16 Jan 2022

Out in the Open: 'True hallmark of a man' - John B Keane

Out in the Open: 'True hallmark of a man' - John B Keane

SONNY Canavan is dead. On Monday April 25, at three in the afternoon, the great Dirha, character surrendered his proud spirit to the hands of his Creator.

At the time he was on his way home from Listowel where he had been delivering a load of bog-mould to his friend, Doctor Johnny Walsh, of the Square.

Earlier in the day Doctor Walsh warned him the he must immediately hospitalise himself due to the condition of his heart. As he did all his life he ignored the warning and died the way he always wanted to, suddenly, and with his boots on.

“No hope”

On several occasions over the past twenty years he was consigned to the no-hope category. Several times members of his family made the journeys from England and America to be with him when he drew his last breath. Always they were surprised to see him up and about when they arrived home. I personally remember at least three occasions when it was announced that he would be dead in a matter of hours or days. The first of these occasions was over twenty years ago.

Canavan confounded his critics by living to the ripe old age of seventy-five. As Doctor John Walsh said at his funeral: “I stopped making forecasts about Canavan twenty years ago.”

Sonny Canavan of course was a phenomenon. He was dead a dozen times but refused to lie down. I once went to Greenlawn Cottage Hospital with his friends, Ciaran MacMathuan in order to make our last goodby to him. It was a sad occasion for all concerned. The nurse said not to stay too long, that it was only a matter of time. We held his hand. We wished him well and went on our way.

The following day we returned home from an extensive tour of townlands where traditional songs, dances and music still held sway. As we were about to enter my premises in Listowel we heard a resonant voice singing that haunting son, “The Banks of the Nile.”

“I recognise that voice” , said Ciaran Mac Mathuna.

“So do I”, I answered

Inside Canavan was perched on a high stool, a crowd of admirers around him, a glass of porter in his hand and he looking as if he was never a day sick in his life.


He often predicted that when he died he would be anointed by a bishop. Many took this prophesy with a grain of salt but here, inexplicably, is what happened on the afternoon of his own passing.

The sun shone and only wisps of white cloud cast their fleeting shadows on green fields and brown bogland. A fresh wind blew and on it was borne the cuckoo’s note. In it was the perfume of new growth, the scents of a hundred baby blossoms. Traffic on the Ballybunion road was light when the ass and cart with its lone passenger crossed the railway line towards the crossroad which led to Dirha Bog. Suddenly the figure in the car keeled over and fell onto the roadside; Canavan lay on the grass margin breathing his last. Fortunately he was observed by a local woman who went immediately for the priest and doctor.

It was then the unbelievable happened. A car passed on its way from Ballybunion to Listowel and its occupants, sensing that something was amiss and drew to a halt. Who should engage from the car but Doctor Kevin McNamara, the Bishop of Kerry. He performed the Last Rites and hurried on to Listowel where the children of the parish were waiting to be Confirmed.

My first meeting with Canavan came about while I was serving my time to chemistry at Keane-Stack’s of William St., Listowel. Some months earlier Canavan had lost an eye in most unhappy circumstances and had purchased a new glass one to replace the old. In vain did he try to fit the eye himself. He called upon friends and neighbours but all to no avail. Finally, as a last resort he came to Keane Stack’s and asked for help. It was quickly forthcoming as I had already installed glass eyes for initially unreceptive sockets. I installed the eye in no time at all. It was only when it was safely ensconced that we discovered that it was different in colour to the natural eye. This did not trouble Canavan in the least. Over the years I was to install several other glass eyes for him until eventually he mastered the knack himself.

Special Powers

He stoutly maintained to visiting writers and journalists who would call on him in increasing numbers over the years that this glass eye had special powers.

Whenever he removed it from its socket for a lengthy period and departed its vicinity it told him of all that transpired in his absence as soon as he returned it to its resting place. Don’t ask me by what means it transmitted this information to the brain.

