Famine victims should not be forgotten by this generation

Shooting the Breeze - Mark Kennedy

Mark Kennedy at the Celia Griffin Children's Park. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Mark Kennedy at the Celia Griffin Children's Park. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

It’s Thursday night which means it’s Strange Brew in the Róisín Dubh, the night when the city’s indie music fans are out to hear Gugai spinning the very latest music by the coolest alternative bands.

Amidst the crowd of mostly 20-somethings with their angled haircuts and skinny jeans, strides a smart and dapper looking elderly man wearing dark glasses. He takes off his long beige coat, scarf, and hat festooned with badges, and proceeds to dance the night away with every bit as much - some would say more - enthusiasm and energy as any of the trendy young things. His name is Mark Kennedy.

“I love to dance, I love live music, and I love the people in the Róisín Dubh, so it’s perfect,” Mark tells me as we sit for the interview on a warm and sunny Tuesday afternoon. “It’s certainly better than going to the gym. For me dancing is like meditation and loud music helps blitz the mind. Seeing this guy in his seventies dancing away, a lot of young people find it a puzzle but I am blessed as I am not conscious of people looking at me. If I was I couldn’t do it.”

Mark is held in great affection and respect by many Róisín Dubh regulars. They admire his inhibition and his joy in living life to the full. Mark does indeed enjoy life but he has also gone through dark times. “Anyone who knows me knows I was an alcoholic and lived for a time on the streets,” he says. “In that previous incarnation I was very fond of drink and was barred from pubs in the city.”

Mark eventually quit the drink in 1993 drawing strength from the upbringing he had received from his grandparents and his strong religious faith. “They taught me never to lose faith and it was faith that saved me in the end,” he says.

Mark has a mischievous streak he admits that it was “devilment” that started him going to the Róisín once he had sobered up and gone clean. “Having been barred from places I wondered if I was still under ‘sentence of death’,” he says, “so one night I went and stuck my head in the door and there were people there who didn’t want me and remembered me from before, but Gugai [the venue’s music promoter] stood up for me, saying ‘I have no experience of that. Let’s leave him alone.’ so I was let stay and I’m grateful to Gugai for that. The only thing Gugai is afraid of is being taken over by a soft heart.”

The power of grandparents

Mark was born in 1937 and spent the first eight years of his life on New Road with his grandparents before moving to Bohermore in 1946. He counts his maternal and paternal grandparents as being a “tremendous influence” upon him.

“My paternal grandmother and grandfather lived in a house that was very Victorian in its manners,” he recalls. “My grandfather worked in County Buildings for 40 years and was a Victorian gentleman with a moustache. I remember walking up town with him as a small child and everyone saying ‘Good morning Mr Kennedy’ to him. I thought he must have been in charge of everything.

“New Road was beautiful and my grandmother had a wonderful garden. It was idyllic in the sunshine and it was a wonderful place to grow up.”

Mark also fondly recalls his maternal grandmother, Kate Newell, “a lovely country woman from Corrandulla.”

“I’m very proud of her,” he says. “She told us about country ways and we were blessed in those days to have three generations in the one house as that way the folklore and the nether world of the little people was passed down to us. The world of the fairies was very real to us and we had access to two worlds - that of ours and our grandparents.”

Mark’s recollections of childhood are overwhelmingly positive, thanks to a close family and strong grandparents as both protectors and role models, yet he does not shy away from the fact that Galway at that time was also a very tough place to live.

“I was in hospital in 1947 in a ward of 70 people that was only meant to accommodate 30,” he says. “I was suffering from malnutrition but TB was rife at the time and there was two of us in the bed. I remember Dinny Doyle, he died right beside me, crying for his mother while coughing his lungs up.”

Remembering the Famine victims

Mark spent many years in the USA, working for MGM, meeting and making friends with film stars such as Tippi Hedren, who starred in The Birds, Richard Harris, and The Beverly Hillbillies’ Buddy Epsen. He also co-wrote, with Jim Miller, screenplays for the classic 70s cop drama The Streets Of San Francisco, before returning to Ireland in 1977 “with my late wife Ann and my beautiful children”. It also was during this time in the States that Mark’s interest in The Great Famine in Ireland began.

“My maternal grandmother was born in 1870 so her parents had lived through the Famine,” says Mark. “They were blacksmiths in Corrandulla so they were spared the worst of it but they still had tough times and saw the devastation it caused, but I remember talking to [Irish-American actor] Gerald S O’Loughlin about Ireland and he asked me about The Famine and I realised I didn’t know anything about it.”

Mark was asked by a producer there to write a film script about The Famine, which took its toll throughout the mid to late 1840s - and so he began researching the period. The director John Huston and actor Richard Harris both thought it was a story which needed telling, but told Mark that they feared it would become trivialised “in the usual Hollywood way”. Mark abandoned the idea of a script but “was never entirely free of the deep and troubling impression my research into the Great Famine had left with me”.

However it was the Volvo Ocean Race’s coming to Galway in 2009 that re-ignited Mark’s interest in doing something to recognise the Famine and the effect it had on Galwegians - death, starvation, emigration - at the time.

For Mark there could be no greater contrast than that between the “multi-million dollar yachts” coming to Galway and those who left the city in the 1840s on ships bound for Canada and the USA. Mark became determined to create a Galway Famine Memorial.

“I fear that people who forget the past have no future and I was astonished that there was no Famine memorial in Galway,” he said. “This attempt is the fourth. The former mayor, the late Bridie O’Flaherty had tried before. In Liverpool there is a memorial to the Irish Famine victims so it is a disgrace there is none here.”

Mark became interested in the story of Celia Griffin, a six-year-old child from Connemara, who died on March 11 1847 as a result of the Famine. A newspaper report on her death and the manner of it distressed him deeply, and he was determined that “Celia and the many children who suffered and died in the Great Famine would not go forgotten any longer”.

With the support of former Fianna Fáil councillor Mary Leahy, a motion was put before theGalway City Council to naming the park at Grattan Beach after Celia Griffin. The park, in which stands a large stone obelisk in a wide green space overlooking Galway Bay is now called The Celia Griffin Children’s Park.

“It’s a beautiful place,” says Mark, “and I hope that over the years it will become an essential part of Galway life.”

Mark and The Famine Memorial committee, which includes local historian Willie Henry, are now embarking on Phase 2 of the project, which is to erect a Famine Ship monument in the park on which the names of the 100 Famine ships operating in the port of Galway will be inscribed. The project will cost c€20,000 and the committee has collected half of that so far and is appealing to the public for any funds and donations it can provide.

“These 100 ships, which left three times a year, carried between 250-300 people, so they could have brought about 250,000 people from Galway,” he says. “I hope that we can have this ready for when the Volvo Ocean Race returns. I would like to see the yachts coming into the Bay and paying homage at the memorial to all those who died and to those who left. The Harbour Board has also been of great support to us and I would like to see harbour master Captain Brian Sheridan unveil the memorial.”

Mark is celebrating his 74th birthday this weekend, and as has become the tradition, he will be climbing Croagh Patrick on Easter Sunday from 11am. He will be accompanied by a number of friends, including Galway pop-funk band The Kanyu Tree, and all who are taking part will do so to raise funds for the Galway Famine Ship Memorial Project.

Those who wish to donate to the Galway Famine Ship Memorial can do so by sending donations to 25 Melody’s Court, Renmore, Galway, or through McIsaacs Newsagents on O’Brien’s Bridge.

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