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Walter Macken – Home is the Hero?

March 25, 2014

Water Macken 1915-1967

Water Macken
1915-1967

The article below appears in today’s SIN :

“WALTER MACKEN – HOME IS THE HERO?

The centenary of the Galway writer Walter Macken occurs on 3 May 2015.

So?

Exactly.

I admit to having a soft spot for Macken. As a child, I was introduced to his historical trilogy by my grandmother. I was captivated; the books fuelled my interest in Macken. Many years later, I acted in his play Home is the Hero with Island Theatre Company in Limerick. My grandmother was still around to catch to show.

When I returned to Galway as a student, I was surprised at a lack of interest in Macken. Eventually I learned that there was a plaque on the wall of his childhood home on St Joseph’s Avenue. Last week, I paid it a visit. The plaque could do with a face lift.

Plaque at Macken's birthplace.  Photo c. Karen McDonnell

Plaque at Macken’s birthplace.
Photo c. Karen McDonnell

Walter Macken’s early work was with the Taibhdhearc theatre in Galway. There he met the actress and journalist Peggy Kenny, whom he married. He worked as the Taibhdhearc’s producer from 1939 to 1947, before leaving to join the Abbey Theatre. (Later, he was a nominee to that theatre’s board of directors, also its Artistic Advisor.) He left the Abbey when offered an acting role on Broadway.

While in America he was offered a seven-year acting contract by a Hollywood studio. The producers were baffled by his response: he wanted to return to Ireland to finish a novel. The success of his third book Rain on the Wind allowed Macken to concentrate on writing full-time. His published work includes books of short stories, many novels, seven plays and two children’s books.

Last summer my eye was caught by an Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times. Written by Dr Eamon Maher of the Centre for Franco-Irish Studies at the Institute of Technology Tallaght, ‘Revisiting Walter Macken’s Connemara’ considered Macken’s deep connection with the West. Dr Maher also lamented the dearth of critical discussion of Macken’s work.

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Is this perceived lack of interest in Macken a case of out of sight, out of mind? Or: outside our time, unworthy of our interest? Or: plain snobbery?

I have been attempting to get some answers to these questions. Quietly, one academic (no snob himself) suggested that there was snobbery about Macken’s work. Speaking to me a week ago Ultan, Walter Macken’s youngest son, said: “My father was a popular writer. But there was depth to the characters in my father’s work. They reckon his books sold a million copies in the course of his life.” A million copies between the first publication in 1946 and his death in 1967.

At a time when media and publicity machines were aeons away Macken had a dedicated readership. Dickens was popular. Popular is no sin. Ultan Macken added: “Because he’s easy to read, academics never took account of him. […] It always hurts me, and it hurt my mother as well, that whenever they’re talking about famous Irish writers he’s never mentioned.”

It hurt Walter Macken that his novel Quench the Moon was banned in 1948. His American publisher wrote at the time: “Don’t they do that to the best books?” In all, three of his books were banned in Ireland.

 Macken’s son commented that the fates of characters in the books were shaped by his father’s faith: “My father had a very strong belief in God and what was morally right.” His moral outrage found a voice in Brown Lord of the Mountain which deals with the rape of a young woman with special needs. The novel was based on a true story that Macken knew of, when a young Oughterard girl in similar circumstances had been made pregnant. Twice.

His work didn’t always appeal to the commentariat’s view of the Motherland. Ultan’s biography of his father Walter Macken – Dreams on Paper (Mercier Press, 2009) recounts a scene where Walter commented on a review of Quench the Moon in the Connacht Tribune. The event described by Macken, the reviewer opined, could not occur in Ireland. Yet, as Walter wryly observed, there was a report of a similar incident in that same issue of the newspaper.

Macken’s research, particularly for the trilogy, was intensive. In his book, Ultan Macken describes the months his father spent on all aspects of historical minutiae, and the journeys he made with his father as he plotted the routes taken by characters in Seek the Fair Land and The Silent People.

Macken wrote about what he knew: the land, the people and their ways. He wrote in his time, of his time, and with his own and his time’s view of Ireland. Re-reading his work as an adult, one is struck by an individualistic, lyrical structure, often underscored by repetition of phrasing. His is not a Synge-like re-transmission from the Irish. His style is his own; giving voice to his own.

How might Walter Macken be commemorated in his centenary year?

Anne McCabe, artistic director of the Taibhdhearc said: “As Artistic Director, [Macken] was responsible for 97 productions including 76 plays.He was extraordinarily industrious, he wrote, translated, directed, acted, designed costumes and sets. The Taibhdhearc intends to celebrate 100 years of Walter Macken’s birth in its programme next year, 2015, through a series of plays, readings and lectures for the summer season.”

Eamon Maher suggests that a one-day seminar might be held at NUI Galway “which would bring together invited speakers to discuss various aspects of Macken’s work.” Dr Maher is particularly interested in “the traces of Catholicism in his novels and […] how his own strong personal beliefs found an outlet in his writing.”

The varied facets of Macken’s work and life would easily form the basis of a seminar at the University. The approach of the centenary year is an opportune time for the University to consider naming a lecture hall or humanities research room after one of Galway’s most prolific writers and actors.

Wuppertal University holds 6000 Macken papers, for which Peggy Macken received approximately £8500. Ultan Macken retains copies of letters written by his father, and family documents, which he says will be for his children to dispose of. He would like to see the Wuppertal archive repatriated, if possible.

