- 18 Oct 21
Poet Brendan Kennelly, a man who likes “Guinness, Poetry and Company” — though not necessarily in that order — talks to Michael Murphy about his work and Ireland past and present. Pics: Colm Henry
Author Brendan Kennelly died at Aras Mhuire Community nursing home in Listowel over the weekend, where he had resided for the last two years. He had moved back to Ballylongford in north Kerry in 2016 following decades in Trinity College Dublin where he worked as Professor of Modern Literature.
Kennelly was also a popular broadcaster, making frequent appearances on radio and television. President Higgins said "he forged a special place in the affections of the Irish people".
"As one of those who had the great fortune of enjoying the gift of friendship with Brendan Kennelly for many years, it is with great sadness that I have heard of his passing,” President Higgins said in a statement last night.
“As a poet, Brendan Kennelly had forged a special place in the affections of the Irish people. He brought so much resonance, insight, and the revelation of the joy of intimacy to the performance of his poems and to gatherings in so many parts of Ireland. He did so with a special charm, wit, energy and passion.”
Revisit Michael Murphy's 1985 Hot Press interview with Brendan Kennelly below...
"The last time I met Moloney was at Dingle Regatta," says Brendan Kennelly, referring to the hero of his recently published collection of comic poems Moloney Up And At It. Well, the last time I saw Kennelly was at the launch of that collection. Charles Haughey was supposed to do the honours but read the book and backed out at the last minute.
Despite this and the substitution of Brian Lenihan, Kennelly gave his prepared speech praising the absent Charlie as “the first non-puritan Irish political leader”. (“He could not be more different from the tradition of Fianna Fáil leadership epitomised by De Valera” he later elaborated “the pastoral vision of comely virgins and athletic youths dancing jigs at the crossroads. Can you imagine any previous Fianna Fáil leader, or leader of any other political party, giving that interview to Hot Press?")
Lenihan took the cue and proceeded to pour praise on Kennelly’s non-existent translation of “The Midnight Court”. It was a very Irish occasion.
Sightings of Kennelly, like those of the eponymous Moloney, are usually memorable. The week before his own launch, I saw him at another poet’s press bash. There he threatened to throttle a drunken heckler and it nearly came to blows. Some weeks before that I arrived at a poetry reading in the Palace Bar, found that the drink was not free, and was about to leave when the venerable Professor arrived - shirt unbuttoned to belly-button, cap tilted rakishly on the side of his head, a broth of a poet who insisted on waltzing (Matilda) with the Aussie ambassador and adding his own improvements and comments to the poems being read.
So who is this rumbustious Rabalais of the Gropes (sic) of Academe? And who is Moloney?
Kennelly, whose identity is the more definite, is professor of Modern English at Trinity College, a post he has held since 1973, having joined the academic staff as a junior lecturer in 1966. His career before that included spells as an ESB clerk for a year – “plugging them in and plugging them out: I’m still at it” – and as a London bus conductor.
He was born in the north Kerry village of Ballylongford where his father kept a pub. It was there that the young Brendan pulled pints for Moloney and his pals (who were also Moloney — he’s a multiple man) and there later that a more mature Kennelly wrote his first novel on the bar counter, listening to Moloney’s stories, catching the cadences of his language, and capturing the easy bawdiness of his speech.
“The Crooked Cross”, about the curse of emigration in the '50s, was published when its author was in his early twenties and himself emigrating to work on the London buses. He collected fares from Shepherd’s Bush to Hounslow, saving what he could to further his education beyond the double-first B.A. he had taken at Trinity. The bus driver was an ex-Black and Tan who had been based in Buttevant, Co. Cork during the troubles. For Kennelly “it was meeting the myth. And he didn’t have horns - bar the one he spoke of when he praised the women of Buttevant.”
When he had saved enough, he took the bus to Leeds University, there to study under the Yeats scholar Norman Jeffares. “It was 1961 - the year of the Cuba crisis. There was a fantastic political consciousness on the campus and I tried to capture that feeling in my second novel. I think I failed. I was too ardent, too earnest. I was thrown from an easy-going, divil-may-care milieu into ’'60s student consciousness. I didn’t see the comedy of the seriousness.”
