Personal: Shane Kenna, One Year On

This February 28th will mark the first year anniversary of the passing of my close friend, Shane Kenna, at the age of 33 as a result of cancer.

Shane and I met in mid-2011. Both of us on a seasonal contract for the Office of Public Works in Kilmainham Gaol, a sort of a temp job programme that comes around every year for aspiring tour guides on many well-known heritage sites nationwide. Shane of was of much more a considerable academic and history inclined nature then me, immediately inspiring awe being four years his junior. And Shane had ‘done time’ in the Gaol by at least two to three years there already, Dublin Castle being a previous site he had worked on.

I feel then, and do now, getting my own seasonal contract at the time was a bit of a fluke. Four years graduated from filmmaking in DKIT, followed by a year of unemployment, then followed by over a year working in a Superquinn store. All in all not much to show for any solid history credentials – or tour guiding experience – beyond a tendency to regularly read books about the Irish revolutionary period of the early 20th century. I had come across family involvement in the IRA during the War of Independence on both side of my parents’ family tree about two years before which considerably upped an increasingly intense interest in Irish history I hadn’t had since my Leaving Cert year.

I guess something of my immense enthusiasm for this rather niche interest – at least among my then immediate peers – and muddled knowledge must have gone a long way in the interview. Though it was never going to last long as a seasonal job (until October, it then being July) – I jumped at the chance to break free of the retail tedium. And the possibility of working in a place so deep in the Irish national consciousness and historical imagination as Kilmainham Gaol is something that did, and still leaves, a considerable impression on me.

It was here I met Shane.

We had a brief introduction the first day I was working with him, but our first real interaction was when I was bringing a tour group into the East Wing, best known as a holding area for Civil War era prisoners (particularly the female republicans). You can allow your group to explore the East Wing after a bit of a talk on its history, letting visitors go into cells and look at the prisoner graffiti. Shane’s group was doing that just as my group was entering before I did my talk.

Arms folded, he grinned and nodded to me. ‘Hey Gerry, how are you getting on?’

Me: ‘It’s definitely better then my last job in Superquinn. I worked with my ex, and her dad!’

Shane chuckled. ‘I know what you mean. Sure I’m working with my ex here, and I’m chasing another girl!’

We laughed. It still makes me smile so much that absurd image, here in this great historical locale that saw imprisonment and executions for the cause of Irish republicanism a century before now in the same space had us two eegits in the present time talking about awkward workplace encounters with former romantic partners.

That was the conversation that cemented it. My tenure in Kilmainham did not even last the length of that limited contract, but thankfully my friendship with Shane endured. There was never a question we wouldn’t remain friends after. Though I never imagined it would be a friendship that would come to affect my life in many ways.

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Our friend Pat Finlay caught this snap in Wynn’s Hotel on 2nd April 2014, at an event marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of Cumann na mBan where our mutual friend (and ‘big sister’) Liz Gillis was to speak.

Shane became that type of friend that only when you’re older you realise is increasingly rare: you understood each other. We came to share an emotional closeness that often led us both to refer to each other as a brother. We both had brothers in our lives, and we understood what that kind of emotional bond meant – getting to know each other’s humour and quirks, being an objective listening ear, and believe me, as befitting any kind of intensely close relationship like that, sometimes absoloutly driving each other up the wall.

Thankfully, many of the arguments me and Shane had now seem very trivial, particularly in the respect of the last year of his life. Often seem quite funny. The occasion comes to mind in March 2012 when he accused me and our frequent co-conspirator, Ruairí, of abandoning him in a Derry hostel one evening when he was in fact ignoring our pleas to join us in the pub. What was Shane doing? As myself and Ruairí strolled into Derry city centre, Shane was in the hostel living room trying to chat up two women. Neither of whom he got anywhere with, as we surmised on our return following his surly accusations of abandonment when we entered the room. And that’s before we move on to the subject of his eclectic snoring the memory of which I’m sure haunts Ruairí too on some nights.

Shane was nearly four years older then me, but he always felt younger. I don’t mean this as a commentary on a lack of maturity on his part, but when taken into his confidence, you felt such an overwhelming need to be protective of him and look out for him. it’s a commonality I found was with other people who knew him too. Shane would wear his heart on his sleeve, sometimes to his detriment, but he knew the value in reaching out to those he trusted if it helped him work through something on his mind. It will always sadden me I don’t think Shane fully understood that level of affection he would quickly inspire in people, even in those who barely knew him on a personal level, such was his inherently decent and friendly nature. That affection he is held in still echoes so strongly in the seemingly endless tributes and discussions people have about him all these months later.

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So many great times with this lot, this one from July 2013. At the Liam Lynch Memorial Tower in the Knockmealdown Mountains. From left to right: Micheál O Doibhlin, myself, Liz Gillis, Shane, and Ruairí.

His humour was amazing. Geeky, so so dark, strange, lame, often vulgar… always brilliant. Much of our long phone calls – not unusual to clock over two hours – would be made up of references to in-jokes, situations or characters (fictional or otherwise) we would often go back to. Many of these conversations I’ll never repeat. And never mind I don’t think I’ve watched an episode of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ in two decades, there was no occasion deemed inappropriate where Shane couldn’t remind you of his admiration for Jean-Luc Picard. On a visit not long after his diagnosis, I recall immediately slagging him for finally buying a Star Trek uniform when Shane nonchalantly replied: ‘Yeah, it’s exactly like the way you own a Ghostbusters outfit.’ He got me there.

And that laugh. Loud and filthy. His very best friends know what I mean.

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Surreal craic in December 2015, close to Christmas. With Ruairí and Shane. The red hue compliments well Ruairí’s leftist salute. That and the seemingly loving gaze I’m giving Dr. Kenna here.

There was sometimes a melancholic edge to his humour. When he was getting prepped for what would be an unsuccessful operation mid-summer 2016, in a brief text Shane quoted the words of the Irish historical figure he knew fascinated me more then any, Patrick Pearse, specifically from the letter Pearse wrote to his mother before his execution: ‘Bye Gerry, I’ll carry you into my heart until the very last moment.’ Shane had actually wanted to write me a letter in case he didn’t pull through the operation, but I told him not to do that. He was being cheeky with the Pearse quote of course, knowing well given the chance I’d rinse him about using it. And still thinking about that brief text sometimes brings me to the verge of tears.

As bad as Shane got with his cancer, particularly after that summer, the prospect of him dying loomed over those visits to his home in Tallaght. It’s incredible the amount of hope I carried he would get through – I was not alone in that respect – that despite the more severe his physical deterioration got, he would soon return to normality and move on with his life. He and I would be back to the usual nonsense of going to history talks and exhibitions, and silly adventures in his car where he’d often get lost. I never understood, and I realise now sub-consciously refused to (even by way of Google), the severity of the cancer he had. Shane would have got married to Edel that December, myself and Ruairí being groomsmen, with his brother John as his best man. And the prospect of some permanent lectureship in history – his one true dream, particularly if it was in Trinity – always seemed possible.

Shane’s output of all those books in a short span of years is nothing short of extraordinary. And only with his passing do I realise that level of output, and his willingness to engage with such subject matter as the Fenians, or high-level personalities like O’Donovan Rossa and Thomas MacDonagh was not in the least bit normal for a budding historian like him. To approach that kind of subject matter was bold, a bit bonkers and hugely inspiring. As a holdover over from his earlier political activism, Shane had an unashamed reverence for leftist politics, and the traditions of socialism and Irish republicanism. But to acknowledge this ignores the growing capacity he had a historian for a genuine critique of the subject matter of his work and his increasing maturity as a researcher and historian in presenting a well-rounded picture of those he wrote about. That is no glib defence of what my friend wrote, his work is there and will forever speak for itself. Shane was always up for a seasoned debate and he had no interest in writing – or promoting – hagiography.

It will always haunt me what Shane could have contributed to Irish historical debate through these decade of commemorations, as he grew in skill and confidence. There was an occasion I witnessed in late 2015 where on a public panel Shane was rounded on by a well-known Irish historian that really shook him up for a while. But despite the shock he took from that, Shane always said to me he was itching for round two with that individual. He wasn’t the only one. (Also, I got the feeling the other historian was too, weeks later I saw this same individual on a different panel ridicule ‘this nonsense someone said on a panel to me recently’ – when he repeated the supposed nonsense, I knew it was Shane he was talking about). 

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As Shane always said to me, ‘We have too much fun for two grown men in a graveyard.’ No better example then at O’Donovan Rossa’s grave on 1st August 2015 having attended several events that day where nearly everyone seemed to want to remember the subject of Shane’s biography that year. Earlier that day, Shane unveiled the plaque at the Rossa bridge not far from the Four Courts.

If the last year has taught me anything, it will never seem a final goodbye to Shane. Be strange if I never wrote about him again. I still tell his family stories I’m sure he never thought they’d hear. I hear so much about his earlier life and who he was that I don’t think I would have thought to have asked him. Last May in the Teacher’s Club there was the FenianFest, a tribute to Shane and in some ways, a tribute to the idea he hoped to do to mark the 150th anniversary of the Fenian Rising. And yes, he came up with that name.

Close to this birthday last September, his mother Olive, brother John and fiancée Edel unveiled a new monument over the Tallaght Martyrs plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, Shane having unveiled a plaque to those men killed during the Fenian Rising several years ago. Even this coming March, for instance, the 1916 Clubs, a sort of republican historical society, are hosting the inaugural ‘Shane Kenna Memorial Lecture’ which I’m sure if Shane could time travel, would bemuse him no end. They’re even creating a commemorative medal for it! Incredibly, Shane even left output behind which points the way to a future publication that it is not for me to reveal right now. One legacy I’m sure Shane would have loved to have known he’d inspire would be his own personal wish to see the Irish National Invincibles reinterred in Glasnevin that has inspired a campaign geared towards achieving this aim.

Shane’s memory and our friendship still affects my life in wonderful, strange and subtle ways. Recalling a conversation or joking exchange can still make me smile, even laugh. In quieter moments the thought of his absence can still feel overwhelmingly sad, even after all these months. When a major life development occurs, even moving house or getting a change of job, it’s strange that I can’t tell him about it. When I can, I don’t shy away from talking about Shane and how great it was to know him to people who sadly will never meet him or get to know him better. Talking to those who knew him best particularly goes some way to evoking his distinct spirit, much of which I’m sure will continue for some time.

Miss you brother. One year on, it still doesn’t seem fair. And never will.

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