The Galway Advertiser
Published April 03, 2008
Sowing seeds for 1,000 artists
By Ronnie O'Gorman
Perhaps the �daftest� thing the late Maureen and Des Kenny ever did was to open an art gallery, the first of its kind outside Dublin and Cork, in Salthill in Race Week, in 1968, 40 years ago. There was little or no money for art in those days, but there were plenty of eager artists. The first exhibition, in the downstairs of their home, was a mixture of paintings and sculpture by Gerry and Justin Laffin, Stepanic McNamee and John Behan. A feature of the Kenny �openings� in those days was that wine, teas, and coffees were served. People like myself who enjoyed the glass of wine more than the art, went along and stayed late. You usually met the same people at every exhibition; and were likely to meet them again at other �openings� later the same evening.
It was the best free party in town. I don�t know how good business was that first evening, but when Maureen apologised to the fledging sculptor John Behan for not selling more of his pieces, he consoled her, saying: �Don�t fret a bit, Maureen. We are sowing seeds here tonight�.
John Behan is recognised as one of Ireland�s greatest sculptors today, and I think I witnessed with Des and Maureen�s son Tom, one of the moments when his work was internationally recognised. John was commissioned by the Government to continue his haunting theme at the Famine Memorial in Murrisk, Co Mayo, in New York. The UN had offered a site for an appropriate Irish contribution on its prestigious plaza in front of its iconic building, on the banks of the East River.
On a freezing November afternoon in 2000, An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern officially unveiled Behan�s immensely moving bronze famine ship, with its skeletal passengers walking down the gangplank into the new world, and hopefully, to a better life. The occasion was particularly memorable for the large numbers of UN delegates who attended the opening. So many countries experienced similar calamities such as Ireland endured in the middle of the 19th century, which led to a haemorrhage of our people to America. Behan�s Famine Ship struck a cord across the nations. There was warm and prolonged applause for John Behan that day, and an emotional Tom Kenny at my side quoted his mother�s fretting all those years ago, and John�s prophetic consolation.
A giant of his craft
Of course, it wasn�t �daft� to open an art gallery in Salthill all those years ago. Perhaps it was a wee bit brave. The idea to sell art at all came from the artist Kenneth Webb. Originally Maureen and Des had been struggling with their book shop in High Street, which was also their home. In order to boost book sales Maureen decided to sell crafts. She hung Mrs Fretwell�s brightly coloured hand-woven rugs, and early John French pottery outside the shop. Webb, who was painting High Street in 1953, put his head around the door one morning and said that he was taken by the splash of colour from the crafts in a rather dull street, but why wasn�t she selling paintings?
The first exhibition in their shop in High Street was quite nerve wracking. The paintings were by Paul Henry�s second wife, Mabel Young, and Henry himself, ill and in a wheelchair, would perform the opening. Henry�s reputation for his Connemara and Mayo paintings of huge skies over blue mountains, thatched cottages and bogs, was enormous. He was a giant of his craft, and acknowledged as such. But the poor man was too ill to read his script, which was read for him by the author and playwright Walter Macken.
Authors and artists had great respect for Maureen. The usual practice was for bookshops to pay authors after their books were sold. Des Hogan and Neil Jordan both recalled that when they told her that their first books had been published she immediately requested 20 copies of each title and paid for them in advance, deducting, of course, a suitable discount.
In order to show the paintings at their best in their High Street shop, the books were covered with planks of wood. Paintings were often sold at a �1 per week until the cost was paid off. There must have been nearly 1,000 exhibitions in the four decades that the Kennys have been in business. The same generosity and friendly spirit that typified Maureen and Des continues into the third generation of Kenny�s, and is the envy of the book trade today, which has in many places, slipped into an impersonal and bland business, where books are located by computer rather than by the passion and knowledge of the owner.
Move with the times
Maureen stood behind her counter at High Street for 66 years, and delighted callers with her phenomenal knowledge of books and authors, what was still in print or what would shortly be republished. She and her husband Des were a great team. They both met on the morning of their first day at NUI Galway in 1936. They were walking into college on opposite sides of the road, when the girls with Maureen who knew Des, called him over. �And that,� always said Des, �was that!� Their first date was to An Taibhdhearc theatre, where they enjoyed a translation of the play Journey�s End.
Des, son of Tom �Cork� Kenny, the first editor of the Connacht Tribune, worked in Galway textiles, while Maureen worked in the shop. When he gave up his textile job he brought some practical professionalism to their shop business. The gallery moved to the ground floor of their new home at Salthill, and the bookshop extended into the abandoned living space in High Street. Additional books space was opened in Upper Abbeygate Street.
They were never afraid to move with the times or change when they thought it necessary. In recent years, when the family decided to move the book selling business on-line (the first bookshop in Ireland to do so) they dreaded telling their mother. But she simply said:� I have always told you that we must move with the times.� She accepted the dramatic move wholeheartedly.
Maureen past away peacefully last Tuesday week, aged 89 years, surrounded by her family. Of course they were saddened by her passing but happy too that she joined her beloved Des in heaven. She was a wonderful mother to six children, and enjoyed her 21 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren at festive dinners in her home. She was also a very tolerant mother, with a good sense of humour and an under standing of her student children that will probably earn her a sainthood in the next life. Legend has it that her eldest son Tom was coming home very late one night after a long ��study� period in some bar. His mother did not approve his drinking and warned him that if he came home late and the worse for wear again, there would be serious trouble.
On this particular night Tom, who knew every clack of the locks, every creak of the stairs, was confident he could slip into bed unnoticed. But he fell heavily on the bottom step, and called out the Lord�s name. To his added misery he saw his mother standing at the top of the stairs. Thinking of his mother�s strong faith, he quickly said the Lord�s name again but added: �Jesus falls the first time.�
He continued up the stairs but fell heavily again. �Jesus falls the second time�.
He got up and almost at the top fell at his unfortunate mother�s feet, who must have thought at this stage that surely she had reared a madman. Tom whispered: � Jesus falls at the feet of his afflicted mother!�
At this she burst out laughing. Not a word was said the next day.
Maureen Kenny: Born April 28, at Mohill, Co Leitrim, 1918; died March 25 2008
With the kind permission of The Galway Advertiser