A place in the poetic pantheon – John Horgan on Thomas Kinsella

An Irishman’s Diary

The recent death of Thomas Kinsella at the age of 93 has evoked many fine and well-deserved tributes, but few of them have attempted the somewhat difficult task of allocating him his place in the pantheon of 20th-century Irish writers. He was too young to have been part of Austin Clarke's milieu, and too old to have been part of the exuberant renaissance in poetry that spanned the Border from the late 1960s onwards. But his distinctive voice (though he was once scornfully – and deeply unfairly – described as "the poet of the bed-sits") will stick like a burr in the memories of those of us who lived through those decades.

That snide – and probably envious – description may well have been a response to the well-deserved reputation of his earlier work, not least the final two lines of his 1956 poem Baggot Street Deserta:

My quarter inch of cigarette

Goes flaring down to Baggot Street.

Although his first work coincided neatly with my own early years in UCD, where I and quite a few others learned rapidly to appreciate their cool, demotic style, I didn't meet him until more than 20 years later, after he had abandoned his job in the public service, where he served in the Department of Finance for almost two decades.

The precise details of that role have largely escaped notice, and his obituarists, who noted that he had served in that department under TK Whitaker, were generally unaware that this included a spell as private secretary to that eminent public servant.

Whitaker was well aware of his secretary’s other, non-bureaucratic activities, and not infrequently proudly introduced him to others as “my private secretary, the poet”.

Subsequent to Kinsella's departure from the Irish public service, he secured an academic appointment at the University of Southern Illinois, in Carbondale, which shortly afterwards was chosen as the location – perhaps partly as a tribute to his unique reputation – for the annual conference of the American Committee on Irish Studies time in the late 1960s.

Through some stroke of good fortune, whose details now escape me, I happened to be in the US at the time, and was persuaded by Seamus Heaney (not that it took much persuasion) to join the assembled academics at the conference, in which Seamus himself was a participant.

As a mere journalist, I had no academic credentials whatsoever, but cheerfully adopted the role of camp-follower.

At an early stage in the conference we were overcome by thirst and, resourceful to the last, hired a taxi with the simple instruction to take us to one pub after another in that city until we found one that served Guinness.

Eventually, we did, and slaked our thirst, undeterred by the hostelry’s strange name (it was called “Napoleon’s Retreat”) or by the fact that the resident band generated an ear-splitting volume of sounds to which our Irish ears were seriously unaccustomed.

Later Kinsella, and his utterly charming and intellectually stellar wife Eleanor (who predeceased him a few years ago) joined us for a less audibly challenging drink in the environs of the university, at which the talk turned at one point to the poet's time in Merrion Street.

The conversation featured, among other topics, an anecdote about his previous superior and colleague in the public service , TK Whitaker. On one occasion, Kinsella told us, Whitaker was about to depart on an official trip to a meeting of the World Bank in Washington and – evidently impressed by his protégé's literary heft – asked Kinsella to choose a few novels to help him while away the long plane journey to the meeting.

The poet-bureaucrat obliged, and Whitaker duly packed his bags and departed.

Kinsella next met Whitaker after his return to Merrion Street and, following whatever necessary debriefing had taken place, inquired of his boss whether he had enjoyed the books that he – Kinsella – had chosen for him. Kinsella probably told us at the time what he had picked as Whitaker’s literary fodder for the journey, but although – alas – the titles of the chosen works now escape me, Whitaker’s reaction to Kinsella’s choices has not.

The éminence grise of Irish public administration paused before responding to his private secretary. “Well, he said, “ next time, perhaps, would you mind not choosing anything quite so raunchy?”