Thursday 16 August 2018

Grey power: The story of one man's life

Last week's banner-waving pensioner protests stunned politicians and led to a tidal wave of support throughout the country. Every demonstrator had their own story to tell. Here is one of them ...

Mark at Mutton Island Lighthouse
Mark at Mutton Island Lighthouse

Mark Kennedy (71) was actually double jobbing as a protestor last week as both a medical card holder and a mature student researching a PhD in NUI Galway.

Born in Galway in 1937, Mark, like many of his generation, left school at age 13 and took "the boat to nowhere" to England in the 1950s to work as a labourer.

From there, he made his way to Canada and the US, where his amateur acting experience led to a remarkable spell in Hollywood, living and working alongside one of the era's most glamorous leading ladies.

By the 1970s, Mark was back living in Ireland with his young family, where his fortunes varied widely for the next three decades, incorporating alcoholism, homelessness and eventual recovery and rehabilitation as a mature student and activist.

Here he takes Declan Cashin through some snapshots of his extraordinary life, one out of many that helps to chronicle the story of modern Ireland itself from the 1930s onwards.

I was born in Galway in 1937. For my first eight years, my father and I lived with his grandparents and my mother lived with her mother because it was extremely difficult for newly-married people to get their own home.

I had four sisters and a brother, but I have few memories of them from that time.

My father's three sisters were all nuns so I lived in a highly charged religious atmosphere.

My grandfather was a civil servant and very much a Victorian gentleman.

He wasn't severe but he was a man of authority.

In 1944, I caught TB. When I was in hospital, there were two children to a bed.

The child beside me, Denis Doyle, coughed up his lungs and died right in front of me, howling for his mother.

I was seven or eight.

It was a shock to the system, but there was no counselling or anything.

My father and mother then went to live with my maternal grandmother in Bothair Mor in 1946, which was one of the first government-sponsored housing estates.

We almost had a village life there, but it was a melting pot of rural and city people.

I went to St Brendan's National School. Corporal punishment was rife, though they never picked on me because they knew my grandfather was a civil servant.

I recall going to school hungry, and seeing other children faint from hunger. Tea and bread was the staple diet, while oxtail boiled with potatoes would be a treat. We caught a lot of our food - rabbit, hares and even eels.

In 1950 I left school at aged 13 to become a child slave like the rest of them.

My first job was in a kitchen lifting pots bigger than myself. I then got the job of my dreams in the Savoy Cinema, where I actually began to learn about life through films.

In my early teens I went to dances, of course, but one was very sexually ignorant.

That doesn't mean that one wasn't curious and active though!

When I was 17, I joined the Army for two years.

After that, I went to Liverpool on a cattle boat in 1956.

I had no money, no food, no job and no contacts in England.

I stayed in a flophouse for 4d a night. I started working on the building sites, which was absolutely horrible work. Men would literally die on their feet.

I got married aged 20. I had been drinking quite heavily, to destruction actually, and like most people I thought it would be different once I got married. It wasn't, but my wife, Eileen, from Sligo, was very good and very kind.

We had four children: two died as babies, but Deirdre, my eldest, is now a journalists living in San Francisco and Serena lives in Seattle. She has three daughters aged 14 to 18, and I'm visiting them all next March.

I stopped drinking in 1961, and I managed to get a job in a broker's office in London.

I stuck at that until 1966 when we decided to move to Saskatchewan in Canada.

I had acted with a theatre group in London, and so met some people in Canada who paid me to be in a play, The Queen and the Rebels. For our next play, A Hatful of Rain, the director managed to land Tippi Hedren, star of Hitchcock's The Birds, as my leading lady.

Her husband, Noel Marshall, convinced Eileen and I to move to Hollywood where I did some writing, including speeches for Tippi, who was very politically active in support of an LA mayor named Sam Yorty.

I had a commission for $600 a week from MGM, thanks to an acting friend named Buddy Ebsen, who was later to star in The Beverley Hillbillies, to write some speeches and work uncredited on a script for the movie Roar, which was eventually in 1981.

Eileen and I divorced during that time, and the girls lived with her.

I met my new wife Ann, an Irish woman living in Hollywood. Ann wanted to live a simple life, so in 1969 we moved up to Orcas Island off the coast of Washington state.

We lived in a wooden cabin, grew our own vegetables, and I worked as a fisherman. Our two children, Maura and Miles, were born there.

In 1976, we came back to Ireland because we didn't want to raise the children in the US. It's a nation obsessed with success and failure, and we wanted to get away from that. We moved to Galway and I got a job as an executive with an industrial company.

Ann and I separated, and I decided to move to England again in 1986.

My life fell apart at that stage because I started drinking again. I didn't work for the whole year I was in England, except for the odd writing commission.

I came back to Ireland after a year, and met a good friend, Niall Hughes. He was making documentaries about social injustice so I worked with him on two films Horselands and Clear the Streets. I was still drinking while making them, but you wouldn't be able to tell from watching them.

I became homeless for two years at the end of 1980s. When you drank like I did, you couldn't crash on people's couches. As much as they loved you, they just couldn't have you there.

But when people see you make an effort, they become very kind.

I stopped drinking on one cold night in 1992. I was drinking Buckfast in Church Lane when I just heard a voice in my head saying: "You can't leave this as a legacy to your children and grandchildren". I put the bottle down, and walked away from it.

For the next three months I had the most horrible withdrawals of my life, and I went into a state of depression.

But from that moment, I climbed my way back up: I put my name on the housing list, and I nagged them three times a week to give me a flat, which they finally did.

My good friend John Herrick, a local artist and sign writer, gave me some work for three years after that. John played a big part in my rejoining the human race if you will.

When I was 65, I decided to go back to college. I wanted to challenge myself, plus my children went to college and loved it. My daughter Maura is a literature officer working on the Liverpool City of Culture project, while my son Miles is a PhD in Philosophy. He has an eight-year-old son, Joseph.

I applied to NUIG, got in and I'm still there! I got a first class honours BA in History and English, and now I'm doing a PhD on 16th century landed gentry. There's nothing riding on it for me - it's just for myself.

I had a fellowship from the college for three years, but that's finished now. Today, I live off my basic pension, which works out at €210 a week.

My sisters Stephanie and May, and my brother John died relatively young. Of my surviving sisters, Bernadette lives in the US and Philomena lives here in Galway.

I've become a devotee of Saint Patrick, and I climbed Croagh Patrick on my 70th birthday.

That's become an annual tradition for me. I've come to a point in my life now where I realise the only orders I have to follow now are the ones I give myself.

Looking back on my life, I see that everything that occurred to me had to occur given my restless personality. I'm happy and content now. I have regrets like everyone, but you have to follow your own star and, if you're lucky, it will lead you to Dublin protesting as a pensioner and a student with a beautiful young Swedish-Chinese girl name Yi-Wu like I was last Wednesday. That's not a bad way to spend these years.

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