Adrian Kenny

1945- ; grew up in Co. Mayo; issued stories with Writers’ Co-op as Arcady and Other Stories (1983); worked abroad as teacher, also as journalist and broadcaster; issued Before the Wax Hardened (1991), an autobiogrpahical novel; also sequel as The Family Business (1999), concerning damaged lives within a ‘nouveau riche’ Mayo builder’s family and Istanbul Diary (1994) - highly-rated autbiographical essays; issued Portobello Notebook, stories; a member of Aosdána; lives in Dublin.

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  • Arcady & Other Stories (Dublin, Writers Co-Op 1983), 139pp.
  • Portobello Notebook (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 2012), 128pp. [see note].
  • The Feast of Michaelmas (Dublin: Writer’s Co-Op, 1978), 248pp.
  • Before the Wax Hardened (Dublin: Odell & Adair 1991), 238pp. [autobiographical novel]
  • The Family Business (Dublin: Lilliput Press 1999) [sequel to Before the Wax Hardened].
  • trans. An Casideach Ban: The Songs and Adventure of Tomas Ó Casaide - trans. of Eachtra Tomás MacCasaide (Ballyhaunis,: Greensprint 1993) [see note].
  • ed., The Journal of Arland Ussher (Dublin: Raven Arts Press 1981), 32pp.
  • Istanbul Diary (Dublin, Poolbeg Press 1994), 148pp..
Query - General Vallancey’s Bridge, ed. Adrian Kenny (Mullinger: Express Print Ltd. 1973), 48pp. [periodical poetry]

Bibliographical notes

An Casideach Ban: The Songs and Adventure of Tomas Ó Casaide - trans. of Eachtra Tomás MacCasaide (Ballyhaunis,: Greensprint 1993), an excerpt from his Sealgmhor Lissbrandoige thought to have been jointly composed with Brian O’Farrell. Includes Irish and English versions of the author’s poems on facing pages.

Portobello Notebook (2012): A collection of stories is set in Portobello, on the edge of Dublin city centre, just inside the canal, reflecting reflect on characters on the edge of life, personalities that do not quite fit in: Michael, the country boy who drowns himself; Harry, the old Jewish dealer living alone; Liam, the crude but jovial emigrant returning to Ireland for a visit. Through the author’s eyes, and through the eyes of his other characters, we follow his progress from the first story, “Settling In”, to the final one, “Mr Pock”. Old friends are met, in loss or renewal, making or trying to make fresh starts, or looking back though the glass of time. Disappointment, happiness, uncertainty lead to the realization that this place has become - what the author had always thought was elsewhere - his home. Written over the past thirty years, these earnest and deeply human anecdotes form a greater story - of one man’s life in one place.’ (Publisher’s note in COPAC.)

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Rory Brennan, review of The Family Business (Dublin: Lilliput 1999), in Books Ireland (Feb. 2000), p.17, calls it ‘one of the best pieces in any genre to come out of Ireland in decades’.

Jack Hanna, review of Family Business, in The Irish Times (13 Nov. 1999): ‘The breaking and reshaping of family bonds are the real business of the second volume of Adrian Kenny’s autobiography. Middle-class gentility, evasion of pain and passion and a clinging to security - all fall under the withering gaze of the struggling young writer. / There are scenes of family reunions in The Family Business which are as subtle and savage as anything written by magisterial chroniclers of the family such as Joyce. In Kenny’s vision, the hackneyed chatter of family serves both to smother and to fuel the spark of individuality - the family is a veritable Laingean laboratory of suppression, elision and misunderstanding. / Fascination with the bite of Kenny’s writing gives way to embarrassment and almost distaste for his exposure of family skeletons. But the author doesn’t spare himself. The Family Business is a portrait of a hopelessly naive rebel against the stifling mores of middle-class Dublin who makes peace eventually with his own and his family's frailties by embracing marriage. Not an end to the family business then, but a new beginning. / En route to this settling of accounts, we meet a motley cast of characters as Kenny explores literary bohemia in Dublin in the 1970s, the gay society of the period, and relationships with women. Kenny tells a messy and revealing tale of doubts, failures and hesitations in finding his sexual identity. / There are cadences and patterns in this memoir which give it the flavour of fiction, but no matter. The sharpness and humour of the writing win out. A hapless innocent in love with literature nearly 30 years ago, Kenny is now a crafty practitioner.’ [End.]

Dublin Duchess: ‘This book was a little gem to discover, to dip into and enjoy a story at a time or to wolf down in one sitting as I did. Some are sad, some are revealing but all are written with a quiet precise voice where no word is wasted; each is considered and carefully put together to tell the story in its best way. In this way it was a pleasure to read and I was sorry when I reached the end. “Settling In”, a short reflection on moving into the area, ends tragically with a drowning. “Harry” refers to the experience of writing and “Going Back” returns the speaker to a childhood memory when he meets a man on the train. There are tales of past loves and of disappointment in love and in “Saturday Evening Mass” there is final acceptance of thing that used to annoy about a parent who is nearing the end of life and a meeting of an old friend, now a homeless drifter. “The Cricket Match”, the longest piece in the collection, is about a young man finding himself as he detaches himself from the family home and also an experience that left him ill.’ (Dublin Duchess blogspot, 20 Dec. 2012 - online; accessed 24.06.2017.)

