Farewell to Brendan Kennelly and Máire Mhac an tSaoí: We've lost two luminous presences 

Thomas McCarthy pays tribute to two of his fellow poets who passed away in recent days 
Farewell to Brendan Kennelly and Máire Mhac an tSaoí: We've lost two luminous presences 

Brendan Kennelly and Máire Mhac an tSaoí.

The loss of two wonderful poets in the last few days has come as a great shock to writers, poets especially. Brendan Kennelly and Mhac an tSaoí were leading lights in twentieth century Irish poetry, their luminous presences and personalities so strong that they both shone brightly beyond the narrower boundaries of literature.

We are simply shocked that they are not here anymore, shocked by the very real void left in Irish life by their passing. It’s not that they died young like our beloved Seán Dunne: the one was 85 and the other 99, fine long lives. But their presences were so strong and so adamantly alive that we thought they might live forever. 

Kennelly, the Ballylongford-man, winner of the AE Memorial Prize and the Annual Literary Award of the Ireland Funds, made his name early as a poet and Trinity scholar.

 His language was fluid and racing and colloquial. His memory was prodigious, a brilliant actor’s memory like the Cork poet, Seán Lucy, but with the certainty and confidence of a Kerry footballer. It was the 1964 collection, My Dark Fathers, that brought his name to serious attention:

‘My dark fathers lived the intolerable day Committed always to the night of wrong,
 Stiffened at the hearthstone, the woman lay,
 Perished feet nailed to her man’s breastbone…’ 

His voice here was the voice of history, Famine, of Kerry clay and rock. But the mere seriousness of poetry never satisfied Kennelly. He didn’t trust heavy seriousness, there was too much of it around in the Ireland of the 1950s and 1960s. Instead he believed in the deep truth of joyful things, of love, dancing, singing, recitation and sport.

Brendan Kennelly in his home town of Ballylongford Co Kerry. Picture: Domnick Walsh 
Brendan Kennelly in his home town of Ballylongford Co Kerry. Picture: Domnick Walsh 

He felt that humans were at their best when full of life and full of purpose. He encouraged ambition in everyone and he was as delighted as a child with the success and fame of others, especially if they were Kerry people. Life would be celebrated, and pain more carefully calibrated, in collections like Love Cry (1972) and The Boats Are Home (1980).

He would remind readers of his attitude to pomposity in his Poetry My Arse from Bloodaxe Books in 1995. Yet he was unafraid of the heavy stuff, and tackled it well in epic books like Cromwell (1983, 1987) and his version of Sophocle’s Antigone in 1993. 

Brendan is a great loss, certainly, and it will be ages hence before we’ve forgotten how he could hold a huge audience spell-bound with the depth of his unguarded soul and the warmth of his Ballylongford conversation.

Máire Mhac an tSaoí, no less influential and brave, was a different kind of poet. She was tough and political and as sharp as her distinguished father, Tánaiste Seán McEntee. Learned and multi-lingual, cosmopolitan and nationalist, she had begun her young adult life as a diplomat.

Hardly more than a girl, she was quickly absorbed into state-craft and public service in that high Mandarin Fianna Fáil style of her father; as well as the episcopal, scholarly Brownes of her mother’s family. Her uncle, Pádraig de Brún, was already a poet and translator when she herself began to write: poems of high seriousness and perfect Irish verse-craft.

She is still remembered bitterly in Cork literary circles for her cruel put-down of Seán O Ríordáin’s early collection, but her review betrayed the youthful hubris of long-learning and respect for tradition.

Máire Mhac an t-Saoí in Dingle with her husband Conor Cruise O'Brien. Picture: Eamonn Keogh/MacMonagle
Máire Mhac an t-Saoí in Dingle with her husband Conor Cruise O'Brien. Picture: Eamonn Keogh/MacMonagle

Yet, her poetry was brave and wonderful and as revolutionary in its feminism as O Ríordáin was in his language. She is crucially important in terms of female revelation, the revelation of the personal, person-centred, female voice in Irish life. Poems like ‘Ceathrúintí Mháire Ní Ogáin’ and ‘Cré na Mná Tí’ are pioneering texts in Irish Women’s poetry, possibly overlooked because the achievement was in Irish:

‘Achair bliana atáim
Ag luí farat id chlúid,
Deacair anois a rá
Cad leis a raibh mo shúil!’ ‘

A whole year I am
 Stretched under your coverlet,
 Difficult now to say
 What my heart had hoped for!’ 

At the time of writing the poet was deep into her hopeless affair with an academic she more than admired. Her yearnings were intermingled with memories of the Máire who was mistress of the poet Donncha Rua Mac Conmara. She had moved far beyond the range of orthodoxies.

Similarly, in a seemingly simple poem like ‘Cré na Mná Tí’ she lists all the duties of a dutiful housewife, milking, bed-making, keeping the family disciplined; but ‘like Scheherazde’ as she says, her poetry has to be accepted also. These poems anticipated all the contemporary epiphanies we would receive in Irish women’s poetry of the present day.

The great defining love of Mhac an tSaoí’s life was her long marriage to writer and politician, Conor Cruise O’Brien. Their love became a collaboration at the highest level and brought her the greatest personal joy. But she will be missed by all of us, this great Mandarin poet of the Gael, one of the greatest of the last two centuries. Her passing, along with that of Brendan Kennelly, has left a definite national emptiness.

  • Thomas McCarthy is a poet from Co Waterford who has been based in Cork for many years

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