Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

A Poet’s Space – an interview with Brendan Kennelly

Around this time Brendan began to write novels. He produced The Crooked Cross in 1963 which deals with impact of emigration in the ’50s on village life. Then in 1967 another novel The Florentines which is based on ‘Jail Journal’ the work of the nineteenth century Irish patriot John Mitchell*. Brendan’s first poetry collection to gain significant attention was My Dark Fathers published in 1964. In 1967 he was awarded the AE Memorial Prize for poetry. In 1970 he edited the Penguin Book of Irish Verse. He continued with collections and published Love Cry in 1972, ,I>A Kind of Trust in 1975, New and Selected Poems in 1976, and Islandman in 1977. A Time for Voices : Selected Poems 1960 – 1990 was published in 1990.

A Wound
Little Island whispered over his shoulder
To Big Island who was reflecting on
The fact that there was no island more
Beautiful than himself, ‘I’m here, and someone,
Probably one of my aboriginals,
Has set out in a low boat bearing proof
Of this. You may boot him in the genitals,
Work him over, lock him up, but his love

For me is such he believes I exist
And wishes to remind you of that truth.’
A bomb mashed Big Island in the side

The aboriginal was duly booted and later lost.
‘I’m here’ said little island. ‘I can see that’
Groanded Big, ‘I must tend this wound before it goes bad.’
[from Cromwell, Bloodaxe books 1987]

In all, Brendan Kennelly has published over 20 books, but it was with his publication in 1983 of Cromwell and later in 1991 of The Book of Judas that Brendan became a household name in Ireland. In these works he takes two hated and reviled historical figures and lets us look at the world through their eyes. He speaks of the need to “address the nightmares of history and conscience”. His experiences as a young Catholic student in the early 1950’s in the ‘alien Protestant ambience’ of Trinity College; his working alongside a former Black and Tan bus driver in London; his experience in the ESB working alongside an excommunicated Catholic and a Protestant intellectual, all helped to shape his understanding of the need to “empathize with other people in order to discover our own full potential as people”.

In 1991, The Book of Judas – a book in excess of 400 pages – became the best-selling book in Ireland and was bought by people who would normally never turn to poetry. The poem is in twelve parts, which are broken into many other sub-parts, each of which can stand alone. The part in which Judas teaches Hitler to goosestep is indicative of the poem.

Hitler said, ‘Judas, I hate the way I walk
When I take a few steps I feel tortured.’
‘Walk’ I said. Hitler obliged.
‘You move like a ruptured duck’ I ventured,
‘You must walk like the man you are
As the wind performs in its own style
As a star is itself and not another
As a bolt of lightening defines the sky.’

‘That is a shrewd outburst’ Hitler said,
‘I want you to teach me the Hitlerstep,
When I take that step it is me, no one else.’

For a year I trained him. Times he cried
And swore he’d give up but he stepped
His own step in the end, all false
Steps disappeared. When he took
One step of his own
Onlookers froze to the bone.
[Familiar Strangers: New & Selected Poems 1960-2004, Bloodaxe Books, 2004]

This belief in the need for different people to engage imaginatively with each other can be also seen in Brendan Kennelly’s adaptation of four plays. Sophocles’ Antigone produced in 1986, Euripedes’ Medea in 1998, Gabriel Lorca’s Blood Wedding (which he translated) produced in 1990, and Euripedes’ The Trojan Women produced in 1993. The three Greek plays are being republished in the New Year. Brendan spoke of how these plays are derived from his experience of life in Kerry and are in praise of, and demonstrate, belief, in the “ heroic pragmatism of women”.
He speaks of the loneliness of a poet’s life and contrasts this to most women. His motive in writing the plays was to demonstrate that, as he expresses it, “Women are so pragmatic; sane compared to men. They are poetry; they don’t need to read it. It’s no wonder the muses are feminine; not in a romantic but in a pragmatic sense.”

