Let me start with a confession. As a kid born in the 90’s, I have fallen quite out of touch with my own faith as many of my peers have; taught to look at religion through the same lens as history. But I could never shake a feeling of the divine in my life. It was not an idea, it was a feeling, an energy; something Catholics would describe as the Holy Spirit. I must admit that being in the presence of Mary Kenny, God did not feel far behind.
There’s a genteel in her aura that does not negate her religious stronghold. Mary Kenny reminded me without having to tell me that faith has its place on this earth; and it is often sat in a place of good rather than harm. She is a believer of the paradox, and in the nuance between. It is what has made her such a phenomenal journalist for more than six decades. Mary doesn’t push open the narrow path per-se, she just dusts it off long enough to realize the space we live within isn’t narrow at all.
Her new book, The Way We Were: Catholic Ireland Since 1922 (Columba Books), comes out at the end of this summer and does exactly that: dusts off stories to let the light shine through. Her book is nothing short of divine.
I sat down with her to discuss life up until this book: from feminism, to faith to what’s next in her future.
So Mary, you often talk about growing up in Ireland and being able to run around freely, being a bit of a wild child. Can you tell me more about your childhood in Ireland?
My recollection of Dublin was that it was very safe. I used to run out any old way, and I used to love the theatre so I used to come back from the theatre late at night; and I never worried because I think it was objectively true that crime was very low in Ireland at that time. The critical view would have been that there was a lot of immigration at that time, and the people that tended to immigrate were young men, and most crime comes from young men. That’s one reason perhaps why. My experience of it all was very quiet and lawful; but also an easygoing society. And then I went to France as a young girl to be an au-pair and I lived there for two years and when I got to France the first thing I was warned was that I would be raped— vous serez violée— if you go out at night, and so on. While France was intellectually freer, I felt much less personal freedom, because it seemed more dangerous.
What was the desire to go to France? Why did you want to leave?
Well I was interested in French history. I had worked as a waitress, and then as an office typist, but I thought if I was going to do something else in life I should go somewhere else.
Did you have an instinct towards writing and literature early on?
Yes, I did. I always wanted to be a writer, from about my teenage years. I must say, you know, I never got any encouragement from anyone. Schools were quite the contrary actually, “Don’t have unreal expectations,” you know, “Get a good job in civil service”. And now, of course, I wish I had because I’d have a good pension! But I’d never been a good civil servant because you need to be an organized person.
But you were a thinker and a writer..
Yes, and a bit on the wild side.
When you say the wild side, what behaviors would categorize that back in the day?
Well this sounds like an excuse, its not an excuse, more so my description, but I think I did have a bit of ADHD as a child; couldn’t sit still, fidget fidget fidget, and of course now, in a funny way in my older age, the Twitter age fits me very well! I was the last afterthought child really, and my poor parents were too old to have another child, but anyway, I did run a bit wild. I did have a very nice family, and there were always like, ‘Oh, what’ll we do with Mary, oh she’s just out of control’ you know? And my aunts would always say things like, ‘Why do you have to be different from everyone else’ and that sort of thing.
Did you like that though? Did you feel that was your strength?
I suppose it was mixed feelings really, Maeve. Why are they picking on me? But I was also like, it’s good to be different, it’s good not to think like everybody. And I still feel that. It’s important to have a bit of madness, that’s what diversity is all about, really, not falling into line.
In these early days, what were the works that really made you engage with writing and learning?
Well I was mostly interested in the theatre. So I read a lot of plays, like Checkhov, Ibsen, and George Barnard Shaw. I got influenced by the French quite a lot. Even though I wasn’t educated enough, really, to understand what was going on with Existentialism and (Simone) de Beauvoir’s link to feminism. But I suppose, when you’re young, you sort of absorb the zeitgeist, even if you’re not intellectually quite up to it. I think you kind of know what’s going on, and France was a really politically active scene. When I went there, there was the Algerian war and so on, and you know the French always love marching in the street and I thought that was terribly exciting and all that.
When was the first time you actually joined something on the street yourself?
Well I think it probably was the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement, you know. No that’s not true. I tell a lie. I did join that famous demo in Grosvenor Square against the Vietnam War. I mean, I now look back and think that my appreciation for all of this was terribly shallow, really. My husband, Richard West, actually reported on the war, and later on had a much more nuanced view of how complex it was. It was very exciting, 1968, there was a lot of social history around that year. It was a key year in terms of generational change
Who were your early feminist influences?
