Books: Mary, Mary, quite extraordinary
Memoir: Something of Myself and Others Mary Kenny Liberties Press, €14.99, pbk
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350
In the author's note, Mary Kenny calls her book a "kind of ragbag of memoirs, experiences, dead friends, family members, and episodes". She may call it a ragbag; I call it a delightful potpourri of interviews, events, happenings -- some sad, some cheerful -- but all written with a zest, variety and gaiety which even the saddest moments cannot hide.
Let me say at the beginning, I know Mary Kenny, but just slightly, although she greatly shaped my ideas at an earlier stage of my life. I am six years older than Mary, yet she influenced much of what was my emergent life as a young married woman, rearing a family, beginning to teach but most of all, beginning to have the first stirrings of the fact that there was more to be explored in life and that I had better get to it.
I first remember Mary in the late 1960s when she became the women's editor of the Irish Press, hired by Tim Pat Coogan. Women's editors were a new genre -- Mary Maher, Maeve Binchy and now Mary Kenny.
I read them all avidly. They seemed like daring women, saying and writing things which seemed way out of our ken in provincial Ireland and yet I know many young women were stirred by them to climb upwards, to do more, to succeed.
That same year of '69, when Mary took on the women's editor role in the Irish Press, I and three others from Athlone set out to go to Maynooth College to do our H Dip. This was our 'awakening'.
Mary's life seemed exciting, glamorous, nonchalant and daredevil. Her life, as she wrote it in her articles, seemed to know no boundaries, only endless horizons. My life was joyful and happy but it seemed I had to constantly fight to find my horizons.
In the early sections of her book, Mary chronicles in detail her adventures as a young, ambitious journalist. She recalls bringing down a British cabinet minister, introducing Michael D Higgins to his future wife, interviewing Princess Grace of Monaco and actress Marlene Dietrich and being complimented by the queen. And that's only a taste of what's there.
Part one of the book deals with the author's 'Adventures in the Media Trade' and 'Life Lessons Journalism Taught Me'. Part two she modestly declares as 'My Part in Famous Lives'. These episodes are by times curious, reflective, hilarious and sad. The book will interest most readers because most of the names she writes about we know. Edna O'Brien, Mary Robinson and Delia Smith are among those who feature.
The author shows all the hallmarks of really good journalism, acute observation, wry comment and a sense of realism mixed with the philosophy of her early upbringing and her bohemian early journalistic career in London and Dublin.
Each episode is a delight to read and I found myself going over and over them. They are charming, engaging and not without acerbic comment from time to time.
Part three is about 'Absent Friends' -- Terry Keane, Nuala Fennell, Mary Holland, Mary Cummins, Maeve Binchy, June Levine -- these redoubtable women march across the pages.
Part four deals with 'Sexual Politics', citing the sexual politics of the Catholic Church, the 'Condom Train' from Belfast to Dublin and 'Sexual Liberation' in general.
Women of my generation can remember seeing the arrival of the Condom Train in Dublin from Belfast on the TV news and the sense of trepidation and delight which that episode gave us all. Here, Mary gives her account of what it was like being on board the infamous train and what it achieved.
In part five, Mary talks about the passing of her beloved sister, Ursula. Most of all she writes of her now private life with her husband, the journalist and foreign correspondent Richard West, who has been stricken with a series of strokes and for whom Mary is the main carer. This is powerful, detailed writing.
Mary railed against her life as a carer, but has come to grips with it with a mixture of common sense, household arrangements and a monthly escape for even one day and night to Dublin, which she regards as a safety valve.
Over the years I have met her several times on Kildare Street when I was going to and fro to my Dáil business and somewhere in that vicinity Mary had an apartment. We always just had the warm hello and passing on and I often thought I would love to know more about her.
Last summer I met Mary in Clogher, Co Tyrone, when I was speaking at a seminar on William Carleton. We exchanged pleasantries, but again of a desultory nature.
Now that I have read this book, I feel I know so much more about the real Mary Kenny. She writes of herself with honesty and humour. I hope the book is widely read -- it deserves it for its content, sagacity and common sense. And I hope the next time our paths cross, we will have a longer conversation.
MARY O'ROURKE IS A FORMER MINISTER FOR EDUCATION.