A Happy Life ~ Gatherings from Ireland # 7

Brendan Kennelly
Brendan Kennelly

Brendan Kennelly is one of Ireland’s best-loved poets. He is very much ‘the people’s poet’; a man with great intellect, humour and the most wonderful dimpled smile.

His poem  A Happy Life is one which often makes me stop and think.

A Happy Life

What constitutes a happy life? 
Enough money to meet your needs 
steady work 
a comfortable fire 
a clear distance from law 
a minimum of city business 
a peaceful mind and a healthy body 
simple wisdom and firm friends 
enjoyable dinners and plain living 
nights free from care 
a virtuous wife who’s not a prude 
enough sleep to make the darkness short 
contentment with the life you have, 
avoiding the sneer, the poisoned sigh; 
no fear of death 
and no desire to die.

( from: Brendan Kennelly,  Martial Art ,  2003)

Happy Thanksgiving

Well of Inspiration, Mount Melleray, Co Waterford

Thanksgiving never meant a lot to me until a couple of years ago. It is not celebrated in Ireland but there have been moves, by the Irish Hospice Foundation among others,  to make it a day on which we say ‘thank you’ to those who have impacted on our lives.

One of the huge influences in my life in the last year has been a poetry thread which I started on the Linkedin Group ~ TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. It has drawn interest from people all over the world, with over 8,000 posting now,  and continues to  be a source of huge satisfaction,  inspiration, fun and, most importantly,  friendship.

The first line I posted was written by the great Irish poet, W.B. Yeats: Tread softly because you tread on my dreams  and I must say that the level of mutual respect within the group has been wonderful.

So, I would like to give thanks this year on Thanksgiving Day to all those who have contributed to the poetry thread since its inception. It is just amazing to wake to poetry which has been posted over night ~ poetry which inspires, makes me smile, think, cry, hope and, most importantly, feel fully alive and connected.

I have chosen this poem from Denise Leverov to mark the day because it is about gratitude but also brings to mind the fact that the poetry thread is one that never sleeps because it draws people together from right across the globe.

To all the wonderful contributors, I say a big ‘thank you’ on this day for giving thanks.

That Passeth All Understanding


Denise Levertov

An awe so quiet
I don’t know when it began.

A gratitude
had begun
to sing in me.

Was there
some moment
song from no song?

When does dewfall begin?

When does night
fold its arms over our hearts
to cherish them?

When is daybreak?

John Keats ~ Casting his Light on October 31

I never like leaving October behind because it has to be one of the most colourful months of the year with its spectacular autumn tints. To counter these thoughts of ‘endings,’ I decided to check out who was born on October 31.  To my  delight, I discovered that it is the birthday of  John Keats who was born on this day in 1795.

John Keats ~ Portrait by William Hilton

It just seems so appropriate that the man who wrote what is arguably the most famous poem about Autumn should have been born today. It just makes me smile to even think about it. Somehow, October 31 has been cast in a whole new light and I, for one, want to raise a glass to the life and work of John Keats.

So, let me bring you that poem which is so memorable:

Ode To Autumn 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

The Greatest Love Poem?

Lover’s Walk, Newtown, Tramore, Co. Waterford.

As a person with a passion for poetry, I suppose it was bound to happen that I would want to identify the greatest love poem of them all.  I  have been thinking a good bit about this recently and then yesterday I read a fascinating  post by David Milligan-Croft called  Top 10 Love Films of  all time?  http://thereisnocavalry.wordpress.com/2012/10/27/top-10-love-films-of-all-time/.  It really inspired me to write about love poems.

I know that there are hundreds , if not thousands,  of love poems that could be considered the greatest. However, for me there is but one. It was written by W.B. Yeats:

When You Are Old

By William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Rosa ‘Remember me’
I would love to hear your views and while I’m waiting I plan to listen to Liam Clancy’s rendition of When You are Old!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GkpMwQTkq8

The Bridge Builder ~Global Connections through Profound Poetry

Bridge and Viaduct near Stradbally, Co. Waterford, Ireland

In September 2011, I started a poetry thread on the Linkedin Group ~ TED: Ideas Worth Spreading in which I asked people to share poems or lines of poetry which had profound meaning for them.  The thread has been weaving a wonderful tapestry over the months and has now reached almost 7,500 postings.  For me, it has been a social bridge in many, many ways. As well as being introduced to lots of new poets and poems, I have ‘met’ with interesting and inspirational poetry lovers from all round the world.

One of these, Jenfred Sams, an art history student from America, recently presented us with a wonderful blog post in which she put together the words of Will Allen Dromgoole’s poem The Bridge Builder with artwork and quotations about bridges. I would love to share this jewel with you now and hope that you enjoy it as much as I have.


Woodstown Beach, Co. Waterford on National Poetry Day in Ireland, 2012

National Poetry Day, October 4th, dawned to perfection here in Co. Waterford. High tide was at 8.30am and Woodstown Beach sent out its whispering call. I arrived there shortly after 9.00 with my swimming gear and was greeted by the the most welcoming sea imaginable.

Tropical blue with sweet little waves embroidering the shell-strewn sand. While I had been thinking of John Masefield’s Sea Fever, on my way there, the moment I ran onto the beach John Keats’ On the Sea immediately took over:

On the Sea


John Keats

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be moved for days from where it sometime fell.
When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.
Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;
Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,
Or fed too much with cloying melody—
Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth and brood,
Until ye start, as if the sea nymphs quired!

