A modest Mayo heroine

County View

John Healy

There have been many remarkable Mayo people, with remarkable stories to tell. But many have chosen to live their lives out of the limelight, so that their achievements have too often gone uncelebrated in their native county.
One such is a Bangor Erris woman who came to be revered in her adopted Japan, honoured by the Japanese Imperial family, and whose burial place in Tokyo is far removed from where she walked barefoot to school and where she picked mountain flowers in the ‘Lily Lake’.
Kathleen Lynn was born in 1932, the daughter of Jimmy, a master craftsman from Briska, and her Galway born mother, Mary, the principal teacher of Glencullen National School. She grew up with an inherent love of Irish culture and poetry, especially that of Yeats - her only transgression as a schoolgirl was to mitch from her studies at the Ursulines in Sligo to attend the poet’s funeral in Drumcliff in 1948.
A private person who never sought fame or acclaim, little did she know that her destiny was to become one of the most important non-Japanese to be honoured by the Emperor, and to become one of the most celebrated translators of Japanese Waka culture and poetry for a European audience.
Graduating from UCG in 1953 with first honours in French and Spanish, Kathleen Lynn was awarded a French government scholarship to the Sorbonne in Paris. It was there she was to  meet her future husband, Yoshiya Kato, a Japanese diplomat posted to Poitiers. When they married, it required a special permission from the Japanese consulate in France - it was only the second time since World War Two that a diplomat of that country had married a foreigner.
Kathleen Kato, as she now was, soon immersed herself in the culture and poetry of her husband’s race, and eagerly enjoyed the travel and the new experiences which came with each of his diplomatic postings. Living in New York while Yoshiya was posted to the UN, she completed her second MA at Columbia University. When they moved to Beijing in 1980, she learned Chinese, and on moving to the diplomatic mission in Cairo, she mastered hieroglyphics.
The mid-eighties saw the couple return to Europe when he was appointed to Brussels, from where it became that much easier to visit her native Mayo and reconnect with her childhood friends in Bangor Erris. However, Yoshiya’s sudden death in 1991 left her with the duty of returning to Japan and taking care of her late husband’s ageing mother.
It was there that she again threw herself into the pursuit of traditional Japanese plays and poetry, writing on Yeats and the Noh theatre, and publishing scholarly tracts on Irish and Japanese literature.
Her expertise was recognised by the Imperial family, who entrusted her with the task of translating their wealth of Waka art and literature into English. In return, she was  honoured by being named as a ceremonial special advisor to the Emperor of Japan, the first non-Japanese and the first woman to ever hold such office, in which she served for 15 years.
Kathleen Lynn Kato died in Japan eight years ago, and in a gesture reserved for those of outstanding merit and stature, the Emperor had a bowl of white roses placed by her portrait at her funeral in Tokyo, thousands of miles from where she was born.It is fitting that her story should be remembered in the Mayo Genealogy Group’s project, 101 Mayo People. She is one of our unsung heroines, a woman who reached the heights but who lived quietly and without fuss, and whose achievements would otherwise have barely merited a footnote in history.