The Galway Advertiser
Published April 03, 2008
Remembering Mrs Kenny
By Jeff O’Connell
It was with a profound sense of loss that I heard of the death, last Tuesday, of Maureen Kenny. Countless people, throughout Ireland and around the world, who had, at one time or another, crossed the threshold of the bookshop on High Street, will share this sense of loss, and, I should add, an equally profound sense of gratitude for her life and achievements.
When I arrived in Galway from Chicago in October 1967, one of the first places I stumbled across in my early exploration of a very different town than the one we know today was Kenny’s Bookshop. At that stage it consisted of only two ground-floor rooms, but the shelves of those two rooms, to my excited eye, contained treasures. Being always ‘bookish’, in what was to become a pattern over the many years to come, I began spending hours prowling through the aisles and stacks of Kenny’s, first as it spread itself from High Street back to Middle Street, and then, as it overflowed to Abbeygate Street and, finally, to Merchants Road.
I have known Mrs Kenny for more than 40 years, and, through my work with the Galway Advertiser, often had occasion to write about the bookshop, the art gallery, the bookbindery, and, of course, both Maureen and her late husband, Desmond. Now that she is gone, I feel that a part of myself is gone, so intimately has she been associated in my mind with Galway. And what is my loss is Galway’s loss ‘writ large’.
When she was conferred with an honorary degree by NUIG, the citation read at the ceremony brilliantly summed up her contribution to the life of the city with which she became so identified: “She and all she stands for remained a constant when virtually everything surrounding her had disappeared, been redeveloped, or surrendered to more perishable, transient tastes. Her metier represents one that is entwined with Galway’s history…”
Maureen Kenny’s contribution to the cultural history of Galway will be one of her lasting legacies, but for those who were privileged to know her, as I was, over many years, it is the woman herself who will always take first place in memory.
I will always cherish her many kindnesses to me, and the encouragement and assistance she offered me in so many different ways. I came to respect her quiet strength – never more called upon than after the death of her beloved husband Desmond in 1991, her unfailing courtesy and consideration to one and all, her tremendous sense of fun, and her extraordinary dedication to the culture of the book and to all those who put pen to paper.
As with all great bookshops and their owners, Kenny’s has always been prepared to accommodate eccentricity. I remember, years ago, very frequently encountering an elderly man about whom nobody knew very much, except that he was, through his choice of books to browse through, unquestionably learned.
He wore a rather shabby raincoat and his shoes had seen better days. I daresay in any other establishment had he been seen to linger too long, he would have been shown the door pretty smartly. But Maureen Kenny saw something in this sometimes shuffling, muttering, and rather defeated-looking man, and it touched her.
So, without making anything of it, she had a chair placed near the particular shelves where he liked to browse – sometimes for hours. And slowly, gradually, a curious kind of friendship was born. She still knew nothing about him, except that he loved books, but that was enough.
As the years passed, and more and more members of the extended Kenny family became involved in the business, Mrs Kenny became more and more the matriarch of the family, and I remember with delight how, after the major refurbishment of the premises in 1996, a modest but very appropriate ‘throne’ was set up in the middle room of the ground floor from which Mrs Kenny continued to preside over the comings and goings of the countless numbers of people who visited the shop as one might make the pilgrimage to Rome or Mecca.
As I have said, I knew Maureen Kenny for more than 40 years, and before I wind things up, I want to mention something which will perhaps sound odd. It is, that, despite the all the years I have known her, I have nearly always called her 'Mrs Kenny'. I have many times been encouraged by Tom or Dessie or Conor or Monica to call her ‘Maureen’, and sometimes I have. But it never sounded right. Nor did it ever feel right. It seemed somehow almost...disrespectful.
I know that must sound peculiar, so I must try to explain.
We have discarded in our modern world so many of the customs and traditions that belonged to the very texture of living for many centuries. And I confess I regret this loss. Qualities like 'nobility'', 'steadfastness', 'piety', 'reverence', 'respect', 'honour; 'duty' and 'obligation' have been almost emptied of their richer meanings.
'Manners maketh man'. Well, they don't, at least not entirely. But manners and politeness are something like the lubricant that makes the social world go round more smoothly. It is today sometimes thought to be merely hypocritical to behave with good manners or to act politely towards strangers we encounter throughout the day.
But courtesy is an art and, like any art, if it is not practised, we either forget how to do it or the ability to do it at all simply disappears.
Courtesy is also a kind of respect. When I was young I was taught that it was impolite to address your elders or those who occupied certain roles by their first name. 'Mr' or 'Mrs' or 'Father' or 'Professor' - these titles were important for no other reason than that they were the manner in which courtesy and respect were shown.
I have never forgotten that early lesson from my parents. Some will say I am simply a prisoner of my narrow upbringing. That does not concern me at all.
I only know that by my inveterate habit of addressing Maureen Kenny as Mrs Kenny I was communicating, in a small but significant way, the profound sense of respect I always felt towards her, both on her own account, and as someone for whom age and its fruits had become such a splendid achievement.
She was a dear friend whom I shall always remember and always miss.
With the kind permission of The Galway Advertiser