As I floated in the sea, it was as if I could see poetry being written by nature. The moon had decided to stay up for the occasion and was gleaming across the water at the rising sun.

A woman, who was walking her dogs, called out to me, with a smile: You’re crazy.

As I smiled back, saying,  Oh, it’s bliss, lines from Brendan Kennelly’s poem Hope came flashing into my happy and connected mind:

Our skies are brightening up today.
I love your company, dear friend,
and always will, come what may.

I dream of being the living song
everyone would love to sing.
Impossible? No. That’s me. Let’s keep walking

until both our hearts are singing.

Seamus Heaney ~ Weaving Words within my Heart

Seamus Heaney and his poetry have been weaving in and out of my life for  over 25 years now. I remember celebrating wildly with my mother in 1995 when news came through that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Seamus Heaney

It seemed so right that he was star poet reading at the Kilkenny Arts Festival in 2009,  just a few short weeks after Mother had died.  Kilkenny was the place where my parents first met in the early 1940s and I felt their happy youthful presence all round me as I made my way to St. Canice’s Cathedral for the performance.

Nothing could ever have prepared me for the impact which Seamus Heaney and his poetry had on me that balmy August evening.  It was as if he knew that Mother had just died and was trying to comfort me by telling me that I was not alone in my sadness. The emotion with which he read about his own mother  penetrated my sorrow and his words were like empathetic arms around me:

From Clearances 3

 In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984

When all the others were away at Mass 
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes. 
They broke the silence, let fall one by one 
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron: 
Cold comforts set between us, things to share 
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water. 
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes 
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses. 

So while the parish priest at her bedside 
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying 
And some were responding and some crying 
I remembered her head bent towards my head, 
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives– 
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.


Last week, I spent a few days in Co. Clare which was my father’s native county.  He had been thrilled to hear about my expedition to Kilkenny in August 2009 and he talked of how complicated and time-consuming it had been back in the 1940s to get from Kilkenny to Kilrush, especially when one was the junior in the bank.  One of my reasons for visiting Co. Clare last week was to go and see some of the ‘special’ places that Father told me about before his death in September 2010.  I was also inspired by Seamus Heaney to take the time to visit Flaggy Shore in the Burren Region, just a few miles from Ballyvaughan.


And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

(from The Spirit Level)

Swan Lake, Co. Clare

The swans were just as he described and more than anything I knew that Seamus Heaney would  fully understand when I felt, yet again, my heart being caught off guard and blown open.

Kilkenny Arts Festival 2012 ~ Anticipation

I’m a great believer in the importance of rewarding oneself when a tough task has been completed. Today has been one of those days when I managed to post off a project I’ve been slaving over for the last while so I indulged myself  with a long sit down with the programme for this year’s Kilkenny Arts Festival. Sheer bliss!

The Festival, which is due to run from August 10th-19th, looks like it will be an absolute cracker and, as usual, ‘arts’ is taken in a very broad sense so there is a huge range of different shows, exhibitions, concerts, talks ….. and poetry readings.

To my absolute delight I discovered that  Paul Durcan, who has to be Ireland’s most entertaining poet,  is returning to Kilkenny this year.  I was fortunate enough to hear him read, or watch him perform, when he was last at the Festival in 2010. The mere thought of that evening still makes me chuckle.

Paul Durcan

I bought a book of his poems after the reading at the Watergate and here is one that I especially like.

Little Old Lady

Mummy shrank as she grew older.

After Daddy died, she became so small

She began to look like a little girl

And, after a period of grief,

To disport like a little girl – the little girl

In the photograph album of 1927

Making hay in Mayo, raking, tossing it,

In the summer before her twelfth birthday.

At seventy-three she beat her way out of the lethargy

Of  old age and she began to hop about

Not only the apartment but the city streets,

Beginning conversations with strangers at bus stops

And hanging out in the new space-age shopping centres.

From a sports shop catalogue she purchased

A steel-and-rope trapeze, which she installed

In a niche over the kitchen door.

“Its compact,” she confided one lunchtime.

“It folds up and folds down like a dream.”

After I’d washed up and dried the dishes

She demonstrated it and teasingly

Tried to persuade me to buy one for myself.

On the morning of her eightieth birthday,

When I’d brought her a gift of a bucket of begonia,

To my chagrin she showed only

A perfunctory interest in my begonia,

Which I had gone to some trouble to purchase.

Instead she stood on the seat of her trapeze

Mocking me as she swung to and fro,

Her little white tennis skirt fluttering

Above her matchstick knees. She cackled:

“Now what do you think of your little old lady?

Do you think she’s surplus to requirements?

Well, don’t think  I’m fishing for compliments.”

So, if you think you’ve earned a browse through the Kilkenny Arts Festival Programme, here’s the link http://www.kilkennyarts.ie/events/.  Be sure to say ‘hello’ when we meet at Paul Durcan’s reading!

Brendan Kennelly – A Social Bridge

In the week that  Brendan Kennelly, one of Ireland’s leading poets, celebrated his 75th birthday, I write of how he has been a significant social bridge in my life since I attended one of his poetry readings in my first term at Trinity College in 1975. This article is in Section Two of  Social Bridges.