Poet Brendan Kennelly, who died at the age of 85, invited readers to embrace and understand their polar opposites. His most ambitious and controversial work, Cromwell (1983), spoke empathetically to the archetypal enemy of his native Ireland – Oliver Cromwell as commander of the English campaign in 1649-1650.
The Book of Judas (1991), a 400-page book that was a bestseller in Ireland, suggested that the classic traitor loved, and even created, the man he betrayed with a kiss.
This insistence on recognizing “the Other” marked a reaction to “the obscenity of labeling people” and the need for “violation of inherited prejudices”. Kennelly insisted that “Irish people must become English with imagination, Protestants become Catholics, and men must become women.”
In selecting five poems to render in Greek, translator Vera Konidari told me that she had focused on those which formed “a kind of confession of a man who is trying to come to terms with conflicts, his language, the past. which merges with the present. It represents a spiritual journey.
Regarding his most anthised poem, My Dark Fathers, Kennelly himself told me: harvest in the 1840s:
On the promontory, the invading sea
Left sand that hardened after the spring tides,
No dancing foot disturbed its symmetry
And those who liked good music stopped singing.
His sense of quest and confession was particularly keen for those who listened to his public readings. Kennelly was both a sensualist, reveling in the eroticism, exoticism and extravagance in the natural world, and also acted as a social conscience: for many Irish people in a time of radical social transformation, he symbolized the transition from rural to urban life. He could savor the city of Dublin, but always in light of the enduring qualities of village life, imprinted in childhood and adolescence.
Born in Ballylongford, near Listowel, County Kerry, Brendan was the son of Bridie (née Ahern), a nurse, and Timmie Kennelly, a publican. The inspiration and perspective of the hamlet of southwest Ireland has remained a world of intensities, as My Dark Fathers shows.
Kennelly was educated locally before winning a scholarship to Trinity College Dublin. After some hesitation – working as a clerk at the Electricity Supply Board and as a bus driver in London – he graduated in English and French from TCD (1961) and studied with Derry (Norman) Jeffares at the University of Leeds, where he did a doctorate with a thesis on modern Irish poets and the Irish epic. He started working as a lecturer at TCD in 1963.
As Professor of Modern Literature (1973-2005) at TCD, he won the affection of students – including long-term prisoners in Irish prisons – for his broad and uninhibited approach to the subject. A Kennelly Lecture was an opportunity, an idiosyncratic performance of deeply felt humanity, humor and compassion.
His critical work, including his masterful essay on WB Yeats, An Experiment in Living, appeared in the Journey Into Joy collection (1994). He has held visiting professorships in the United States and the Netherlands, and served three terms as chairman of the Cultural Relations Committee of Ireland, promoting the country’s culture abroad. To mark its 85th anniversary earlier this year, TCD launched the Brendan Kennelly Literary Archives.
In 1969 he married Peggy O’Brien, who had come to Dublin as a college student from Massachusetts, and they had a daughter, Doodle (Kristen). The breakdown of the marriage and his subsequent treatment for alcoholism led him to translate the Blood Wedding by Federico García Lorca (1996) and classic texts, Medea, Antigone and the Women of Troy, published under the title When Then Is Now ( 2006).
In these, Kennelly gave full voice to the rage of betrayed, demeaned and degraded women, who not only affirm the strengths of their femininity but affirm their otherness to the dominant male orthodoxy. Woman becomes for him the center of both beauty and anger. Yet Kennelly never got over his own fear of women, which he attributed to Catholic education which insisted that women were “an occasion for sin.”
In writing and in sport – he was a good footballer – Kennelly showed grace under pressure. A coronary bypass surgery in 1996 made him physically fragile and increasingly withdrawn. Yet, emotionally and imaginatively, he continued to crave ecstasy: “I would like to become a poem,” he told me, “to become cohesive and accomplished and sing”. One of his most effective – his signature of affirmation and celebration – is Begin:
Even though we live in a world that dreams of ending
who always seems about to give in
something that will not recognize the conclusion
insist that we start forever.
Her marriage ended in divorce in 1987, and Doodle passed away in April of that year. He is survived by three brothers, two sisters and three grandchildren.