Saturday 18 January 2020

Brendan's art of new beginnings

As Brendan Kennelly marks his 80th birthday today, we reflect on a man of great heart who grew from a troubled soul to a national treasure

Brendan Kennelly in the grounds of Trinity College.
Brendan Kennelly in the grounds of Trinity College.

Sarah Caden

Anyone who saw it has never forgotten it. There was a moment when Gay Byrne looked taken aback, before he rose to the occasion, and, when he turned to Brendan Kennelly, a panellist that night, for a few words, the poet looked thrown too.

It was the end of a Late Late Show, one Friday night in May 1997, and Gay was carrying out the quiz phone call. It was, Gay says, "a two-minute bit", a piece of housekeeping that preceded signing off.

The woman at the end of the telephone line was waking her daughter at home when Gay rang. Her daughter, who had died in a car accident, had posted the competition entry for her. And now, only days later, the young woman was being waked. It was like everything and everyone froze. It was awful to contemplate. The pointlessness of the shiny new car and the image of the car crash. The mundane light-entertainment moment altered into something awful. There was no good in it, until Brendan Kennelly found his words and his poem, Begin.

As he recited, Kennelly transformed before our eyes. His eyes shone. His dimples flashed. He said the right thing and it felt like he said it for all of us. That night, perhaps, he began what Gay called, when we spoke last week, his evolution into "national treasure".

That was, Gay said, "one of the most memorable nights of TV ever", but Brendan Kennelly's Late Late Show experiences were always special. Talking last week to Gay about Brendan Kennelly's 80th birthday, which falls today, he recalls an evolution of the man, the poet, over many years of Late Late appearances.

By the time he came to what was then Ireland's must-see TV show, Kennelly was long past being "troubled by the drink", as Gay puts it. This was Kennelly more at peace with himself, more in love with life.

"When you introduced him," Gay recalls, "you would feel the audience settle back in their seats, confident that this was going to be good. He's a very special man, and people recognised it.

"Women particularly loved him; they crumpled in the face of his smile. He has that lovely dimple they just wanted to crawl in to. When he was younger, he was so cherubic, and the dimple won women over, but when he got older, they wanted to take care of him."

What Gay conveys, perhaps, is that sense of ownership that Irish people have about Brendan Kennelly. To Dubliners, he has been, a permanent fixture perambulating the streets around Trinity College, the institution that has been his home for almost all of his adult life.

He is the man with that still cherubic look, the glint in the eye, the lips that seem always ready to smile, always twitching to convey some bit of wisdom, some observation to whomever stops to talk. People have always stopped to talk to Brendan Kennelly, and he has always been one to listen to them.

When Doodle Kennelly was a little girl, she sometimes resented how her father was stopped by so many strangers on the street. "I remember pulling at his sleeve to get him to move on," Brendan's only child told me last week. "I remember it particularly on the Trinity cobbles. Pulling him along. But that was only when I was small. As I got older, I didn't mind."

As Doodle got older, as she grew out of a child's jealous desire for a parent's full attention, she enjoyed how Brendan Kennelly stopped and was stopped for a chat by strangers all over the city. She appreciated the warmth with which he was regarded around the capital. She loved that the enormous love she felt for her father went beyond the two of them.

Brendan Kennelly's mother taught him that love was all that mattered and he has tried to live by that all his 80 years.

The now retired Professor of Modern Literature in Trinity's English Department was born in Ballylongford, Co Kerry. He was raised there, he retains the accent and language of Kerry, but Dublin has been his life. More specifically, Trinity has been his life.

Growing up in Kerry, he was one of eight Kennelly children. As he told Barry Egan in an interview in this paper four years ago, he had a tricky position in the family - possibly due to a tricky disposition. Unlike his brothers, he wasn't a brilliant sportsman - though he was proficient enough to play on the Kerry junior, minor and, briefly, senior teams - but they were greater stars than he, at least to his mind.

