Mr & Mrs Kenny

April 28, 2013 at 5:03 am (Biography, Commentary, East Sepik District, expatriates, Maprik, Papua New Guinea, PNG Health)

It’s a funny thing in life how past doings and friends long since forgotten suddenly return to your consciousness.

Well, the other early morning when I awoke from my night’s sleep thoughts suddenly turned to Jim and Madge Kenny.

It would be getting close to fifty years since I’d seen or heard of this captivating couple.

It was in Maprik, in the then East Sepik District, in 1964-65 that I became acquainted with them. We were then all employed by the Public Health Department. Madge was a trained nurse in charge of maternal and child health, and Jim was an EMA (European Medical Assistant) at Maprik Hospital. I was with Malaria Service.

With thoughts about them I had occasion to look at the PNGAA Obituaries, and I came across Madge’s name. She died in 2000 after a distinguished career in nursing and health service management both in PNG and Australia. She left PNG in 1975. For her service there she was awarded an MBE. In Australia she held senior nursing positions, retiring in 1980.

I found no mention of Jim in the said Obituaries. I think I can safely say that like the old soldier he was, he simply faded away.

The stories about Jim were and I’m sure still are legend. What an extraordinary fellow he was.

He was a fighting medical orderly in the AIF with a Mention in Despatches to his credit. Jim carried out his medical duties in many different postings throughout PNG with skill and dedication.

By the time I knew him, he was no longer a young man, but still the dapper, clean and spruce gentleman that I’m sure he’d always been.

I remember him arriving at the Maprik Hotel after work in a PHD chauffeur-driven Land Rover, and stepping out onto the path to the bar ready for a convivial drinking session. If only I’d taken a picture, but alas, I have no snap of him.

We had many meetings together discussing important questions of state and health, lubricated with alcoholic beverages. In fact we used to call these meetings conferences.

On one occasion a young trainee medical assistant was heard to remark that when Mr Wall suggests to Mr Kenny a conference this is not what it really is, but only another name for a drinking session! I dare not comment on this assertion.

Going back some years before I knew Jim, he was on one of his periodic leaves from the Territory, in, I think, Sydney. His mind turned to the medical needs of the Territory’s  Health Department, and he decided he’d visit some medical supply companies. But prior to this he had a card printed that went thus:

 James Kenny, MA LLD                                                                               

Department of Public Health

Territory of Papua & New Guinea

He then duly visited a number of medical/pharmaceutical suppliers, and made extensive orders of products and drugs that he knew were urgently (in his opinion) needed back in the Territory. He signed all the necessary papers for immediate despatch, and everyone accepted his signature as sufficient authorization. You must remember that Jim had the gift of the gab, and he looked the part of a distinguished medical administrator.

Well, after sometime the equipment and drugs arrived by ship in Port Moresby, and the Public Health officials there were amazed to see the wonderful, including x-ray machines of the best and latest, and drugs arrive. The doctors were overjoyed by the products, but then they read the paper work with the consignment, and noticed the authorization approval by the one and only James Kenny. After that there were frantic phone calls to the Sydney companies pointing out that there was no money to pay for the supplied items and no authorization. They were told in no uncertain terms from Sydney that if there was no payment legal action would be taken out against the Health Department.

To make a long story short there was no way the doctors were going to send the supplies back because they were indeed items that were really needed.

At this time Dr John Gunther was the Director of the Health Department, and one of his senior officials had Jim up as it were on the mat.

It was pointed out to Jim that he’d put the Department in a very embarrassing position, and he had no permission to make these purchases, and then one of the officials said to Jim: “What’s this James Kenny, MA LLD?” Jim informed him in so many words that James Kenny was his name, and the MA LLD stood for Medical Assistant liklik dokta.

Being of Irish descent Jim was always eager to make a visit to Ireland. He did make a trip to Dublin, and meet up with some distant relations, and off they went to a pub.

When at the pub one of the customers after hearing Jim speak was reputed to have said: “What’s that Englishman doing in the bar?” – referring to Jim, to which one of his relations answered: “He’s no Englishman, that’s Jim Kenny, the son of Daniel Kenny!” After this a great night was had by all.

In his school years Jim attended Xavier College, Kew, Melbourne. I could not describe him as a fanatical Catholic, if indeed he practised at all. But I never heard him critical of the Church. I suppose his Irish blood was thicker than water, and there’d be inbuilt residual loyalty to Catholicism in his veins.

In both of us I detected some sort of affinity which may have been moulded by our shared Jesuit education – I went to St Ignatius’ College, Riverview. Be that as it may, but in many areas we both saw eye-to-eye, perhaps the drink helped a bit.

Madge, I would suspect was traditional C of E, Jim & Madge’s son, Michael, was sent to Trinity Grammar in Sydney.

Madge was a particularly generous hostess and one was often asked to the house for a meal or a party. Jim was also very generous, but he often found it difficult to stay awake for the arrival of guests.

On arrival at their house it was not unusual to see Jim fast asleep on a chair, and remain so for the duration of the social gathering, and just as the guests were about to leave Jim would wake up thinking the party was just about to start.

Poor Madge once said to me that it would be far easier to be married to a philanderer than to one who drank too much.

Jim, no doubt like us all had his faults, and perhaps at times he was in the grip of the booze, but from my perspective he was always a gentleman.

As I write this piece I’m listening to a recording of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, and I think back to those Maprik days, and the remarkable Madge and Jim couple. Both contributed a lot, and expats and the people of PNG are the better for their contact with them.

I think of the young Jim in his military days carrying a loaded 303, and a medical kit bag into battle, ready to fight and render aid – the EMA Jim, and Nurse Madge, in Misima, battling against a polio epidemic. Both rendered so much over the years to an emerging nation.

I often think even to this day that I’d love to again be in conference with Jim, and to be received so graciously by Madge at a dinner party given by her.

Madge Kenny MBE, and James Kenny MID, like Vaughan Williams’ lark, you two are ascending in my consciousness and appreciation.

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