Keane is the son of a national school teacher, William B. Keane, and his wife Hannah Purtill. He is educated at Listowel National School and then at St. Michael’s College, Listowel. He works as a chemist’s assistant for A.H. Jones who dabbles in buying antiques. He has various jobs in the United Kingdom between 1951 and 1955 working as a street cleaner and a bartender and lives in a variety of places including Northampton and London. It is while he is in Northampton that he is first published in an unnamed women’s magazine for which he receives £15.
After returning from the UK, Keane is a pub owner in Listowel from 1955 where he writes plays for the local theatre company and sponsors, from 1971, the annual Listowel Writers’ Week. He marries Mary O’Connor at Knocknagoshel Church on January 5, 1955 and they have four children: Billy, Conor, John and Joanna.
His first play, Sive (1959), is initially rejected by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin but goes on to win the amateur All-Ireland Drama Festival. Later plays include The Field (1965), which is released in a bowdlerized film version in 1990, and Big Maggie (1969), which is produced on Broadway in 1982. In 1998 Keane is honoured with a medal from the Abbey for his contribution to Irish theatre.
Keane is an Honorary Life Member of the Royal Dublin Society from 1991, serves as president of Irish club of PEN International and is a founder member of the Society of Irish Playwrights as well as a member of Aosdána. He is named the patron of the Listowel Players after the Listowel Drama Group fractures. He remains a prominent member of the Fine Gael party throughout his life, never being shy of political debate.
John Keane dies of prostate cancer on May 30, 2002 in Listowel at the age of 73.