The day Roald Dahl came to Galway

Roald Dahl visited Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway in 1987, enthusiastically signing books for two days even though his hands were gnarled by arthritis

 

‘No child is to be disappointed” was the first rule laid down by Roald Dahl in our bookshop. Our mother had been encouraging us for a long time to invite him to Galway and so we wrote and asked him to be guest of honour at our children’s street festival in 1987.

To our astonishment, by return post came the reply: “You have sent me such a charming invitation that it is very difficult for me to refuse.” His publishers then took over much of the organisation of the visit ... there was to be very little pre-publicity and we were not allowed to pay for anything. We should recommend good restaurants and he would inform us of any other needs.

He arrived with his wife, Liccy, and daughter Ophelia. We were probably in awe of him, but he quickly put us at ease. He looked at the layout of our shop and then told us how we would do things. He was delighted when we told him we had no problem with him signing books that were not bought in Kennys but said he would “not sign empty cigarette packets and the backs of betting slips“. It was to be one-way traffic through the shop.

He understood the needs of the bookseller, but also knew what to expect in terms of the crowds that would turn up.

That first evening, he and his wife and daughter went to my brother’s house for dinner. There was a crowd of local children around the door, all carrying his books.

To their absolute delight, he chatted with them and brought them all in to the house, sat down and signed every one of their books.

Roald Dahl was a big man in every way. He had real presence, was very gracious with a warm smile and of course, told wonderful stories. He used a walking stick which he occasionally jokingly threatened children with. His hands were gnarled by arthritis, but he never complained.

For two days he signed books. The queues started at the top of the street. People of all ages and from all walks of life came from all over the country to meet him. He posed for thousands of photographs. He was very patient with the adults, but it was the children who really showed up his brilliant communication skills.

“What was your favourite book? Who did you like best in The Twits?” etc. He always bent down to their level, and if they were tongue-tied, he gently coaxed some chat from them. He listened very carefully, and as they opened up and their fertile imaginings fed his fertile brain, you could see where he got his ideas from.

When one seven-year-old told him, “My favourite bit is where she takes the gun out of her knickers and shoots the wolf in the head,” he replied: “Hmm, yes, boys have always had a fascination for knickers, and as the boy grows, so also does the fascination.”

He always wore a red cardigan, so when Liccy saw some white báinín jackets hanging outside Sonny Molloy’s traditional drapery shop across the street, she was smitten. Some weeks later, Sonny showed us a scarlet coloured báinín he had made for Roald. It looked terrific.

Subsequently, he gently admonished Gay Byrne on The Late Late Show, saying: “You have not asked me yet where I got my beautiful jacket”, which gave him the chance to give Sonny’s báiníns a mention.

During his stay in Galway, the weather was very kind to the children’s festival taking place on High Street, Cross Street and Quay Street; two days of activity organised by the local committee for the children including a drama festival in Irish and English, street drawing, puppet shows, fancy dress, sculptors working with the children on a ton of potter’s clay, sports, games, music, dancing, balloons, painted faces and more.

Dahl added considerably to the celebratory atmosphere. Indeed he remarked that he had never been anywhere in the world where so much attention and encouragement in so many art forms was given to children. Dahl said: “Some of the greatest enemies children have are adults. All they hear from them is “Don’t! You can’t! Be quiet! Go to bed!”

Many of the children who took part that memorable weekend have been boasting ever since that the most famous person they ever met was Roald Dahl.

He loved Galway.

No child was disappointed.

Tom Kenny is chairman of Kenny’s Bookshop and Art Gallery in Galway. kennys.ie

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