‘The first commercial art gallery in the west’: Galway’s Kenny Gallery celebrates 55 years

Galway institution will host an exhibition by Kenneth Webb in September, who has a seven-decade relationship with the gallery

Opening a book business in the 1940s west of Ireland was a tough ordeal during the war years; but the Kenny family’s business, which has since extended into the art world, is now 83 years old.

“Every time they went to the bank, the manager would always say to my parents: ‘You both have degrees. Why can’t you get a proper job or sell something like shoes – some sort of necessity?’” says Tom Kenny.

His parents, Des and Maureen, whom Tom describes as adventurous and full of confidence in each other, were not to be deterred. “They were young, in love and not afraid of hard work but my father had to take a job in a textile business, where he eventually ended up running the place. The company [Galway Textile Printers] was then taken over, and they wanted him to move to Manchester, to which he replied no and walked out the door.”

The family had a bookshop on High Street in Galway city, where they occasionally held art exhibitions, while also offering crafts such as colourful rugs and ceramics alongside their collections of rare books. But conditions were not ideal, as shelving had to be removed, there was limited space and the lighting wasn’t at all right in the old stone building.


Then in July 1968, at their home near the old Warwick Hotel in Salthill, Des and Maureen decided they needed a place with better presentation to showcase artworks, so they “knocked out the livingroom, the diningroom and the hall and, with the addition of a glass front, it became the first commercial art gallery in the west”, recalls Tom Kenny of his childhood home.

Des approached artist Sean Keating, announcing that they now had a proper gallery.

“Keating wasn’t interested. His wife had just died and told my father he felt ‘artistically dead’. But my father talked him out of it and we had our first exhibition in the gallery with Sean Keating and the young Belfast sculptor Carolyn Mulholland.”

It turned out to be the first of three exhibitions the gallery would hold of the Irish romantic realist painter. Kenny recalls a Keating exhibition held during the electricity strike during 1972 (when 800 shift workers in the ESB, who were seeking pay increases, cut power supplies by 80 per cent).

“Keating always stayed with my parents when he came to Galway. That’s the way they did business; it was about trust and friendship rather than contractual arrangements.” He goes on to explain that at this stage Keating, who died five years later, “found painting very laborious but could draw like a master”.

On entering the exhibition of 120 of Keating’s drawings, visitors were given a catalogue and candle, as the lights were due to go out at 6.10pm. “After a great introduction by Gay Byrne, the lights went out and a whole different electricity went through the air. The drawings looked astounding by candlelight and it was a really magical night. Fifty-five of Keating’s works sold in the almost darkness and he [Keating] said he was going to die happy.”

Ironically enough, the ESB had purchased most of the artist’s work produced between 1926 and 1928.

Keating was just one of a number of artists associated with the Kenny Gallery. Seventy years ago landscape painter Kenneth Webb, who turned 96 this year, was mesmerised by bright, colourful rugs made by Mrs Fretwell from Moyard in Connemara that hung outside Kenny’s shop on High Street.

That year, 1953, Webb, who tutored Basil Blackshaw, Terence Flanagan, John Vallely, Ivan Sutton as well as his own daughter, artist Susan Webb, brought some of his works to Kenny’s shop. In September he will hold another exhibition at the Kenny Gallery, marking seven decades of the relationship between the artist and the gallery.

In 1984 the Kenny family purchased a connecting building to their premises on High Street, giving “a series of small rooms over three levels with access from two streets”, where they continued to showcase art. It required a big staff and during the recession, business “stopped overnight”, an experience described as terrifying. The business is now in its third generation. The family sold the buildings and moved to the Liosbán Retail Park, where their rare book business is also based.

Exhibitions at the Kenny Gallery for the remainder of 2023 include current show Monarch, by Luke McMullan; a new sculpture show by John Behan in October; and one celebrating seven decades of collaboration and friendship, New Paintings by Kenneth Webb, over the month of September.