The great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Oct 27 1914 - Nov 9 1953 ) had absolutely no interest in school. He attended Swansea Grammar where his father, DJ Thomas, was the much feared English teacher. Both the boys and the staff were afraid of his temper, so much so that when Dylan, frequently bored with school, walked out murmuring that he was gong to write ‘bloody poetry’, if he met the headmaster on his way, the head would only nod, and say; “Don’t get caught, will you?”
In was amused to see that when the Galway writer Walter Macken was at the ‘Bish’ and asked to be excused from class for the toilet, Bro Leonard, who had a sense of humour and knew most of the boys hopped out for a ‘quick smoke’, would say: ‘Do you want a match Macs?’
But much of Macken’s early years at secondary school, were spent looking hard at the Brothers with an eye to their health. “It is a fact that if a Brother dies you get three days off from school. Not that we wish them any harm. After all they were religious and when they died where could they go but to heaven? So it was really no harm to wish for a sudden death - say one every term. The trouble was that all the Brothers I knew were very healthy men. They never seemed to get sick so you would get few exercises off. The Brothers tend to be disgustingly healthy, in fact, completely impervious to the death-wish.”
School lunch hours were spent sitting on the ‘lazy wall’ feeding seagulls with the remains of their lunches. One day, out of the blue, a woman stopped in front of him and said; ‘I was told you were a good singer and a good actor. The Taibhdhearc (Ireland’s unique Irish language theatre ) is looking for young men like you. You should go along and see them.’
It was the beginning of a remarkable acting career for the young Galway man, both in An Taibhdhearc and with the Abbey in Dublin. Macken played the lead in MJ Molloy’s The King of Friday’s Men, and in his own play :Home is the Hero, on Broadway; and in Arthur Dreifuss’ film adaptation of Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow.
Macken could well have made a comfortable living from his acting skills had he not met a strong willed woman, who not only encouraged him change his career and become a writer, but shocked Galway when she agreed to their romantic elopement.
Peggy Kenny was an exceptionally bright young woman, brought up in very comfortable circumstances in a large house on the Crescent, an imposing Victorian terrace half way between the city and Salthill. Her father Tom ‘Cork’ Kenny was the legendary founder of The Connacht Tribune, and The Connacht Sentinel. He was a tough man in the old newspaper style: Plenty of scoops, both of the news and of the alcoholic variety. He married a Kilkenny girl, Catherine Hunt, and their first child Peggy was the apple of his eye. The other children were Mary (May ) Jack, Desmond, Kitty and Joan. Sadly Catherine died when Peggy was 13 years and Tom ‘Cork’ married a second time, a Dubliner Lou McGuinnes. But it was not a happy choice for the children who were packed off to boarding school; and for the first time home became a stressful place.
Peggy, however, was a natural journalist, and after taking an arts degree, was soon working in her father’s papers. As her father began to spend more time in the bars of Galway, Peggy did more and more of his work, writing editorials, and supervising the staff. When the opportunity came up, she was editor in all but name of The Sentinel. Peggy enjoyed a busy social life, as well as a fulfilling career as a talented journalist. One day her father asked her to go down to the Taibhdhearc as her French professor, Liam Ó Briain, wanted help translating French plays into Irish. Peggy was fluent in both languages, but to her surprise, as the Taibhdhearc was also short of actors, she was immediately cast opposite the lead actor Walter Macken in the play: The Wonderful Life of Bernard de Menthon.
A married couple
It turned out to be a wonderful choice. Two months later, when Peggy realised that Macken was becoming important in her life, she approached her father for his opinion. Tom ‘Cork’ heard her enthuse about this wonderful young man, then asked how much Macken earned? When he was told “all of 30 shillings a week”, he scoffed, and said that wouldn’t keep her in the comfort she was used to.
The matter was never discussed again.
But the father’s sour attitude did not end the romance. Walter’s mother Agnes had shown Peggy his exercise books crammed with stories which he had been writing since he was a teenager. Peggy realised they wouldn’t be living on 30 shillings for ever. She persuaded Walter to give up acting in favour of writing. The only way he could support a writer’s life was to get a job in London, and write after work. One evening before Christmas 1936, as Agnes gave the young couple tea in her small home in St Joseph’s Avenue, she asked her son, what he was going to do about Peggy.
It was unthinkable for the couple to be separated. It was decided that evening to elope and go to London a married couple.
On Tuesday February 9 1937, Peggy told her family that she was going to Dublin for a weekend break, but left a letter for her father to discover later saying that she was going to marry Walter. They were married by a family friend Fr Leo McCann in Fairview (who always remarked later, that ‘when I tied the knot on you two, I tied it right’ ). After a celebratory breakfast they left for London that afternoon.
The ladies of Galway who lunch, couldn’t get enough of the scandal. Every titbit was swallowed and digested over and over. That the daughter of the famous Tom ‘Cork’ Kenny, one of the richest girls in Galway, could have run off with a garsoon who only earned 30 shillings a week! What was the world coming to?
Tom ‘Cork’ was humiliated and unforgiving. The threat of World War II, and Walter’s faltering but successful early steps into writing full time** was enough to bring the couple back to Galway two years later. They lived in a house just off Whitestrand. Peggy proudly pushed her baby son along the Grattan Road in his pram every day. One afternoon her father approached her in the opposite direction. He walked by, never looking at his grandson. With barely a nod to his daughter, he gruffly said “hello”.
He died shortly afterwards having never spoken to his daughter again.
* I am taking all this from a new book, Walter Macken - Dreams on paper by Ultan Macken, published by Mercier Biography, hardback at €29.99
** Walter Macken wrote a total of 10 novels, five plays, five collections of short stories and several articles.