John Killeen.

Athlone native releases memoir of childhood in 1950s

An Athlone native who had a flare for writing growing up has returned to the craft by releasing a memoir which chronicles seven years of his childhood growing up in the town.

‘One for Sorrow, Two for Joy’ is a fictionalised memoir by John Killeen who grew up on Connaught Street in the 1950s, a place he says he would barely recognise now.

“Athlone is just a different place now. I wouldn’t recognise it because a lot of the buildings and streets have changed,” he told the Westmeath Independent.

“We lived just two doors away from Broderick’s Bakery, where the famous John Broderick lived.

“I was always writing so my mother suggested I go around to John’s house and show him some of my writing, which I did. He read it while I was sitting there, and he told me that I was able to capture people’s character and told me to write about people in the town.

“My mother had said the same thing, but I wasn’t very impressed by that idea. I liked the idea of being a writer but local people didn’t seem very exciting to me!”

The front cover of John Killeen's book.

John went on to attend boarding school in Sligo and spent his summers working in England, and hasn’t lived in the town since he was in his teenage years.

He also went on to teach English in countries such as France, Finland, Germany and, before he returned to Ireland after getting married in Spain.

“I wanted to settle in Ireland. When I returned in 1979 I felt a great need to write, and it had always puzzled me that nobody had written about the great Anglo-Irish houses.

“Because my wife is an artist, we decided to visit some of them in Offaly. She would draw them and I would write about them, and we ended up doing about a dozen articles for the Irish Times.”

John also wrote for the paper about his time travelling in Europe, but soon went on to establish a business in Galway providing English language courses for professional and business clientele.

Although he had been offered a position at the Irish Times in the 1980s, John declined as a result of his business in Galway which occupied him for the following 25 years.

“I would have had to have moved to Dublin. I had obviously set up the business in Galway so I just couldn’t do it, but I hated not be being able to do it,” John says.

“I didn’t really do much more writing until 2015, and in 2016 I had a short story published in the Fish Publishing Anthology which is an international competition.

“I was brought along to a writing group in Dalkey in Dublin and another story was published in an anthology and through that I met an editor named Robert Doran. I started putting a few stories together which ended up becoming ‘One for Sorrow, Two for Joy.’”

The book is a fictionalised memoir, John explains, with the names of people and shop buildings changed but all events are real.

“I changed around some details so that the time sequence is slightly different than how it actually happened, but all the characters are real.

“I’ve rubbed out the evidence of who is who, I suppose you could say. Everything I wrote about the floods in Clonown is completely factual, for example.”

Characters include Mrs Webb in her crumbling mansion, whose love of horses and indomitable spirit are infectious; the Crotty sisters, who oversee the moral standards of the town; Mr Foy, whose toyshop inspires envy and hope in every child; and the seventh son of a seventh son, whose powers of healing are liberally applied.

However, the stories are connected by John’s family. His father James came from Creevy in Roscommon while his mother Mary Flanagan grew up near Roscommon town.

“There were seven of us in the family, but I only really mention my older brother and sister because they feature strongly in the book,” John explained.

“What connects the stories is the background of a seriously dysfunctional family situation, which is offset by a housekeeper that we had who was everybody’s rock. Everything that happens is related to those two opposites, if you like.

“I only discovered later in life that my mother always wanted to write herself, so there’s a nice story in the book related to that which runs alongside the other stories.”

John was nervous showing the book to his family members, but he says the reaction from them all was great.

“When I showed the book to my older brother I was a bit nervous because I hadn’t consulted anybody about it, but he was delighted, as was my cousin Bernie Ward in Athlone and my sister Eileen in America. I was relieved, because you never know how people close to the story will react.”

The book has also received a review from American writer and academic John Maxwell O’Brien who said the coming of age story is described with “skill, sensitivity and universal appeal.”