A Kerryman from the south-west of Ireland, Brendan has lived most of his life in Dublin and much of that in the centre of the city in Trinity College. He says that his love of Dublin is expressed in his collection published in 1995, Poetry my Arse. He says that while many readers thought he was knocking poetry, he was in fact knocking vanity. He speaks of the Dublin working-class people’s understanding of the poet. People call to him as he walks about the streets of the inner-city, “How’s the poetry going Brendan”, this being mostly by people who never read poetry. But he says, “Dubliners know their poets”. Brendan regards Dubliners a very tolerant people and says that “a Dubliner will tolerate anything except vanity.” He refers to a Dubliner’s “dislike of the disproportion of vanity. Tuppence halfpenny loooking down on tuppence”. Regarding the recognition of poets he mentions the characteristics needed by an Irish poet. Conor Cruise O’Brien said that these were a combination of sensitivity and “an immunity to harsh criticism”. Brendan Behan’s definition was a little more direct: “a neck like a jockey’s bollix.” Of the Dubliner, Brendan Behan he considers that “His personality tends to obscure his writing. He was a comic genius, a born talker; his writing is the work of a born talker. For example, Behan’s ‘New York’. That and other books were created from tape recordings. Although he had the courage of his stories and his class, there was also a cruelty in Behan; he could be self-centred and selfish. After prison he began to write in Irish and this is vital to understanding Behan”.

But Kennelly had another incident that cements his relationship with Dublin and this was connected with his sporting career. An accomplished Gaelic footballer, he played minor football for Kerry in the 1954 All-Ireland final against Dublin. Coming up to the final whistle Kerry were winning by two points when Brendan was blamed for shouldering a Dublin player and they were awarded a free. Dublin scored a goal (worth three points) from the free and so they won. Brendan was slated in Kerry as the man who handed the hated ‘Jackeens’ a victory. He also played soccer for the ESB team in Fairview Park. He loves Dublin’s parks and his in walks through the city he visits them constantly.He mentions Herbert Park in Ballsbridge as one of his favourite walks. The almost hidden Iveagh Gardens off Harcourt Street. In particular he loves the wonderful incongruities of the Phoenix Park. The home of Dublin’s Zoo; Gaelic football pitches, cricket pitches and a Polo ground; herds of deer; the official residences of the President of Ireland and the American Ambassador; and a monument to the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington!

Brendan Kennelly has been teaching for over forty years, mostly in Trinity College Dublin, and has now retired. He also taught in America at Swarthmore College in Pennslyvania. This was where he met fellow poet W.H. Auden though he didn’t know at the time that Auden was compiling the Oxford Book of Light Verse and had included one of Kennelly’s poems in the collection. Later at a rugby international at Lansdowne Road, Brendan rewarded Auden with a bottle of whiskey which he sipped in the loo to “keep out the cold”. Auden had said of Yeats that “He had a cold heart and a warm head”, and Brendan later included this in a poem:

“Auden smiled and slyly said, Yeats has a cold heart and a warm head.”

He also wrote a very revealing view of Yeats in an essay An Experiment in Living which he included in a collection of his selected prose Journey into Joy which was published in 1994.

There is now a Brendan Kennelly ‘Summer School’ in his Co. Kerry home village Ballylongford. His parents are buried at Lislaughton Cross and he wrote a poem on this. The Irish patriot The O’Rahilly, killed in action in the 1916 Rising, was born across the road from the Kennelly home. Britain’s military leader in World War One, Field Marshal Lord Kitchner, was born a few miles down the road from Ballylongford. Brendan revels in such contrasts. “Maybe there’s something in the air”, he laughs. He tells the story of how during Cromwell’s Irish campaign the Cromwellian soldiers looked at the Franciscan Monastery at Ballylongford and decided not to burn it. Instead they went to attack the Gaelic chieftain O’Connor is his stronghold of Carrigafoyle Castle. The Franciscan monks in gratitude to God rang the monastery bells, and the Cromwellian soldiers, thinking they were being mocked by the bells, returned and burned the monastery. Carrigafoyle Castle features in Brendan’s poem Cromwell.

As we come to the close of our conversation I try to reconcile the smiling Kerryman sitting drinking his coffee with the prolific writer and distinguished academic. It has been said of Brendan Kennelly that he focuses on the way that the past informs the present, and notwithstanding his long residence in Dublin’s Trinity College he has not lost contact in his mind with places such as Ballylongford and Carrigafoyle Castle, “Poetry comes out of such roots”, he says.

*Both these books have been translated into Italian by Giuliana Bendelli of Milan University.

Poems reproduced by kind permission of both Brendan Kennelly and Bloodaxe Books

  • Pages: 1
  • 2