Brendan Kennelly obituary: Gifted poet, academic and storyteller

A writer who grew up in a pub, Kennelly learned how to tell a story and hold an audience

Brendan Kennelly

Date of birth: April 17th, 1936

Date of death: October 17th, 2021

“Though we live in a world that dreams of ending


that always seems about to give in

something that will not acknowledge conclusion

insists that we forever begin.”

From the poem Begin, The Essential Brendan Kennelly, 2011

Brendan Kennelly, who has died aged 85, was a gifted poet, raconteur and academic who took poetry into everyday life in his adopted city of Dublin. He was a flâneur, greeting people and observing them in the pubs and coffee houses of Dublin around Trinity College Dublin where he worked for most of his life. His boyish charm made him a regular guest on Ireland's favourite television programme The Late Late Show, in its great days. He even turned up in TV commercials promoting Japanese cars. He had grown up in a pub. Songs, stories and recitations were common currency. At an early age, Kennelly learned how to tell a story and hold an audience.

In the second half of the 20th century, two poets by their physical presence dominated the Dublin scene. The older, Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) made the city his own through landmark poems such as On Raglan Road, forever tying the two together. The younger man Kennelly's earlier poems did not directly relate to the city, his home place of north Kerry was his lode star. Later (1996) the Dublines (sic) collection took him along streets familiar to Kavanagh and further afield to Pimlico. And all the time, the boulevardier in him endeared him to all he met and spoke to as he made his way around, often trailing a coterie of admirers. Trinity probably had not heard of outreach programmes when Kennelly was in his prime, but nobody did more to shatter the barrier between town and gown.

However, he was no dilettante travelling player. This was a calling. “It was a gift that took me unawares, And I accepted it”.

Timothy Brendan Kennelly was born in Ballylongford, Co Kerry, a son of Tim Kennelly, publican and garage proprietor, and his wife Bridie Ahern, a nurse. They had six boys and two girls. Kennelly studied at the local national school and then at the co-educational St Ita's college in the nearby village of Tarbert. There he was influenced by a teacher, Jane McKenna, who was an avid follower of the educational theories of Patrick Pearse. For her, the link between learning and games was paramount. She believed that the pleasant exhaustion of the body was conducive to animated and inspired workings of the mind. Young minds were hungry for knowledge and achieving physical weariness allowed it in. Kennelly recalled finishing a tough session on the training pitch at St Ita's, and immediately going to a study hall to learn by heart works by Wordsworth and Shelley. This underpinned his early life, combining playing football with study, and he incorporated other precepts of hers into his university teaching.

In 1954, and aged 18, he played for Kerry against Dublin in an all-Ireland minor football final at Croke Park. Five points up with a minute to go, Kennelly fouled Vinny Bell, Dublin's star player whom he had been marking, and Dublin scored a penalty and went on to win in injury time. Although Kennelly continued to play football for a while, he said afterwards that the match was a turning point, and he was no longer as single-minded about playing the game. Nonetheless it was a blow to be recalled – as he was for many a year – as "the lad who gave away an all-Ireland". Christianity was the second great religion in north Kerry, football being the first, he often said, and in losing the game through a foul, he had blasphemed.

Schoolteacher Jane McKenna prompted him to apply for a university scholarship, which he won. He studied English and French at Trinity College, Dublin. He edited Icarus, the literary magazine, captained the Trinity Gaelic Football Club, and graduated in 1961 with a first-class honours degree. He worked for the Electricity Supply Board for a couple of years, then went to London, where he briefly worked as a bus conductor. He went on to Leeds and spent a year at the university there studying under influential academic A Norman Jeffares, noted Yeats scholar and founder of the International Association for the Study of Anglo-Irish Literature. (Kennelly's second novel, The Florentines, drew on his time at Leeds.) He returned to Trinity where he was appointed junior lecturer, 1963-66, lecturer, 1966-69, associate professor, 1969-73, and would serve as professor of modern literature, from 1973 to 2005.

Katie Donovan recalls being in awe of him as a student at Trinity in 1980. "Kennelly savoured the noble tradition of recitation. He had memorised whole speeches from the plays of Synge; swathes of Patrick Kavanagh's poetry, and was equally able to deliver his own poetry without recourse to the printed page. His reputation as a poet was then well established, and in 1983 he published possibly his most radical work, Cromwell.

"By fourth year we were braver and Brendan's class on 'Mythology in Irish Literature' didn't disappoint. We wrote creative responses to sections of Ulysses (including our own myths) and directed our own versions of Yeats's plays. Once, Kennelly arrived tipsy, and gave a stunning lecture on the poetry of Austin Clarke, without consulting a single note or text. He finished off with an apologetic smile: "It's my birthday". Katie Donovan lost no time in establishing herself as a poet and was co-author of the Dublines anthology in 1996.

Kennelly had begun publishing in 1959. A collection of poems Cast a Cold Eye, was a collaboration with a fellow student, Rudi Holzapel, a colourful half-German whose mother had been a dancer in the famous Bluebell Troupe in the Folies Bergère in Paris, and they published three more collections together. Kennelly's first novel The Crooked Cross was published in Dublin and Boston in 1963, and a second novel The Florentines which drew on his time in Leeds, in 1967. He married a colleague, Margaret O'Brien, in 1969, and they lived in Sandymount, Dublin and had a daughter. The marriage later broke up and Kennelly blamed his excessive drinking which he gave up around 1985. He credited Dr John Cooney of St Patrick's hospital with rescuing him from drink.

Kennelly had become a fixture in many Dublin watering holes, notably O'Neill's in Suffolk Street, and Regan's in Tara Street, but there were others. After foreswearing alcohol, his gregarious nature found a home in coffee houses. Bewley's cavernous cafe in Westmoreland Street became Kennelly's personal salon where he "received" his readers and the tributes of the public at large with his trademark "little boy lost" grin and dimples.

In later years, he was to be found earnestly “colloguing” with friends and fans in the Lemon cafe in Dawson Street. “Kennelly was a familiar figure on campus, greeting everyone with a jovial “How’re ya?”. For him it was like one big happy family. He would rise very early to write and research, or walk around the quiet city. This was also a source of sustenance, as he was a very private person behind the bonhomie and craic.

His output remained prodigious. Critics could not keep up. They knew they could hardly complain about a poet writing poetry. So, they took refuge in wishing sotto voce that he would publish less, but the poems and collections kept on coming. In all he produced about 30 collections of poems, two novels, adapted four classical plays and contributed to many works of literary analysis and criticism. Apart from writing, he enjoyed the performance aspect of reading his work to an audience, and seeing at first hand how they reacted.

As his work matured (found his voice, Kavanagh would say), his themes became darker. "Kennelly uses a crisp pared-down language to great effect" noted his fellow poet Gerard Smyth, reviewing The Essential Brendan Kennelly (2012), edited by Michael Longley and Terence Brown. Smyth also noted Kennelly's use of a character in his poems "through whom the poet vents his own thoughts", citing Moloney in the early poems, Ozzie in The Book of Judas and Ace in Poetry My Arse.

But it was works like the "Judas" sequence and the Cromwell poems that told readers that Kennelly was interested in exploring what motivated evil. He tried to understand what was in Judas's mind when he betrayed Christ, he told journalist Liam Collins in the Sunday Independent in February 2017. Similarly with Cromwell. "I went over to Ely and read his letters. In one of them he told his son 'be well behaved if it possible to be well behaved, but I have work to do in Ireland'. He was a mass murderer but to him it was work. He was convinced he was doing the right thing."

His friend and fellow Kerry poet Gabriel Fitzmaurice, in a piece written to mark Kennelly's 80th birthday in 2016, wrote about the poem The Sin. The sinner, Francis Xavier Skinner in the poem, and Kennelly in real life, realises that sin flatters his own vanity, that he is only a puny human trying to measure up to God in the belief that his sin is important, original and hurtful to Him. It is no such thing. Later Skinner, having prayed to his maker "To give (him) the vision/ To commit a significant sin", will become Judas and the nightmare begins.

Fitzmaurice went on to say that he told Kennelly he had profound difficulties with The Book of Judas. “When asked by him for an instance, I mentioned what I felt to be the naked hatred of women I had picked up here and there in the book. I had no problem with the straightforwardness of Cromwell, but I found Judas offensive. Kennelly replied: “Is it because you think I hate women? I hate myself”.’

Fitzmaurice felt that his friend was at heart a ballad maker on an epic scale, and that sprang from his Kerry background.

Kennelly died on Saturday at Áras Mhuire nursing home, Listowel, and is survived by his brothers, Alan, Paddy and Kevin, by his sisters, Mary Kenny and Nancy McAuliffe, and his three grandchildren. His daughter Doodle Kennelly died earlier this year.