Although a carpenter by trade, Walter Senior
had other gifts: he was an actor and storyteller. The family remembers vivid
descriptions of trench warfare in letters he sent home. Ultan Macken his
grandson has all of the original letters, which he alludes to in his stage
production, My Father, My Son. Walter Senior was often on stage at the old
Gaelic Theatre in Middle Street Galway known as the "Racket Court".
This Theatre was still running in 1927 when
Mícheál Mac Liammóir set up Galway's famous Taibhdhearc, where Walter's son
would write, produce, and direct numerous plays. Walter inherited talents, which
would make him famous.
Walter attended several schools. The Presentation Convent for infants from 1918
to 1921, St Mary's, a Diocesan College, 1923-1924 (where they trained people who
wanted to become priests), and the 'Bish' or Patrician Brothers both Primary and
Secondary from 1921-1922, and then from 1924-1934, where he took his Leaving
Certificate. Whilst still at school aged 17 Walter joined the Taibhdhearc taking
the leading role in a play called Íosagan, a dramatisation by Padraig Pearse of
his own short story, produced by Frank Dermody. In addition to this he expressed
an interest in sports, playing hurling and rugby for the famous Corinthians
club. After finishing school Walter took up a job on the County Council, doing
rates and accounts on a temporary basis. Walter however was not really
interested in this as from an early age he had expressed a wish to be a writer.
Walter was writing short stories, novels, and plays in exercise books from the
age of eight. He carried on these works well into his teens. However, he
destroyed these sometime between 1939 and 1947 when he returned from England to
the Taibhdhearc, saying that this was only his apprenticeship.
Walter did not stay long at the Council. He left what was really a temporary
post in 1933 aged 18, and the Taibhdhearc became central to his life. By the
time he met his greatest influence, Peggy Kenny, he was the Taibhdhearc's
leading actor. Peggy Kenny was from a different social background: her father
owned The Connacht Tribune , and the family lived in the affluent Crescent area
of Galway. Consequently, she had money and Walter did not (he was earning about
30 shillings a week). This would later cause problems for the couple.
Walter and Peggy would not have met but for the Taibhdhearc. When they met up
after rehearsals they would debate the merits of this and that writer, whilst on
long walks. Although the couple had gelled immediately, their taste in writers
differed considerably. (For example, Peggy liked Maupassant; Walter admired
Ibsen and Chekov). Thus in some ways they were like chalk and cheese. Peggy
however had a romantic ideal, that of being partnered with a budding writer.
Walter was always telling Peggy he wanted to be a writer and she always had
faith in his abilities. Then of course there was the fact that Walter was a
handsome man renowned for his spellbinding stage voice.
One could also say that Peggy and Walter's meeting was purely accidental.
Peggy's father, Tom 'Cork' Kenny, was a friend of the Taibhdhearc's director
Liam O Brien. The Taibhdhearc needed an actress for a part in a play called The
Marvellous Life of Bernard De Menthon , which was to be put on for Eamon de
Valera the Prime Minister, and the then president of Ireland Sean T. O'Kelly.
Peggy's father volunteered her and as she later said, "you always did what your
father told you".  Peggy was fluent in both Gaelic and French and had a first
class honours degree in English from University College Galway. She was ideal
for the role of the mother of the lead, Walter.
Walter would walk Peggy home to the Crescent after every rehearsal. They would
discuss their future lives together on these walks. The difficulty however was
that Peggy's father did not approve of Walter. He had no 'proper' job to provide
for the upkeep of his daughter. Eventually the couple decided that they would
have to elope.
After their marriage on February 9th 1937, they emigrated to London where Walter
worked as an insurance salesman. This experience over a two year period later
provided Walter with material for his second novel I Am Alone . Just before the
war broke out in 1939 they decided to move back to Galway when Walter was
appointed director of the Taibhdhearc.
The Children of the Moon, was the first play he produced. That was the beginning
of a long list of plays that he presented, directed, and acted in. Between 1939
and 1947 he put on 77 different productions. Then there was a famous trip to the
Gate Theatre in Dublin where he presented for the Dublin public three different
plays including a translation of The Shadow of A Gunman by Sean O'Casey. This
period of his life was very important because he began to write regularly, both
plays in Irish and pantomimes. He was involved with everything in the
Taibhdhearc: producing and directing, but also building the stages, and
designing sets and costumes. He also began to write in English. The Taibhdhearc
became the most important school in his life because this is where he learnt his
skill as a writer, and a dramatist.
After a disagreement with the management of the Taibhdhearc concerning the
production of plays in Gaelic, Walter resigned. He was offered an actor's role
in the Abbey Theatre. He spent three years working in the Abbey Theatre from
1947 to 1950. In a Cúrsaí special broadcast by RTE 2 on April 5 1988, Tómas Mac
Anna the Artistic Director of the time commented. "He played all the parts in a
wonderful way. He played the part of a minister in Mary Rose by J. M. Barry. And
Mungo in Mungo's Mansion. (His own play) And he was Bartley Dowd in a play
called The King of Friday's Men , by
M. J. Molloy.
Nobody ever achieved what he had achieved in that play."
