Brendan Kennelly talks to Barry Egan about his 'incredible' daughter Doodle, stopping drinking, the secret of life his mum gave him, and the joy he gets from giving people pleasure through his poetry
The night before I am due to meet Brendan Kennelly, I have a long and fascinating conversation with a woman who knows him better than perhaps any other woman – his only child, Doodle. "I love that he has told me he loves me every single time we have spoken since my memory began," she said at one point, adding: "I love to burrow into him when he hugs me, he smells of cinnamon and my childhood, and old books. I love that he has never failed me, ever. I love him for saving my life."
I asked Doodle how her father saved her life precisely. "He saved my life," she answered, "by coming to get me in the States for a start, when I was anorexic. And then devoting himself to making me better. He has saved my life by calling me every night at 7pm sharp for the last 22 years since. He speaks as if he has an umbilical chord coming straight from mother Mary herself. And I'm not even Catholic. But he is the most holy person I know."
The following morning beneath the arches of Trinity College I meet the holy man himself. He is smiling broadly even though it is lashing rain, and Arctic. "I love Doods," the poet, as distinguished beyond this shores as he is in Ireland, says when I tell him the gist of the previous night's conversation. "She is an incredible, incredible woman." We walk in the pouring rain to a cafe near Grafton Street, him wrapped up against the elements in a coat to his ankles and a woolly hat half-covering his red ears. He possibly knows the streets around Dublin as intimately as James Joyce or Patrick Kavanagh once did. I've certainly bumped into him often enough over the years shuffling along Dawson Street and Suffolk Street and beyond. He goes to Mass in the church on Clarendon Street every Sunday. "I think I got married there as well," he says.
Setting down with a mug of tea, Kennelly tells me that he has just heard this morning from his publisher Neil Astley at Bloodaxe Books about the 150 poems he sent him recently. The book, entitled Guff, will be published in October. Kennelly created a character called Guff "who says things and thinks about what he says and questions it". And Guff has a girl who says things to him. He talks to her. It is about the endless conversation between the two. 'Who are you? What are you doing? Would you kiss my clit?'
Is it autobiographical? Is there a woman in your life at the moment?
"I have a good friend, yeah, a great friend," he says softly.
Have you been together long?
"Ah, years. Chatting away to each other. She's a great friend. She's very interested in poetry." After this interview, Kennelly will work for the rest of the day "with God's help". He uses a pen. He stopped teaching in Trinity about four or five years ago, he says. He has lived in Trinity College – where he was Professor of Modern Literature since 1973 – "since the marriage broke up".
Brendan Kennelly from North Kerry and Peggy O'Brien from Massachusetts met in the Shelbourne hotel in 1967 or thereabouts. They were married in 1969 and walked from the church to the wedding reception at the Shelbourne Hotel. They were on the front page of the Evening Press and were what passed for the It Couple of the time in Dublin – the poet cum Prof from Trinners and the beautiful American woman. They broke up when Doodle, who was born on March 16, 1970, was 11.
Do you ever look back on your marriage?
"She'd come into me head the odd time," he says of Peggy.
Have you written poems about the marriage but disguised the subject matter?
"There may have a couple of poems written at the time. I haven't memorised them because, as one of the cleaners in Trinity – a lovely girl – said to me once, 'When you're gone, you're gone.' I thought it was a great statement to make about some of the marriages, as well as my own, that are dead and gone. It is hard, if you like, not to be haunted, but at the same time it is very important to begin again.
"You mentioned the word philosophy earlier to me and I think that can be mine," he says.
As a young boy, Brendan asked his mother what the secret of life was. To which she replied: 'To love as much as you can.' The context of the question all those years ago in Kerry was, he explains, that there were six boys and two girls in the family. "Growing up as the third of six brothers can be hard. If you are not as good a footballer as the two before you or the three behind you, they let you know. Sometimes you don't feel loved," the sage-like Kennelly recalls now, seven decades later.
"So," he continues, "I remember asking my mother that question and she said love as much as you can and you will be loved. I think she was very wise. 'We must love one another or die' – I think it was Auden who said that. Love is very strong in Patrick Kavanagh too. He made a journey towards it." Kennelly has contributed to a programme on the late legend of Irish poetry, On The Streets Where He Lived – Patrick Kavanagh, with Moya Doherty and Maxi presenting, which is on on RTE Radio 1 on December 27 from 4pm to 5pm.
