Jeanne Rathbone

Maureen Kenny bookseller and Notable Galway Woman

Posted in Maureen Kenny Bookseller Notable Galway Woman by sheelanagigcomedienne on September 15, 2017
Maureen Kenny in bookshop

Maureen Kenny bookseller extraordinaire



Madonna of the Manuscripts was how Seamus Heaney once described Maureen Kenny. She was more than that as she devoted most of her life to the promotion of new Irish writers and artists as well as presiding over one of the most famous Irish bookshops.

Maureen was born in Glebe Street, Mohill, Co Leitrim, the eldest of three children. Her father died suddenly when she was four years old leaving her mother with three young children and a business she knew nothing about. Next door was a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) barracks which was taken over by the black and tans. On a couple of occasions they took the infant Maureen and used her as a human shield on top of their truck while driving around Mohill randomly shooting in through windows.

Her mother was an extraordinary woman who saved every penny to give them the best possible education. Maureen went to school locally in Mohill and then attended Saint Louis Convent, Monaghan on a scholarship. She then went on to win a scholarship to UCG (NUIG) in 1936 and on her first day there she met Des Kenny. As Des often said later “that was that”. They married on graduating and rented two rooms on High Street in Galway, setting up a bookshop in one and living in the other.


Maureen and Des Kenny

On November 29th, 1940 they opened the doors of what was to become the internationally renowned Kenny’s Bookshop. Hundreds of people claim to have been there on the first day although Maureen remembered it as being very quiet. It was during the war and people had little money for food, let alone for the luxury of books and so the early days were all about survival.

They stocked the shop by borrowing books from their friends and relations and buying new books with what little money they had. They tried many different ideas like selling second-hand school books, running a lending library or placing book stalls in hotels and factories.

Maureen was ahead of her time and employed the strategy of direct marketing before the phrase had been heard of. She put hand-written cards in hotels and B&Bs with “a suggestion for a rainy day”. The suggestion of course, was to visit Kennys.

However, despite their efforts Maureen and Des could not survive by the bookshop alone and so Des went out to work elsewhere, leaving Maureen to run the shop.

Their eldest son, Tom was born in 1944 in the bookshop on High Street and shortly afterwards they were able to move to a house in Salthill where their other five children, Jane, Dessy, Gerry, Monica and Conor, were born. Maureen’s six children were virtually reared on books and so it was no surprise that five of them joined her in the business.

In the mid 1960s her husband Des rejoined the family business and from then on it began to expand. They knocked down part of their house in Salthill and opened an art gallery in 1968. They built a book bindery in the back garden and rented additional premises to cater for their expanding stock of books. A great emphasis was placed on exporting and they instilled in their family a love of all things Irish, especially books.

Kenny familyThe bookshop began to gain an international reputation. Maureen was the one constant in all of this growth and artists and writers from all over the world came to meet her and to avail of her vast knowledge of Irish interest material. As John McGahern once said “Mrs Kenny misses nothing”. One of her great gifts was her phenomenal memory as she would report the arrival of out of print books books to people who had asked for them years before. As one customer said: “who needs when you have Mrs Kenny?”

She loved to encourage young writers and rejoiced in their success. Aspiring authors would delight in the fact that Maureen had taken the time to read their books and was now promoting them. The large collection of signed photographs of writers who had visited was testimony to Maureen’s popularity.

Maureen never regarded the shop as work. To her it was a genuine pleasure to stand behind the counter in High Street, which she did for 66 years, only retiring when it was decided to transfer the books business online. Even in her 80s she wasn’t afraid of change in business, indeed she was quite visionary and when the bookshop closed its doors to go online in 2006 her comment was “you have to look forward, you have to move with times.”

Maureen was a founder member of the Leitrim People’s Association in Galway. She was very involved with Our Lady’s Girls Club and the Soroptimists. She was honoured many times for her extraordinary contribution to cultural life in Ireland and especially in Galway.

Bord Failte made her an Honorary Ambassador for promoting Ireland in 1990. Maureen and her husband Des were the first honorary life members of the Galway Chamber of Commerce.

The following article is from their 75th anniversary of bookselling in Galway written by Tom Kenny, her eldest son. I knew Tom as I am friends of his sister Jane – we were in the same year in Taylor’s Hill  Dominican Convent school. I recall getting a lift to Dublin with Des Kenny when myself and my friend Kathryn Lydon were heading off to work in Jersey in 1964. I conducted a funeral a few years ago of Ronald Gray of Hammersmith Books that Conor and Geraldine Kenny attended as they had bought Ronald’s entire collection.


The Kenny family. Jane is in blue and Tom is the grey bearded one.

This year Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway celebrates 75 years of bookselling and 21 years of selling online as Our staff of 18 includes eight Kennys. We stock about 650,000 volumes, new, second-hand and antiquarian books. In addition to selling on, we work with Amazon, ABE, Alibris and other portals to sell into countries all over the world. We also offer free shipping worldwide.

After meeting at UCG they graduated and got married. They had no jobs but they wanted to stay in Ireland. It was during the war, they had no money and there were few prospects. Both came from book-loving families and so they decided to open a bookshop. It seemed like an act of madness, but they were young, very much in love, tenacious and not afraid of hard work. They leased the ground floor of a building in High Street, Galway. The bank loaned them £100 with which they bought some stock and friends and relations gave them books. The shop was tiny, but they opened with hopes and dreams and very little fanfare on November 29th, 1940.