Betty Friedan was a very big influence, of course, but I now realize she was drawing a lot on Beauvoir, who’s approach was much more sort of intellectual. When I examined the women around me, who I knew as young feminists, one of the continuous themes was that they did not want to live the same lives of their mothers.
Which part exactly?
Well this is what Friedan did nail: they didn’t want to be housewives. One of my friends became a very effective politician. She contrasted her mother’s life as a young woman, as a single young woman, she’d actually had a rather wonderful life. She was a tennis player, she went to the theatre a lot. This was the 1940’s I should think, and she had a free and interesting life as a single young girl, and then she married a policeman and her life was just so restricted off after that. She was stuck in the Irish midlands, and being the guard’s wife she had to keep up appearances, and all that sort of thing. The mother ended up saying, ‘I’d have been better off in a convent. At least in a convent I would have had intellectual challenges,’ you know nuns could go to university and develop an interest in certain studies. But as a wife, she felt constrained. And that period, the 40’s-50’s—except for the break in the war—was a period of quite heavy domesticity. I didn’t want to be a housewife; and I remember once having lunch with a group of Irish women, who had sort of experienced feminism, and we went around and said the one thing that we thought most liberated women in our lifetime. People said different things: the motorcar, the pill, the washing machine, the vote.
What did you say?
Do you know what I can’t remember what I said, I was so interesting in what everyone else was saying! I remember some people said comfortable clothes, because our mother’s had worn corsets and things like that. I remember Claire Buyont, who’s a novelist, said money. Money. Having access to money. That is as old as the hills in a way, because people had dowries going back to the 18th century. That was a theme in Ireland. Ireland was very much an agricultural county; and it was a poor country. In agricultural societies, there’s a bit more equality, because it’s cooperative, men and women are working together. The woman see’s what the man has to do. Whereas once you get into urban, or suburban life, the man goes off to the office, and the woman is left at home with the kids and the washing and the laundry and so on, and she thinks the man is out there having a great life, while she’s confined.
So when all of these things start changing—and you get married in the heat of it—do the men in your life, particularly your husband, agree with the changes or do you get push back?
Well my husband certainly wasn’t a feminist. He was quite old fashioned. He was quite left-wing in some ways, but he thought feminism was a deformation of society. He believed in women’s education a lot, and the emancipation. He absolutely did not agree in sharing domestic chores or things like that. But he had grown up in a society of men that grew up in upper-middle-class society who never did anything for themselves! They had servants at home, and when they went to school there were servants at the school, and when they went into the army they had servants in the army! So they never had to do anything practical for themselves.
Was he supportive of your career?
He was very supportive of my career. He just wasn’t supportive of doing the dishes! And you know, I remember asking him, back in those days, when you bought a lamp, in Ireland or England, you had to put the plug on. They didn’t sell it with the plug on, so you had to open up the wires and put the brown wire for earth and the green wire for whatever it is, instruction was given, and you had to afix the plug to the lamp. And I asked Dick, ‘would you put this plug on for me,’ and he responded, ‘I don’t ask an electrician to speak Serbo-Croat, why do you ask me to do an electrician’s job,’ and that was the end of it. He was a Balkan expert.
Where did you meet him?
Well at first in a friend’s house in Wales, but we kind of mixed in the same circles in London journalism.
Did he often agree with your take on things, or would you find yourselves in intellectual debates at home?
Well he was much older than I was, and he was much better educated than I was. So, I did actually rather respect him intellectually. He was much better read than I was. So I think I learned a lot from him, and he was a nice man with a wonderful sense of humor. But he wasn’t domesticated, or believe in equal rights. He took the anthropological view that human nature is hierarchical. He came to believe that human nature didn’t change so much. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. And I see a spiritual side as well, I think the spiritual side is more important and that is that we are all equal in the sight of God. You know? Don’t think you are better than the person that sits next you.
Did your faith go through different phases as you went through life, did you ever feel like you totally abandoned it?