During this period Walter wrote the plays Mungo's Mansion (1947), Vacant
Possession (1948), and his first novel Quench the Moon (1948), all published by
Macmillan. Vacant Possession and I Am Alone (1949), his second novel, were
plays, especially Mungo's Mansion , Walter began to develop a theme, which would
be prevalent throughout his life's work: the story of ordinary folk, "the little
people". The theme of the play was drawn from the stories of families who lived
in the squalid tenement buildings opposite the Taibhdhearc. Walter was
developing a style, which involved the use of personal biography, elements of
stories he was told, and personal traits of the people he met and lived with.
For example: when Walter was working in the Taibhdhearc a man came in and told
him the story of a young boy who had fallen into the sea by the Spanish Arch in
Galway, and how he was saved. This true story was featured at the beginning of
his third novel Rain on the Wind (1950), when the main character fell into the
After the huge success of M.J.Molloy's The King of Friday's Men, at the Abbey,
in which he played the leading part of Bartley Dowd, Walter was invited to
America by Michael Grace to play the role in New York, Boston, and New Haven. By
this stage Rain on the Wind had become a huge success. It had won the Literary
Guild award in America, which guaranteed sales of over 250,000 copies. Walter
was becoming a success in all walks of life; as film studios, television and
radio companies were all interested in him. He was offered a huge film contract,
which consisted of $40.000 a year for seven years, as well as a free house. He
turned this down saying that he had to go home to finish a novel ( The Bogman ,
1952). With the success of Rain on the Wind , Walter could now concentrate on
full time writing as a profession.
On returning to Dublin six months later in 1951, Walter became almost totally
committed to his writing. (He still took on some acting roles, and wrote
articles for some newspapers.) According to his son Ultan his attitude to
writing was based on the premise that a writer should not leave his own country,
and that the life of a writer should be like that of a monk: through isolation,
peace, and serenity he could be most creative. To further this, on the advice of
his publisher, Macmillan, he left Dublin to find a place where he could discover
The house he chose was called Gort na Ganiv in Oughterard, 20 miles from Galway
City, and about half a mile from Loch Corrib. In a secluded wild area of
Connemara the property had a boathouse on the lake, which provided Walter with
seclusion, as he partook of his main form of recreation, fishing. He lived there
from 1951 to 1966. During the years he spent there, he wrote seven other novels
The Bogman (1952), Sunset on the Windowpanes (1954), Sullivan (1957), Seek the
Fair Land (1959), The Silent People (1962), The Scorching Wind (1966) and The
Brown Lord of the Mountain (1967). In between times he took on a couple of film
roles. In 1959 he was the leading actor in a film production of his play Home is
the Hero written in 1952. In 1964 he took a leading role in a film adaptation of
Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow . Additionally he was continually writing short
story collections. The Green Hills and Other Stories (1956), God Made Sunday and
Other Stories ( 1962), City of Tribes (1966), and, again posthumously, The Coll
Doll and Other Stories (1969). All this as well as two children's books, The
Island of the Great Yellow Ox (1966) and The Flight of the Doves (1968), which
was later turned into a major feature film. It was with his historical trilogy,
Seek the Fair Land , The Silent People , and The Scorching Wind that Walter
Macken was to he prove his authorial creativity. Earlier in their marriage
Walter told Peggy that he wanted to write the history of his people from the
point of view of the ordinary man. " Before I die I want to do the history of
our own people from the viewpoint of the little man, not all the big shots and
the people who have done 100 things or anything like that." (Peggy Macken,
Cúrsaí , 1988)  He set out to do this by researching historical records and
documents for two years before he wrote each book in the trilogy. He told Peggy
that he wanted to be as exact as possible with the history in order for his work
not to be criticised by what he called the so-called experts.
Peggy Macken was always there for Walter. She provided him with security and
serenity at home. Whether it was in Oughterard , America or Dublin he did not
have to worry about run of the mill things. Throughout his life, although better
educated than him, she came into her own as simply an advisor and supporter. The
fact that she had a third level education would lead to claims that she re-wrote
some of his work. Her television interview on Cúrsaí (1988) clearly shows this
to be complete fabrication. The interview shows that even aged 79 she remained a
sharp, well-spoken individual reflecting a well-developed intellect. She had
given up a lot for Walter. Before they were married, Peggy had practically taken
over the role of running her father's newspaper, due to his illness. As news
editor of The Connacht Tribune she had used Walter to write book reviews and
articles. Yet even in their early days she had advised him: he would have to
learn how to type, and it would be useful to have shorthand. He replied "But I
never make notes Peggy".
Each morning Walter would go into the living room or study in Oughterard at
around ten o'clock. He would often smoke nearly a packet of cigarettes, walking
round the table before he sat down to write. This was because whatever he was
thinking about, whether it was a short story, a play or a novel he would have
worked out in his head the night before. He would have worked out exactly what
part of the plot he was going to write. He would write for maybe half an hour to
three quarters of an hour and then when he was finished typing he'd call Peggy
into the living room and he would read the material straight off the typewriter.
In Cúrsaí , Peggy vibrantly enthused that if she cried Walter knew it was good.
This was the kind of pattern Walter set for every day of his writing life.
In early 1966, Walter and Peggy decided to move from Gort na Ganiv to the small
Gaeltacht village of Menlo. They had only been there eight months when on 22 nd
of April 1967 Walter died suddenly from heart failure. He was currently working
on ideas for at least four new novels. He had told Peggy he was going to write a
book about Ireland 15 or 16 years from 'now' called Turadh Mor , an ordinary
down to earth, practical, non-romantic book, about people as they are. He was
also working for the first time on a musical production, God's Own Country . He
was only 51 years of age.