When I meet Ultan Macken for a morning coffee to chat about his one man show, My Father, My Son, the first thing he does is delightedly show me a new Russian edition of Walter Macken’s God Made Sunday.
It is a salutary reminder that while Walter’s reputation may have fallen into neglect in Ireland, overseas he still has admirers and readers. Ultan’s critically acclaimed show, at the Town Hall Theatre studio from September 2 to 5, gives a fascinating insight into the family history and life of one of Ireland’s most cherished authors. It reveals the breadth of Walter Macken’s creativity in film, novels, plays and theatre management - and the close relationship with his son.
Ultan was born in Galway in 1943 during his father’s time as director of An Taibhdhearc. Walter’s long hours devoted to the theatre initially prevented him from forming a bond with his son, as Ultan recalls.
“It was like there were two families, us and the Taibhdhearc," he says. "I had very little contact with him at all until I was about five years old. Between 1939 and 1947 he did 77 separate productions, about 10 of which he wrote himself. He also translated plays by the likes of Eugene O’Neill, Shakespeare, and Sean O’Casey. But the board was unhappy because he was not doing enough Irish plays - but he just wasn’t getting them; he would have done them if he had them.
"By 1947 he’d had enough and went to Dublin to join the Abbey and there our relationship changed. In Dublin he was freer; he’d be rehearsing in the afternoons and performing at night but he was home in the mornings so I began to see more of him. On Sundays he’d take me to Phoenix Park and teach me the skills of hurling. Then we’d visit his cousin Christy Macken who later became the film censor. Christy could get free tickets to Croke Park and I have vivid memories of the three of us going there. I particularly recall seeing Christy Ring playing for Cork against Galway.”
A fine leading actor, in 1950 Walter Macken went with the Abbey on a six month tour of the US with MJ Molloy’s The King of Friday’s Men. The tour coincided with the publication of his first big success as a novelist, Rain On The Wind.
'Every morning I’d get up at 7.30 and I’d hear them both coughing their way to the toilet because they were both heavy smokers'
“It was a Book of the Month Club choice in America, which guaranteed sales of half a million copies and that enabled us to move back to Galway,” Ultan relates. “His publishers, Macmillan, had been on at him for ages to buy a house, give up acting, and focus on writing. He came down to Oughterard and saw the house Gort na Ganiv, and loved it. It had six acres, rhododendrons, azaleas, a tennis court, an orchard, a boat on the lake, and a boathouse.
"It was priced at £3,000 so he telegrammed Macmillan and they sent him the money straight away. When he went back to Dublin and told my mother she asked him ‘What’s the house like?’ He started going on about the flowers and the orchard and she said ‘But what’s the house itself like?’ – and he hadn’t gone inside it at all! But he knew it was the right place for him. Fishing was his main hobby and that was the key to our relationship because every Sunday he’d take me out fishing all day long.”
Walter’s wife was Peggy Kenny, and their story combines both romance and heartache. “My parents would never have met in normal social affairs as they were from different classes,” Ultan explains. “My maternal grandfather, Tom ‘Cork’ Kenny, had founded The Connacht Tribune and was a great journalist. Peggy was his eldest child and the apple of his eye. She was also a skilled journalist and having gone to work for her father, she became the de facto editor of the Connacht Sentinel.
"In 1934, she went to the Taibdhearc to be part of a show and met my father there and within a week he asked her to marry him. At that time my mother was earning £3 15s and 4d per week whereas my father was only taking in 30 shillings. On that basis her father was totally against the relationship but, in 1937, Walter and Peggy eloped to England. They stayed there for two years, my brother Wallie was born there. With World War II looming, they returned to Galway in 1939 but Peggy’s father never spoke to her again.
"One day she was walking up Shop Street with the baby in the pram and he walked straight by her with only a gruff ‘Hello’ as he passed. He died a couple of months later, and when they opened his shirt they found the letter Peggy had sent him after eloping and he had kept it beside his heart. She had been his favourite daughter but he could not accept her marrying someone he disapproved of. Because both my parents had been deprived of love at home – Peggy estranged from her father and Walter was just a baby when his father was killed in WW1 - they set out to provide us with unconditional love.”
'Many of Walter Macken's novels, stories, and plays evoked the people and landscapes of Galway and Connemara'
Ultan recalls his father’s daily routine. “Every morning I’d get up at 7.30 and I’d hear them both coughing their way to the toilet because they were both heavy smokers. By 7.45, every morning, we’d be in the car to go to Oughterard and 8 o’clock Mass. After mass, he’d buy The Irish Press and we’d come home for breakfast and he’d read the paper while eating it. Then when he was finished, about 10am, he’d go to the living room where there was a big table with his typewriter and the paper set in it and a large ashtray beside it.
"He’d pace around the table and smoke maybe 10 cigarettes while myself and mammy would be in the kitchen listening out and then he’d sit down and type for 30-45 minutes. He rarely did longer because the whole story was already worked out in his head, he never did corrections either. He’d call out ‘Peggy, come in here’ and she’d go in and he’d read out what he wrote to her. We had lunch then and, afterwards, he and I would go for a walk together and then do gardening for the afternoon.”
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Walter wrote prolifically, with his history trilogy, Seek The Fair Land, The Silent People, and The Scorching Wind being especially popular. Many of his novels, stories, and plays evoked the people and landscapes of Galway and Connemara. In 1959 his play, Home is the Hero, was the first Irish film to be shot at Ardmore Studios (with Walter also taking the lead role ), and his children’s novel, The Flight of the Doves, was also adapted for the big screen.
Yet in the years since his death in 1967, his reputation has waned and many of his books are currently out of print. Ultan has been a tireless and energetic champion on his late father’s behalf, lobbying publishers to re-issue the novels (New Island are doing The Bogman next year ) and writing a compelling biography; Walter Macken - Dreams on Paper. Another labour of love is his ongoing quest to get a film made of Rain on the Wind. He strongly believes that his father’s work merits rediscovering; “The younger generation haven’t even heard of him but that’s because the books aren’t on the shelves,” he notes. “That’s why I have spent my life promoting him.”
My Father, My Son is part of Ultan’s drive to keep his father’s name in the public eye. The show also covers his own long career as a journalist, recounting his time with RTÉ and working with Gay Byrne, Bunny Carr, and Frank Hall, and his encounters with Niall Toibin, Pete Seeger, and Bing Crosby. The show runs at the Town Hall studio at 8.30pm. The Monday September 2 performance on as Gaeilge, and from Tuesday to Thursday in English. Tickets are available via 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie