Brendan Kennelly was the people's poet, by far the most popular and best loved Irish poet of his generation. This popularity was considered suspect in some circles as if being popular was a poetic sin. Rubbish! Brendan was a teacher, a gifted one, who understood that if you wanted to get through to people you had to be accessible. And in his early lyrics through to his late epic sequences he never forgot the common reader.
He was brought up in a singing tradition where everything from the epic to the parish pump was commemorated in song. He wrote of people "becoming song", "touching enchantment" in the act of singing. Brendan, a singer of his native Kerry and his adopted Dublin, touched enchantment with his pen. In doing so he celebrated life in Ireland as he saw it and felt free to praise or castigate like the high Gaelic poets of an earlier era. Yet, although his first collection, which he shared with Rudi Holzapfel, was titled Cast a Cold Eye, Brendan's eye was never cold. Warm, generous, expansive, profound he left a legacy of a file, a fealsúnaí, a fear feasa. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.
Gabriel Fitzmaurice is a Kerryman, a poet and a friend of Brendan Kennelly.
At its most expressive, Brendan Kennelly's memorable voice had a bardic ring to it, which probably explains his popular reputation and why he was so cherished and recognised by the man and woman on the street. That compassion and empathy are among the hallmarks of his work also accounts for this yielding of affection from the general audience. While he was capable of producing the satiric sting and had a zest for the irreverent, essentially he was a poet driven by the urge to praise.
Praise is the note to be heard in so many of the eloquently compact lyrics of his early writing: My Dark Fathers, Bread, Getting up Early, A Kind of Trust, I See You Dancing Father, and particularly in his signature poem, the life-affirming canticle Begin. Like Kavanagh, with whom he shared a comic vision of life, his roaming imagination was equally at home in his different “breathing spaces”: the rural village, the harvest field and the Dublin streets that he came to know and love intimately and once described as “more a stage than a city”.
His steady and penetrating eye, his ear, his understanding of human foibles led him to become something of a connoisseur of the traits that make up human nature and in particular the Irish character. He had no fear of being provocative, as when he opened the mouths of two of the most reviled characters from history and allowed them to speak and explain in extended form in his powerful and ambitious epics, Cromwell and The Book of Judas. Everyone deserves a second chance in Kennelly’s world, perhaps even those two demonised hate-figures.
His work is crowded with personae who address the reader through statement, plea or confession but who in effect are venting the poet’s own anger, concern, dissent or tenderness. He held fast to a commitment to the outsiders and mavericks in society, raising his voice for them and on their behalf he could be scathing and barbed in his satirical moments, lashing out against pieties, pomp and pretensions.
In The Gift, he tells us that when poetry first "took him unawares" he accepted that gift. We should be grateful he did so and for the way his use of it has added so richly and capaciously to the music of humanity.
Gerard Smyth is Poetry Editor of The Irish Times
When I became a student at Trinity in 1958 Brendan was already making a name for himself as a college poet. As a tongue-tied Northerner, I found this eloquent, ebullient, charismatic Kerryman somewhat overwhelming. He was everything I was not. When my tentative verses first appeared in Icarus, the TCD literary magazine, Brendan was wonderfully encouraging. It was at his invitation that Derek Mahon and I read our poems in public for the first time.
In 1960 he and I among many others took summer jobs in a grim pea-canning factory in England. For dozens of us student slaves Brendan acted in loco parentis, a natural pastor, a defiant bird of paradise sheltering us timorous house-sparrows. In a poem I wrote later I called him a 'tubby, rollicking, broken Christ'. There was for sure something divine about him.
Ten years ago Terence Brown and I edited for Bloodaxe Books a selection of his poems, The Essential Brendan Kennelly: a labour of love. We delighted in bringing into sharper focus the lyric grace of his genius, its rage and its rapture. To our relief Brendan gave our choices the thumbs-up. It remains for me one of the best things I've ever done. I loved and revered the man and his words.
Michael Longley's most recent collection The Candlelight Master was published in 2020. His 13th, The Slain Birds, is scheduled for September 2022.
I will miss Brendan Kennelly on so many levels: as a dynamic teacher when I was a student at TCD; as a multi-talented poet and translator; as a skilled collaborator on the two literary anthologies we edited; and as an inspiring mentor and friend.
A private person, he shared his insights in the most generous fashion – whether in his poems about the lives of ordinary men and women; or simply in chance conversations with fellow flaneurs on the streets of Dublin. As a public speaker and performer of his work – mostly in English, but occasionally in mellifluous Irish – he was unparalleled. Like Yeats, he kept expanding his oeuvre, from the early lyrics; to his exploration of the shadow figure of the scapegoat in groundbreaking poems about Cromwell and Judas; to the delicate, often overlooked verses written after his quadruple heart bypass surgery in The Man Made of Rain.
In his version of Medea, he gave full vent to the furious voices of all women whose wings have been clipped by patriarchal control. A daring, visionary craftsman whose quicksilver eloquence encouraged so many, Brendan Kennelly wove his unique voice into the very fabric of Irish life. Few can claim as much.
Katie Donovan is the author of five poetry collections, all with Bloodaxe Books. She co-edited, with Brendan Kennelly and A Norman Jeffares, the anthology Ireland's Women: Writings Past and Present. She and Brendan also co-edited Dublines, an anthology of writings about Dublin city.
When I first read him, Brendan Kennelly was the most popular poet in Ireland, but it was initially hard to square the poems with the uproarious performer, infectiously, irrepressibly giggling at the tales he would tell. It took a while to see that his public presence and his poems are driven by his commitment to say the unsayable. Cromwell, Judas, sex, anything that might take on the coercive proprieties he knew well, in north Kerry and in Dublin.
Brendan was a regular visitor to Ballybunion, and I would see him too in Listowel around Writers’ Week. He seemed to know everyone, keeping company with leading politicians, loving the company of sportsmen for their bravery and risk-taking, moonlighting with Mia Farrow; in his poetry life, that led to tales of sneaking away from fine dinners with WH Auden, or studying in Leeds with Geoffrey Hill, who told me that he learnt everything he knew about performance from attending his student’s lectures and readings.
Brendan’s advice to me as a poet was liberating: “Write as if you are dead.” It’s an idea that quickens his finest poems. Though he would lose faith in traditional forms, I love his perfect sonnet, ‘Proof’ for how it comes to terms with agony. It begins, “I would like everything to be free of me,” and somehow ends up with an image of escape:
The fox eats its own leg in the trap
To go free. As it limps through the grass
The earth itself appears to bleed.
When the morning light comes up
Who knows what suffering midnight was?
Proof is what I do not need.
John McAuliffe is a poet, critic, professor of poetry at Manchester University and associate publisher at Carcanet Press. Gallery Press has just published his Selected Poems.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Brendan's was a true original voice, that found an echo in so many people he encountered, whether in person or through his writing. It was in Trinity College that I knew him best, but his lifelong service to Trinity was only part of his contribution to the life of Dublin and Ireland. His was a recognisable presence, as part of a community that appreciated his uniqueness. He responded to any sign of creativity in students with energy, his teaching hours tending to overflow into the evenings from sheer enthusiasm. He kept a freshness of approach that was constantly beginning anew. More quietly, he was a real support to students who were experiencing distress, and they will remember him with particular gratitude.
Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a poet and emeritus fellow of TCD
Text first delivered at the Abbey Theatre in October 2016
Like many other Irish rural villages, 1980s Ballylongford was often a fairly dark place. To teenage eyes and ears, growing up there at the time, the news seemed to be relentlessly bleak. Morning Ireland was dominated by reports of Ann Lovett, strikes, job losses, the troubles, IRA kidnappings, mass emigration. Closer to home, there was the devastating closure of Ferenka, the tragedy of Joanne Hayes, the ongoing talk about the long awaited and yet to arrive zinc smelter for 'Bally'. The gloom of the decade's recession hung heavily over us and it seemed endless.
Above all, for the Bally teenager there was a feeling of being so far away from anything that mattered, that you might just end up a forgotten species.
But then there was Brendan lifting the darkness with his radiant spirit and luminous presence now beamed regularly into our kitchens and sitting rooms. Suddenly somebody knew about Bally – our village’s name was mentioned on the national airwaves. Here was someone with a big north Kerry accent just like ours and people loved him! Here was Brendan who had broken boundaries – he’d attended Trinity when few of his like did. You brought us closer Brendan to what we dreamt of as sophistication and brought the rest of the world to us.
How amazed and proud we were that you immortalised places like Gale, Carrigafoyle, Lislaughtin, Lenamore and Asdee in your work. These are places you love, places we thought no one would ever know or care about and here they were – a prominent and exotic part of the national conversation.
For a teenager in 1980s Bally you were an inspiring life force willing us to escape to our ambitions. And later, when I, like many of my contemporaries, moved to Dublin there was the sheer joy of encountering you – you like a walking around poetry jukebox with deep deep wells of sublime poetry within you.
It is wonderful for us all to have this opportunity today to celebrate you and for me to say how profoundly grateful I am to you.
So thank you Brendan for many, many things, amongst them: For instilling a sense of pride in us Bally natives. For your generosity, encouragement and sense of fun. For making a life in literature seem like an entirely normal aspiration. For causing us to fall in love with Bally all over again and maybe look at each other differently. For helping people trip across poetry in their daily lives and so making the work that we do in Poetry Ireland all the more enjoyable and achievable.
You’ve done an enormous service for poetry and for Poetry Ireland over the years. I’m happy for you that you are now back in what Seamus Heaney would call ‘the heartland of the ordinary’ and continuing no doubt to inspire other generations.
I wish that every village in Ireland could have someone like you to inspire and influence them. How wonderful and apt it is to be able to celebrate you here today in our national theatre.
Maureen Kennelly is director of the Arts Council and a former director of Poetry Ireland
It's often said that this writer or that artist had 'a touch of genius' to explain the energy or unexpectedness of his or her achievement. Brendan Kennelly had much more than 'a touch' of genius. For over a quarter of a century he used to call by my office with the latest revelation or insight or view like a man on a mission. It could be a new poem, or something he had been (re)thinking about WB Yeats (a great love) or a scene from a play. Brendan thought long and hard about things but never in a glum or pretentious way. Pretensions, like hypocrisy, he simply could not abide.
He always saw the other side of an argument. He believed in people and shared these beliefs in every day ways. His classes could often over-run from three to six hours and more. His store of Irish poetry – from both languages – and English poetry going back centuries was simply amazing.
When you accompanied him for a walk around college or through the numerous streets he knew so well, it was like being with a kind of prophet. That's what he was, in his own life, and times, rare, unrepeatable and unforgettable, like the epic poems he spent his life writing and the plays, and the delicate glimpses of the Kerry landscape and culture to which he gave such a unique and splendid voice. So long old friend and dear mentor.
Gerald Dawe is a poet and Fellow Emeritus, Trinity College Dublin.
Like many of my generation my earliest memory of Brendan Kennelly was one of his legendary appearances on The Late Late Show with Gay Byrne. I knew he was important because of the rapt attention of the adults in the room to his every word, and also because I, as a young child up way past my bedtime, was also transfixed by this Kerryman with a lilting accent, the most magnificent dimples and an aura of joy and divilment (as they say in the Kingdom). However, it was when he recited his own poetry, Begin, if memory serves, that I knew he was special. A poet who captured the attention and interest of such a wide audience, that welcomed us all into his poems and delighted in that fact. Here, I thought as a child, is a adult in love with life and who wants to have fun, and his poems radiate with that joy too. They shine. I am very grateful today we have them still to comfort us at this sad time of his passing.
Eat or We Both Starve by Victoria Kennefick has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize
On Seeing Brendan Kennelly Looking in the Window of Hodges Figgis
I think of you, Brendan, in hushed Dublin streets,
Walking at dawn past a shuttered store
Or pausing a moment to look at the statues
Of Goldsmith, Grattan, Connolly, Moore.
Grey gulls over Christchurch, the city still sleeping;
The burger bars closed and a rumour of snow.
Little to hear but the dawn alleluia
Of a Garda-car siren on Merrion Row.
Your mind rhyming melody, street-cry and humour,
Passionate memory, heart-aching loss;
Your heroes the ordinary; quiet Dublin widows
Hurrying in for early Mass
Past ghosts outside pubs in the hunger of morning,
Five-o-clock shadowmen, shook by the fates;
Cromwells and Judases, waiting for openings;
The people unnoticed by cold-eyed Yeats.
I think of you, Brendan, walking The Liberties,
Meath Street and Francis Street, down towards The Coombe,
Watching the city in all of her vagaries
Wandering back to her lonely room.
Loving her streelings and early-hour homecomings,
The whip of her wit, and her dirty-faced talk,
You and the spirit of James Clarence Mangan
Sharing a coffee on Bachelors Walk.
I think of you, Brendan, drifting through Trinity,
Cobbles of history moistened by mist,
Head full of stanzas and jostling images,
Lovers you kissed by the rivers of Kerry.
The ferry from Tarbert traversing your memory;
Carrigafoyle in the dawn of the day,
The stream of your poetry flowing in eddies
From Béal Átha Longfoirt to Baile Áth Cliath.
Your shy smile by Bewleys, your handshake on Duke Street
One evening when August had glittered the town
And the windows all shining in mischievous cadence
With your stubble-cheeked grin, and your radiant frown
As you looked at the flower-sellers, told me a story
Told you in boyhood one Christmas night
By an old seanchaí with a hatful of characters;
Advent budded on Grafton Street.