With the publication of his first collection in 1963 he turned increasingly to poetry to explore and express his feelings, his roots and those of the Irish. His magnum opus, the fruit of five years work, was published a year ago. “Cromwell” charts the Lord Protector’s bloody campaign in Ireland, and traces through the centuries the influence of his massacres, land seizures and plantations. Cromwell also appears in risibly ironic contemporary guises: salmon-fishing on his Kerry estate, taking farmers to Listowel Races in his taxi, dining with friends in the Royal Yacht Club, Dun Laoghaire and managing Drogheda Utd. Under his stewardship the team is no more successful than Hot Press Munchengladbach.
“Get rid of Cromwell” howled
The Drogheda fan, “Send him to Home Farm
Athlone, St. Pats, Bohemians, UCD.
The bastard has brought nothing but harm
To our side. Fling him into the sea.
He even attends a Redemptorist retreat -
He sat agog through each night's sermon
Keeping his eyes fixed on the rhetorical man
In the pulpit who roared for example
About the evil of French letters in
And now and again, Oliver nodded approval,
Not once did he look bored or weary."
Kennelly started work with the intention of writing about nightmares, but Cromwell kept butting in. The poems are not just about Cromwell, he says now, but “about relationships between Ireland and England, about law and justice. I sought Cromwell both in Irish and English folklore. I felt I had to see the English point of view; to try to come to terms with that unbroken, un-intimidated tradition. The dramatic centre is the nightmare mind of the Irish figure Buffun, trying to comprehend this Englishman’s God-inspired confidence and sense of purpose.”
Underlying the work at one level is an exploration of the complexities of history and its interpretations, and their influence on the Irish psyche now. “I try to show how simultaneous past and present are, how like a river. It’s often said that the Irish live in the past, but the past lives in the Irish,” he observes.
Kennelly finds he needs the long-poem format to express himself and delve into his subject fully.
“I don’t know how those beautiful short lyrics are written. I’m a cruder writer stylistically though I work hard at it. I’m interested primarily in what I saw rather than how. I’m interested in the things which make us what we are. Many Irish people drop from their lives those things which have created them. After a certain age, life should become a thoughtful act of confrontation with the factors which made you — family, church, schools etc.
“There’s another way to live, of course: look ahead, mind your business, make money, rear the kids. And that’s fine: it can lead to a kind of contentment. I want contentment of course, but I want to know the connection between past things and what I am now. A lot of people try to abandon their personal past."
Much of his poetry tries to get to grips with the mythology attaching to various facets of Irish culture – family, Irish language, country as against Dublin etc. Some grips are particularly strong on him. “The historical certainly is. I was reared on a very ardent, perhaps sentimental and unquestioning, version of Republicanism. I’m still sympathetic to that way of thinking, but not with the sentimentality. Nor with the notion of shortening a life, which is unacceptable to someone who likes Guinness and poetry and company.
“In 'Cromwell',” he adds “Buffun and Cromwell, representing aspects of the Irish and English characters, seldom approach dialogue. They speak in outbursts. That seems to be the Irish way on most public issues and between Republican and Loyalist, Irish and British. It’s an inescapable fact that real progress in the North has been achieved by violence rather than by dialogue. But I continue to believe that there is a better way and that we will find it.”
There are other areas where we also need to find a better way...
“The family exerts its grip on all of us,” Kennelly observes. “But how cemented is the Irish family despite all the talk? How close are you to a brother or a sister? 1 think many of the cosy notions about the family are fallacies. It’s about to burst wide open here in Ireland.”
His own experience of married life doesn’t conform to conventional Irish mores. Though they’re still very close, he’s temporarily separated from his American wife and their daughter. It’s a subject on which he won’t elaborate — though he does openly state his support, on a purely legislative level, for the divorce lobby.
“The present state of the law is barbarous and hypocritical,” he says. “It condemns people to lives of misery and refuses them any second chance of happiness. It’s available, of course, if you have the money to arrange a foreign divorce, which is a fairly typical example of the sort of doublethink we indulge in, involving elements of tolerance and repression.”
He’s equally forthright in his views on the subject of contraception. “Of course the laws should be liberalised,” he states bluntly. “The present situation is insufferable.” On the whole, however, he is optimistic. His evident concern with the notion of Irishness hasn’t led him up a blind alley of despair. Yet!
