Life’s Work: Tom Kenny, art and bookdealer, Galway

An idyllic childhood surrounded by books and encouragement from parents



Tom Kenny is a director of Kenny’s Bookshop and Art Gallery, a family business in Liosbán Estate on the Tuam Road, Galway, which operates a retail and online bookshop, a book bindery and a commercial art gallery.

They sell new, second-hand and antiquarian books, particularly those of Irish interest to collectors, libraries and institutions worldwide and also host regular art exhibitions for (mostly) Irish artists. Most of his time is spent in the art gallery.

What’s your background?

My mother came from Mohill, Co Leitrim, to UCG. On her first day, she met my father and “that was that”. After graduation, they married and in 1940, opened a small second-hand bookshop. They lived at the back of the shop, and it was there I was born.

They moved house to Salthill enabling the first expansion of the business into their former living quarters. They tried all sorts of ideas to turn a shilling . . . a lending library, selling used school books, placing display cases in local hotels etc.

In the late 1940s they started to sell handmade crafts by local makers which, in turn, attracted visual artists, and they began to show original artworks. My siblings, Jane, Des, Gerry, Monica and Conor were all born in Salthill.

We had an idyllic childhood. All, bar Jane, joined the business as if through a process of osmosis. There was no getting away from books in our house.

I was educated at Scoil Fhursa, Coláiste Iognáid and UCG. Apart from school, a lot of our time was spent in the bookshop doing odd jobs for our mother.

In the late 1950s a Roneo stencil machine was installed in my bedroom and we began to print book catalogues. The stacks of pages would be placed on the table and the family would circle the table collating them. Most of the catalogues were sent abroad, our introduction to export.

I was playing a great deal of Gaelic football and hurling, which for me is the ultimate game, and I did a lot of acting, in school, in college and in An Taidhbhearc.

My acting highlight was playing in the first Irish language production of Ag Fanacht Le Godot directed by Alan Simpson.

I sent audio tapes of the production to Samuel Beckett and was later told by his publisher that Beckett, even though he had very little Irish, loved them and played them over and over. Wow!

In the mid-1960s, my father left a job he had managing a local textile factory, I had just graduated and we both came into the business full time. I have been there ever since.

Our parents made a great team, he provided energy and vision, she was the pragmatic partner. They instilled a belief in us that Irish art was as good as you would find anywhere.

They encouraged us to come up with new ideas, they would listen to the proposal carefully and then either reject it or back it 100 per cent. Even as we were entering the business, they made us feel part of the team. In 1968, they converted part of our family home into an art gallery and later built a bookbindery on our back garden.

In the 1980s, we managed to buy the High Street building and the one adjoining which we later developed into one building. In 1994, we became the second bookshop in the world to go online, our export experience being a major help when developing our website.

Technology changed the business of bookselling. Some years ago, we realised we were selling more books online than we were on the High Street, so we moved the bookshop to a large building on the Tuam Road. The extra space allowed us to streamline and adapt the business of exporting books while still retaining a retail unit. When the downturn hit, we moved the gallery out to rejoin the books. We recently celebrated 75 years in business with three members of the next generation who are now working with us.

My Beautiful, My Beautiful by Jack Yeats, Tom Kenny’s favourite work of art
My Beautiful, My Beautiful by Jack Yeats, Tom Kenny’s favourite work of art

Career highlights?

Paul Henry opening a show by his wife Mabel Young ; our first Seán Keating exhibition in Salthill; hosting a ROSC exhibition of young Irish artists in our back garden; opening a shop dedicated to antiquarian maps and prints; Roald Dahl signing his books in the shop, the queues started at the top of the street for two days; publication of a book on the artist Kenneth Webb; the 2½-hour launch, live on Radio 1 of Breandán Ó hEithir’s book Over the Bar; an exhibition to mark 50 years in business entitled “Faces in a Bookshop”, portraits of Irish writers by Irish artists which was opened by President [Patrick] Hillery; Allen Ginsberg signing The Great Book of Ireland in our shop; John O’Donohue opening an exhibition of work donated by artists in a cancer care unit “Inis Aoibhinn”; Seamus Heaney opening a John Behan exhibition; John McGahern launching our redeveloped shop in 1996. I have been privileged to meet and work with some of the most creative people in this country.

What advice would you give to collectors/investors?

Taste is a very personal thing and this is particularly true of artworks. Everyone is different. It is critical that you like the work and trust your own instincts. Budget is important but it is more important that the work speaks to you.

What do you personally collect?

My home town and its history has always held a particular fascination for me so for some 50 years now I have been collecting material relating to Galway and its environs.

What would you buy if money were no object?

A bronze sculpture by the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (who died in 1966). Christie’s in New York achieved a new world-record price for his work when they sold his L’homme au doigt (Pointing Man) for $141.3 million (approximately €128 million) last year.

What is your favourite work of art and why?

My Beautiful, My Beautiful, a painting in oils by Jack Yeats – an exquisite study of a prancing horse, full of nobility, energy, beauty and personality . I was stuck to the floor when I saw it – in Tony O’Reilly’s house, Castlemartin. That painting spoke to me.


In conversation with Michael Parsons

Series concludes

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