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Rosita Sweetman, ‘Sharp-eyed Kenny returns to circle some familiar territory’, in The Independent (26 March 2012): ‘Adrian Kenny is not a prolific writer, (his previous works include Before the Wax Hardened, The Family Business and Istanbul Diary) which makes the arrival of a new work by him, Portobello Notebook - presented here in a delightful duck-egg blue cover with a wonderful /scratchboard” illustration by artist Charlie Cullen - all the more welcome. / Portobello Notebook is a series of short-story pieces, set in and around Portobello, the writer’s home for the past 30 years, with his wife Ruth Webster of fabled Dublin bookshop, Books Upstairs.’

Further (Sweetman, 2012):

Portobello Notebook shows Kenny on form, and back circling familiar territory - family, home, school, human frailty and girls. The “girls” here are mostly grown up, fading beauties - their looks, their youthful wildness, their chutzpah - battered by life, and its disappointments.

There’s the former girlfriend, now the mistress of the local GP in tidy Berkshire; there’s the arty girl abandoned by her lover (“I’m f****d”); the young girl who learnt to play the violin in a glass cubicle in school; Triona, whose wildness turned to franticness and then cancer; French Madeleine desperate for love (“Why are Irish men so vague? I haven’t felt like a woman since I came here.”); the young beauty who rents his uncle’s old cottage in Mayo (“Her face dissolving in the firelight until it looked like a sleeping child’s.”); and old Delia, who these days has only Mister Pock, the cat, for company.
 From most of these encounters the author escapes/hurries back to his wife, to the “lonely space” to the “dreaming and wandering” she allows him.
 One of the strongest, and longest, pieces in Portobello Notebook, “The Cricket Match”, follows the author as a young man, recently recovered from a meltdown in New York, and finding some stability (eventually boredom) in a small, Protestant boarding school in the country. It surely deserves longer treatment, and, with everyone going crazy for the Fifties, perhaps a film?
 Kenny’s eye is sharp. The description of a kestrel repeatedly bursting into a boiling cloud of starlings in Mayo is wonderful. The chance encounter on a train with a middle-aged man and his beautiful daughter (his “treasure”), suddenly recalled as the big, callow, country boy backing into a hedge (“into a hut almost of furze and hawthorn”) and inviting the young (alarmed) author to beat his suddenly released “virile membrum” with a switch of ivy and woodbine (“go on, hit it can’t you’) is superb. His remembrances of his mother and aunt “in silent wrestling” making him aware of the “confusion of courage and kindness, pettiness and timidity, in which he had been reared” is spot on.
 All in all Portobello Notebook is a very fine addition to this writer’s oeuvre, and to James Joyce’s great project: to hold a mirror up in which we can examine ourselves ... Here’s hoping it flies.

Available online; accessed 25.06.2017.

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On writing memoir:
Adrian Kenny has written three memoirs detailing different periods of his life: Before the Wax Hardened, The Family Business and Istanbul Diary. A self-confessed frustrated novelist, he seems ill at ease with the idea that memoir might be his true calling.
“There’s a need as deep as can be in people for a meaning in life: what on earth is it all about?” he says. “Before the Wax Hardened was about school and didn’t cause a lot of trouble really; just one or two people complained about that one. Then I wrote one when I lived in Istanbul, and some people were angry about that because it’s based on real people.”
While he is not at ease with the process of life writing, he finds it therapeutic. “Yes, I’m afraid I do. I would feel when certain things are written in some form you’d feel it satisfied some sort of desire for harmony or meaning or explanation, and without that I’d feel melancholy.”
So what would drive a writer to push through the risk of hurting people? “If you don’t ... I mean, I’ve nothing against Alice Taylor, for example, but I think she dwells on the sunny side of life and that’s grand. But there’s more than the sun in life, there’s also the dark.
“Yet if you bite off too much, you’re really just presenting a mess of memories, and that’s not much use to people, because people come to writing still to have some sort of a shape. The pleasure in a good book or a good film or a good piece of music is that there’s some shape given to it, and that satisfies something in us.”
What does he believe to be the strength of memoir? “The veracity,” he says. “The feeling that this is real.”
Kenny’s writing advice
    • Write every day: “You should be there every day, and work. I work 10am-2pm every day and I’ve done that for the last 45 years. I’ve done that today and I hope that I’ll do that till I die.”.
    • Write about something you love: “If you write a memoir about something you love, you’re not going to do it wrong. If you’re writing about people you love ... My first book of memoir is about school friends and school, my relations in the country and so on. That was my life.”
       Don’t be nice, be precise: “I wouldn’t have dreamed about being nasty about anyone in [my first memoir], but at the same time I tried to show what you were like at the time. When you’re young, you’re a barbarian in many ways, aren’t you? We spent our time killing birds and fish, and tearing things up. And then everyone having nervous breakdowns as they did in the late 60s. Just try to describe it as passionately and accurately as you can.
    • Trying to balance niceness and precision is the thing.”.

—With Ivy Bannister and Lionel McCarthy, in ‘Ideas of 2016: Time to Write a Memoir’, in The Irish Times (31 Dec. 2015) - available online; accessed 24.06.2017.