Brendan Kennelly didn’t beat Alzheimer’s, but he recited poetry almost to the end. Small victories are the great glories of wars lost before they begin.
Brendan was well-minded. He fought the Alzheimer’s with all his might. His niece, Mary Kennelly, told me that even near the end, he would burst into song. Old football songs mostly from when he was the small boy listening in his dad’s pub in Ballylongford.
Fort Shannon sent Sugrue and Egan,
With Winston and Lynch in the van,
McElligot swept all before him
With black Doohan, a rock of a man.
The staff in Aras Mhuire, where the poet spent his final years, were moved to tears when Brendan recited his most famous poem, Begin, in tandem with his friend, President Michael D. Aras Mhuire arranged for Brendan to watch the presentation of his papers to Trinity on Zoom.
They were very good to him when his only child, Doodle, died about six months ago.
Brendan and John B loved each other like brothers since they first met when Dad saved Brendan from a beating by a mad priest. Dad and Brendan told each other their troubles, but their friendship was mostly based on humour.
There was the note on his book: “To John, For the unbearable beauty of your bark.” Dad used to get a fit of barking, for laughs, after the few drinks, and Brendan joined in the howling and canine yodelling.
Dad wasn’t great when the long calls came in from Brendan on the landline in the hall. You could hear the laughing travel down the stairs and into the bar.
Mam would look at me and I’d say: “Kennelly.”
“Yes,” she would say back, loving and grateful. “Brendan.”
Kennelly made Dad forget he was dying. For a while anyway. I called Mary Kennelly, who makes beautiful poems. Mary gave me permission to write about the private, poignant moments of deepening Alzheimer’s.
“There are many families who have suffered. We had to mind him, from himself as well as from others.” The Kennelly clan of Bally and beyond loved and minded their Brendan.
If I thought of it in the there and then, I would have said Brendan is no longer locked-downed with only the occasional brilliance of parole poetry to remind us. He is back to himself.
You would always be in good form after meeting him. He came out of the sea in Ballybunion, glistening red from rude good health. The salt water was rolling slowly in diamond beads, as if the sea didn’t want to let him go. Dad said Kennelly was a merman.
He spotted me there by the water’s edge and I dawdling. “Brendan,” says Mary, “was genuinely interested in people. He was a great listener.”
She’s right. And it wasn’t out of nosiness or looking for a character for a poem. He was hoping you would get on and was trying for some way to help out or to better your life.
Maybe in the end all the giving and all the thinking just wore him out.
We stood there in our togs with the spent sand-warmed waves “licking our toes like a puppy”.
Then he pointed out to the Atlantic and said: “Will you look at that, Bill? And not a furze bush between here and America.”
This was the moment before the dance.
Dad left the pages open deliberately. He was dying and he bequeathed to me not just a pub but also – via Brendan – the secret of how it is we cope with the slow, inexorable decline of those we love.
The poem he left by the phone for months on end was Brendan’s masterpiece, I see you dancing, Father.
Here are a few lines that ready us for grief. Brendan writes of his dad buried in the serene surrounds of Lislaughtin Abbey in Ballylongford. On Tuesday, Brendan joined him.
No sooner downstairs after the night’s rest
And in the door
Than you started to dance a step
In the middle of the kitchen floor.
And as you danced
You made your own music
Always in tune with yourself.
Well, nearly always, anyway.
You’re buried now
In Lislaughtin Abbey
And whenever I think of you
I go back beyond the old man
Mind and body broken
To find the unbroken man.
It is the moment before the dance begins,
Your lips are enjoying themselves
Whistling an air.
Whatever happens or cannot happen
In the time I have to spare
I see you dancing, father.
The origins of the great religions, in my opinion, were based not just on love and how to live a good life but also as a defence against the gnawing imperative of death. Brendan the prophet gave us some comfort. The good story we tell ourselves is the story we believe.
I wasn’t smart enough nearly 20 years ago to pick up on the broadest hint of the page opened for those last months, but I get it now and the images I try to hold of those I love are when they are at their best and at their happiest.
These next few lines have never been published, and if any good came out of lockdown it was the finding of lost treasure.
Here is what Brendan wrote in his own hand on the title page of his Book of Judas.
John B walks by the river
He’s wiser than Solomon now
Because he and the river agree
Happiness is how you flow.
To John B and Mary, love and admiration always.
The date on the page was 4-4-2002.Dad died on 30-5-2002. Brendan was getting him ready. He is getting all of us ready. On an air screen, I see Brendan the merman now, on Ballybunion Beach, drip drying.