The Irish Times
Published March 29th, 2008
Maureen Kenny - Obituary
Seamus Heaney once described Maureen Kenny, who has died aged 89, as "the Madonna of the Manuscripts", an accurate description for a woman who devoted most of her life to the promotion of new Irish writers and artists.
Maureen was born in Glebe Street, Mohill, Co Leitrim, the eldest of three children. Her father died suddenly when she was four years old leaving her mother with three young children and a business she knew nothing about. Next door was a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks which was taken over by the black and tans. On a couple of occasions they took the infant Maureen and used her as a human shield on top of their truck while driving around Mohill randomly shooting in through windows.
Her mother was an extraordinary woman who saved every penny to give them the best possible education. Maureen went to school locally in Mohill and then attended Saint Louis Convent, Monaghan on a scholarship. She then went on to win a scholarship to UCG (NUIG) in 1936 and on her first day there she met Des Kenny. As Des often said later "that was that". They married on graduating and rented two rooms on High Street in Galway, setting up a bookshop in one and living in the other.
On November 29th, 1940 they opened the doors of what was to become the internationally renowned Kenny's Bookshop. Hundreds of people claim to have been there on the first day although Maureen remembered it as being very quiet. It was during the war and people had little money for food, let alone for the luxury of books and so the early days were all about survival.
They stocked the shop by borrowing books from their friends and relations and buying new books with what little money they had. They tried many different ideas like selling second-hand school books, running a lending library or placing book stalls in hotels and factories.
Maureen was ahead of her time and employed the strategy of direct marketing before the phrase had been heard of. She put hand-written cards in hotels and B&Bs with "a suggestion for a rainy day". The suggestion of course, was to visit Kennys.
However, despite their efforts Maureen and Des could not survive by the bookshop alone and so Des went out to work elsewhere, leaving Maureen to run the shop.
Their eldest son, Tom was born in 1944 in the bookshop on High Street and shortly afterwards they were able to move to a house in Salthill where their other five children, Jane, Dessy, Gerry, Monica and Conor, were born. Maureen's six children were virtually reared on books and so it was no surprise that five of them joined her in the business.
In the mid 1960s her husband Des rejoined the family business and from then on it began to expand. They knocked down part of their house in Salthill and opened an art gallery in 1968. They built a book bindery in the back garden and rented additional premises to cater for their expanding stock of books. A great emphasis was placed on exporting and they instilled in their family a love of all things Irish, especially books.
The bookshop began to gain an international reputation. Maureen was the one constant in all of this growth and artists and writers from all over the world came to meet her and to avail of her vast knowledge of Irish interest material. As John McGahern once said "Mrs Kenny misses nothing". One of her great gifts was her phenomenal memory as she would report the arrival of out of print books books to people who had asked for them years before. As one customer said: "who needs amazon.com when you have Mrs Kenny?"
She loved to encourage young writers and rejoiced in their success. Aspiring authors would delight in the fact that Maureen had taken the time to read their books and was now promoting them. The large collection of signed photographs of writers who had visited was testimony to Maureen's popularity.
Maureen never regarded the shop as work. To her it was a genuine pleasure to stand behind the counter in High Street, which she did for 66 years, only retiring when it was decided to transfer the books business online. Even in her 80s she wasn't afraid of change in business, indeed she was quite visionary and when the bookshop closed its doors to go online in 2006 her comment was "you have to look forward, you have to move with times."
Maureen was a founder member of the Leitrim People's Association in Galway. She was very involved with Our Lady's Girls Club and the Soroptimists. She was honoured many times for her extraordinary contribution to cultural life in Ireland and especially in Galway.
Bord Failte made her an Honorary Ambassador for promoting Ireland in 1990. Maureen and her husband Des were the first honorary life members of the Galway Chamber of Commerce. Maureen was also awarded two honorary degrees - one from UCG and another from the NCEA.
She had a strong faith, was great company, had a keen sense of humour and loved life. She passed on important values to her children, such as charity, perseverance and a love of things Irish. For her the family was the nucleus of civilisation which was illustrated by the fact that so many of her children and grand-children were around her in her last moments.
Maureen Kenny is survived by her six children, 21 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
Maureen Kenny: born April 28th, 1918; died March 25th, 2008.
Reproduced with the kind permission of The Irish Times