Forty years a-binding, and more to come

Gerry and Caroline Kenny at Kenny's Bookbindery, Galway. Photograph by David Ruffles

Gerry and Caroline Kenny at Kenny's Bookbindery, Galway. Photograph by David Ruffles

An extraordinary row on the Late Late Show, 17 years ago, had a positive impact on a small Galway business struggling for survival. ‘A very attractive lady,’ Siubhan Maloney, called into Kenny’s Book Bindery, located in Salthill at the time, and told Gerry Kenny that she was a contestant in the Late Late’s Antique Show. She was re-upholstering an old chair, which included a small shelf. She wanted to see how to re-cover an old book in highly decorated leather, which would sit into the shelf. Jerry was happy to show her how it was done. First of all the pages are handsewn together, then clamped and trimmed ready for gold foil, which is applied with heat. This prevents the pages becoming dusty.

A light card is then glued on the spine of the volume, raised bands of narrow leather strips are glued along the spine, before it is covered with fine calf or goat skin, cut to size to run neatly over the edges. It is then pulled expertly to fit over the tubular spine and the edges of the side boards, carefully folding the corners, using a bone tool to ‘bone it in’. The book is left overnight in a press to prevent the leather warping the boards. The next day the end papers are put in, and it is replaced in the press for a week. Titles are skilfully added in 22 carat gold, using heated brass tools.

Ms Maloney said that it was all fascinating, but asked if Gerry would kindly do her book for her. Gerry did a great job, and sent it on.

Ms Maloney’s chair and book were lavishly praised. She claimed she had upholstered the chair, and bound the book from start to finish herself. She basked in the gasps of admiration from Gay Byrne and the audience. She easily won the generous cash prize.

And there the story might have rested, only a fine art dealer and restorer, Mr Joshua Duffy, from Dublin’s James’s Street, sued RTE for libel. He claimed that he had totally restored the chair for Ms Maloney.

When Gerry was contacted by RTE to see if Ms Maloney did in fact bind the book, he had to admit she had not. Ms Maloney, however, vehemently denied Mr Duffy’s and Gerry’s claims.

The story, as they say, went viral. It was called ‘Chairgate’ by the colourful press, and it dragged on for several years until the case was eventually heard in the High Court. Sadly poor Ms Maloney, (‘a mother of teenage twins’, as the press kept reminding us ), appeared in court only to apologise to everyone concerned. She accepted that she had committed fraud, and further accepted that she had to pay a ‘hefty sum’ in compensation costs, and legal fees. The press trumpeted that she ‘a mother of teenage twins’ would have to sell her home to do so.

Gerry never took any delight in Ms Maloney’s misfortune. But his beautifully bound book, which was constantly shown in the press and on TV, was much admired. The publicity was such that his company became inundated with work. New staff were hired and trained, and eventually Kenny Bindery moved to a larger premises at Liosbán, off the Tuam Road, where it thrives steadily today.

A best seller

Publicity alone did not make the Kenny Bindery, now celebrating its 40th anniversary. It is surprising that in an era of mass-produced bindings by high speed machines, and the all important costs and time considerations, there is still a demand for the traditional craft of fine bookbinding. Initially the bindery was seen as an extension of Kenny’s Bookshop, where out of print books could be represented in handsome covers.

To coincide with the opening of the bindery in 1974, Kenny’s pulled off an amazing publishing coup. It reproduced, in magnificent fine binding, James Hardiman’s famous History of Galway, first published in 1820. Despite this book’s scarcity and constant reference value, it had never been reproduced. It became an instant best seller. The Kenny edition is now a collector’s item.* Its remaining copies were snapped up by Bishop Casey for gifts during the Papal visit here in 1979.

Their first customer 40 years ago, was John Bourke of Celtic Insurance who gave in some books to be recovered. He left a deposit of £100.

There was consternation in the bindery as Gerry had not seen that kind of money before! It was a good omen for the future.

Galway/Boston

One of the great sources of work came from the Galway/Boston Ventures, a much unsung brilliant enterprise spearheaded by Tom O’Connor, Mary Bennett, and John O’Dowd, among others in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Business was poor in Galway at the time, and the Galway group had the nerve to go to the Boston Chamber of Commerce and literally ask for help. Lots of opportunities followed. When Gerry joined the group in 1990 he was introduced to the library at Bridgewater University, near Boston, and commissioned to rebind thousands of books. Other American contracts followed. The success with American universities prompted two Japanese universities in Osaka to follow suit. In a trade that many people might think was obscure, the Kenny Bindery was now a major success.

Father and daughter

What has made the Kenny Bindery survive and prosper has been its quality and craftsmanship. As far as I can make out it is the only surviving bookbindery left in the Republic. Gerry learned his trade with John F Newman and Co, Dublin, now long gone out of business. With his sister Monica ‘doing the books,’ and with a team of five, they set about setting their own standards in their trade.

One of his first apprentices was Mike Conlon, from Raleigh Row. Mike now has his own bindery in New York.

Another craft worker was Deboragh Novotny. She now works as a binder in the British Library. Patricia Higgins is retired, and John Tummon is now working in the trade in Boston. Richard Percy, a perfectionist in gold-leaf finishing, has also recently retired.

That would leave Gerry on his own to run his business, only two Christmases ago, while he was bemoaning the fact that no one was interested in the craft any more, his daughter Caroline came forward, and said that she would love to learn the ancient skills of bookbinding from him.

Forty years on, Gerry is happy that his trade will continue.

NOTES: * The original Hardiman’s History was an ingenious kind of a book for its day. It contained a pull out map of 17th century Galway, and wonderful engravings. The Kenny Hardiman was printed by Beacon and Co, Dublin, (no longer in business ), and practically an exact replica.. The Connacht Tribune produced its own edition of Hardiman’s, without the foldout map, in 1985. Both editions are out of print. Maybe it is time for another try?

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