The Year of Sive

The Year of Sive

Colin Murphy

“It was the year of Sive,” Mary Keane recalled. In Charleville, Co Kerry, the local amateur dramatics committee had run an ad in The Kerryman newspaper the week before saying the show was sold out; still, 200 people were turned away on the night.

Tralee was notorious for its indifference to theatre: Anew McMaster, the legendary travelling actor-manager, had reputedly quipped: “If Christ was crucified with the original cast, it wouldn’t bring them out in Tralee.” But Sive brought them out there, and everywhere else.

I sat in John B’s pub in Listowel, listening to stories from Mary, John B’s widow, and Nora Relihan, who played Mena in that original production. Nora remembered the audience participation – too much of it, sometimes. In Abbeydorney, when the character of Mike Glavin returned to the stage having been at the fair selling pigs, somebody shouted, “Well, d’ya sell the bainbhs?”

Later, at the Abbey Theatre (which was then at the Queen’s), the Kerry contingent in the audience cheered whenever the tinkers entered. It was more like an All-Ireland final (between Dublin and Kerry, of course) than a play.

What was it that so excited people? “It was the vernacular,” said Nora. “They weren’t accustomed to hearing it – or to hearing themselves – on the stage. After the initial shock of hearing how they really spoke, they began to be pleased. And then they saw the people outside were pleased, and they began to be proud.”

John B was proud to have the play invited to the Abbey Theatre, though he felt the offer was a grudging one, and that the theatre should have offered to produce it themselves, rather than simply inviting the Listowel group to stage it for a week. When they arrived at the theatre, the director, Ernest Blythe, wasn’t there to meet them; Mary took this as a snub.

The welcome from the Irish Times critic was similarly grudging. “Mr Keane got an ovation last night, and he probably deserved it, since his play curdled my blood as it has not been curdled by an Irish peasant-quality play since I first saw Autumn Fire and Spring” (early Abbey Theatre plays by TC Murray).

What the unnamed critic had witnessed, though, was as much a revolution as it was a play. It was a revolution in theatrical terms: when the Dublin establishment rejected John B, the Listowel amateurs took it up themselves; they took it on the road; and they eventually took the Abbey itself. But it was also an early sign of a larger revolution, one that came much slower. That was the rejection of clerical authority.

The local priest in Listowel visited the Keanes before the premiere of the play. “I want to speak to you about that play,” he said. “We’ll have to get some of that stuff out of it.” “So he got the door,” recalled Mary.

Many other clerics came to see it. But in doing so, they contributed to the breakdown of that authority themselves. Priests then were prohibited from attending the theatre; there were regular requests from priests to be allowed watch Sive from the wings, believing that to be a loophole in the clerical law.

When they brought Sive to the Abbey Theatre, Mary spent a day trying to contact the Archbishop, John Charles McQuaid, seeking permission for the priest who had married them to see the play. McQuaid never replied.

For Mary, this was a morality tale. “All the Irish people came behind Sive,” she said: this was a “battle”, and the people won it.

Colin Murphy is a journalist and presenter of the radio documentary From Stage to Street on RTÉ Radio 1 and author of the play Guaranteed! (see

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