All I know is that he made some uncannily accurate observations upon his return. Canavan made over forty television appearances for networks as far apart as RTE and Canada, Denmark, America, not to mention B.B.C. and I.T.V.. He was a regular contributor as was his wife Nora, to Ciaran MacMathuna’s “Job of Journeywork” on Radio Eireann during the early days of that fine programme. Ciaran devoted his morning programme to the memory of Canavan on Sunday last and it is to be hoped that Peter Macniff of “News round Up “ will give us another glimpse of the excellent film made by Canavan some weeks back.

Canavan was a man of many parts. He was a folklorist, a naturalist, a dancing master, a ballad singer , a bodhran maker par excellence, a soldier, a marksman, a turf cutter, a goat-herd and goat breeder, a tailor, a drummer, a cook, a thatcher and last but not least, he was King of the Wrenboys.


There are countless stories about him, many true, many based on fiction. He had an acid wit when it suited him. One night of Listowel Races he was wending his way homewards towards Dirha when he came across a giant of a man, a drunken Italian singing at the top of his voice at Glounaphaca Bridge in the centre of what was then known as Convent Lane. The singer woke up the occupants of several houses and when they remonstrated with him, he challenged them to a fight.

“I sang,” said he “in Covent Garden.”

No doubt you did,” said Canavan, “but that don’t give you the right to sing in Convent Lane.”

The fellow made a lunge at Canavan and grazed his cheek with a blow. Immediately Canavan touched the upper of his cheek, making the glass eye to fall out. When the Italian saw what he had done he ran for his life and was never seen again in Listowel.

I’ve lost count of the number of wren dances I attended at Canavan’s home in Dirha. At that time his wife, Nora, was alvie as was Molly McCoy and one of the greatest of all North Kerry characters and musicians, Jack Duggan, a neighbour of Canavan’s , incidentally, who died only a few weeks ago. I was present when Canavan said the Rosary over the bedside of his old friend. Those wren dances had an abundance of porter, whiskey and wine, the best of ham and delectable pigs’ heads biled earlier in the day. All the music came from Dirha. There was the inimitable Lil Rowan on the bodhran, Molly McCoy on the concertina, Jack Duggan and his son, Jimmy, on the fiddles, Patsy Duggan, an expert and brilliant whistler, Mick Canavan on the melodeon and many other fine musicians whose name do not come to mind at once.


Then there were the dancers, many of them trained by the master of masters, Jerry Molyneaux himself. Canavan would lead off with a hornpipe to be followed by that gifted pair Mick O’Connor and Mick O’Connell. No time for Tomfoolery here. These were artistes of the highest calibre. Never again will there be wren dances like those at Canavan’s or at the other flahool homes of the distinct such as Bohareenduv and Curraghatoosane. All the entertainment was home made: Canavan’s wife Nora,, was acknowledged as one of the most authentic folk singers in the entire country. Her repertoire was enormous by any standard. I often sat while she recalled forgotten ballads for Ciaran MacMathuna.

I daresay it is easy enough to pay tribute to a man when he is dead, especially a man with the many accomplishments of Sonny Canavan, but there is another side of the character which cannot be overlooked.

This was his kindness to his wife and family. Fourteen of his children are still alive. At times he may have been a hard taskmaster but he was going by the time that was in it. Money was scarce everywhere and huger was rife but the Canavan home was a warm, well-fed and happy one if many others in the countryside were not. To-day’s youth can have no concept of those times. It is to the eternal credit of parents like Nora and Sonny Canavan that there was humour and music in their home and in the countryside.


For two years before he died, Nora Canavan was completely helpless yet Canavan would hear neigher of a home nor a hospital. He tended to her every want himself, day after day, night after night. No labour was too great for him. He washed her, fed her and helped her in and out of bed. I watched him comb her hair while we sat talking of wrenboys and wren dances. He was never far from her side in all that time. Here, in my estimation is the true hallmark of a man.

**This article by the late and great John B Keane was first published in the Limerick Leader in May 1977***

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