When Kennelly became a fellow of Trinity he met Kavanagh who, upon hearing the news, told him: "I always knew you were a fella, Brendan." "Kavanagh was witty in a mix of the country way and the city way," Kennelly says. "As the years went by, he became – I wouldn't say he became a city man – but he loved Dublin, parts of it."
Kennelly was born in Ballylongford in April 1937. I wonder did this honorary Dubliner's philosophy eventually become that of a city man. "It was Behan who said, 'Once you pass the Red Cow Inn in Inchicore, they eat their young'. That was his way of having a go at the culchies. I am here now since 1953. I call myself a culdub – a culchie and a Dub."
He says he doesn't feel like an outsider, not least because people are forever stopping him in the street to thank him for giving them pleasure through his poetry. "They use the word 'pleasure' a lot and I think it is great when someone says you have given me a bit of pleasure. I feel good about that.
"Kavanagh could be very grumpy and giving out but in the heart of hearts, no other Irish poets has written so beautifully about love."
Not even Yeats?
"Ah, a different kind of love. He was a great poet, but his idea was to find a theme and then he could be an authority about it. You wouldn't dispute it. He always had enough money, Yeats. Kavanagh was broke a lot of the time ... "
Sketchy about dates, Kennelly says not so long ago acidic poison was flowing through his system until one day a lovely man in Trinity called Dr Thomas had a look at him and sent him to James Hospital. "They let new blood into me for 22 days," he says. Brendan says he is terrified about letting Christmas in. "I don't know where to go. I am half terrified and then I love it," he laughs.
The last time he drank was 26 years ago. Is that part of his fear of Christmas?
"Would I break out, as they say?" he chortles. "Christmas is a special time for the city. It is a mixture of loneliness and happiness and memory and wondering about people you knew as a boy. You know, lonely fellas in the village, old lads. They come back into your mind, and that would be maybe 70 years ago. It is recollection. It is memory. Don't forget where you came from."
He remembers writing one of his early books Getting Up Early "in a little flat in Rathmines in the Sixties. I was young at the time. Fellas used to come around and leave the bottles of milk at the door. There was a sense of Dublin as a very friendly, neighbourly place."
He still gets up early in the morning, sometimes just before the dawn and he looks out "and it is still dark". Some people have said to me that Brendan Kennelly is depressed. He says he loves life. He smiles. "I get down."
The lights in the restaurant we are in keep going on and off. I ask is his depression or sadness like the lights.
"That's a good image," he laughs. "Your light goes on and off now and again." Asked what will he do for Christmas, he says he hasn't thought about it yet to tell the truth. It is another day but it is full of echoes, he muses, adding that those echoes for him include thoughts of "the stable at Bethlehem and the woman giving birth and the animals around and the Three Wise Men bringing gold and the drama of all that. For some reason I think of a stable in the village where a woman lived, and she was happy. In the sense that she had a tiny little house next to the stable. I often have a chat with her in my head. I suppose she was connected with Mary but she was a real woman."
Will you have Christmas dinner with Doodle?
"As they say in Kerry," he chortles, "'You never know.'"
Kennelly's father Timmy met a girl in America and was going to marry her. He decided to come home to Ireland to say goodbye to his people because, says Kennelly, if you married in America in 1930 you stayed there. He went to Ballybunion for a last dance. It was there that he met Bridie. Timmy never went back to Amerikay. He and Bridie married and settled down and had eight children in a small village eight miles from the Ballybunion dancehall they met in.
Asked what he inherited from his mother, he says: "Respect for dignity. She was a nurse. She looked after people, after Mass every Sunday, she used to look after them."
His father, he describes as "a big strong man. Mad Fine Gaeler. He was a relaxed individual." So much so that he used to begin the morning every day down the stairs into the kitchen and he'd do a little dance. He didn't pass on his Michael Flatley-like skills to his son. "I am a useless dancer," he says. "But knowing that I was a lousy dancer, I'd keep talking and get my dancing girl into a conversation." Timmy also, he says, smoked Gold Flakes. He had a great saying, adds Kennelly: 'I'd rather one Gold Flake than a fortnight in Florida." He took delight in life. Brendan applauds that maxim to living to this day. "Some of the fellas I used to see drinking pints, they kind of make love to the pint. I knew a fella when he'd be sipping he'd say: 'Oh Jesus, you're a lovely body. Look at the lovely creamy head on you.It is such a pleasure to drink you.'"
