John MacKenna


Life
1952- ; b. Castledermot, Co. Kildare; ed. St. Clement’s College, Limerick, and UCD (English & History); taught at Castledermot Vocational School for six years; became involved in radio and came to Athy to do a community series; trained as radio producer and commissioning editor in RTÉ; joined 2FM; later worked as a producer on Radio One; winner of Winner of Hennessy Award, 1983; Leitrim Guardian Award, 1986; C. Day-Lewis Fiction Award, 1989 and 1990;
 
The Fallen and Other Stories (1993), the winner of The Irish Times First Fiction Award, incls. the caustic tale “A Summer Girl”, considered atypical; Clare (1994), novel on the poet John Clare in a series of overlapping first-person narrative, withholding the poet’s own voice to the last; A Year in Our Lives (1994), 17 stories of mid-lands town; also contrib. Blackstaff Book of Short Stories (Belfast: Blackstaff 1988) [“Post Mortem” and “Fox”]; retired from RTÉ in 2002; issued a life of Ernest Shackleton co-written with Jonathan Shackleton (An Irishman in Antarctica, 2003), emphasising influence of Quaker family tradition in Kildare;
 
issued Things You Should Know (2006), a memoir; adapted his novel on John Clare as My Father's Life, which toured in Ireland; issued The Space Between Us (2009), on a man who suffers the death of an unloved wife, and afterwards to his devastation a much-loved daughter; issued Joseph (2014); short-listed for Irish Fiction Laureate, 2014; a play, Lucinda Sly staged by Mend & Makedo Theatre Co. - for whom he writes, acts and directs - and toured nationally, 2105; still lives in Kildare; has two grown-up children.

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Works
Novels
  • The Occasional Optimist ([Kildare: Winter Wood Bks. 1976);
  • Clare: A Novel (Belfast: Blackstaff; Chester Springs: Dufour [1993]), x, 181pp. [191pp.]; Do. [rep.] [New Island Mod. Irish Classics] (Dublin: New Island Press 2014).
  • The Last Fine Summer (London: Picador 1997), 267pp.;
  • A Haunted Heart (London: Picador 1999; rep. 2000), 264pp.;
  • The Space Between Us (Dublin: New Island Press 2009), 250pp.
  • Joseph (Dublin: New Island Books 2014).
Short Stories
  • The Fallen and Other Stories (Belfast: Blackstaff 1992), 169pp. [9 stories, incl. “Absent Children”, “A Summer Girl”];
  • A Year of Our Lives (London: Picador 1995; rep. 1996), 220pp. [incl. “The Sisters”; “Landscape with Three Figures”; “Children”; “Street’];
  • The River Field (Dublin: New Island Press 2007), q.pp.
Drama
  • “Faint Voices”, in Dermot Bolger, ed., Greatest Hits for Irish One-act Plays (London: Hern 1997), 120pp. [with works by Thomas McLoughlin, Antoine Ó Flatharta, and Clare Dowling].
  • Breathless (Mend & Makedo Theatre Co. 2005, 2010) [dir. by Petra Costigan-Oorthuijs & Richard Ball];
  • My Father's Life (Mend & Makedo Theatre Co. 2006);
  • We Once Sang LIke Other Men (Mend & Makedo Theatre Co. 2009) [dir. Marian Brophy; issued in book-form, 2016];
  • Redemption Song (Mend & Makedo Theatre Co. 2011) [dir. Marian Brophy];
  • Who by Fire (Water to Wine Theatre Co. (q.d.) [based on holocaust survival].
Poetry
  • Where Sadness Begins (Moher, Clare: Salmon Books 2012);
  • By the Light of Four Moons (Inverin, Galway: Dóire Press 2015)
Memoir
  • Castledermot and Kilkea ([Kildare]: Winter Wood Bks. 1982);
  • The Lost Village: Portrait of an Irish Village in 1925 (Dublin: Stephen Scroop 1985; rep. New Island Press 1995), 71pp.;
  • Things You Should Know: A Memoir (Dublin: New Island Press 2006), 278pp.
Biography
  • with Jonathan Shackleton, Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica [rev. edn.] (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2003), 208pp., ill. [maps, ports., facs.]
Anthologies
  • “Maps” in Caroline Walsh, ed., Arrows in Flight: Stories from a New Ireland (Dublin: TownHouse; UK & US: Scribner 2002), pp.207-32.
Miscellaneous
  • ed., Mary Leadbeater, The Annals of Ballitore (Stephen Scroop 1986);
  • ed., Mary Leadbeater, Cottage Biography (Stephen Scroop 1987).
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Criticism
[Shirley Kelly], ‘Things You Should Know’ [interview-article], in Books Ireland (Nov. 2006), p.247 [recounts childhood experience in a family troubled by his father's drinking and documents his marital breakdown and departure from the family home in Castledermot]; Sue Leonard, review of The Space Between Us, in Books Ireland (Sept. 2009), pp.177-78 [‘I loved the subtlety of MacKenna's writing .... a book to savour, to ponder over and to discuss with others’].

