John B Keane, the writer who once informed us that "there are only two real kingdoms: the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Kerry", is honoured today for his magnificent contribution to Irish letters. For over forty years he has made the Kerry tongue, that rich linguistic weave of Elizabethan English and Bardic Irish, sing out across the world. The grief and laughter of our all-too-human condition have been enacted in plays, novels and prose that have enriched the great tradition of Irish writing. Sive, Sharon's Grave, The Year of the Hiker, The Field and Big Maggie are among the best known of John B Keane's works. In these plays, he shows himself to be what Brendan Kennelly calls, ' a poetic playwright' . . . giving to his audience, ' the lucid comprehension of complex feelings and ideas . . . in clear language'.
"Good writing, like good smithy work, is a compound of energy and artifice" observed Séamus Heaney. John B Keane's energy is informed by a highly attuned sense of the way in which the language of theatre can work a magic, transform actors into characters we have known for years, make our own unique reality appear as part of the universal lot of humankind.
Kafka, discussing the relation between art and craft, uses a suggestive metaphor: - 'art needs craftsmanship more than craftsmanship needs art . . .one cannot force oneself to give birth; one can, however, force oneself to raise the children' This care for the skill of writing within a vividly realised art, 'wonderful language in a rhythmical pitch' (Kennelly) owes much to a deep dedication to the process of making meaning in language. John B Keane's work presents a moral vision that has made audiences and readers conscious of the important qualities of life in an Ireland that has experienced a dizzying pace of change in the last fifty years.
He has dealt, fearlessly, with the big issues of the time: rural poverty, emigration, the concerns of women, the attachment to land, human relationships. 'The writer's greatest asset is his indignation', one of John B Keane's famous aphorisms, is an apt summary of his ambitious aims in these works. The dramatic stress that these subjects evoke is fashioned into a unified and communicative form that allows the full expression of emotional responses within a contained form. He is well aware of Arthur Miller's dictum that 'the structure of a play is always the story of how the birds came home to roost'.
The gift for comedy that John B. Keane's work possesses testifies to a delight in the power of words to capture human weaknesses. And in The Bodhrán Makers, he has ensured that the noble traditions of Irish craft and culture are preserved for future generations.
John B Keane's talents have already been widely recognised. In 1977, he was conferred with a Doctorate of Letters by Trinity College, Dublin and in 1984, he was conferred with a Doctorate of Fine Arts at Marymount College, Manhattan. The Sunday Independent Irish Life Arts Award followed in 1986, the same year in which the Sunday Tribune Arts Award was given to John B Keane for his prose work, The Bodhrán Makers. This writer was also awarded the Irish American Award for Literature in 1988. And it was fitting that this Listowel citizen who has remained close to his roots in the community was suitably recognised in 1989 as Kerryman of the Year. The Rehabilitation Institute People of the Year award was presented in 1990.
John B Keane is a life member of The Royal Dublin Society and is an elected member of Aosdána. Currently he is President of Irish PEN and in 1998 won the Inaugural Prize for Literature of that body, a distinction which is, with good reason, dear to his heart.