Volume 16, Number 12 | Aug. 26 - Sept. 1, 2003


ARTS

The Love-Hungry Farmer
Through Sept. 14 at the Irish Repertory Theatre,
132 West 22nd Street, (212) 727-2737.

Examining Catholic taboos at Irish Rep

By JERRY TALLMER

If you ask John Bosco McLane what is the sharpest hunger of all, he will tell you. In fact he will tell you even if you don’t ask, this self-described “crusty bachelor” of 56, in the Ireland of (approximately) 1956 — never bedded a woman, almost never been kissed, and when been kissed, it was once, anyway, just to be made fun of, an object of sport for some bored young barbarians.

So the sharpest hunger, for John Bosco McLane, if not, mayhap, on occasion for thee, on occasion for me, is sexual hunger.

A tragedy? A bad joke? A good joke?

All three.

John B. Keane, Irish publican, Irish novelist, playwright and essayist, saw the humor in it, saw the pain in it. The pub he ran was in his native town, Listowel, County Kerry, southwest Ireland.

“He was not only a writer but a famous character. People would flock into that pub just to hear him talk,” says Des Keogh, the tall, bony, white-maned actor who at the Irish Repertory Theatre on West 22nd Street once again, Wednesdays through Sundays until mid-September, brings to life Keane’s epistolary “The Love Hungry Farmer” in a stage adaptation by Keogh.

“He would also listen,” says Des Keogh. “Lots of people who came into that pub he would use in his books.”

One of these had to have been (whatever the actual name) John Bosco McLane. Another had to be Richard Michael Richard O’Connor, professional matchmaker, Dicky Mick Dicky for short, who from his whereabouts in Spiders’ Well, Ballybarra, County Kerry, writes:

“My Dear Mr. McLane: My lovely boy, you don’t know me but I know you . . . It has come to my attention that you are in the market for a wife . . . “

Another had to be the first female that Dicky Mick Dicky arranged for John Bosco to meet at the Bannabeen Arms Hotel — an agreeable “buxom dame of 50 or so” who sat like a lump and had nothing whatsoever to say about anything, which didn’t make it any easier since John Bosco was no champion conversationalist either.

The next had to be Norry Macey, a younger and more spirited coleen, “good conversationalist, fairly attractive,” who kept calling John Bosco “sir,” which he took to be playful. Something, however, led John Bosco to make a few inquiries. “Ah,” he was informed by a lawyer in the town, “you picked a winner at last . . . a seven-day wonder . . . She has a child for every day in the week.”

And so on and so forth, through many another desperate attempt of John Bosco’s to de-virginize himself in a land where, in those years, the Roman Catholic Church still had a stranglehold on the private parts of the one overweening sin of all, doing what comes naturally.

Except for one short-tempered but eminently sensible priest who also enters this story (in enactment, like all the rest, by Des Keogh): a certain Father Kimmerly, who bluntly, impatiently exclaims: “There isn’t the makings of a decent sin in the entire doings of the lot of you . . My poor man, you’re still a chastitute, This whole countryside is reeking with chastitution.”

And so it was, says Des Keogh, himself born 1936 in Birr, County Offaly, in the Irish midlands, a small-town banker’s son who got his law degree at the National University of Ireland and worked as an executive at the Guinness company before going off, in 1963, to do what he’d actually been doing since a kid: acting.

John B. Keane was born in 1928 and died May 30, 2002. Des Keogh knew him well for 35 or 40 years.

“He was very independent and outspoken, especially in regard to Church matters,” says the actor. “The Church [its Father Kimmerlys apart] thought the only sin was sex. Keane thought otherwise.

“One of his main gripes was the ban the Catholic Church had on Trinity College, Dublin” — alma mater of Oscar Wilde and Oliver Goldsmith, among others — “which was generally regarded as a Protestant institution. There was even a ban on Catholics ever going physically into any Protestant church — even to a friend’s wedding, for instance.”

Des Keogh stops, thinks. “It’s changed since then,” he says, “but it wasn’t really so long ago, at that. When I was growing up, I wouldn’t have been allowed [by edict of his own Church] to go into Trinity College.”

This is the second time Keogh has done “The Love-Hungry Farmer” at Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly’s lovely Irish Rep. The first time was this past January, a big hit on the Irish Rep’s tiny downstairs stage. Now, directed now as then by Ms. Moore, it has moved up to the main stage.

Keogh’s first show with Charlotte and Ciaran was the prison play “Seconds Out,” at the Joseph Papp Public Theater years ago. Work at Irish Rep itself has embraced last year’s “The Matchmaker,” by the same John B. Keane, opposite Anna Manahan, and Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” as Fluther Good.

A full and distinguished career in three countries, Ireland, England, and the United States, also includes serving as emcee and warm-up comedian for the Irish tenor Frank Patterson — Keogh’s late brother-in-law — at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall.

Unlike John Bosco McLane, Des Keogh has been married and is married, 37 years now, to Geraldine O’Grady, violinist. Their daughter Oonagh Keogh is also a violinist. Home, when not on the New York stage, is a house in Dublin.

Keane’s “The Love-Hungry Farmer” is written as a series of letters. Keogh first read it only five or six years ago. Four years ago he had the idea of doing it as a one-man show, “because it has everything, humor, pathos, sadness.” Decided not to do it as letters, for two reasons: “The Matchmaker” had been in that form, “and theatrically it would be better if it were just this guy telling his story.”

He wrote to Keane, “and very soon got back a very short note, ‘Dear Des: You have my total blessing.’ “ What’s grievous, says Keogh, is that Keane died without ever having read or seen this stage adaptation.

Has Des Keogh known any real-life John Bosco McLane-type lonely bachelors?

“I probably can think of a number of men like that. I’m from the country myself. Very lonely, sad men in Galway, Western Ireland. As a matter of fact I can think of a number of men exactly like this guy. Men who live in a little house with no facilities, not even running water. A little house where they sit in a corner and drink their pints of Guinness and take to alcohol.”

And you, Mr. Keogh, have you ever felt any of that loneliness?

“No, I have to admit, I haven’t. I don’t really share the experiences of this guy.” Then, with a laugh. “Oh, I’ve probably been shot down once or twice.”

All well and good, but it occurs to someone else who has been shot down once or twice in this life that it was an English poet of some standing who perhaps best summed up the absurdity and the pain in the life of John Bosco McLane, Irishman:

To me the meanest flower that blows

can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep

for tears.


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