Seeking to ascertain his place in the world, he asked his mother what was the secret of life. "To love as much as you can," she told him, and that is what he has tried to do.

He has lived by that, but it was his brain that allowed Brendan Kennelly to carve out his place in the world. A clever schoolboy, he came to love literature early, thanks to a wonderful teacher in Tarbert who encouraged him to apply to Trinity.

Catholics were banned from attending Trinity at that time, but Kennelly applied for the Reid scholarship, originally set aside for Kerry students from poor backgrounds. He won the scholarship and then won dispensation to attend from the Bishop of Kerry, a kindness that started a lifelong love affair with literature, though his love of Trinity didn't take immediately.

"I was absolutely alone," he said in a 1996 interview. "I think I was the only rural Irishman in the place at that time. The rooms were so cold and dark and high ... a kind of 19th Century prevailed."

He gave up the world of literature for a time, working variously in the ESB in Dublin and then as a bus conductor in London, before returning to TCD, where his love affair with the place began proper. He published his first book of poetry while still a student, and then began teaching there in the early 1960s until his retirement in 2005. It was a long career, full of affection and admiration from his students, for whom he always had time and attention.

But if Kennelly loved literature and Dublin and people, for a long time he loved the drink more. Needless to mention, it didn't love him. It proved the ruin of his marriage to American-born academic, and Doodle's mother, Peggy O'Brien. Drink nearly killed him.

The intervention of close friends and the determination of the college to stick by him were what got him through. But the bad years of drink and the years after his marriage break-up were hard, on him and, of course, on Doodle.

"He has always been very caring and thoughtful and a present presence," she said last week. "I never felt pushed aside, I was always part of his world." When she moved for a time to the US with her mother, she and Brendan spent holidays together, spoke on the phone and wrote to each other. Brendan recently found some of those letters, she tells me.

"The period of alcoholism was maybe the roughest," Brendan Kennelly has said. "Because you kind of lose yourself. You think it's great, but it's ... It's a time of ... self-deception masquerading as adventure."

He gave up drink in 1986, the year of his 50th birthday, and began a new life, a new adventure.

Over the years, he struggled with dark times. "Your light goes on and off now and again," is how he has described it. But his fascination with life and people has never dimmed and is there in his poetry.

Kathleen Watkins recalls how, some years ago, Kennelly phoned and asked her to take part in a poetry reading with him. She was tremendously flattered to be asked, and the experience turned out to be even more wonderful than she had expected.

"It was sheer magic," she recalled to me last week. "After reading some of his own work, he asked the audience if anyone wrote themselves and a hand went up here and there and he asked them to come up and read. One man took out a crumpled piece of paper and smoothed it out to read it, I remember.

"And Brendan's sheer enjoyment of other people reading was wonderful to witness and he turned the evening around to be about them."

Kathleen also remembers seeing Kennelly in the Kilkenny shop cafe one day, on the other side of the room from her, with a group of his students. "I remember wondering if they knew how lucky they were," she says.
Niall MacMonagle, editor of Windharp, broadcaster and former English teacher at Wesley College in south Dublin, was lucky enough to entice Kennelly to speak to his students on one occasion. He describes the poet as "a man with a heart as big as the Kingdom of Kerry," and recalls the generosity and openness of the man who stood before his students.

"Kennelly was once asked," says MacMonagle, "what was the lowest point in his life? 'I don't think like that,' he replied. 'I like that old Kerry saying: Once you get up in the morning and stick your old leg out, you should be grateful'."

There are "various festivities" planned for today, Brendan Kennelly's 80th birthday, according to his daughter, Doodle. It is something to celebrate.

Begin was the poem that Brendan Kennelly recited that night on the Late Late. It spoke of death and loss, but also of life and the love of it. It is as apt, perhaps, for a birthday as a bereavement and concludes: 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.

And 80, perhaps, is as good a place to have another new beginning as any.

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