With his blissful smile and sparkling eyes, his melodious Kerry Oxford and a red scarf wrapped casually around his neck, Brendan Kennelly appeared more like a flamboyant actor “at rest” after a successful outing to the theater, than an introspective poet.
e loved life, he loved people, whatever position they held in life, in fact, the less academics they were, the more he enjoyed talking to them. His poetry was meant to be read aloud, to bring out all the flavor of the words he rolled in his mouth and savored like good Irish whiskey.
Sadly, her final months were marred by the tragic death of her beloved only daughter, Doodle (Kristen) at the age of 51.
The last time I met him it was a far cry from dating at O’Neill’s pub in Suffolk Street, which he loved too much, from the book launch or the opening of the opulent seaside resort, Mount Juliet in Kilkenny, whom he dubbed with a nice double meaning, emphasizing the word “climb”.
By the time we last met, in July 2017, he had swapped his rooms at Trinity College Dublin, where he was a modern English teacher, for a retirement home in Listowel, County Kerry, not far from his location. beloved birth, Ballylongford. But even there he had not lost his enthusiasm for observations on the absurdity of life.
When an old man sitting along the wall let out a “bellowing” of anguish, Kennelly smiled, “It’s a funny thing,” he said, “a quick cry from a fellah sitting alone in a chair. .
He left Kerry at the age of 16 and returned there only to die at the age of 80. His teacher at Tarbert advised him to apply for a scholarship to Trinity College, funded in 1888 for “students of limited means from County Kerry”.
He went there, but he didn’t like it.
“I was absolutely alone – I think I was the only rural Irishman in the place,” he said. He then worked at ESB and as a bus driver in London. He loved Dublin and its glorious misery in those years when few people had money. He would come out of the gates of Trinity College at 5 a.m. to walk around the waking town and talk to the workers picking up the debris from the night before, or coming out of their lonely night shelters, greeting him: “Morning Professor, do you have any bob at all ”and if he had any, he gave it to them.
He would sit alone at Graham O’Sullivan’s near the bottom of Dawson Street, then one of the few cafes in town, watching the parade go by, thinking of thoughts that would later emerge in his poetry and writing. Of course, his private life was in turmoil, his marriage to American poet Margaret O’Brien did not survive the “wasted years” of his drinking, but he gave it up in the mid-1980s.
“I drank quite heavily,” he says of those days, remembering the people he met in the “first houses” where he drank with dockers “and the strange priest who came to drink a few. glasses to see them spend the day ”.
He also avoided becoming “a man of letters”. “I was more of a rhymer than a reader,” he told me during this last and sad meeting. “I listened to the ballads that people sang in the street. The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature sums it up: “Throughout his poetry there is an impulse to let humanity speak of its disgrace as well as its love, making its work a form of liberation.
Although the author of over 50 books, poems, novels, plays and essays, he always knew what it was like to be a “local”, whether in Dublin or Kerry.
Kennelly played for Kerry in the 1954 All-Ireland minor Gaelic football final, which they lost in the dying seconds of the match. When a bust was unveiled in Ballylongford a few years ago, to commemorate his accomplishments as a writer, a man stepped out of the crowd and said: ‘It’s great to see you, but you’re not- you not the little boy who lost it for us. “
He smiles wistfully at the memory. “They never forget that back home in your village, you know.”
When he did “The Meaning of Life” with Gay Byrne, the broadcaster asked him to sum up his life. “I think I was a teacher,” he replied. “If my students learned as much from me as I learned from them, it is education for me. The Latin word ‘educo’ means to lend your ideas, it is the most important thing that I have tried to do in my life.
Seeing Brendan Kennelly looking out of Hodges Figgis’s window
The poem below was written by Professor Joseph O’Connor, Frank McCourt Chair in Creative Writing at the School of English, Irish, and Communication at the University of Limerick, to mark Hodges’ 250th anniversary Figgis.
I think of you, Brendan, in the hushed streets of Dublin,
Walking at dawn in front of a shuttered store
Or stop for a moment to look at the statues
From Goldsmith, Grattan, Connolly, Moore.
Gray seagulls over Christchurch, the city still asleep;
Burger bars closed and a rumor of snow.
Little to hear but the hallelujah of dawn
From a Garda-car mermaid on Merrion Row.
Your mind makes melody, street cry and humor rhyme,
Passionate memory, painful loss;
Your ordinary heroes; quiet widows of dublin
Hurry for early mass
Ghosts passed in front of pubs in the morning hunger,
Men of the shadow of five o’clock, shaken by fates;
Cromwells and Judas, awaiting the openings;
People unnoticed by cold-eyed Yeats.
I think of you, Brendan, walking in the Freedoms,
Meath Street and Francis Street, going down to The Coombe,
Watch the city in all its whims
Returning to her lonely room.
Loving his streelings and his early morning returns,
The whip of his mind and his dirty speech,
You and the Spirit of James Clarence Mangan
Sharing a coffee on Bachelors Walk.
I think of you, Brendan, drifting through Trinity,
The cobblestones of history wet with mist,
My head full of stanzas and jostling images,
Lovers whom you kissed by the rivers of Kerry.
The Tarbert ferry crossing your memory;
Carrigafoyle at dawn,
The flow of your poetry flowing in swirls
From Béal Átha Longfoirt to Baile Áth Cliath.
Your shy Bewleys smile, your handshake on Duke Street
One evening when August had sparkled the city
And the windows all shine in playful cadence
With your bald-cheeked smile and your radiant frown
While you watched the flower sellers you told me a story
I told you in childhood one Christmas night
By an old seanchaí full of characters;
Advent sprouted on Grafton Street.
Dawn-walker, teacher, Dublin lover,
Leopold Bloom with sparkling eyes
Of a man who saw all the ice floes of madness
Go down the Liffey and head towards the bay.
You stop on the bridges which bear the names of our poets.
I see you there, Brendan. You always knew
These words are a bridge over impassable rivers.
Beir bua, my brother. This bridge is made for you.