Kennys Bookshop in Galway: a bestseller for 75 years

Tom Kenny, son of founders Des and Maureen, recounts the remarkable history of an Irish literary institution that began as a romance and became a blockbuster – ‘a world of its own, and a key to worlds unknown’

This year Kennys Bookshop in Galway celebrates 75 years of bookselling and 21 years of selling online as Our staff of 18 includes eight Kennys. We stock about 650,000 volumes, new, second-hand and antiquarian books. In addition to selling on, we work with Amazon, ABE, Alibris and other portals to sell into countries all over the world. We also offer free shipping worldwide.

It started as a romance! In the 1930s, Maureen Canning from Mohill won a scholarship to UCG (now NUIG). On her first day, she met Des Kenny, and as he often said afterwards “That was that!”

They graduated and got married. They had no jobs but they wanted to stay in Ireland. It was during the war, they had no money and there were few prospects. Both came from book-loving families and so they decided to open a bookshop. It seemed like an act of madness, but they were young, very much in love, tenacious and not afraid of hard work. They leased the ground floor of a building in High Street, Galway. The bank loaned them £100 with which they bought some stock and friends and relations gave them books. The shop was tiny, but they opened with hopes and dreams and very little fanfare on November 29th, 1940.

Business was slow so they devised different ways of supplementing their income, for a few years they sold tobacco, they started a lending library, sold second-hand schoolbooks, placed stalls in various factories and hotels etc. They could not survive on the bookshop alone so Des went out to work, but most of his spare time was spent helping out there. Some occasional visitors in those days were Kate O’Brien, Frank O’Connor, Eric Cross, Seán Ó Faoláin, Ethel Mannin, Muiris Ó Súilleabháin and Ernie O’Malley.


To add a little colour, Maureen introduced crafts, handmade locally in the late 1940s. In 1951 she hosted her first exhibition and this in turn led to visual artists showing their work. A major development in the 1950s was the purchase of a second-hand duplicating machine which was installed in my bedroom at home, and the family began to crank out catalogues. These catalogues gave the shop a new status in Ireland, and introduced us to customers abroad. Our horizons were expanding. We were selling mostly second-hand books and were gaining in experience and expertise. Our speciality was (and still is) books of Irish interest. Des was on the road at every opportunity buying libraries and the quality of the stock improved.

The Irish language has always been very important to us and we have a uniquely extensive stock of Irish language books. One night in the 1950s there was a fire in an overhead apartment and the fire brigade poured in thousands of gallons of water to quench it. This percolated down through floors to the bookshop. The ESB switched off the electricity, so there was no light in at the back of the shop. A customer came in and enquired if there were any Irish language books in stock. “Yes, but unfortunately, you cannot see them, we have no electricity”. “Couldn’t you get a candle?” he asked, so Maureen lit two candles and they squelched their way through puddles to the Irish books. She left him there with the candles, water dripping everywhere about him. He emerged about two hours later with a pile of books for which he paid. A few days later an apology arrive from him by way of a letter – he never realised there had been a fire there until he read it in the paper when he went home.

Regular visitors at this time were Brendan Behan, Mary Lavin, Walter Macken and Austin Clarke. Graham Greene visited and subsequently carried on a correspondence. William Randolph Hearst syndicated a major article on the bookshop in all of his newspapers.

In 1965, our father Des came back into the business on a full-time basis and his dynamism and vision, combined with Maureen’s pragmatism and by now legendary knowledge of books had a transforming effect. They opened the first commercial art gallery in the west of Ireland with an exhibition of paintings by Seán Keating. From then on, we hosted exhibitions of paintings, sculpture, stained glass, ceramics, book launches, readings, signings etc. We began to photograph visiting writers and artists and opened a shop dedicated to antiquarian maps and prints. As children, we were immersed in books so it was no surprise that five of us joined the business and in 1974 our parents built a book bindery in their back garden for Gerry.

Sorley McLean did a reading, Séamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Edna O’Brien, Richard Ellmann and William Trevor visited, Brendan Kennelly and Frederick Forsyth opened exhibitions. President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh caused traffic chaos when he asked his driver to stop “for a minute” while he stepped in and talked to our mother about books. Those in the cars behind did not want to blow their horns at the Uachtarán’s car.

In the early 1980s we managed to buy the High Street building and also the building behind it which backed on to Middle Street. We linked the two buildings together and transferred the maps, the art gallery and a store full of books to the city-centre location. We began to publish a series of books, mostly of local interest. The US Library of Congress appointed us as their Irish suppliers.

When Roald Dahl spent two days signing his books, it was one-way traffic through the shop and the queues went up to the top of the street. The launch of Breandán Ó hEithir’s novel, Lig Sin i gCathú, was broadcast live on Radio 1 for 90 minutes. Brian Friel opened an exhibition; Jurgen Lodemann made a documentary for German television on the bookshop; Samuel Beckett signed photographic mounts so that his “portrait” could be included with the exhibition of author’s photographs.

President Hillery opened an exhibition of portraits of Irish writers entitled Faces in a Bookshop with some 50 writers in attendance. Benedict Kiely, Noel Browne and Maeve Binchy also opened exhibitions. Derek Walcott, Miroslav Holub , Sir Sidney Nolan and Allen Ginsberg visited.

In 1994, we became the first company in Ireland to have a website and the second bookshop in the world to go online. This exciting development slowly changed the dynamics of bookselling and we were now travelling extensively in the US and Japan networking, selling, building up collections for libraries. Des Jr. started a book club for individual customers.

Andrei Voznesensky, Margaret Attwood, Jung Chang and Thomas Keneally visited.

In 1996, we closed temporarily while we completely rebuilt the interior of the High St /Middle St premises. The new complex was launched by John McGahern who opened his speech with the line: “Mrs Kenny misses nothing”.

Face to Face was published, a collection of some 200 author’s photographs taken in the bookshop.

We bought the entire contents of the long established Hammersmith Books in London. An hour-long documentary entitled Books in the Blood was screened on national TV.

Our mother was conferred with an honorary degree by UCG. Part of her citation read: “She and all she stands for remained a constant when virtually everything around her had disappeared, been redeveloped or surrendered to more perishable, transient tastes. Her metier represents one that is entwined with Galway’s history”. In 2006, she retired after 66 years behind the counter.

At a surprise party to honour David Marcus, several well-known writers whom he had published for the first time, read from their works. TG4 broadcast a live two-hour programme called Árdán from the bookshop. Seamus Heaney opened a John Behan exhibition during which he referred to Maureen Kenny as The Madonna of the Manuscripts. Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee visited.

Several years ago, we realised we were selling more books online than on the high street, so we decided to move about a mile away to a large industrial building on the Liosbán Estate on the Tuam Road. It does not have the character of the inner-city shop, as it is geared up for our export operation. Today, online sales account for 80 per cent of sales but we also retail books and have done a great deal to retain as much of the atmosphere of the old and we still host book launches and readings. As I write this, author Patricia Forde is here reading from and discussing her new book, The Wordsmith, with more than 100 schoolchildren.

Kennys are dedicated to the culture of the book. For us, books are far more than a commodity; we help to make the vital connection between writer and reader many times every day. Because we have met (and read) so many of these authors, we often personalise sales with anecdotes which give an added dimension to the purchase. We constantly promote and market writers, particularly in the early stages of their careers. Three members of staff are third-generation family, and they, like their grandparents, strive to make Kenny’s Bookshop a world of its own, and a key to worlds unknown.