To add a little colour, Maureen introduced crafts, handmade locally in the late 1940s. In 1951 she hosted her first exhibition and this in turn led to visual artists showing their work. A major development in the 1950s was the purchase of a second-hand duplicating machine which was installed in my bedroom at home, and the family began to crank out catalogues. These catalogues gave the shop a new status in Ireland, and introduced us to customers abroad. Our horizons were expanding. We were selling mostly second-hand books and were gaining in experience and expertise. Our speciality was (and still is) books of Irish interest. Des was on the road at every opportunity buying libraries and the quality of the stock improved.

The Irish language has always been very important to us and we have a uniquely extensive stock of Irish language books.

Regular visitors at this time were Brendan Behan, Mary Lavin, Walter Macken and Austin Clarke. Graham Greene visited and subsequently carried on a correspondence. William Randolph Hearst syndicated a major article on the bookshop in all of his newspapers.

In 1965, our father Des came back into the business on a full-time basis and his dynamism and vision, combined with Maureen’s pragmatism and by now legendary knowledge of books had a transforming effect. They opened the first commercial art gallery in the west of Ireland with an exhibition of paintings by Seán Keating. From then on, we hosted exhibitions of paintings, sculpture, stained glass, ceramics, book launches, readings, signings etc. We began to photograph visiting writers and artists and opened a shop dedicated to antiquarian maps and prints. As children, we were immersed in books so it was no surprise that five of us joined the business and in 1974 our parents built a book bindery in their back garden for Gerry.

Sorley McLean did a reading, Séamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Edna O’Brien, Richard Ellmann and William Trevor visited, Brendan Kennelly and Frederick Forsyth opened exhibitions. President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh caused traffic chaos when he asked his driver to stop “for a minute” while he stepped in and talked to our mother about books. Those in the cars behind did not want to blow their horns at the Uachtarán’s car.

Maureen and McCourt

With Frank McCourt author of Angela’s Ashes

In the early 1980s we managed to buy the High Street building and also the building behind it which backed on to Middle Street. We linked the two buildings together and transferred the maps, the art gallery and a store full of books to the city-centre location. We began to publish a series of books, mostly of local interest. The US Library of Congress appointed us as their Irish suppliers.

When Roald Dahl spent two days signing his books, it was one-way traffic through the shop and the queues went up to the top of the street. The launch of Breandán Ó hEithir’s novel, Lig Sin i gCathú, was broadcast live on Radio 1 for 90 minutes. Brian Friel opened an exhibition; Jurgen Lodemann made a documentary for German television on the bookshop; Samuel Beckett signed photographic mounts so that his “portrait” could be included with the exhibition of author’s photographs.

President Hillery opened an exhibition of portraits of Irish writers entitled Faces in a Bookshop with some 50 writers in attendance. Benedict Kiely, Noel Browne and Maeve Binchy also opened exhibitions. Derek Walcott, Miroslav Holub , Sir Sidney Nolan and Allen Ginsberg visited. Andrei Voznesensky, Margaret Attwood, Jung Chang and Thomas Keneally visited.

In 1994, we became the first company in Ireland to have a website and the second bookshop in the world to go online. This exciting development slowly changed the dynamics of bookselling and we were now travelling extensively in the US and Japan networking, selling, building up collections for libraries. Des Jr. started a book club for individual customers.

In 1996, we closed temporarily while we completely rebuilt the interior of the High St /Middle St premises. The new complex was launched by John McGahern who opened his speech with the line: “Mrs Kenny misses nothing”.

Face to Face was published, a collection of some 200 author’s photographs taken in the bookshop.

We bought the entire contents of the long established Hammersmith Books in London when Ronald Gray died. ( I conducted his funeral that Conor and Geraldine Kenny attended in Lambeth Crematorium!)

Maureen Kenny hon docOur mother was conferred with an honorary degree by UCG. Part of her citation read: “She and all she stands for remained a constant when virtually everything around her had disappeared, been redeveloped or surrendered to more perishable, transient tastes. Her metier represents one that is entwined with Galway’s history”. In 2006, she retired after 66 years behind the counter.

Kenny authors

Various authors in the bookshop including Margaretta Darcy and John Arden.

Several years ago, we realised we were selling more books online than on the high street, so we decided to move about a mile away to a large industrial building on the Liosbán Estate on the Tuam Road. It does not have the character of the inner-city shop, as it is geared up for our export operation. Today, online sales account for 80 per cent of sales but we also retail books and have done a great deal to retain as much of the atmosphere of the old and we still host book launches and readings. As I write this, author Patricia Forde is here reading from and discussing her new book, The Wordsmith, with more than 100 schoolchildren.

Portrait of Maureen by Jenny O’Brien from her series Galway Inspirational Women.

Maureen by

Portrait of Maureen by Jenny O’Brien from her series Galway Inspirational Women.

The Kenny family business were nominated in the Book Retailer of The Year category after 75 years in the business when they were pitted against Waterstones, Foyles and Blackwells. No doubt, Maureen would have taken it all in her stride.

Maureen was great company, had a keen sense of humour and loved life. She passed on important values to her children, such as charity, perseverance and a love of things Irish. So many of her children and grand-children were around her in her last moments. She died March 25th 2008.

 Michael D Higgins President and former arts minister spoke at her funeral and her “institutional presence” in the artistic life of Galway, and the “wonderful gift” that she had left in terms of her family’s continued involvement in bookselling on the internet, bookbinding and art. He recalled her kindness and generosity to students who didn’t have much income, and her close relationship with writers who chose to launch their books on her premises.

It is indeed a wonderful legacy and that is why she is a notable Galway Woman.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: