I was chatting with some people yesterday about how, as people, we tend to love meeting strangers and listening to their tales. Everyone has a story to tell and it’s through our exploration of our own stories and those of others that we grow, learn, and formulate our ideals. An amazing speaker and mesmerising personality, Mary Kenny certainly has a fascinating tale to tell. She does so with such eloquence that I’ll let Mary’s words tell her own story…
“Everyone’s childhood has an oddness about it – something unusual about it. We lived in this old rambling Victorian hours; my mum was a widow at this stage. One day an aunt and uncle came to tea and family matters came up. My aunt said to my mother; you’re so lucky to have 4 children. We’re so disappointed. So my mother said; ‘take one of mine!’ That was me.
I was a very wild child; I was completely out of control. Some people thought I was an evil child! One day when my mother and I was walking, there was a man fishing in the river and next to him was his little dog. The dog was barking while the man was fishing in the tranquil scene. I suddenly took it into my head to push the dog into the river – so I did. There was a most terrible scene. I presumed dogs swam. The man turned round to my mother and said, ‘Madam, don’t you realise you brought an evil child into the world. A child like that deserves to grow up to be hung.” Of course, my mother was distraught.
I used to like running away from home a lot, not because I was unhappy but because it was fun. And I loved motorcars; they’d be unlocked at that time. I’d climb in and pretend to be driving; when the owner returned, I ask him to take me in the motorcar and buy me sweets and they would! No harm ever came to me. The motorist would usually deliver me home – and would say to my mother ‘ this child needs watching.’
When my mother agreed for my aunt and uncle to take me, I was delighted with myself! I’d get a room to myself, I could choose the wallpaper, pictures; I was seven at the time and had the total attention of these two adults. Their sole focus was on me. They lived two streets away. In those two streets were two different worlds.
Dublin 4 is now associated with being a posh place; in the 1950s it wasn’t regarded as posh. That was Rathgar. There was a posh end of Dublin 4 where the embassies are, but we were between two villages. It had the Irish society, the Irish bloodstock sales and the third institution was a large laundry called the swastika laundry. All around Dublin, you had vans ferrying the laundry round with swastika laundry plastered on it. It was put to the owner that he might change it; he said, ‘well I had it first, let the others have it.’
Sandymount – now that was a real village! It had a village green, excellent grocery stores, three beautiful churches and amazing literary connections. For us, there was a more famous literary connection – which sadly wouldn’t mean much today – called Annie M.P. Smithson. She grew up in Sandymount and I thought it was amazing to walk past her house. That’s one thing about writing; we don’t know what writers will survive into the next generation.
So there I was with my aunt and uncle…my parents’ house was a bit rundown because they could never really maintain it in the way Victorian names needed to be maintained. We did have a maid in the better days who called the place Liberty Hall. There was no key to that house; visiting was a big thing in those days. There was a constant train of people; friends, family, lodgers. There was a lady who stayed with us for six months and we didn’t really know why she was there. That was Liberty Hall! The house was full of books and picture and china and nothing quite matched. The place was full of nooks and crannies. There was always an evening meal and everyone would talk; my interest in ideas started there. It was a terribly easygoing way of life.
But my aunt and uncle lived in suburban housing; I moved from Liberty Hall to the template of good housekeeping. My aunt was very honest, very dutiful and a very organised housekeeper. She’d never do her laundry on a Sunday; when she was brought up the worst thing was to play cards on Sunday. Only a bad housewife would wash any day other than Monday. Tuesday would be ironing. Wednesday would be for hairdressing. Everything was run to a schedule. It’s amazing how much childhood influences you. Even now, if I put on the washing machine on a Sunday, I see the ghost of Auntie Dorothy…
Anti anything she thought was ridiculous, my aunt would often say things like ‘imagine having your nose stuck in a book, especially on a fine day!’ I was allowed two books from the library. Once I came back from the library with three, and I was sent back. Some people might think it was a terrible way to treat a child but it wasn’t. It didn’t injure my attitude towards books. In fact, it made me keener on books…”
Mary went on to discuss her departure to Paris, her mother and aunt’s attitudes to religion and society, feminism and the influence of women on Ireland in the 1950s, among other topics featured in her book. She also gave thanks to those who helped her create her life stories and to those who are prepared to listen. I left the event feeling that is going to be an extremely important book in Ireland’s history and I’m certain her stories will reach the ears of future generations.