Brendan Kennelly at 80: forever beginning, the balladeer of our age
Brendan Kennelly was born in Ballylongford, Co Kerry, on April 17th, 1936, the son of Tim Kennelly, publican and garage proprietor, and his wife Bridie Ahern, a nurse. Ballylongford is a small village like the other villages in the hinterland of Listowel in North Kerry.
To understand Kennelly and his poetry, you have to come to terms with the traditional culture of the area which Kennelly has translated into poetry, both intimate and epic. It’s flat land touching the River Shannon and the Atlantic. For the most part pasture land, it was, in Kennelly’s youth, mainly a farming community. The farmers, small farmers mostly, were generally not well off. But they loved to sing. At night they’d go to the local pub on bicycles or on foot (this was before the general availability of the car), drink “small ones” (whiskies) and pints of Guinness, and swap stories, news, songs and “recitations”.
Memory, in particular the poet’s memory, gathers these moments together. Kennelly’s was, and remains, a public house – Brendan heard these songs, stories and recitations regularly in the pub – not just imported songs (from the gramophone and radio – there was as yet no television) but local ballads too.
Three elements which largely constitute the mystical body of Kerry are football, politics and religion. Indeed, it is often said that football (Gaelic football at which Kennelly excelled) is the religion of Kerry. Football in Kennelly’s time was an epic affair. Whereas all the villages belonged to the mystical body of Kerry, they were tribal, too. When Ballylongford took on Tarbert, the neighbouring village, war was declared. Tarbert is the old enemy. I once asked Kennelly why he hadn’t included Thomas MacGreevy, the Modernist poet, born in Tarbert, in his Penguin Book of Irish Verse: “MacGreevy was a Tarbert man!” was his reply.
After football, politics came next. North Kerry is republican country. In the struggle for Independence (1919-1921), all republicans fought together against the British, Ballylongford so prominently that part of it was burned by the Black and Tans. Then came the treaty. The united republican movement divided into anti-Treaty (republicans) and pro-Treaty (Free Staters). One thing that united people here, healing the Civil War wounds, was football – the sight of John Joe Sheehy of Tralee (a republican) and Con Brosnan of Moyvane (a captain in the Free State army) playing together on the county team in the 1920s and early 1930s was an example to all.
Religion is central to the life of rural Ireland. I say this in the full knowledge that religion plays an important part in the lives of urban dwellers too. The school system worked hand in hand with the Roman Catholic Church – faith was taught as if knowledge was belief. Pupils in Kennelly’s day had their heads full of the big (theological) words which he has written about in his poem, The Big Words. Kennelly learned the big words, learned them well. When he began to question them, they yielded up a necessary alternative theology. The case of Francis Xavier Skinner, in his poem, The Sin, is instructive. Skinner (Kennelly?) realises that sin flatters his own vanity, that in reality he is only a puny human trying to measure up to God in the belief that his sin is important, original and hurtful to Him. It is no such thing. Later Skinner, having prayed to his maker “To give (him) the vision/ To commit a significant sin”, will become Judas and the nightmare begins. I mentioned to Kennelly after I had read The Book of Judas that I had profound difficulties with it. When asked by him for an instance, I mentioned what I felt to be the naked hatred of women I had picked up here and there in the book. I had no problem with the straightforwardness of Cromwell, but I found Judas offensive. Kennelly replied: “Is it because you think I hate women? I hate myself.”
The ballad is vital to the life of north Kerry. Everything was celebrated in balladry here in Kennelly’s youth. The ballad “said” the tribe. This is where Kennelly comes from – he is a ballad maker, first and last. He has extended the ballad to epic proportions by coupling it with the lyric, the sonnet, and the love child is born in the ear, sings in the ear and is translated by the ear. This is the territory of passion, of the heart, of the force of personality where how a thing is said is as important as what is said. To reduce it is to kill it. Thus Kennelly’s poetry involves more than the mind, more than the intellect, as a ballad insinuates itself with its music and hyperbole into an area of consciousness not appreciated by the reductive mind.
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