“We’re on the turbulent road to truth”, he reflects. “Young people especially have a fresh way of approaching things. They believe in ideas - even if they’re corrupted by competition. Moloney in the repressive '40s and '50s had to adopt a more subversive approach. His is a voice from the underside of the old Ireland.”
The opening poem has Moloney “breaking the hold of his mother” by making love on her grave.
"Twas only then I saw where I was
On my mother’s grave.
But that was no cause
For panic, though I was a bit
Upset at first by the strangeness of it.
The Knockanore woman was happy as Larry,
And I was sparkin’ and merry
As a cricket. ‘Yerra you might
As well enjoy the gift o’ the night
While you have the chance’, I said
To myself, realisin’ the dead are dead,
Past holiness and harms -
And the livin’ woman was in my arms."
“I don’t know what Freud would make of it," he admits, "but the idea is of a man breaking through to a young girl through the mother; getting in touch with one woman through another. I remember a man telling me once that every time he made love, the face underneath became that of his mother. It gives a new dimension to the word ‘motherfucker’!
“Sex” he adds “is nothing in itself. We are born and we die and in between are prolonged burps of one or another kind. Coming up to sex it’s marvellous; during it it’s interesting; afterwards it’s nothing.” He first encountered it “like most fellas then, groping after a dance with a girl who’d normally stop you
two inches above the knee.”
As a native of the country, does he have any views on the so-called Kerry Babies case?
“The media coverage and public interest is inexpressibly morbid," he offers. "It’s like some medieval witch-hunt with the victims burning at the stake and the crowd dancing around the fire."
Kennelly refutes the suggestion that the Molonian spirit of wit and bawdiness will wither with permissiveness. “I think the danger is from bourgeois politeness and notions of ‘correct’ speaking. Listen to the accents affected on some television and radio programmes - half Anglicised and mid-Atlantic.”
Kennelly’s poetry uses the language of TV and radio, the advertising jingles, colloquialisms, cliches, graffiti, journalese, slang and slogans. It embraces life where most poetry retreats into more rarified realms. Like Paul Durcan, he is at once serious, provocative and entertaining. His native north Kerry has produced an array of glittering literati. The closing poem in “Moloney” attributes this profusion of talent and genius to the fact that the Listowel water supply flows through a cemetery.
"No wonder Mac Mahon, for all his sins,
Will riddle you a story that spins.
Or John B. Keane, when the water is right,
Is able to write a play a night.
Sure even that fat little bollox
Out in Ballylongford, Kennelly,
Is half-able to write
With a drop o’ Listowel water in his belly.
Not, mind you, that he’d ever produce
Anything as original as this.
The poor bastard is too serious
When he’s not foolish he’s delirious."
Kennelly lives now in rooms in Trinity. O’Neills across the road is his home from home (he jokingly describes “Moloney” as “a book by the half-pissed for the half-pissed”). In one of his essays in Liam Blake’s splendid collection of photographs Real Ireland, Kennelly ponders his adopted city and its attitude to the artist.
“Anyone who knows Dublin knows there is a really vicious destructive side to the city," he says. "For Yeats it was a city where slanderous gossip is chewed as though it was the best of Bewley's brown bread. For Brendan Behan it was a city that filled a man with loneliness, but deprived him of solitude. For Patrick Kavanagh it was ‘malignant Dublin’ that introduced him to the dull humiliating grind of poverty, and forced him to borrow a shilling from a neighbour, pretending the money was for gas when in fact it went to buy a chop for the hungry poet."
Recently, an Irish writer living in London said that if he remained in Dublin, he’d be an alcoholic within six months. Writers have an eye for beauty; they also have a nose for danger. And Dublin is dangerous. The problem is to recognise the fact; the solution is up to the individual. My own view is that without this danger Dublin would not be Dublin. Where there is danger there is need to dare. And daring is the hallmark of a living imagination.
There is no running away any more. Writers must face that complex Dublin music and make their own music out of it. The time for running and blaming is past. But Brendan Kennelly prefers to put it in a positive light...
“The time for staying," he says, "and creating is now.”