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Mary Kenny: a writer who is a breath of fresh air

In her new autobiography, The Catholic Herald columnist demonstrates her skill for writing about both people and ideas

By on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Mary Kenny with Catholic Herald chairman Peter Sheppard

Mary Kenny with Catholic Herald chairman Peter Sheppard

Mary Kenny has written an autobiography. Miss Kenny ought to be familiar to readers of the Catholic Herald, to which she has contributed, on and off, for many years. She ought to be familiar, indeed to anyone who has been reading newspapers since the 1960s, really, as she has written for almost every paper in the land at one time or another. She is the wife of a distinguished journalist, Richard West, and the mother of Ed West, the deputy editor of this paper. I have reviewed Miss Kenny’s book for another paper.

I have known Mary for some quarter of a century, and it was thrill to meet her all those years ago, because I had read her column in the Sunday Telegraph long before I ever met her; her column then, as now, was full of good sense. And she is just like her column – wise, amusing, arresting, a breath of fresh air.

Reading her autobiography is just like having her in the room with you, and hearing her voice: the book is full of personal anecdotes, all of which are to be treasured. But there are one or two things that she has left out; one of two wise sayings that she has shared with me, and which I feel the reading public should know about.

First of all, on books. Do not worry if your book does not sell; you write the book, and it goes into a library, and then you can forget all about it; but someone a hundred years from now may discover it and read it and find it useful, and so the work you put into it will not have gone to waste.

Secondly, on literary spite. There was a certain man, she told me, who was hoarding anecdotes for use in his diaries, which he published on a regular basis, and which he used to attack all the people he disliked. Could any of us do anything to even the score with this frankly unpleasant man, I asked? But Mary, while admitting the man was not pleasant, demurred about writing anything hurtful about him. “One always tries to be fair,” she said, enunciating one of the guiding principles of her writing. And so it proves in this volume. She is fair; she corrects a few misunderstandings, but she is never unkind, and she never settles scores. In literary circles that really does make her a breath of fresh air.

Indeed, if I were to home in on one aspect of Mary Kenny that makes her the person and the writer she is, it would be her kindness and her human sympathy. This means, for example, that she writes well about both people and ideas: not just about Catholic Ireland, but about Protestant Ireland as well. She understands her native land, and Britain too. She is a huge admirer of the Queen: Mary Kenny is one who really does see both sides of the picture.

Incidentally, there are many books by Mary Kenny out there. Do read one. You won’t regret it. One book I would heartily recommend, which is not on the website, is Goodbye to Catholic Ireland which came out in 1997, and which chronicled the way Ireland has changed better than anyone has done before or since.