Well it never quite abandoned me, and I suppose that’s the thing. I just thought, when I was sort of discovering the 60’s and the world that it was completely out of date, sort of thing. And also, Humanae Vitae, that was a big crucial thing, I wrote quite a bit about that in this new book. When Pope Paul XI decided against allowing the contraceptive pill as part of virginity control, there was an outcry about that. There was a huge amount of publicity about this. And you know any publicity is good publicity, the very fact they were talking about the pill, advertised it basically, and my mother who was quite a conventional Catholic, said, ‘you know I think that’s a great idea!’ How could you not! I still think it’s a very complicated story, because at the time, everybody said, ‘there’d be no more unwanted children, there’d be no more children in care, no more rejected children, no more abortions except for some terrible medical emergency,’ now that we have the pill it will solve everything, but it didn’t!
Why do you think that is?
Well human nature changes it’s expectations. When something new comes along, expectations change. Quite a lot of women, a generation later, were complaining about the pill, ‘oh you know I don’t like the side-effects, I don’t want to remember to take it, it makes me fat.’ So suddenly something that seemed absolutely perfect…
Opens a whole other world of problems?
Were you ever on the pill?
Did you ever have issues with it or were you okay?
I always ended up giving it up. It made me feel a bit bloated, but it’s also a very crucial thing, and suits for a woman in a steady marriage. They feel it gives them a way to control their fertility. I do think that the church should visit Humanae Vitae, because I don’t think they’ve looked enough at women’s health.
What would you like to see change?
Well I’m not a moral theologian, but I do think they should look at genuine contraception and not abortion. Look at gender and contraception because there were over-burdened mothers, you know. There were mothers who had too many children too quickly, and it did damage their health. And when I revisited it, they didn’t sufficiently say that this would help with maternal mortality, or this will help with gynecological problems that women have, especially in Africa, like collapsed wombs and things like that. So I think they should forefront mother’s health, and if they did revisit it, I think they would change much more.
What do you think was the most exciting moment in your life, where you saw a woman do something or accomplish something that really made you feel like, ‘oh it’s changed, the world has changed now…’?
Well it’s got to be Margaret Thatcher in a way. She was so confident in herself, and had such a strong sense of leadership. She was actually rejected by orthodox feminism, because she was right-wing. Of course she was, she was a Conservative. But nonetheless, she had this amazing confidence in herself that many people did not have. She was a very clever woman, a lawyer and a chemist, and she dominated those around her. She was an impressive role model. I think she was a path finder for a lot of women. I suppose she wasn’t really a feminist, in the accepted sense, but she would’ve been an emancipationist, an earlier kind of definition of it, to believe in legal and political emancipation. She was a very visible change.
At any point in your life, did you ever feel there was a huge tension point between your faith and your feminist beliefs?
I suppose when I was in throes of feminism, I didn’t think very much about faith at that time.
Do you find that to be coincidental?
No, I think I was just young and active and it wasn’t much a part of my life. I don’t think I completely rejected it, but I don’t think it was very important, and I suppose it only really became important when I had children myself.
Did you ever feel that there were beliefs of feminism that were in opposition to faith? Almost as if they could not exist in one?
A lot of things we were focusing on were actually not in contradiction, such as women having access to jury service, justice, access to mortgages, legal and financial rights, and other compassionate causes such as supporting single mothers and widows. They were not in conflict, at all, you may even say they were drawing on Judeo-Christianity and so on.
But do you agree it gets much more sticky when you get into sexual issues, and abortion?
Yes. And that became more of a focus later. In the beginning, it was a much wider agenda really. It wasn’t just the sort of sexual issues. Ireland was really old fashioned remember, and one of the themes that I’ve taken up quite a bit—especially in this new book—is that Ireland did not participate in the Second World War. They were neutral. But the Second World War had a huge liberating effect on women, wars always do.
Why is that?
Because men have gone into the battlefield, and women have to step up and run the factories; and in Britain, I mean women suddenly leapt forward. They did most of the radar monitoring, for example. Very very important jobs, they were kind of controlling these guys who were in the air-force. And of course, Bletchley Park, where all the code breaking was done which really won the Second World War. I think Bletchley Park was about 70% women, you may need to check my statistics on that, but they were extraordinary. There had been in all these countries—in the Third Reich and so on—all these European countries had a ban on married women taking state jobs because there was such unemployment among men. Married women were expected to step down and go into teaching or civil service. But that started to change with the countries at war, because they needed the women. They needed the labor force. It didn’t happen in Ireland, because Ireland was neutral, so they didn’t have this social change that was really hitting other countries. Ireland had quite a lot to catch up on.