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Commentary
Richard Hayes, review of Clare, and The Fallen and Other Short Stories, in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1994), [q.p.]; Clare described as ‘factional’ novel, i.e., fictional account of factual events; John Clare (1793-1864), and insane from 1837; recorded through five narratives, four by women ‘whose lives were shaped by the shadow of John Clare’s anguish, tenderness, and growing insanity’ [quot.], among them his lifelong love Mary Joyce, his wife Patty, his patron Lady Ketterling; his own letter to Mary becomes the fifth narrative; human weakness at the source of his madness never explored; The Fallen, collection of nine stories that won Irish Times ‘First Book’ prize in 1993; called accomplished by uninspired, except for “Absent Children”, a set of three stories working similarly to Clare, concerning the death of a child in a road accident, though never centring on it.

John Dunne, ‘Weird or What?’, review of A Year of Our Lives, along with novels by John Banville and Gaye Shortland, in Books Ireland (April 1995), pp.81-83; p.81.

Danny Morrison, review of A Year of Our Lives, in Fortnight (April 1996), p.37; cites ‘The things we say’; ‘Days’; ‘Still and distant Voices’; and another concern a woman who has got it wrong about the character of the man she fell in love with who was killed at Passchendale [sic]; quotes several of McKenna’s ‘little observations’ [‘Have you ever noticed how easy it is to fall in love but how difficult it is being in love?’; we are always ‘in search of something never found’.]

Derek Hand, brief notice in the course of reviewing Caroline Walsh, ed., Arrows in Flight [... &c.] , in The Irish Times (19 Oct. 2002), p.10 [‘“Maps” captures perfectly the complexities and tensions within the family set-up’; remarks on ‘[h]is narrator’s uncertainty about his own position at the close of the story [...]’

Kim Forrester, review of The Space Between Us, at Kimbofo (22 Nov. 2009): ‘A young architect opens the door to two police officers (or guards, as they are known in Ireland) who inform him that his wife, a solicitor, has been killed in a car crash. His reaction is not what one would expect. Instead of being overwhelmed with grief he’s overwhelmed by relief - their marriage had been floundering for a long time but neither party had had the courage to end it. Now, left alone to raise his two-year-old daughter, our unnamed narrator has been given a second chance to start afresh. When a married friend, Kate, confesses she’s in love with him, there seems only one road to take [...] In essence this is a novel about the choices we make in life and the consequences of those choices. It’s also very much about unrequited love, death, grief and the relationships between fathers and daughters. And I defy anyone not to read this and be incredibly moved by the gentle prose and the emotional story that unfolds but most of all by the powerhouse ending that turns everything else on its head. This book isn’t what I expected, it’s far more shocking and disturbing than I could have possibly envisaged, and I rather suspect anyone who decides to give it a try will concur.’ (For longer extract - incorporating full paraphrase and quotation - see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, infra.