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Scott Larson

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A tale of two Keanes

Every so often, we are witness to a real-life public drama that is so naked in its intensity and immediacy that it’s hard to believe we are not watching a movie. Of course, the most prominent recent example of such a phenomenon is September 11. But sometimes these publicly-shared movie-like events are on a more personal level. Like when we saw videotape of Bill Clinton describing his affair with an intern. Or when O.J. Simpson swore on television to find his ex-wife’s real killer.

People in Ireland shared such an experience in the week leading up to the opening of the World Cup. For more than a half-hour the nation was riveted by an unedited television interview (filmed a few hours earlier) with the man who is acknowledged to be the current greatest Irish soccer player and one of the greatest in the world.

Roy Keane—who had been fired as captain of the Irish national soccer team after quitting, then not quitting, then verbally attacking the team manager in front of the rest of squad—had insisted that the interview be shown in its entirety. He had judged the saturation media coverage in Ireland to have been spun against him and he now wanted to get his “side of the story” out. The RTÉ interviewer gently played devil’s advocate, clearly trying to extract some form of apology from Keane in the hopes that a diplomatic way could be found for him to return to the fold. Instead of contrition, the country got an uncomfortably close look at one of its greatest but all-too-human heroes.

If this had indeed been a movie, it would have been The Caine Mutiny. The sacked captain lacked only the metal balls rolling nervously in his palm and a question about the nickname “Old Yellow Stain” to have been a younger, hunkier version of Humphrey Bogart’s Capt. Queeg. As he gave his list of complaints about the long flight to Asia, the state of the practice pitch, the missing soccer balls (lost by DHL), and the penchant of his teammates to include a bit of fun and carousing along with the training, he sounded like a whinger and whiner and someone who just wasn’t very much fun. He meant to cast himself as some sort of victim but, to those of us who were not in complete thrall of his legend, he came off simply as someone who put his own whiny ego higher than his country or his fans.

Some in the media called the whole episode a tragedy, but that cheapens the word “tragedy” since no one actually died. But there were definite Shakespearean tones to the affair, inasmuch as the hero was brought down by his own fatal flaws. It doesn’t take much imagination to see Keane’s interview as some new-media-age Othello explaining why he had to do away with Desdemona. But the modern-day sports adaptation of that play has already been done, in last year’s O.

* * *

As The Missus and I left County Kerry for the last time for some months, we (along with everyone else in Ireland) were saddened to learn of the passing of the great playwright John B Keane. It seemed strangely fitting that he would shuffle off this mortal coil during his beloved Listowel’s annual Writers Week, since he is the best known of the town’s considerable writing talents.

During the Writers Week four years ago, we had the pleasure of hearing John B (and others) in his own pub crooning a number of traditional songs. The following year, as Kerry blow-ins, we invited ourselves to a benefit tribute to him at the Brandon Hotel in Tralee. By all accounts, he was a delightful man and proof positive that being a great talent doesn’t mean you can’t also be a great human being.

What John B did seemed deceptively simple. He had a pub, and he listened to the stories that got told in his pub, and he wrote plays about what he heard. In such simplicity lies genius. Although he wrote mainly for the stage, he did have one notable movie connection. His best-known play The Field was adapted as a motion picture starring Richard Harris in the immortal role of Bull McCabe. While The Missus swears that the film version was inferior to any stage version, this story of a land dispute in rural Kerry has come to haunt my dreams frequently, as I observe what goes on around us in our own corner of the wilds of southwest Ireland. And I never forget what happened to “the Yank” in the story (played by Tom Berenger in the film). At least one of John B’s works also made it to the small screen: the made-for-television Hallmark production Durango, which featured Patrick Bergin.

As an observer of Irish politics, I will always remember in particular one wise thing that John B said. It was in a wide-ranging television interview on the occasion of his 70th birthday. The news at the time was dominated by a stand-off in Portadown, Northern Ireland, between Orangemen who wanted to parade through a Nationalist neighborhood and residents of the neighborhood who had won a ruling from a duly appointed parades commission that the parade should not happen. Asked his opinion of the situation, John B said that the Nationalists should welcome the parade and all turn out and watch it. Nobody was about to put aside generations of hatred to follow such advice but, if they had, a stand-off that wound up lasting months would have been over in a few hours, and the Nationalists could have claimed a moral (as well as legal) victory. If more people were as wise as John B, the North might have become a less violent place sooner. And Ireland might have a full team competing for the World Cup.

-S.L., 6 June 2002

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