Sunday 19 November 2017

A tribute to Ireland's greatest living poet

Now in his early eighties, Brendan Kennelly retains the humour, generosity and sense of devilment that have made him one of our most cherished poets. Liam Collins went to meet the much-loved 'Sunday Independent' contributor.

Brendan Kennelly. Photo: David Conachy
Brendan Kennelly. Photo: David Conachy
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

He seems at first morose, which surprises me, but as we talk he begins to thaw and, above the din of a crooner in the dining room and Judge Judy on the television in the corner, he begins to recite his poem Getting Up Early.

As he does the Kerry cadences roll across the room, the music of his voice works a kind of magic on the words and when he finishes the broad shining smile of Brendan Kennelly, the laughing boy from Ballylongford, is back.

"What's he saying?" asks one of the old dears sitting around the walls in the day room of the nursing home outside Listowel, Co Kerry.

"He's a poet," answers her visitor, quietly awed like me by the words that he recites off by heart in a mellifluous voice that has entertained empresses, down-and-outs, friends and politicians, and most importantly of all, the plain people of Ireland.

Like a lot of older people, Kennelly is not self-conscious about declaiming his own words, or the words of William Blake, WB Yeats or O Raifteiri. But then again he never was. And when he recites he appears to shed many of his 81 years and become again the boulevardier who strode the streets of Dublin city and held up the bars around Trinity College, where he spent much of his adult life.

As I look out the window at a low cloud hanging over a distant hill, he wistfully recites O Raifteiri, first in Gaelic and then in English:

Home again: Brendan Kennelly and his niece Kate Kennelly pictured recently in Brendan’s old bedroom where he grew up in Ballylongford. Photo: Domnick Walsh
Home again: Brendan Kennelly and his niece Kate Kennelly pictured recently in Brendan’s old bedroom where he grew up in Ballylongford. Photo: Domnick Walsh

"...and were I to be standing

In the centre of my people

Age would depart from me.

And I would be again young."

As we talk, one of the men sitting along the wall lets out "a bellow" and Kennelly begins to laugh, not at the man, but at the absurdity of the moment. "It's a very funny thing - a quick shout from a fellah sitting alone in a chair."

Although he appears to be the quintessential Kerryman, there is little enough of Kerry in Kennelly in terms of time. Born in Ballylongford in 1936, he was the third of eight children.

At the age of two he was sent to an aunt in Sligo where he lived for 18 months until his mother had the strength to take him back. "I never had any problems with my family but I do think that an experience like that leaves you feeling a bit of an outsider," he said much later.

He spent his summers in Cork learning Gaelic, which he speaks fluently - as he does French - and he left Kerry at the age of 16 only to return relatively recently to live near the village of Listowel.

His father, Timmy, had a garage but moved to a corner house down the street in Ballylongford and opened a pub. His mother, a qualified nurse, ran a kind of free diagnostic centre for the village.

His teacher in Tarbert, Jane Agnes McKenna, who had identified his preciosity, got him to apply for a sizarship to Trinity College, which was funded by a bequest of £6,200 in 1888 by local landowner Richard Touhill Reid and limited "to students of limited means who are natives of County Kerry".

He went, but found the college daunting at a time when Catholics were banned under an edict from Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. "I was absolutely alone - I think I was the only rural Irishman in the place," he said.

Afterwards he worked in the ESB and later in London, as a bus conductor on the Shepherd's Bush to Hounslow route, before going to the University of Leeds, where he was taken under the wing of Professor AN Jeffares, a Dublin-born Yeats scholar.

"He always encouraged me. I used to pass on everything I wrote to him and he gave me very creative helpful responses... he would say: 'I wouldn't pursue that, there is a better side to you than this.'"

His first collection of poetry, Cast a Cold Eye, was published in 1959, by which time he had returned to Trinity to lecture. He became Professor of Modern English in 1973.

Although the author of more than 50 books, poetry, novels, plays and essays, Brendan Kennelly is a lover of the spoken word rather then the written. He yearns for the days when people could recite, as he does, keeping the oral tradition of his people alive.

"I was more of a rhymer than a reader. I listened to the ballads that people sang in the street," he says.

The first ballad he wrote was based on a group of lads from the village who went to see Kerry playing Cork and some of them went to the pub and got left behind. "So I wrote The Four They Left Behind and they used to come into the pub after second Mass and I'd sing it for them... everything was verbal, but it was also about learning things by heart," he says - a trait encouraged by one of his teachers Johnny Walsh, a famous Kerry footballer.

