Happy 80th birthday Brendan Kennelly
Ireland's chair of poetry Paula Meehan celebrates the unique, inspiring spirit of the much-loved bard
I heard you before I ever saw you, a laugh and then that mesmeric Kerry accent, then more laughter, somewhere around a corner, somewhere in Trinity College in Dublin. You were an inspired and inspiring lecturer. You encouraged independent thinking. You valued dissent and argument. You valued most, it often seemed, a good laugh, being convinced of its therapeutic value. Even if often it was gallows humour.
I always loved meeting you on your rambles outside the walls, prodigious walker that you were. You could manifest anywhere: up the warren of lanes off Cork Street once, a summer's morning on the Bull Wall, the lock gates over the Grand Canal where it steps down into the Liffey. You must have worn a few inches off the city's footpaths in your time. And everywhere ball hopping, banter, and yarn spinning, with stories whimsical, mysterious, curious, hilarious, scurrilous.
A favourite story you'd tell against yourself: the man who mistook you for Augustine Martin of University College Dublin and started bending your ear about that 'fat little f….. Kennelly down there in Trinity' and you joining in to berate the 'jumped up little b…..x from Kerry'.
"Night: the pits are everywhere.
I am slipping into the pit of my own voice,
Snares and traps in plenty there."
So opens your masterwork Cromwell. I hold the first, 1985, Beaver Row Press edition in my hands. It is signed by yourself, Brendan, and by the artist Brian Kelly. It is a terrifying read, an enactment of historical trauma within a contemporary consciousness, in poems merciless and relentless.
It is a handbook to the inner Oliver Cromwell, the butcher who lives in each of us, internalised colonial monster. It is a moral book, bleak in its assessment of the human capacity to inflict suffering and abuse authority. Not the cuddly Kerryman, at all, at all. It calls each of us to account for our actions, especially actions driven by an unexamined relationship with power.
I don't imagine for one minute the vision didn't cost. Your public persona, as explainer of poetry, as philosopher-poet on radio and television, was massively reassuring and comforting to many, even soothing.
What people tuned into, I believe, was this great-hearted empathy, a real sense that nothing human was alien to you. But to me, you were an embodiment of the idea of the wounded healer. So many of your poems cherished and carried well beyond the university walls and the literary coteries of the Republic into the rooms and lonely spaces of the suffering.
Your much-loved poem, Begin is one of the poems I've heard most often at funerals over the years. Once someone close to me left it with their suicide note. I knew that it was left to console us, long after:
"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."
I remember waiting with Theo Dorgan at Athens airport - you were due to arrive in at the same time as the returning victorious Greek National Basketball team, and there were thousands of supporters there chanting Kinelli! Kinelli! for one of the star players of that team.
You came through the Arrivals door nodding graciously to left and right, an episcopal wave of the hand… in your striped tee shirt, with your small suitcase, as if alighting from a bus in Ballybunion.
Later in the mountain villages of Crete and at its ancient Minoan sites you charmed poets and villagers alike with your words and your radiant presence.
I like to think of you in the olive groves, sober and relaxed, a little sunburned, so completely at home in the world.
Whenever I see you these days I can't resist making that joke - "How do you recognise the Kerry Mafia?" Answer: "They make you an offer you can't understand."
We both know that you are, by the Flann O'Brien system of molecular interchange, at least 70pc Dubliner at this stage in your long and distinguished life - but that big, deep laugh is still pure Kerry.
Sunday Indo Living