A lifetime spent among the pages

In this new series, Padraic O Máille sits down and has a chat with some of the doers and achievers of the city and county.

Padraic O Máille chats with with Des Kenny.

Padraic O Máille chats with with Des Kenny.

Few scenes can compare with the Ballynahinch river, it thick with salmon, and you with a rod in your hand.

One that can however is the bar in the Castle, directly above the river, and you with a pint of freshly poured porter in front of you.

Hopelessly defeated by the fishing I repaired with resolve to the bar, which being an hour or so before dinner, was still quiet. That was, with the exception of the entire Des Kenny family – Des, Anne, Deirdre, Aisling, Eimear and Dessy who were seated at different locations throughout the bar, all deeply immersed in books.

“Something seriously must have rattled their cages today,” I mused to myself and proceeded to join that other nefarious “bookie”, Des Sheridan, at the bar.

For nigh on an hour neither a Kenny moved nor uttered a syllable. Save for the occasional turning of a page and the polite reordering of a drink you could have been forgiven for assuming that the mother of all family rows had just occurred.

And then, at 8pm sharp all hell broke loose. They emerged in unison from behind their books and launched into one massive orgy of discussion and comparison and debate and banter regarding the books just read.

And as I observed at a distance from my perch on the barstool, it occurred to me that the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree. In the introduction to his own wonderful book Kenny’s Choice, Des remarked on his own upbringing: “We grew up in a household that was sustained by the twin pulses of books and love.”

As his father before him was partial to saying “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”. He would surely have approved of the continuing legacy that celebrates 70 years of trading this November. And we too, we can learn from the wisdom of the master book seller, Des Kenny.

1. Make Time For Books

Des’ entire existence has been one ongoing collision with books. Literally, as a lively five-year-old as he chased a rolling marble across the main road in Kingshill, Salthill he afforded the driver of the passing van no chance of avoiding him. The poor unfortunate driver, a Mr Enright happened to be driving the Easons van, and many years later Des would buy books from him.

His very first memory is of his father bringing him oranges and annuals as he recovered in hospital following the accident.

The foundations of their home in Kingshill were practically built on books. “Books were everywhere: on the stairs, under the stairs, over the stairs, in the bedrooms and the bathroom. There was no wall space that hadn’t been, at some stage, shelved and filled with books. Conor’s cot was a drawer that had been emptied of a collection of scarce pamphlets relating to Irish history and it was propped up by four folio volumes of eighteenth-century theology”.

He recalls vividly the solemn base voice of an elderly teacher intoning from a book “Ta sceal sa bhealoideas gur thainig cuig chlainne daoine go heirinn”. “At the age of ten, sitting in the back row of Rang a Ceathar, Colaiste Iognaid, I was listening to my first formal history lesson and a world of magic and wonder was opened to me”.

As a Leaving Certificate student he remembers the difficulty his French teacher had in sustaining interest through the last class on Friday afternoon. His solution was to begin reading to them J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. “In the context of the Ireland of 1966 this was, to say the least, innovative”.

As a post graduate he won a scholarship to study in the Sorbonne, and confesses that his first few months in Paris were lonely. “At night, to escape the confines of my chamber de bonne on the seventh floor, I came to know the cafés that allowed students to sit over a single café expresso for two or three hours without comment. They provided warmth and a semblance of company and allowed me to read voraciously. This also cultivated in me the habit, never since lost, of reading in pubs.”

And, as we sit conducting this interview, where else but in the lounge of the Bal, there lies between us two fresh pints of Guinness and one half read copy of Gregory Raftery’s His Soul Was a Long Journey.

For those of us less fortunate than Des who were not propelled into a world of books there is a great present awaiting us. When John McGahern formally opened Kennys refurbished bookshop in 1996, he spoke about the intimacy of reading. “Nothing could be more private or more relaxing than the act of reading. Nobody can disturb or discern what is happening between the reader and the page. It is the ultimate intimate moment.”

In a society that has become increasingly frenetic and frenzied the gifts of relaxation and privacy and intimacy have become frustratingly elusive. And yet, by supplanting a fraction of the time we heedlessly expend watching meaningless television, we could instantly lay claim to those riches. The trick is to make the time.

Over the years, personally and professionally, I have frequently been haunted by a spirit I have come to befriend and name called Ewic. Ewic is an acronym for “Excuses Why I Can’t” and he is particularly prevalent when it comes to making time to read books.

As an antidote, I can confidently prescribe Des’ book “Kenny’s Choice – 101 Irish Books You Must Read”. It is at once engaging, entertaining, educating and will instantly get you excited about getting stuck into dozens of great Irish books.

2. Make Time For Love.

Someone once told me that “them Kennys are so close that the wives can’t get into the photographs”. Be that as it may, they are an outstanding example of a family business that has survived and thrived through three generations over a 70-year period.

On the evening of November 29 1940, the day that Des and Maureen Kenny had opened the doors of their spanking new second-hand bookshop in High Street, Galway, Maureen’s recollection of the day was, “I remember the day as being fairly quiet but at the end of it our hearts were full of hope and joy.”

That five of their six children would later join the business, develop their niche, and now be joined by a third generation of Kennys is immensely gratifying and fulfilling to Des. “I derive enormous satisfaction from the way the cousins get on. I can honestly say that in 40 years working in the shop there hasn’t been a bad word spoken.

He ascribes this absence of conflict and positive team working to the “mutual devotion of our parents and their example of hard work”. He elaborates to say that his parents were “the perfect meeting of two minds and loved each other deeply”.

I couldn’t help but make a connection with another well publicised Kenny love story – the love between their aunt, Peggy Kenny and that most quintessential of Galway writers, Walter Macken. Just read Dreams on Paper by Des’ cousin Ultan Macken and you will experience at first hand the intensity which these Kennys love and get loved.

As for Des himself, he is hopelessly in love and loved, by that wonderful lady Anne Kenny. In the dedication in his book he describes a scene in Kate O’Brien’s book Without My Cloak where the character Molly Considine is dressing for an important dinner party, and Anthony, her husband, says to her, “You must be the loveliest woman in Christendom this night…. I’ve never looked on anyone as beautiful”. The Kennys are nothing if not emphatically direct – in certain circles they’d refer to it as “calling a spade a spade”. Des’ response is typically economic. “Anthony Considine was wrong. My wife Anne is the most beautiful woman in Christendom.”

3. Make Time for Dharma

Dharma is an ancient Sanskrit word which means “purpose in life”. According to the wise ones we all possess a unique talent and correspondingly a unique way of expressing it. When we unearth this calling and marry it to serving humanity then we will have abundance galore.

Des would discover and declare his dharma one balmy spring afternoon in the suburbs of Paris. Already a Maitrise-es-Lettres, he was midway through his Doctorate, ostensibly en route to a career in academia. Each Saturday he would line out with the faculty soccer team and afterwards congregate in a small cafe where they would contemplate their respective futures. One particular Saturday, without any conscious premeditation, Des up’s and proclaims to all and sundry, “I’m going home to sell books.”

Motivation is important, but as my Uncle Stiofain was wont to say “If you motivate an ass, all you end up with is a motivated ass”. Prior to becoming the consummate salesperson that he is today Des underwent a “long and curious apprenticeship”.

From his mother he learned what is now popularly referred to in management literature as “emotional intelligence”. The first lesson was that “For every book in the shop there was a customer”. Des’ role was to match the two. The second lesson was to “To listen carefully to customers rather than prejudge what they might enjoy reading”. The third came when he “Botched what would have been a significant sale”. Rather than chastise him she gently counselled, “You showed too much enthusiasm there”.

From his father he learned the art of book selection. For weeks and months his father would have him select books and give appropriate feedback. Although passed on since 1991, Des attests that “even now when I am selecting books for one of our book parcel clients I can sometimes feel his hand on my shoulder, guiding me”.

From Sonny Molloy, his neighbor and “everybody’s favorite uncle”, he learned the psychology of selling. “The thing about Sonny is that he’d have you sussed out inside 20 seconds. And having done that, he’d make you an integral part of the sales experience and you left that shop feeling infinitely better about yourself.”

Most crucially, Des loves selling. As he sips on his pint of porter, his entire persona illuminates as he regales me with a yarn of a young child he’d introduced to Enid Blyton that day. “The pleasure on his face made the day for me. This business of selling is not a profession. It’s a vocation. And as long as someone is looking for a book I have a business”.

4. Make Time For Fun.

Perversely, as we laugh our way through the conversation, we both lament the fact that society has become so serious. For whatever reason, the craic just isn’t what it used to be. We laugh at the invitation Tom (Kenny ) received some years ago to a book launch in Clonmany, Co Donegal. “You drive as far as Malin Head and then reverse ten mile”.

My favorite Kenny story features Tom driving in to work one scorching summer morning. He gets stuck behind a corporation lorry collecting bins. As the scene unfolds before him he is hugely impressed with the manner in which the lads stay ahead of the building rush hour traffic. They are like prize athletes shimmying back and forth with bins – all action.

And directly at the junction of High Street and Cross Street they are beholden by “this vision strutting down High Street clad in no more than what people of my mother’s generation would have called a ‘slip’.

Things came to an abrupt and sudden standstill. “The only thing moving in Galway that morning was the necks of the lads following this goddess as she proceeded down High Street”.

Failing miserably to control the irresistible temptation, Tom lowers his window, toots shrilly on the horn and shouts “Come on lads, some of us have work to go to”.

Turning slowly to him, one of the lads fixes Tom directly between the eyes, and in the greatest of Galway accents proclaims, “Mr Kinny, even the bin men can appreciate d’art ya know,”

And that is the legacy of the Kennys. For seventy years they have been enabling us to appreciate art and books and culture and have contributed massively to making Galway the unique city it is.

Des recalls a vivid childhood memory of “Father backing the car, laden with the contents of a library he had bought somewhere, down the little hill to the front door of their house”. “Books” his father said, “will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams”.

How prophetic. For the Kenny’s and for Galway.

To hear an audio version of this conversation, go to www.omaille.com


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