Wistfully, he says: "You have to remember the 1940s and 1950s were times when small things mattered." He recites a local saying, or maybe it's his own:

"Sods and clods for the Well Road rogues,

Meal and bran for the saline clan,

Pudding and pies for the Ballyline boys."

He became interested in William Blake and his ideas. "True progress is only possible with opposites," he quotes, adding: "work that one out!"

As a student, and later a lecturer, he came to love Dublin. In digs in Darley's Terrace, off Cork Street, he became a familiar, friendly face, who treated the city like his Kerry village. "They called me a Culdub - a Culchie and a Dubliner," he says proudly.

"I loved preparing my lectures at night. It came to the point where I would work late, grab a few hours sleep and get up at 5am and walk out into the streets of the city, where I got to know people sleeping in doorways and they got to know me. 'Good morning Professor,' they would call. 'Have you a few bob at all?'"

He was living in digs in Fairview and Clontarf and walked into town, meeting people who had lived through the North Strand bombings, a character who used to walk around the city shaking holy water over people, and 'Lugs' Branigan, the toughest garda in the city, who Brendan knew protected the prostitutes from the men who would prey on them.

"And Ringsend," he adds, immediately declaiming an Oliver St John Gogarty poem:

"I will live in Ringsend

With a red-headed whore,

And the fan-light gone in

Where it lights the hall-door;

And listen each night

For her querulous shout

As at last she streels in

And the pubs empty out."

"I drank fairly heavily," he says, perhaps recalling the characters he met in one of the early houses, like Regan's in Tara Street where he drank with dockers, the lost, the lonely - "and old priests coming in for a few drinks to see them through the day."

He was also a legend in O'Neill's in Suffolk Street and there is often talk of "the lost years" of the poet with rock star habits before he gave it up 32 years ago, thanks to two friends, the former Dublin footballer Tony Hanahoe and Professor Terence Brown, a colleague at Trinity.

We talk briefly about Dublin city as it has now become and he quotes what he calls the "essential" line from the Pete St John song Dublin in the Rare Auld Times:

"They made a city of my town" adding, "Of course things have improved, but you always lose something."

Kennelly has an open mind about almost everything. Inspired by his love of poetry and language, I muse that it is all getting lost in this age of technology and instant messaging.

"I don't know, I wouldn't judge," he replies. "There are different kinds of heroes and heroines and blackguards... there will be mythology around these as well.

"A lot of my thoughts go back to national school when I was five or six... much older people have always fascinated me. I remember my grandfather, or was it great-grandfather, Jack Ahern, was gored by a bull and he spent the rest of his life sitting by the fire. I used to spend time sitting on his knee listening to him talking to the old people who called in to see him. It was a source of fascination," he says, adding thoughtfully, in that deadpan Kerry way, "a Hereford bull," as he identifies the culprit of the goring.

He believes his life's work is "searching for a theme" and he talks about his love of epic poems. Maybe inspired by Kavanagh's The Great Hunger there are three long poems that still play on his mind, Cromwell (1983), The Book of Judas (1991) and an unpublished poem called The Body.

This is the 'dark side' of Brendan Kennelly. He tried to "get into the minds" of Judas and Oliver Cromwell, to probe what was in Judas's mind when he betrayed Christ. Similarly with Cromwell. "I went over to Ely (they call it Eely in England) and read his letters. In one of them he told his son 'be well behaved if it possible to be well behaved, but I have work to do in Ireland'. He was a mass murderer but to him it was work. He was convinced he was doing the right thing."

A critic wrote that these poems are "investigations into the shifting and troubled passions that work in the two vast arenas of hate and anger."

In his unfinished poem The Body, he tried to deal with "its requirements, forces, individual difficulties, certain things we can be ashamed of." The poem is the dark unseen side of the smiling poet of the people. "It was making me think of those that killed or raped, how do they think, what relationship has he with his body and the woman's body?" he wonders. This struggle to understand evil may have been too much for the sensitive side of him and would certainly have been controversial had it seen the light of day.

When I ask why it remained unfinished he simply shrugs: "There are unfinished things.

"The theme that has engaged me most is 'otherness.' What was the 'otherness' of Judas or Cromwell? Or the 'otherness' of flowers. I remember Doodle [his daughter] when she was three years of age she saw a flower and asked 'what is a flower, and does the flower die? Will people die? Will I die?'"