Asked how his father’s centenary should be marked, Ultan Macken’s response was immediate: “There should be a statue of him in Galway. That’s what I would like to see. And the papers returned. I don’t think he is forgotten.”

He let Walter’s words voice his legacy: “When people pick up my books in a hundred years time, they will read them and say, so that’s how people lived then”.

Next year the people and institutions of Galway have a chance to celebrate the work and centenary of Walter Macken. At the very least, the plaque on the wall should be refurbished. A statue would be better.

The campaign starts here.”

 

Walter Macken & his youngest son, Ultan.

Walter Macken & his youngest son, Ultan.

 Dust jacket photo for Ultan’s book  about his father: Walter Macken, Dreams on Paper (Mercier Press, 2009).     

 

 

 

 

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10 Comments
  1. From a member of the Macken family in England (Walter was my 2nd cousin). We are all fans of Walters writing and think that something can be done. More than willing to contribute.

    • Hello David – lovely to hear from you. I know that the Taibhdhearc are definitely planning something, and in fact the Professor in the Drama Dept at NUI Galway indicated that a few of the departments will be doing something next year also. The problem for the Local Authority is budgetary, I’d say. But I’m hoping that to try to get the Connacht Tribune involved in terms of publicity. If a public/private partnership got together funds could be raised for a statue.

  2. I notice that Panmacmillan are re-publishing most of Walter’s work from tomorrow under their Bello modern classics label.The covers now lack pictures but it does mean they are available on the Kindle. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rain-Wind-Walter-Macken/dp/1447270746/ref=tmm_hrd_title_0
    Strangely the trilogy is not included in this release and you will only find used copies on Amazon. I will take some time this coming weekend to write them a “polite” email pointing out the need to see the book in print for the coming centenary.

  3. Gerry permalink

    Hi Aphrodite, I agree with your sentiments and I was always surprised at the lack of interest and recognition in his books, plays and short stories. I grew up in Galway city – and I am very proud to say that I went to the same school as Walter (‘The Bish’ in Nuns Island). I was probably only 14 or 15 when I first started reading his books and I’ve read and reread his books and stories many times over the last 40 years. I’ve just checked my bookcase and I have 12 of his books, 2 hardback books of his short stories and two of his plays (Mungos Mansion & Home is the Hero) and of course I have Ultan’s ‘Dreams on Paper’ too. Walter’s books have given me so much pleasure and I suppose growing up I have identified with so many of his characters, Stephen (Quench the Moon), Sullivan and my favourite (from my favourite book) Mico from Rain on the Wind. And yes I have passed St Josephs Avenue many times. I could never understand why that house wasn’t turned into a kind of museum – I even thought of buying it myself! I am now living in Bangor,Co.Down – married (to a Galway girl) with 4 boys. For the last ten years I’ve been writing (and rewriting/editing!) a play inspired by the writings of W Macken about a young archaologist working on Omey Island and it would be great if some students/drama group could have a read of this and perhaps perform it. I would be honoured and very proud if this ever happened. I think the play would work well as part of the 2015 celebrations. In any case I support your efforts in making sure Walter Macken is recognised and honoured and I would like to help and support any kind of campaign to make this happen.I think the Walter Macken website needs updated/revamped too – in this day and age that is the best way to attract interest and support. I wonder if there needs to be some kind of group/committee set up to push the whole 2015 celebrations forward. Regards Gerry

    • Hi Gerry – thanks for your comments. I think the more interest that’s generated the better. I’ve no doubt that arts community in Galway want to do something for the centenary – as usual funding is a big problem. I’ll have to get on to the Tribune to get the ball rolling. It’s great to get comments like these.

  4. Gerry,
    Agree with everything you say. The website is run by Ultan and a friend. I have tried contacting them but to no avail. I own a websiie business and could contribute considerably to it, including SEO and promotions using social media. Your comments have spurred me on and I will have another go. With enough social media impetus there could be a chance of persuading Google to feature Walter on one of their daily themes.

  5. David, that would be fantastic!

  6. Gerry permalink

    That sounds great David. Yes I would like to help in any way I can too as I’ve very passionate about this (as you might have guessed!). I run my own business too, my background is accounting.There’s also a big Literary festival here in Bangor, N.Ireland every September and I think they could be interested in doing something around Walter Macken. Getting back to the your piece about kindles and covers for the books I must say I always had a soft spot for the old paperback covers. I was listening to comments on the radio on Wednesday talking about Shakespeare’s 450th and how they reckon that these days so few young men read any kind of books. Harry Potter was a great boost of course. My sons read those stories with a passion but most books now seem to be written by women for women. Of course Walter’s main characters were all young men and different types of young men from the slightly arrogant Sullivan, to the lovable Mico in Rain on the Wind and the confused/lonely Patrick in I am Alone (one of my favourite novels by the way) Yes hopefully Aphrodite has started something exciting here – the 3rd of May 2015 is only a year away.

  7. Gerry permalink

    Sorry,one more thing – yes I agree with a statue. Of course there used to be a statue of a writer in Eyre Square from 1935-1999. Padraic O Conaire was his name. Everyone in Galway knew the name of P.O’Conaire as his statue was in such a prominent position but very few had actually read any of his writings. Eyre Square would be the perfect place for Walter Macken’s statue – replace one statue of a writer with a much more famous and loved writer. (by the way the statue of P O’Conaire was vandalised in 1999 so they moved it to the City Museum). Yes I think it’s now time to bring Galway’s most famous writer back to the heart of the city where he belongs.

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