For many readers in Athy it comes as a profound if pleasant shock to find that we have a writer in our midst. Not the kind of writer most incurable readers at times hope themselves to be, but the real thing - and a successful one at that. Local man John MacKenna has produced a body of work in recent years which is both compelling and readable. His latest novel is to be launched on the 10th of August in the Town Hall and will be a further addition to the chronicle of local life which is slowly being amassed in various forms by him. Strange perhaps to claim such a personal and individual body of writing for a chronicle, but it is indisputably that, because where local histories and records can give us the body of this area’s past, only in imaginative fiction can we perhaps reclaim its invisible, private life - and take measure of its present. And for all the re-invigoration of the town which has taken place over the last ten or fifteen years, it was also a stroke of unsurpassable good fortune that a local writer of talent should attract the attention that John MacKenna has; and of even more good fortune that he should deserve it.
His success in the literary world is evident from his collection of prizes, the backing of a prestigious publisher and numerous translations of his work for the foreign market. However, what will prove to be his most lasting success is of quite another order, and despite the advantages to be gained from a high profile, of immeasurably more importance to the reader.
Though MacKenna’s writing, from “The Fallen” to “Clare”, to “A Year of Our Lives” and “The Last Fine Summer”, most often takes a confessional form, its introspection masks a social awareness with a collection of personal testaments which implicitly reinforces the value of stories and personal narratives which form the small change of social life. Though the historical novel is becoming fashionable once again, (think of the success of Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy, or stretching the definition a little, Don DeLillo’s “Underworld”) it is John MacKenna’s distinctive blend of the personal and historical, together with an ability to be both blunt and lyrical, that sets him apart. More specifically (and more pertinent to his local readership) this results in the kind of piercing narrative which has a very particular social and historical setting - very often ours - but with that humane centre which qualifies it as universal. And if it horrifies you to think that the whole world can be contained in what he calls the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ of Athy, Carlow and Castledermot, then you should read his work, or read it again, and read it a little closer because the world isn’t getting any bigger than this.
Ezra Pound claimed that “the life of a village is narrative”, a view that John MacKenna echoes in the opening of “The Lost Village”, a semi-historical account of life in Castledermot in 1925.
“The news was spreading, from the Square in all directions, to Dempsey’s
Row, to the few men at Carey’s Corner, to Dalton’s pub and Doyle’s and to the
billiard hall. The relieving officer had been nobbed on his way back to Athy.
His car had been stopped beyond Kilkea and his money taken from him. Was
he hurt? No one was sure. He might even be dead …”
Fortunately, the cause of the delay was a car breakdown rather than a Bonnie & Clyde style misadventure, but the life of a small village hangs on the talk that grows out of pubs and football fields and markets, and this aspect of the public life of a town is admirably captured throughout. Conventional histories do not attempt to recreate - this aspect of social life, hence the value - and the perils - of re-imaginings in works of fiction.
However, the romantic notion of village life touted in the cute talk of shop doorways and football pitches has a necessary counterpoint in MacKenna’s later stories. For example, increasingly, throughout the stories in “The Fallen” communication fails. MacKenna’s fondness for first person narration allows a certain freedom with style and even perhaps, a place for the author to hide (although, travelling incognito, he invevitably trails his peculiar brand of poetry behind him) yet conveys an inevitable sense of solitude. Although two of the stories from “The Fallen” - “The Unclouded Day” and “The Fallen” itself, have been adopted as voiceplays, their roots are closer to lyric poetry than drama. Their narrators are adept at storytelling, and at times declamation, but though narrating voices cross each other, they rarely respond to one another. So, with little opportunity for exchange or resolution, communication is frustrated by the fact that it is undirected. Many of these characters seem to be speaking into nothing. These soliloquies provide a tiny indictment of the loneliness that sprouts in a community where everything is known, but only half-known; and where communication is forestalled by the familiarity that assumes too much and knows too little.
It is this which I take to be John MacKenna’s success as a writer. Despite the evocative sharpness of his language, or even his honesty (strange - or sentimental - as it must seem to attribute this virtue to a writer of fiction) it is his ability to reveal startling personal vistas in such a familiar landscape which is most affecting. And it is enough, simply, for one character to assume that “what you want is my story” .. for it to be true.
The launch of John MacKenna’s novel, which is set in Athy, will take place in the Community Library of our Town Hall on Tuesday 10th August at 8pm. “A Haunted Heart” published in hardback by Picador is the story of a woman in her twilight years telling of her involvement with Joshua Jacob and the White Quakers, sixty years previously. The action in the book is centered in Athy of 1959 with flashbacks to 1895 and the activity of the White Quakers in South Kildare.
As you might expect from MacKenna this is a masterfully crafted tale and one which will add to his growing stature as a writer.
Everyone is invited to come to the book launch on Tuesday 10th August which is being held in the Library with a wine reception kindly sponsored by Lawler’s builders of Athy.