Did that have anything to do with why you took a job in the UK? Did you feel there were more opportunities, and more men pushing you along that you would find say in London, as opposed in Dublin?
Possibly. I don’t know if I ever thought that through consciously. Certainly, Fleet Street was very open to women. Journalism was very open to women. But also very tough on women. They were expected to be as tough as men.
What does that mean, ‘tough as men’?
Well they weren’t suppose to call in sick when they had a period or something, you know! That was called letting the side down.
Was that something women wanted to do, or were regularly doing?
Well the kind of woman that got on at Fleet Street wouldn’t have. A woman at Fleet Street would have been a very tough cookie.
What do you remember from that beginning journalism job in London that was exciting? Any stories or people?
Oh there’s so many. I wrote a book called Something of Myself, it’s a series of vignettes. I do touch on it there. (Mary gives me the book)
What was it about having children that brought back your faith in full?
Can’t really explain it, I suppose. There’s really something about it. I remember a friend of mine, who wasn’t a believer of much said, ‘When I had that baby, I just wanted to thank someone!’ Which was a rather nice way of putting it.
Looking at the world right now, do you feel like its gone a bit bad?
Well the thing is, old people always think the world has gone mad. It never makes sense to us, does it? I remember my mother grew up in the 20’s which was of course a very exciting time. She would have been very modern by the standard of the 20’s. But when it came to the 60’s she was just puzzled, and I think that pattern repeats itself all the time. But in a strange way, there are so many paradox’s about all the social changes. I think younger people are more puritanical, and a lot of the kind of woke movements, are trying to be virtuous, their aspiration is to virtue, be kind, all that sort of thing. It’s reinventing the wheel isn’t it? There’s a scandal going on in parliament right now because there is a guy that groped men, he’s obviously a grown man. Not children, but grown men. And every day its like—gasp—this shocking scandal! Well I mean, looking back on some old guy groping some other old guy is absolutely nothing! For heavens sake, pull yourself together! You know, my older brother Carlos had a gay man try to make a pass at him, try to kiss him, and Carlos just gave him a bang and said get off! And then they were the best of friends the next morning! My brother thought nothing of it, and the guy apologized! In that sense, now things like this are much more shocking.
Do you think as a writer you’ve said everything you wanted to say?
Oh golly no. That’s why I hope I’m spared a little bit more. I really want to write a book about France.
What about France?
One of my regrets, but of course you can’t have a regret like this, is that I didn’t appreciate everything that was going on around me, really. It was only 20 years after the second world war, and everyone had lived through it. In France it was particularly difficult, the whole occupation thing, no one knew who was a friend and who was an enemy. A lot of people were somewhere in-between. It’s that kind of nuance that interests me. How you decide who’s a goody and who’s a bady. I think of someone like G. K. Chesterton, who wrote a lot about how paradox works. He was an English Catholic and convert, a very witty writer. The thing about Christianity is it’s not natural to love your enemy, it’s natural to hate your enemy and hit him – hard! Therefore, that’s why Christianity is interesting. It’s not natural to forgive, it’s natural to take vengeance. He said things like ‘we’re told to love our neighbor and love our enemy, probably because they’re the same thing!’ I like that aspect, I think that you should explore the paradox.
If you’re looking back on your life as a woman, which decades were your favorite?
Well I think the 40’s are a very good decade really because you’re old enough to have a bit of sense and confidence and you’re still really in the prime of life. But having said all that, I quite like being old as well, I don’t mind it. I suppose with age, you go back all the time to your roots, of your life and your faith. Of course I have sort of arguments with my faith all the time, but I feel rooted in it, and I feel it gives me a lot as well. I do think that Ireland seems to be going through a stage of complete rejection and throwing out that heritage, or not even knowing about it perhaps.
Is that one of the reasons you wrote this book?
Yes I suppose it is a legacy book in that sense. Because one of the functions of being old is to transmit, to transmit memory and history and so on; and maybe people might reject it right now, but people might also go back to it later. A book is something you might pick off the shelf thirty or fifty years after you acquired it. I think we should recognize that it was a terribly important aspect of the whole forging of Irish culture, it really really was deep and sincere. When I look at my mother’s prayer book, (Mary pulls the book from the shelf) it’s so well used. That in itself is a metaphor, I think, it’s falling to pieces because it’s so well used.