Kilkenny town inspires a literary gem

Joe Kearney signs his book for Marianne Kelly

Keogh’s pub in Callan was packed to the rafters last Friday for the launch of The Beekeeper and the River, a collection of short stories by Dr. Joe Kearney, who returned in triumph to his native town for the event.

The launch was followed by a marathon series of trips down memory lane and a lively music session. Locals reminisced or sang their hearts out. Joe accompanied them on guitar, as lullabies and folk songs pulled revelers into the mists of yesteryear.

After leaving Callan following his education at the CBS Joe worked for a while in the oil industry before opting to pursue a full-time writing career. He quickly became a household name for his popular contributions to RTE’s Sunday Miscellany and he produced a number of award-winning documentaries.

His conferral with a doctorate of literature at UCD was a proud achievement for the Callan man, who has entered the town’s illustrious Hall of Fame alongside Edmund Rice, founder of the Christian Brothers, King Nail Caille, after whom the river is named, world-renowned artist Tony O’ Malley (about whom Joe has written illuminating essays) and writher Tom Kilroy, whose the novel The Big Chapel became a literary sensation in the 1970s.

Launching Joe’s book, retired school Principal Frank McKenna hailed it as both a fine piece of creative writing and a valuable social history.

The stories shine a light on the Callan of Joe’s youth and childhood, the outstanding characters of the era; the struggles, joys, everyday routines, and occasionally life-changing experiences of townsfolk as they navigated that “other country” of the past.

The King’s River looms large as you read this collection…the river that flows through the town also threads through all of the stories, its mood changing with the seasons like the moods and fortunes of the people who live in its shadow.

Frank McKenna recalled his own mixed memories of the “shape-shifting” river, how it lost its romantic lustre when it flooded half the town. His own house succumbed one morning and his heart dropped to see biscuit tins and furniture floating out into the street.

Frank rhapsodized about the author’s literary prowess, opining that what Patrick Kavanagh had done for the “stony gray soil of Monaghan” Joe had achieved for Callan. The author had stored away images… uploaded them into his head all those years before computers were invented and had now in a sense downloaded them as finely-sculpted prose in his collection.

The book brings a bygone age and images of another Ireland to life, people like the” Ducker Daly”, the “Bugler”, the tale of an alleged “trout tickler” who haunted the river, Joe’s own role in the arrival of “flower Power” in Callan, and the clockmaker by whose iconic time piece displayed in his shop window in the “narrow street” you could always set your watch.

Fair days, the show-band era and pub life feature, and he explores how different people coped with the multiple pressures of living in a more demanding close- to- impoverished social milieu.

Joe Kearney told the gathering at Keogh’s that his early years in Callan provided him with a mine of precious material for the book. He owed much to the secondary school, he felt, and its enlightened teachers, but also to the rough-and-tumble of growing up in challenging times.

He recalled buying his first pack of woodbines in Nolan’s shop in West Street, and having his first smoke amid the gravestones in Miko Molloy’s yard. “I stole my first kiss beside a gravestone too…in Kilbride cemetery” he added. He laughed at how Mrs. Nolan used to collect all the handballs that fell over her wall adjoining the school and sold them in her shop.

In economically bleak times, there was a prevailing sentiment locally that the best view of Callan in the 1950s and 60s was in a rear view mirror, Joe lamented.

But the same mirror served him well, capturing a set of past images and experiences that he committed to paper. Thanks to Joe Kearney, these cultural gems and superlative literary insights have not been lost to this or future generations.

The Beekeeper and the River is published by Ballpoint Press and costs E14.99.

Available at most bookshops

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