Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Lessons learned from a local legend

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The Buzzcocks played a storming set at the Roisin Dubh on Thursday night. The place was packed, it was great to see a full house for a visit by veteran punk rockers to a Galway venue, and there was a real sense of nostalgia in the air.

But there was one face missing from the crowd. I kept glancing over to the top corner, to the left side of the stage, where I expected to see a man in a trademark hat, festooned in badges, wearing a trench coat, bopping around. He always seemed to be in that corner for a gig like this, immersing himself in the music, seemingly without a care in the world.
On top of the world: Mark Kennedy
climbing Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo
When you met Mark Kennedy at a punk or metal concert in the Roisin Dubh or Sally Long’s, he would never cease to inspire.

He showed people much younger than him that it’s possible to have a great time without alcohol and that you should never feel too old to lose yourself for an hour in punk, ska, or metal mayhem.

For me, Mark – who passed away last week – was an admirable figure. He was cranky and cantankerous, but he got things done, enjoyed a good laugh, and had a heart of gold.

I used to think I was one of the oldest rockers in Galway when I’d join the wonderful lunacy at a concert by the likes of Belfast band And So I Watch You From Afar and then I’d see Mark, 30 years my senior, going absolutely mental over in the corner to their guitar-driven fury.

If ever a man disproved the theory that Irish people tend to become boring or conservative or lose their sense of adventure once they pass 40, it was the late Mark Kennedy.
He taught me (and many others) some really valuable lessons for life.

Here are just a few of them . . .

You can turn your life around: When I first met Mark, he was homeless and drinking every day on the streets of Galway. He used to bed down for the night in shop doorways or down behind the railway station and his situation was all the more tragic because I knew he had a family and an amazing story to tell.

Not many Galwaymen earned a living writing for the stars in Hollywood in the 1960s and not many Hollywood writers would have survived a few winters on the streets in my wet and windy native city.

I had managed to secure a job as a reporter on the local ‘paper in 1992 and regularly met Mark and his colleague, Niall Rivers, as they made a documentary in which they chronicled how the homeless were being marginalised in favour of big business in our native city. They called the video ‘Clear the Streets’.

They weren’t the most professional film-makers, but they highlighted a side of Galway which never made it into the tourist brochures. They gave voices to people who were seen as nothing more than an inconvenience by the ‘powers that be’ in the city.

Homelessness in Galway, November 2016
Mark and Niall were before their time in recognising how ordinary people were of little importance compared to profit in the minds of many businesses and those who ran local government at the time.

After five years of living on the streets, Mark was a wreck. And then, one night, he had an epiphany. Finding himself alone next to St Nicholas’ Cathedral, he put down a bottle of tonic wine and swore he would never drink again.

He completely turned his life around, becoming a campaigner for the elderly, the homeless, and emigrants in Ireland.

In an interview with me last year, he recalled putting down his final bottle of Buckfast at Church Lane in 1992, the horrible depression which followed over the next two years; and the slow process of putting his life back together, and finding a home.

“I never made the mistake of isolating myself. I knew I had to get up and go out and walk and meet people. Be around people. It’s the kindness and goodness of people who, even if you have lost faith in yourself, they haven’t lost faith in you,” he said.

For those of us lucky enough to know Mark in more recent years – and the demons he had dealt with in the 1990s – it was uplifting to see how comfortable and happy he was in his Renmore home. He used to thank God every day that he had a lovely, warm home.

“The little kindnesses you get from people more than make up for sleeping in a doorway and shivering your nuts off and ending up in the hospital,” he told me. “Killing yourself with drink is not actually an adequate response to a hypocritical society.”

You can rage against the machine: Why lose your sense of idealism just because you get older? If you protest against injustice when you are 17, why shouldn’t you when you are 70?

Mark shared my sense of anger at the injustice and inequality which is at the heart of Irish society. Instead of trying to kill himself with booze, he grew old brilliantly – fighting for the right of pensioners to serve on juries, highlighting the appalling level of homelessness in Galway, and getting a reluctant city to build a fitting memorial to those who lost their lives in the Great Famine.

When Mark found out that people aged over 65 were not allowed to serve on juries, he had the balls to ask why and to start a nationwide campaign. When old people marched for greater recognition across the country in 2008, it was fitting that Mark was one of the leading lights for campaign group Age Action.

He loved black humour, too, such as when one of the “ould stock” – as he used to refer to older Galwegians – gave him a right good telling off after being disgusted by a call-up for jury duty. The old fellow told Mark he should have left well enough alone.

If anything, the homelessness situation in Ireland in 2016 is far worse than when he made ‘Clear The Streets’ in 1992.

Mark and Niall Rivers predicted the bank ‘bailout’, the logical conclusion of a capitalist system in which ordinary people became mere fodder for a tiny elite. Once he sobered up, and got a decent place to live, Mark became a force for good in his native city. He has left a lasting legacy in the form of the wonderful Celia Griffin Memorial Park, which opened in 2012.

Celia, a six year old girl from the Claddagh, died in the Great Famine. Many Galway people would prefer to forget this awful period in their county’s history, but Mark shone a light on issues others just wanted to ignore.

He reminded us that so many people from our region set sail for the Americas in the ‘Coffin Ships’ in the 1840s, when they barely had enough money for the passage to America and knew they’d never be able to come home.

He knew all about the pain of forced emigration, because he had been an emigrant himself when Galway offered no opportunities to a young man from working-class Bohermore in the 1950s. On his travels in the UK and USA, he met many impoverished Irish people who had been scarred by their childhoods back home.

The Celia Griffin Memorial Park in Salthill:
Mark's wonderful legacy to his native city
Why should you act your age? In Galway, people tend to become very sensible once they pass a certain age. If you loved heavy metal as a youngster, you are supposed to eventually learn to sit at home and leave all the fun of a live gig to the young ones. Not Mark Kennedy, though.

He didn’t care too much about what anyone thought of him. If he wanted to go to a punk or a metal gig, he didn’t care if he was the oldest person in the pub or club. His love of metal in particular meant that he had a wonderful circle of younger friends from attending gigs at venues such as Sally Long’s and the Roisin Dubh.

Sometimes we can forget that life is for living. Mark, who conquered the demon drink after five years on the streets of Galway, showed us how you can never be too old to have a good time. He also showed it’s possible to go out and have fun without alcohol, which can seem almost impossible in Ireland at times.

He loved gathering friends around him and his birthday became a wonderful annual pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, the holiest (and most spiritual) place in the West of Ireland, over the past nine years.
If Mark could touch the sky from the top of the mountain until he was well into his 70s, he appreciated the pilgrimage all the more because he had reached rock bottom at a different stage in his life.

“I had five winters on the streets of Galway. I knew that if I had another winter I was dead. There was no question about it, but I came to see that, in a way, I had to be in a place where I had nothing left to lose.”

May he Rest in Peace.

Reaching the stars at the holiest place in the West of Ireland

Thanks to William Geraghty of Galway Video News for filming my interview with the late Mark Kennedy.

Find me on Twitter https://twitter.com/ciarantierney

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