Mulling over Mary Kenny’s new book, Something of Myself and Others
The first and only time I met the writer and journalist, Mary Kenny, was some years back when she was launching a media centre in the Newman Institute, Ballina. I had often read her newspaper columns – invariably readable, always pertinent and often eccentric – and had followed her media career from combative feminist all the way to her latest manifestation as (almost) traditional Catholic, grateful for (among other things) the security of ‘Catholic guilt’.
There she was in the flesh, a broad-rimmed hat at a rakish angle perched on her head, which for some reason she failed to remove, and a silk scarf of many colours thrown casually over her shoulders. On a dull February day she presented as an exotic creature from outer space who had decided to land in Ballina for a few hours.
I have to say that I wasn’t one of Mary Kenny’s fans. While everyone is entitled to change their minds, I tend to distrust converts, especially those who’ve lived to the full one side of life’s coin and then decided to flip it and seem completely convinced of a different wisdom. People who flip, I find, tend to keep flipping.
And Mary Kenny really flipped. Famously, in May 1971, when the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement carried off the theatrical stunt of purchasing condoms in Belfast and bringing them to Dublin to publicly flaunt the legal prohibition on ‘birth control artefacts’, Kenny alighting from what became known as ‘the contraceptive train’ was reported as ‘behaving disgracefully’ including, it was reported, blowing up a condom like a balloon.
In those years Kenny presented as a harum-scarum, reckless, madcap feminist intent on leading an assault on the barricades of patriarchy and male-dom and prepared, it sometimes seemed, to go to any lengths to bounce Irish society into the modern world.
Not for her the more dignified and sensible challenge to the law through the courts and Irish Constitution – a track Mary Robinson was to follow. Kenny took the path of ‘excitement, sensation and high jinks’ that led her into ‘taking a drink’, an Irish euphemism for a serious alcohol problem, and savouring the delights of the sexual revolution. After an embarrassing encounter with an African judge Kenny became a footnote in social history, courtesy of the satirical magazine, Private Eye, Private Eye, when in a state of some inebriation she described the experience as ‘Discussing Uganda’.
Then life, marriage and children conspired to draw Kenny into a different set of priorities. She stopped drinking, a crucial turning-point in her life, and settled into family life. A different set of priorities emerged and she refound an earlier life and a perspective that she describes convincingly as ‘redemptive’.
The reason I’m mulling over all of this is the publication of Kenny’s new book, Something of Myself and Others, a part memoir, part reflection on her life, in which she lays bare the different lives she’s lived and the changing perspectives that marked her life-journey through the decades.
I bought the book as a kind of distraction. Over the years I’ve come to enjoy Kenny’s writing style – invariably entertaining – and the eccentric take she has on most subjects, seeing life as she does from a very oblique angle.
Much of the book was predictable enough: her life as a journalist, the people she met, what she calls ‘sexual politics’, her connection with the great and the good of Irish and British society – Maeve Binchy, Terry Keane, Edna O’Brien, Margaret Thatcher, Mary Robinson and others.
Then at the very end of the book she relates the gradual deterioration in her husband’s health and her transformation into a full time though ‘reluctant’ carer.
Kenny travelled widely, wrote for a dizzying number of publications, appeared often on television and successfully juggled a busy journalistic career with a marriage and the rearing of her children.
With the degeneration of her husband’s health, Kenny was catapulted into a different world, the world of the 24/7 carer and a great mix of anger, resentment, frustration that led to a feeling that her own life was being eaten away. She found herself asking, as carers often do, ‘Will there be any time left for me?’
Kenny’s stunning account of caring for her husband and the searing honesty with which she describes the minutiae of the carer’s task is compulsive reading. It isn’t just about the loss of autonomy that attends old age or the onset of disability and unease as life contracts and possibilities become more and more limited. It’s getting into the mind of the carer, teasing out a complex mix of saintly altruism, the experience of ‘being caught’, wallowing in isolation and loneliness, surviving the endless circle of selfishness and selflessness, enduring cycles of guilt and depression and finding too unexpected moments of grace and good humour.
Kenny is lyrical in her descriptions of the ordinary fare of caring, the ongoing tending to the most basic of personal needs, the way ordinary, everyday experiences (like taking a shower) can become almost an extended military-style operation, the way a former life can become submerged in a thousand endlessly repetitive and demanding tasks.
Above all, Kenny unpeels the emotions at the heart of the carer’s life. While those looking in from outside often admire the huge love at the heart of caring, Kenny opens our eyes to the everyday reality of the carer’s life. She doesn’t hold back on the gritty realism, the isolation, the sense of entrapment, the decline into depression, even to the extent of contemplating suicide as a way of blanking out the accumulated misery of her life. In her case thankfully she pulled back from it, with good old Catholic guilt clicking in, recognising too ‘the untold sorrow for those left behind’. Suicide, she writes, is not just another choice ‘because only a childless orphan living on a desert island could make such a choice without affecting others’.
Something of Myself and Others is an entertaining and worthwhile read, surely the best insight there is into the life of the carer. Kenny dissects compellingly, in this brutally honest memoir, the lived experience of a carer’s life. Well worth a look.