As many a visitor to Listowel Writers’ Week will confirm – be they a Nobel Laureate, a Booker Prize winner, a Hollywood star, a novice writer or someone who comes simply to enjoy the festival atmosphere – no visit is complete without a visit to the iconic John B Keane’s Pub in the heart of the town.
Still run by the Keane family, the pub had a big celebration on 17th January to mark, almost to the day, 60 years since John B and his wife Mary bought it back in 1955. So I popped in to see Billy Keane, who’s been running the pub under the watchful eye of his mother Mary for the past 21 years and asked him what he thought his dad would have made of it all.
“We didn’t want to make it too poignant or sad because it’s a pub after all, so we had a big party with loads of singing and music, buck-leaping and dancing. I think my dad would have liked it,” he smiles. “We didn’t do the 50th because my dad was dead only a couple of years at that time and my mother was too sad. She said it would be no good without him. But now is the right time, and in a kind of a way we felt his presence and we kind of knew he was there… having fun with us, so it was a great night.”
A Traditional Irish Pub
Anyone who has been to John B Keane’s knows that being a traditional Irish pub, it’s a fairly small space. Although the family knocked down a wall leading into the kitchen a few years back to create extra room and an outdoor seating area at the back allows for an overspill, the pub was packed on the night. People came from all over the country to celebrate, including a few of Mary’s friends from when the pub opened 60 years ago.
“We should really have had it in the ballroom of The Listowel Arms Hotel,” Billy adds, “but then again you can’t really… you had to have it in our pub. But there were just so many who came, so apologies to anyone that couldn’t fit in on the night.”
Mary, who will be 86 in March, is still very much involved in the running of the pub. “My mother called time on the whole lot at the appropriate hour and kicked us all out – even me – so that meant we were all in reasonable shape the next day,” he laughs.
At this quiet time of the year Mary might open up and do an hour or two behind the bar and chat with a few of her friends who come in to see her. Billy says he sets her lots of challenges (mostly unintentionally) by forgetting to do stuff, but she always picks up on the little omissions. “If something hasn’t been done she’ll always notice. She phenomenal, she really is.”
Jammed with writers, poets, comedians and actors
John B’s Pub is still very much associated with Listowel Writers’ Week. As one visitor remarked – “Jammed with writers, poets, comedians and actors, John B Keane’s is the essence of Listowel Writers’ Week distilled into one tavern.” And it’s true – you could be sharing your table with a Booker Prize winner while a Hollywood actor could be ordering a pint of Guinness at the bar. And that informal proximity is part of the magic of Listowel.
“It’s very much a people’s festival as well as a writer’s festival,” Billy says. It’s one of those places where you come as a tourist and leave as a friend. You get a great welcome here and that’s a tradition that remains in Listowel. I’ve seen writers arrive for the first time and they’re a bit unsure… but then the committee give them a hug and a kiss… make sure they’re ok and looked after. A lot of famous writers come back again and again and they love it because they mix with the people. On the one hand they’re revered but they’re also included.
“Listowel Writers’ Week was the first literary festival in Ireland and it’s proven itself to be the most innovative,” he continues. “There’s no pretentiousness about it. You have every sort of person coming into the pub, and they’re all nice people – because
they’re very creative and artistic, so there’s a lovely vibe and a very pleasant atmosphere.”
Billy goes on to describe the festival as a kind of modern day version of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco during the 1960s, where everybody is chilled and into peace on earth and the flourishing of the arts and of writing.
“I had a couple of pints here with Seamus Heaney which I’ll never forget because he was so charming and modest and unassuming. But I also really enjoy the eccentric people we get in for Listowel Writers’ Week, like the girl who always comes back and asks if the MiWadi is still free. When I tell her it is, she then orders a pint of it!”
The Healing and Laying On of Hands
A long-standing tradition is ‘the healing and laying on of hands’ session. “It started up as a hangover cure about 20 years ago,” Billy laughs. “At that time the pubs weren’t allowed to open on Sunday afternoons, so it was done kind of surreptitiously in that we had to pull across the curtains. We were a bit like the ancient Christians hiding in the dark. The first one had maybe 15 people at it and then it grew and now it’s one of the highlights of the ‘fringe’ of Listowel Writers’ Week if you could call it that.”
The ‘healing’ takes place on Sunday afternoon and is an open mic session. Everyone’s welcome to join in. Billy tells me it wouldn’t be unusual for the likes of John Sheahan from The Dubliners or Matt Molloy from The Chieftans to play a few tunes, followed by someone standing up to read their poem for the first time ever in public.
“I’ve seen people standing there with hands shaking, and then you hear five years later that they’ve won a poetry award. The whole idea is that everyone is equal and everyone gets a chance. Poetry is given a special place as it’s probably the purest form of expression. There’s the best of order, and of course we’d sell a share of drink too – to enliven the proceedings.”
Apart from running the pub, Billy is also a writer in the footsteps of his father, with a debut novel The Ballad of Mo & G published in 2013. He has also written short stories, poems, sports books and has a regular column in the Irish Independent. He tells me he’s just started writing a play. “You’re the first person to officially know that I’ve started a play. I wrote the first few lines of it this morning, but I know it from start to finish at this stage because it’s been in my head for two or three years. It’ll be a bit different and I’m really looking forward to the fun side of it, because it will be fun to write.”
On a last note, I ask Billy if he thinks the pub will eventually be handed down to the next generation of Keanes. “I hope so,” he says. “I’ve no notion of selling it anyway, but we’ll see how they feel. It’s a lovely bar but there’s long hours and it can be difficult at times. I didn’t intend taking over the bar when I was younger but I finished up with it. So you never know what will happen. We’ll wait and see. It’s not for sale at the moment anyway, or in the foreseeable future!”
May it remain a cornerstone of Listowel Writers’ Week and for the many visitors from across the world who visit it, for many, many years to come. Sure where else would you get it?