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Brendan’s voyage to become one of the true greats of Irish literature

A LIFE LESS ORDINARY: In the seventh in a 10-part series chronicling the stories of remarkable Kerry people who have lived or are living remarkable lives, KillarneyToday.com reflects on the life and times of the great poet, author, academic and wit Brendan Kennelly – soon to celebrate his 85th birthday –  a wonderfully gregarious and warm personality whose incredible work will feature centrally in any anthology of great Irish writing that is ever compiled.

The great Professor Brendan Kennelly chatting with broadcaster Ryan Tubridy in Ballybunion during a Fáilte Ireland backed series of programmes promoting the Wild Atlantic Way.
Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan

PROFESSOR Brendan Kennelly’s life-long love affair with words and both the English and Irish language has seen him become an internationally renowned poet and writer and one of the truly great and accomplished academics Kerry has produced.

His upbringing in North Kerry gave him a natural affiliation with its people, the landscape, its love of football, friendship, respect and the living culture, especially the spoken and written word.

The living culture of Kerry contains a strong oral tradition; one of storytelling, a fascination with language and a belief in the importance of education were formative influences in the development of the future poet and teacher.

Later in life, Brendan became as passionate about teaching English as he is about creating poetry and, from his position at the top of the lecture theatre, he inspired thousands of students at Trinity College. He loved teaching and he still relishes any opportunity to meet people and challenge them to explore and enjoy the English language.

It is that interest in helping others to participate in the art and joy of creative writing that sets him apart from many of his peers. Brendan has always emphasised that the Arts are for everyone and not the preserve of the few.

He really enjoyed teaching in Mountjoy Prison and is fondly remembered by those he taught. Never in anyway elitist, he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to participate in the process and enjoyment of creative expression.

Professor Brendan Kennelly has stimulated, enchanted and awakened the world to the power of the written and the spoken word

Not surprisingly, he is appropriately referred to as the People’s Poet. As he himself said, “It is the same to me if I am lecturing in Harvard or Oxford or any place in the world or giving a talk to youngsters. I do the same with all of them, I do my best”.

As well as being a willing mentor, Brendan had a remarkable work ethic and a rigorous dedication to his writing. During his many years as an English lecturer he wrote in early mornings and late evenings, producing a formidable body of work.

He considered it a great honour that several of his poems featured on the Leaving Cert curriculum as it introduced his work to a new generation of readers.

Born in Ballylongford in April 1936, Kennelly was educated at St Ita’s College in Tarbert and he went on to study at Trinity College in Dublin where he gained his BA, MA and PhD before he furthered his studies at Leeds University.

Brendan is retired since 2005, back living in North Kerry and due to celebrate his 85th birthday in April

Since 1963, he lectured at Trinity College and became its professor of Modern Literature in 1973. He also lectured at the University of Antwerp and in America and has won the AE Memorial prize for poetry and the Critics Special Harvey’s award.

The proud Kerryman published more than 30 books of poems including, My Dark Fathers (1964), Collection One: Getting Up Early (1966), Good Souls to Survive (1967), Dream of a Black Fox (1968), Love Cry (1972) and The Voices (1973).

The works for which he is probably best known include the controversial poetry book, Cromwell, which was published in 1983 and his epic poem The Book of Judas, which topped the Irish best-sellers list when published in 1991.

Never pretentious, his attitude to poetic language was summed up wonderfully in the title of one of his epic works, Poetry my Arse.

These works along with The Man Made of Rain and Glimpses have achieved the Ballylongford man international recognition.

Never pretentious, his attitude to poetic language was summed up wonderfully in the title of one of his epic works, Poetry my Arse

He has also penned novels, verse plays and a substantial body of criticism during his long and distinguished career.

Kennelly’s early work combined an expression of Irish country living with his native village Ballylongford evident as the source of his inspiration and the recognition of the accumulations of history.

The 1991 Kerry Person of the Year award recipient, he was married to Margaret (Peggy) O’Brien for 18 years and they had one daughter, Doodle, to whose children he is now an adoring grandfather.

Retired since 2005, back living in North Kerry and due to celebrate his 85th birthday in April, during his lifetime to date, he has stimulated, enchanted and awakened the world to the power of the written and the spoken word.

Now given the title of Professor Emeritus by his beloved Trinity College, he has been of the truly great figures in Irish literature and his work will feature centrally in any anthology of great Irish writing ever created.

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