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‘He was Ireland’s most popular poet’

Great sadness as poet and Professor Emeritus at Trinity College Dublin Brendan Kennelly (85) passes away


The late Brendan Kennelly

The late Brendan Kennelly

The late Brendan Kennelly


ONE of the nation’s best-loved poets, Brendan Kennelly, has passed away aged 85 in his native Kerry.

The former Professor of Modern Literature at Trinity College Dublin died this afternoon surrounded by family at the Áras Mhuire nursing home in Listowel, to the deep sadness of so many who revered him for his literary talent, wisdom, humour and warm character.

Professor Emeritus at Trinity College Dublin since he retired in 2005, he had moved backto his native north Kerry in recent years, living in a retirement home not far from the historic village of his birth, Ballylongford.

Indeed, like Bryan MacMahon and John B Keane before him, North Kerry shaped his literary sensibilities to a great degree, the character of its people and their rich dialect infusing Kennelly’s many and much-lauded collections.

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He was, in the words of friend and fellow North Kerry native poet Gabriel Fitzmaurice, ‘Ireland’s most popular poet’.

Another close friend, former Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan – who filmed a documentary on the writer in the 1990s –  said that ‘if John B Keane was the playwright of the people, Brendan Kennelly was the poet of the people’.

“He was Ireland’s most popular poet, a very fine poet. ‘Popular’ might seem to diminish his worth but it should not. He was both hugely popular and a great poet, and he was a dear friend to many young poets when we started out, including myself,” Gabriel Fitzmaurice told The Kerryman.

"He was a great encourager and, by all accounts, a fine Professor in Trinity College, where his lectures used to be packed by people who weren't part of the faculty.

"He was deeply charming and charmed a nation through his appearances on The Late Late Show, but behind the charm there was a depth and understanding of the Irish people and psyche, which manifested itself in his poetry. 

"I’m glad to have called him a friend and used to visit him regularly prior to the pandemic at the retirement home he lived in, where it was always a pleasure to meet him, even in his declining years. He remained as sharp as ever and could quote reams of poetry and still loved to sing. The song from John B Keane’s Sive was one of his favourites.”

Mr Fitzmaurice said it had come as a source of great comfort to Mr Kennelly to have moved home in his later years.

Jimmy Deenihan said the county never lost its hold on Kennelly’s imagination. “It’s reflected in so much of his work. He was always and forever a ‘Bally’ man. He loved Ballylongford and though he was a major international poet so much of his work related to his home place and especially his time growing up there. It was a deep comfort to him to have been able to move home in his later years.

"He would often quote the line from Ó Raifteirí’s Anois teacht an Earraigh ‘Is dá mbeinnse i mo sheasamh/i gceartlár mo dhaoine/ d’imeodh an aois díom/ is bheinn arís óg’, words to the effect of ‘when I’m back again amongst my own people, my age leaves me and I’m young again’ and that’s what Kerry meant to Brendan.”

He described him as a ‘poet of the people’. “He was a great poet and a hugely popular one. If John B Keane was the playwright of the people Brendan Kennelly was the poet of the people. He was also a distinguished academic in the English language and numerous writers and journalists who passed through his hands in Trinity would openly admit that but for his influence they might not have gone on to such careers.”

Jimmy founded the literary festival dedicated to Brendan Kennelly that was held annually for many years in Ballylongford and also filmed a documentary on the poet in the early 1990s.

Brendan Kennelly’s death comes little more than half a year after his beloved daughter, Doodle, died aged just 51 at her Dublin home in a tragedy that hit him very hard.

He is survived by his granddaughters Meg, Hannah and Grace, sisters Nancy and Mary, brothers Alan, Paddy and Kevin, sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews, relatives and friends.