that.
Anyway, twenty years later, I learn that Fergal Keane, BBC foreign correspondent and dreadful romantic, is John B’s nephew. He’s made a nice radio programme about his uncle (who died in 2002) which gave me goose-bumps – memories crowding in and the voice of the man himself and his friends – literary and otherwise – and the rush of the River Feale and Keane’s friendly pub and the modest, undemonstrative fame of the local hero. Excellent.