A kindly carer asks if he wants to have his tea, but now that the conversation is flowing he says politely he'll have it later. But we don't return to the theme of 'otherness' or the perceptiveness of his daughter's questions. Maybe just as well.

Later I look up the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature which sums up his life's work: "Throughout his poetry there is an impulse to let humanity speak of its disgrace as well as its love, making his work a form of liberation. Though Ireland is insistently the theme, Kennelly evades sentimentality and there is always 'the distance that was the love between him and his kind.'"

He married Peggy O'Brien, Doodle's mother, and lived in Sandymount, Dublin 4, but they broke up when Doodle was 11, mostly due to his drinking.

In 2013 a fellow academic at TCD, Sandrine Brisset, wrote a biography of Kennelly called Behind The Smile, but it was withdrawn from some bookshops after complaints by members of his family.

Sport, Gaelic football in particular, was another great distraction of his life,

Kennelly played in the 1954 Minor All-Ireland final for Kerry against Roscommon. Indeed his name is forever associated with the match as he describes it. With Kerry winning by two points in the dying stages of the game Vinny Bell "came thundering down and I tackled him and I stopped him, but he was given a free and put the ball in the net and they won by two points."

He smiles at the memory.

"They never forget that at home in your village, you know. A couple of years ago they erected a bust of me in Ballylongford and I was shaking hands with people when one fellah said to me: "It's great to see you, but aren't you the little boy who lost the All-Ireland for us.'"

Ideas have always been tumbling out of him, even at lectures. He wrote them out in little notebooks and then he wrote his poems, in coffee shops and a quiet corner of St Stephen's Green and other places. He shrugs when I ask where the notebooks are now.

He doesn't even have many of his own books, he says. At readings people "walked off with them", yet as always he sees the good side. "I hope they enjoyed them."

Back in Listowel I have a pint in John B Keane's pub, where a picture of him adorns the wall. "I owe him [Kennelly] an awful lot, I don't think The Field would have seen the light of day without him," John B said some years before his death.

They were drinking whiskey together in the pub one night when he pulled the manuscript from a drawer, telling the poet he didn't know what to do with it.

Brendan took it away and came back to tell him that 'The Bull' McCabe was a magnificent character and he'd given the script to Phyllis Ryan, who showed it to the actor Ray MacAnally, who said: "I want to play that man." The rest is history.

Brendan Kennelly says "encouragement is a special kind of art," and he always had it, not just for John B or the writers he met and knew - Flann O'Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O'Connor - but for almost everybody he meets.

He comes back to Gay Byrne asking him to sum up his life. "I think I was a teacher," he said, adding: "If my students learned as much from me as I was learning from them, to me that was education." He uses the Latin word educo - "to lend your ideas" - and that is one of the most important things he has tried to do in life.

Even when he seems not to be looking he still sees things.

When I call him the following morning he tells me "you were taking great notes," and remarks on the line that reporters draw down the centre of their notebooks. His interests are people and words and even if he is now in a nursing home, he hasn't lost that interest, in his visitors or the man sitting in a chair letting out a shout that gladdens Kennelly's heart.

Friends come to call and he mentions Paddy and Alan, and his sister Nancy and her husband Dan McAuliffe, who have The Elm Bar in Duagh and who take him out for excursions.

"I love to go to Ballybunion," he says. "I remember a fellah I knew who used to say: 'There is no sight that equals the sight of a girl's bottom in a bikini, like two duck eggs in a silk hanky.'"

His life was walking and talking and writing. The writing part may have come to an end, the books scattered, but approaching his 81st year there's still, life, devilment, learning and laughter in the last of the great poets of a bygone era.


Begin again to the summoning birds

to the sight of light at the window,

begin to the roar of morning traffic

all along Pembroke Road.

Every beginning is a promise

born in light and dying in dark

determination and exaltation of springtime

flowering the way to work.

Begin to the pageant of queuing girls

the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal

bridges linking the past and future

old friends passing through with us still.

Begin to the loneliness that cannot end

since it perhaps is what makes us begin,

begin to wonder at unknown faces

at crying birds in the sudden rain

at branches stark in willing sunlight

at seagulls foraging for bread

at couples sharing a sunny secret

alone together while making good.

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending

that always seems about to give in

something that will not acknowledge conclusion

insists that we forever begin.

- The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems, with CD readings (Bloodaxe Books, 2011)

Sunday Independent

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment