I was anxious to meet Brendan Kennelly, the internationally renowned poet and for almost 40 years Professor of Modern Literature at Trinity College, Dublin. Not only to conduct this interview with him for Three Monkeys, but finally to ask him the meaning of a phrase I had heard him use many years ago when I was a student in his poetry class at Trinity. He had said that “Poetry deprives people of space” and although I could remember the expression I had long since lost my notes that may have explained what he had meant. So now, when face to face with him I asked him what he had meant, he smiled and replied, “Did I say that, I wonder what I meant by it then? I suppose now I’d understand it to mean that poetry isn’t an occupation, it’s a way of life that becomes a life.” He smiles again and remarks, “But it’s nice to think that someone in the class was listening to me and taking note.” I note his use of the singular, and surrounded by the smells and bustle of his favourite haunt, the renowned Bewley’s coffee shop in Dublin’s Grafton Street, we begin to talk.
Brendan was born in the village of Ballylongford in Co. Kerry, in the southwest of Ireland in 1936. He was educated at St. Ita’s School at the nearby town of Tarbert and was keen to attend Trinity College in Dublin to study literature. In the 1950’s the Catholic Church in Ireland banned Catholics from attending Trinity, which was identified with the Protestant Church, and gave a dispensation to do so only in very limited cases. In 1953 Brendan went to the Bishop of Kerry, Dr. Moynihan, seeking a dispensation. The Bishop took down a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets from his bookcase and asked Brendan to read one. When he had finished, the Bishop said “I think you’ll enjoy studying there”. Brendan remembers that enlightened man with affection.
“He is the people’s poet. He spends his life wondering and thinking and daring to think and see differently. He also asks impossible questions and suggests unthinkable answers about the things that really matter. And he refuses to be precious or out of touch with the rest of us”
– Jim Farrelly, Editor-in-Chief, Sunday Tribune
“”you would have to fare far to encounter in literature or life such naked fear – and its attendant self-loathing so bravely confronted”
Augustine Martin, writing about Judas
“With considerable honesty and bravery Kennelly enters and becomes others in order to perceive, understand and suffer… always moving, probing and doubting, never willing or able to settle on any one certainty…There is clash and conflict, cruelty and irony, sardonic wit, passion.”
“He lets us watch as he stands bowlegged at a crossroads in time and culture, playing stretch with knives of fear and faith, irony and soul, the fist of vision, the hard-nose of reality.”
While in Trinity he lived in ‘digs’ in St. Teresa’s Gardens, a working-class area in Dublin’s historic ‘Liberties’ where his landlady was Ann Ahern. He became friends with her and her husband Ned. After he graduated, Brendan worked for a time with Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board (ESB) where his boss, Dr. O’Ceallachain, was a Corkman who had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church for membership of the IRA. A colleague was Ivor Topping, a Protestant. Kennelly considers this eclectic mixture of experience to be part of his development as a poet. This sense of imaginative unison with another is expressed in the poem Bread which he wrote from a memory of watching his grandmother bake brown bread.
Someone else cut off my head
In a golden field.
Now I am re-created
By her fingers. This
Moulding is more delicate
Than a first kiss,
More deliberate than her own
And lying down.
Even at my weakest, I am
Finer than anything
In this legendary garden.
Yet I am nothing till
She runs her fingers through me
And shapes me with her skill.
[Familiar Strangers: New & Selected Poems 1960-2004, Bloodaxe Books, 2004]
When Brendan had asked in Kerry before he had left for Trinity “what was so different about Protestants”, he was told “They’re people with a conscience!” He left the ESB and returned to Trinity in 1957 to do a post-graduate course. Brendan had been awarded a Sizarship to Trinity but did not have enough money for food and lodging, so during the long vacation he went to London and got a job as a bus conductor. He wrote a poem about this experience in Begin. His driver, Bill Flint, had been a member of the para-military police force the infamous “Black & Tans” that had fought against the Irish during the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-1921. Bill had gone to Dublin with the “Tans” when he was eighteen and he told Brendan, “I went there a kid and came back a killer”. In London Brendan also met an Irish actor who had played the great hate figure of Irish history, Oliver Cromwell. Both these experiences were an influence years later when he began writing the long poem Cromwell.
On returning to Trinity in 1957 Brendan met with Rudi Holzapfel who was also doing post-graduate studies. Fellow poets, they became friends and together produced a collection Cast a Cold Eye which was published by the Dolmen Press in 1959. On completion of post-graduate studies in 1961, Brendan began to work for a Ph.D. His subject was Irish mythology and in 1962 he was invited by Norman Jeffres to Leeds University to read mythology. When he came back from Leeds in 1963 he started teaching in Trinity. He was made a Fellow of Trinity in 1965 where one of his guests at the award ceremony was the poet Patrick Kavanagh. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1966 for a dissertation on “Modern Irish Poetry and the Irish Epic”. Referring to Patrick Kavanagh he speaks of Kavanagh’s sense of detachment from society; how he could participate but never belong. Of Kavanagh’s epic poem The Great Hunger he describes this as a poem about people who do not trust each other. Also a poem of conflict between a watchful, narrow Christianity and an ebullient paganism. “The natural world is sure of an annual re-birth; man can only look forward to the certainty of winter.”