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.
"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."
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