Do you feel like a frustrated celibate now having had a great sex life, so to speak, with the drink for so many years?
"I did love pints," he smiles. "The pint has a history in Ireland. It is substantial and delightful and demands a follower. You know, you've got to maybe have seven or eight pints, because they call on each other to be replaced."
Was there any creativity in the hangover?
"I found it stimulating. Sometimes words said from the night before would inspire me. Things I would have said or heard."
I ask him why he gave up the drink.
"Because I met a doctor, a woman, and she said to me: 'I know you, Brendan. And if you keep drinking the way you're drinking, you'll be gone in a year'." He says he stopped that second. He says he ran into "a fella" recently and he said to Kennelly: 'Do you remember when we used to drink in O'Neills?'" the one-time boozer says of the watering hole on Suffolk St where he lost a good few years.
Did his poetry change when he stopped drinking? He shakes his head. "I suppose I wrote longer poems. I did a long one on Cromwell and on Judas and Poetry My Arse and The Man Made Of Rain."
Hasn't your whole life been essentially committed to answering the question you asked your mother as boy? 'What is the secret of life?' "I would agree. I would say love is so important. What is it? It is a thing that human beings can share with each other. It is not just sexuality. It's making space in yourself for the stranger, I did a book called Familiar Strangers and I think that's what lies behind it."
He is 76 years of age now. He says he doesn't know whether he has got to know himself better with age. "The question of who am I never dies away. Maybe poetry is a constant search for an answer that it never finds."
So is it a curse as much as a gift? Does the searching unlock loneliness as well as clarity? Is there a duality there the whole time?
"There is objectivity and there is the voices. I think they are connected. You are objective as well as being open to absorbing another identity: the identity of the floor or the roof or the light. Look at that," he says pointing at the flickering lights in the restaurant, "Five lamps. It makes me think of the Five Lamps down the road. Keep your eyes wide open. I suppose the older you get the less gifted you are in some ways, but perhaps in other ways you feel more up to something. You want to find that voice.
"You are constantly searching for the marriage of the two voices – the one within you and the one outside you. You put them together. That creates a lot of poetry for me," he continues. You wonder whether there's perhaps a solitary part of Kennelly that is inviolable to the outside world, possibly even to his nearest and dearest, even to Doodle. You wonder what goes on in the shadowlands of his mind. Yet you don't have to wonder far. It is in remarkably powerful lines from The Book Of Judas such as: 'I had not understood that annihilation, Makes him live with an intensity I cannot understand.
'That I cannot understand is the bit of wisdom I have found.'
In person, the author of those words is a potent amalgam of gentle charm, uplifting wit, joy, mystical inner voices and heartrending pathos, with a touch of the ribald, of the religious. He has a line for everything – like a doctor for the soul.
"I don't know if you've ever read The Man Made Of Rain?" he says referring to his book that was inspired by visions Kennelly had after he had the quadruple bypass. "I don't think I had had a heart attack. It must have been 10 or 15 years ago," he says, adding, "You have probably seen by now that I have lost touch with the chronology of time."
Brendan was in intensive care in the Blackrock Clinic in October 1996 – I looked it up – and, he says, a man came into the room. "Or so I thought. He stood beside me and he was made of rain. I chatted with him, I was in that other world."
They chatted about everything from the war to love to his father to scars. Brendan has a big scar from his chest down to his knee from the operation. There is a section of The Man Made Of Rain about scars. Kennelly remembers a Tipperary hurler – "I forget his name" – saying he liked his poems. He met him once and he showed Kennelly his scars. He lifted his trousers and he pointed and he said: 'That's Christy Ring' (the GAA legend). Then he went through all the other scars and he would tell Kennelly the stories behind them.
Was your scar for the quadruple bypass a metaphor for you?
"It was. It was another chance to live."
I wonder what was the lowest point in his illustrious life. "I don't know if I think like that," he answers. "I like that old Kerry saying: 'Once you get up in the morning and stick your old leg out, you should be grateful.'"
'On The Street Where He Lived – Patrick Kavanagh' presented by Moya Doherty and Maxi. Produced by Maxi and Jim Lockhart on RTE Radio 1, on December 27, 4-5pm