There was a big gathering in Dublin today to honour the Irish poet, Brendan Kennelly, who is now 80 years of age. Watching him on the RTE news, alongside the Irish President, Michael D. Higgins, I was reminded of one of the very first posts I wrote here on my blog. That was back in 2011 and it was highlighting how Brendan Kennelly was a social bridge in my life.
I know that very, very few people read that post which was written from the heart about a man who had a huge impact on me, especially in my first year in Trinity College where he was Professor of English while I was a struggling Sociology student.
This is what I wrote back then:
Knowing that Brendan Kennelly celebrated his 75th birthday this week, I am prompted to recall my reaction to his collection Reservoir Voices (2009). Seeing the book on the shelf in the Book Centre in Waterford gave me a sense of comfort and it was almost like he was responding to a poem I had written about him a few months earlier. The poem, The Smile, related to my first term in Trinity College in 1975, when I was just seventeen and incredibly homesick. I had the good fortune to be able to attend a lunch time poetry reading of Brendan Kennelly’s early on that term and it was one of those bridges in my life that I have never forgotten. It was to lift my spirits and give me the hope I needed to press on and gradually come to thoroughly enjoy my College days.
That first day on Trinity’s cobbles
confirmed the hard-hitting prognosis
that my dreams of professional tennis
were shattered like my throbbing wrist.
Economic and Social Studies, what a prospect!
Brendan Kennelly dissolved my pain
for a fleeting hour, in a packed, steamy
room in Front Square. His voice,
his smile, his dimples inviting
me into his past, his solitude, his heart.
Economics was waiting to trip me up.
Tried to drill it in ‘til dawn
with mugs of black Bewley’s Java.
Saw familiar words on the dreaded paper;
momentary hope, head too heavy, faltered.
I scrambled through the September repeats;
got into my running with Sociology
and tennis. How many times did I
dash past Brendan Kennelly on the cobbles?
He’d smile; but why did I never slow down?
I must confess that I always hoped that I would inspire Brendan Kennelly to write a poem as I ran past him in my short tennis skirt towards the courts in Botany Bay. And if I am really honest, I hoped that I could be his muse like John Betjeman’s, Joan Hunter Dunn, and that he would immortalise me forever in lines like:
Love-thirty-love forty, oh weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy
With carefullest, carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak with your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.
I still regret that I didn’t seize a golden moment to speak to Brendan Kennelly which was presented to me in Ballybunion one hot Summer’s day in the mid-1980s. I was swimming in the sea at the main beach in the town when suddenly I caught sight of a familiar figure jogging along by the water’s edge. Yes, it was the man himself, in his native Co. Kerry, and there I was paralysed in the water just watching him run with the carelessness of Joan Hunter Dunn. I waited ‘til his back was turned and then sprinted up the beach to retrieve my clothes and disappear into the crowds.
No one was more delighted than I, when Toyota brought Brendan’s Kennelly’s voice back into my life with its massive advertising campaign and then, just a few years back, I heard a haunting programme in which he was speaking of his love of walking around Dublin just before dawn. Suddenly, I was catapulted back to the Dublin of my late teens and early twenties. Yes, I had walked those deserted streets on my way home to my bedsit in Ranelagh. I had known the peace he spoke of – a city with no traffic and the sound of birdsong at dawn. I also knew the comfort and coffee aroma of Bewley’s in Westmoreland Street, at breakfast time, with Brendan Kennelly sitting within my sights and reading with such concentration that I couldn’t possibly disturb him.
Plunging into Reservoir Voices, I was stunned to find that it was inspired by an Autumn sojourn in America where he experienced a period of intense loneliness which he tried to cope with by contemplating a reservoir near Boston College. The very idea of Brendan Kennelly ‘sitting alone … feeling abject emptiness’ stretched my emotions to their absolute limits. How could this be possible? Here was the man who had dissolved my angst in a mere hour and who I had assumed to be beyond the hand of darkness and dislocation readily admitting to his experience of it over a period of weeks. He makes the point that sometimes dark loneliness can lead to light. If I had happened to come upon him sitting alone at that reservoir, I hope I would have had the nerve to tell him how his presence was once that crucial light in my young life.