Tuesday 23 January 2018

The fearless literary man in full who conjures creative rebellion from the art of darkness

Words: Brendan Kennelly pictured at Trinity College in 2012. Photo: David Conachy
Words: Brendan Kennelly pictured at Trinity College in 2012. Photo: David Conachy

Fergal Keane

My Aunt Peg, God rest her soul, used to tell a story about Brendan. She asked him once if it was difficult to fail a student. The professor responded by describing the ordeal of being confined in an exam hall for five hours in summer weather. The students were prisoners of those slow hours, confronted with perplexing questions and empty sheets of foolscap. He winked and whispered: "Sure any fellah that could hold his water for that long you'd have to give him a pass." It was a story that spoke to the humour and humanity of the man.

My future wife, the journalist Anne Flaherty, was a student of his. She recalls Professor Kennelly's address at the start of her freshman year. The people who loved English were the ones who had to read, he said, even if it was the writing on a cornflake box. "He got it right," she remembers, "because that was me. I couldn't be without something to read." This was a professor who occasionally took his students to the pub to discuss the finer points of poetry.

At my parents' wedding Brendan gave a gift of a fine china plate on which had been painted the great scenes of Napoleon's military career. It was a rendering of the epic, from Austerlitz to Moscow, from victory to defeat. The path of the doomed emperor seized the imagination of a poet who understood well the fragile nature of man's triumphs.

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