Mary Kenny: the former ‘bad girl’ with a John Henry Newman tattoo

A screen shot from Mary Kenny's new book

I have always read Mary Kenny’s columns with pleasure. Now she has distilled her unique mixture of reminiscence, observation and humorous anecdotage into a book: A Day at a Time (New Island Books). Subtitled “Thoughts and Reflections through the Seasons”, they show the author’s lively interest in the manners and morals of society, her love for Ireland and poetry, her warmth and her wisdom, pondered over a lifetime that has had its fair share of failure as well as success.

In the book Mary relates that someone once challenged her: “Why did you change from being a wild child and a bad girl in the 1960s and 1970s into a right-wing Catholic subsequently?” She responded briskly: “You grow up; you grow old.” As I also reject the label “right-wing Catholic” which is sometimes made against me, I ask Mary how she would define herself.

She tells me: “’Catholic’ should mean ‘universal’ and ‘eclectic’. Categories don’t always fit. Where would we put Dorothy Day? On liturgical issues, she was very conservative indeed – but not politically.”

I point out to Mary that a strong Irish strain pervades her book. What is the best thing her Irish childhood has given her? She thinks “a sense of rootedness”, adding: “Yet again, the Irish Catholic values of my parents were very outward-focused and universalist.” She recalls that her father had “trained to be a Jesuit (in the Lebanon) and had a strong sense of connecting with other cultures. My ma was a passionate Francophile and that was all part of the mix.”

I note that in her book she writes very appreciatively of Daniel O’Connell and others such as the saintly priest, Blessed John Sullivan. Does she have a particular hero? Mary explains that her heroes “change all the time”, adding that she is “terrifically interested at the moment in Edith Stein. But Dan O’Connell really was a great man, because his political revolution was very much about the rule of law, as well as campaigning for Jews and African-Americans. In politics, I much esteem General de Gaulle.”

I observe that her book is full of proverbial wisdom and wonder if she has a favourite quotation or adage. “It’s awfully corny but this ‘day at a time’ axiom comes from Alcoholics Anonymous (with which I am very familiar!) and I really do think it gets you through the day. Sometimes it can be an hour at a time. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by what faces me during the day and I think I can’t do it all. But I can do something.”

She points out (it is also mentioned in the book) that she has a tattoo on her arm, “To live is to change”, from John Henry Newman, “which is also something to live by.”

Finally, as her book mentions many writers who have caught her interest, I want to know which book would she take to a desert island. Reminding me that the Bible and Shakespeare are, by tradition, on the desert island already, Mary says: “I guess it would be the collected works of WB Yeats. His words just sing.”