Dawn-walker, teacher, lover of Dublin,
Leopold Bloom with the glistening eyes
Of a man who has seen all the ice-floes of folly
Drift down the Liffey and out towards the bay.
You pause on the bridges named for our poets.
I see you there, Brendan. You always knew
That words are a bridge on uncrossable rivers.
Beir bua, my brother. This bridge is for you.
Joseph O'Connor's latest novel is Shadowplay
He was, in a word, beloved. And it was easy to join in that feeling.
I met Brendan in the autumn of 1968 when I started in Trinity. I’d had an inspiring English teacher at school, John Devitt. Here was another. He had a special gift for bringing to life the works of poets he loved. I remember vividly his lectures on Keats, Mangan and Yeats. Often these lectures were at lunch time and the hall would fill with people from outside the college on their lunch break. This was unheard of but such was Brendan’s charisma. And then there was that cherubic smile.
I’d started, with Eamon Carr, publishing a magazine and organising a series of readings. Brendan contributed regularly to both. Soon afterward Gallery started to publish his books. That someone with his reputation would grant permission to a fledgling imprint was an enormous lift. He was, above all, an encourager. In 1976 he let me edit his New and Selected Poems. Throughout the ’70s Gallery published many of his finest lyrics. They were joyous times and I felt and feel grateful for them and for his friendship. And then there were the nights in O’Neill’s. But that’s a story for another day.
Peaceful rest to his kind soul.
Peter Fallon has recently edited Derek Mahon's The Poems (1961-2020) and Autumn Skies, essays in honour of Derek Mahon.
Brendan, and everyone will say so, was widely loved, for his irrepressible personality and for his humane, often wicked, always moving poetry. Deservedly so. He was a man of passions, a gifted teacher of those who desired to learn, a perceptive helper and friend to, especially, the young and uncertain. His prodigious memory for poetry of all kinds and periods was a source of fascination to me and to many, an inexhaustible well that he drew from with abandon, with loving relish, with an unquenchable urge to praise and to wonder.
What should also be honoured now is his indomitable courage, his unwavering willingness, over and over, to begin again. He faced down his demons with courage, he faced his own loneliness with courage, but above all I salute the courage of his imagination. Who but Brendan could emerge from serious cardiac surgery with that mysterious and luminous collection, The Man Made of Rain? Who but Brendan would have dared the darkness in all our souls and won through with the masterpieces Cromwell and The Book of Judas?
Faced with praise his invariable reaction would be a burst of laughter, followed by "Yerra, would you shtop!" No, friend, we won't stop, we won't ever stop giving thanks for the gift of you.
Theo Dorgan's latest collection is Orpheus (Dedalus Press)
In this era of cancel culture, Brendan Kennelly's empathy and compassion for the outcast, the pariah – evident in collections such as Cromwell and The Book of Judas – will be especially missed. Much of his insight into the human condition surely came from an intense engagement with Ballylongford, the town where he grew up, and its people. 'If life in little places dies,' he wrote, 'greater places share the loss.'
He was worshipped in Kerry, insofar as anyone there is worshipped who doesn't have an All-Ireland winner's medal in their pocket (Brendan's team lost to Dublin in the 1954 Minor Final). But the locals were not above occasionally letting the air out of his tyres, much to Brendan's glee. After a night carousing in Kennelly's pub in Ballylongford, the proprietor – Brendan's brother – drove a crowd of us home. 'I thought you'd be driving a brand new Toyota,' said one backseat passenger, a reference to Brendan's celebrated voice-over ad for the car manufacturer. 'That fella,' scoffed the brother. 'He couldn't drive a nail, never mind a car.'
John O'Donnell's latest poetry collection is Americans Anonymous, a collaboration with photographer Barry Delaney.
The Arts Council deeply regrets the deaths of writers Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Brendan Kennelly. Brendan Kennelly's popular, witty and warm poetry spoke to Irish people across the country. His love of language and literature was infectious. While best known as a poet, his work spanned many literature genres and he was especially renowned for his long poems Cromwell and The Book of Judas. His stage adaptations of Blood Wedding, Medea and Antigone were widely produced and were much admired. In his work as a professor and teacher, he encouraged the talents of new writers and he will be fondly remembered for his long association with Trinity College. He had a prolific career, publishing 30 books, including two novels.
Both writers leave behind a tremendous legacy, both in their work on the page, and in the lives they lived. Máire Mhac an tSaoi was one of our leading writers in the Irish language and she made an immense contribution to the firmament of Irish poetry. Brendan Kennelly impacted on the lives of thousands of people through his work and his teaching and he made literature a valuable part of daily life. I am fortunate in having met both Maire and Brendan, who were not just great intellects but also wonderful company.
