Brendan Kennelly

  By Arthur Flynn

Search County Kerry

The poet Brendan Kennelly is one of the elite band of poets, JL novels and playwrights to emerge from north Kerry. They included John B. Keane, Bryan MacMahon, Maurice Walsh and George Fitzmaurice.

Brendan has had an interesting, varied life having written over twenty books, a number of plays and has been Professor of Modern Literature at Trinity College, Dublin.

Brendan was born In the small village of Ballylongford, County Kerry, in 1936. He was one of a large family and attended the local national school and St. Ita’s College, Tarbert, an inter-denominational school. 

He was a bright student and enjoyed absorbing knowledge. He began reading the classics at an early age. 

Later he attended Trinity College, Dublin, and the University of Leeds where one of his tutors was A.N. Jeffares. Brendan was greatly influenced by other leading writers of the period, particularly the writing of Frank O’Connor, and they became firm friends. 

Kennelly enjoyed writing poetry, many featuring aspects of his rural background. His first book of poetry Cast a Cold Eye was published in 1959. This was followed in quick succession by The Dark about Our loves (1961), The Rain, the Moon (1962) and Green Town Lands (1963) with Rudi Holzapfel. Let Fall No burning Leaf also appeared in 1963.

In his poems he tackled difficult subjects in his own distinctive style. Subjects such as the Famine, Ireland’s relationship with England and the troubled passions in the arenas of love and hate appeared in his poems.

The year 1963 was highly a successful and productive for Kennelly. Along with having two collections of poetry published he was appointed Professor of Modern English in Trinity College, Dublin, and his first novel The Crooked Cross was published. It was highly acclaimed. 

The following year he produced another collection of poetry, My Dark Feathers, based on elements of Irish history particularly the Famine. 

Almost annually for the next number of years Brendan produced a collection of poetry. The collections included Up and At It (1965), Collection One: Getting Up Early (1966) and Good Souls to Survive (1967). 

He followed this in 1967 with another novel The Florentjnes concerning students and their wild lives in Leeds. That year Kennelly became a Fellow of Trinity College and also won the AE Memorial Prize for Poetry. 

Brendan was extremely popular with students in Trinity and made himself available to assess their writing. He was a larger than life character bubbling with personality His animated poetry readings always played to full houses. 

Over the next five years more poetry collections appeared including Dream of a Black Fox (1968), Selected Poems (1969), A Drinking Cup (1970), Bread (1971), Love Cry: the Kerry Sonnets (1972), Salvation: The Stranger (1972), and Selected and New Poems (1972).

He has edited a number of books on Irish poetry and literature including The Penguin Book of Irish Verse in 1970 that was revised and enlarged in later years. 

Brendan was also a darling of the media and made regular entertaining appearances of television including the Late Late Show and radio arts programmes. He was a favourite at Arts Festivals throughout the country. His dramatic readings of his poems brought a new meaning to the words. 

For further collections, Kennelly was to feature his Every man Malony and his boisterous adventures and life style. He returned to Trinity College in 1973 as the first occupant of the newly-created Chair of modern Literature. 

As he became older Kennelly’s output became more intense and lengthy One of his most important works was his 1983 controversial long poem Cromwell that was to demonstrate this preoccupation. 

This sequence consisted of over 250 poems that occur in the consciousness of dreams and nightmares of an Irishman M.P.G.M. Buffun and the atrocities of Cromwell.

When Kennelly turned his hand to play writing he was equally as successful. In 1986, his version of Antigone was staged at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin. His play Medea received its world premiere at the Dublin Theatre Festival of 1988.

That same year he won the Critics’ Special Harvey’s Award. This book-length The Book of Judas was published in 1991. 

Brendan was not afraid to be outrageous or bawdy as he displayed with Poetry My Arse a collection of poetry published in 1995. 

Following major heart surgery he wrote his collection The Man Made of Rain (1998) that was published in book and tape format. In 1999, he published Begin. Brendan is still writing and in demand as a speaker and reader at literary festivals at home and abroad.


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