Prof Kevin Rafter is chair of the Arts Council
I was one of the many of my generation of writers fortunate enough to have studied with Brendan. One year only in my case, the first year of the MA in the Oscar Wilde Centre. 1997-98. If I'm honest, I was wary of him. He had a public personality which most poets didn't enjoy or even want. He had done a TV ad for Toyota, for heaven's sake. But he was lovely, and so kind, and one of the most brilliant people you could ever meet.
I think he liked that I came from a background that was, in academic parlance, non-standard. I was from Dundalk and older than most and had been around the block. Brendan had been much the same, and returned to scholarship relatively late. He told me all about his years as a bus conductor in London.
I always remember one round-table seminar. I was sitting right next to him. There was a debate about the pronunciation of the first name of Dion Boucicault. ‘DEE-on’ or ‘DY-on’? The debate dragged on. At one point Brendan, who had remained silent throughout, muttered under his breath: ‘DY-on to be out of here…’ I laughed so much that Brendan, himself in stitches, had to call a five-minute break.
He loved women. I loved how much he loved women. Nothing remotely sleazy. Just an old-school chivalry combined with intense respect. I introduced my beautiful mother to him once, years later, in a cafe on Dawson Street. He took her hand and kissed it. Brendan suggested I wander on up Grafton Street and leave them there. I told him where to get off and we laughed again. I think that was the last time I saw him.
Conor O'Callaghan is a poet and novelist
The world is an emptier place. But while I'm deeply saddened by the loss of Brendan, I can't think of him without a smile and a true sense of gratitude.
Around the mid-1990s, I somehow shared a stage with Brendan for my first poetry reading, along with a bunch of fellow student first-timers. I was awful, but the encouragement and ratification he gave was a game-changer. His support and generosity were truly enabling, and I know many others tell a similar tale.
Whether a poetry reading or a lecture, when it clicked and he found full flow, the feeling in the room was remarkable — a genuine bright intensity, a charged concentration and lifting of the moment: a privilege to witness.
His pub days were over by my time in Dublin, yet he was always out and tootering about: chatting, laughing, chatting. A river of talk. The big scabrous oral tapestries of Cromwell, Judas and My Arse need to re-evaluated and given their due as poetic folk experiments unlike anything else around.
God bless Brendan.
Alan Gillis is a poet from Belfast, who teaches at The University of Edinburgh.
Brendan had friends in all realms of life, and I had the privilege for over 30 years of being the friend he trusted to turn his sometimes chaotic manuscripts into books, allowing me to cut back the bigger typescripts which arrived in boxes to their eventual epic length. He was always open-minded, never precious or defensive, not just accepting editorial suggestions but embracing them, immediately convinced that a change was so right that it read like one he'd just made himself. Often he would speak an altered line aloud several times with some excitement, as it had just come into his head. This was just one of the many joys of working in what became a rather unusual poet-editor relationship, one of feeling completely at one in how we wanted his books to appear.
When I mischievously slipped a pastiche Judas poem into The Book of Judas just before it went to press, he phoned me on getting his copies and read the poem back to me, exploding in paroxysms of laughter at every line, immensely pleased by this betrayal in the spirit of "our" book as he called it. An editorial session at Trinity to work on a book was always punctuated with laughter, anecdotes, recitations, and Brendan wisecracks – nuggets of Kennelly or Kerry wisdom – and celebrated later with dinner on him at 'The Troc' a couple of blocks away. But that was never a short walk with Brendan stopping or being stopped every few yards to greet or be greeted by someone, listening to their stories, saying a poem, receiving a hug from a stranger or discreetly slipping a few euro into the hand or pocket of someone down on their luck. Everyone felt blessed by him. I know I did.
Neil Astley is editor and founder of Bloodaxe Books. His and Brendan Kennelly's anthology, The Heavy Bear Who Goes with Me: 100 classic poems with commentary, will be published by Bloodaxe on Brendan's birthday, April 17th, 2022.
Our heroes are gifted to us, a west Kerry saying goes. I was so gifted by having Brendan (Kennelly) first as "Moral Tutor" in TCD, then as a generous contributing poet to Broadsheet (1967-78), and for over 50 years as friend. In 1995 he admitted to an Edinburgh Book Festival audience he had failed me "0n the morality question" but would "stand up and tell his poem My Dark Fathers as I had requested him.
By “heart” he spoke:
I come of Kerry clay and rock
I celebrate the darkness and the shame"
The packed audience were stunned to silence and then exploded with long applause. We embraced. Once again he had taught me heroes know about vulnerability, and we are gifted by their knowledge and generosity in sharing same.
Hayden Murphy is a poet