Brendan Kennelly: A ballad maker, first and last

The Irish literary genius and his art were born of that great Kerry triumvirate: football, politics, and religion
Brendan Kennelly: A ballad maker, first and last

The recently deceased Brendan Kennelly in the bedroom of his house in Balylongford (Kennellys Bar) prior to a civic reception by Kerry County Council in his honour in 2017. File Photo: Domnick Walsh Photography

Brendan Kennelly was born in Ballylongford, County Kerry, on April 17, 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’ (whiskey) and pints of Guinness, and swap stories, news, songs, and ‘recitations’.

Songs, stories, 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.

Brendan Kennelly in his hometown of Ballylongford Co Kerry in 2001 for the Brendan Kennelly Summer Festival. Picture: Domnick Walsh Photography
Brendan Kennelly in his hometown of Ballylongford Co Kerry in 2001 for the Brendan Kennelly Summer Festival. Picture: Domnick Walsh Photography

Three elements that 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 — he played in the 1954 All-Ireland football final which Kerry narrowly lost to Dublin) is the religion of the county. 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.

Republican country

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 around here, healing the wounds of the Civil War, 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. 

The big words of religion

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 God. 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.

The epic ballad

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.

Brendan Kennelly at Listowel Writers Week in 2017 where a Lifetime Achievement Award, was presented to him. He was one of the founding members of the festival back in 1970. File Photo: Domnick Walsh Photography
Brendan Kennelly at Listowel Writers Week in 2017 where a Lifetime Achievement Award, was presented to him. He was one of the founding members of the festival back in 1970. File Photo: Domnick Walsh Photography

Kennelly was a gifted poet, the most popular and best-loved Irish poet of his generation. He was as generous as he was gifted and many a poet, including myself, has benefited from his encouragement and advice. 

Brendan, old friend, slán. 

Solas na bhFlaithis dod anam uasal. Ní bheidh do leithéid arís ann.

Begin

Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of the light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.

Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.

Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing, though with us still.

Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.

Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

  • Brendan Kennelly, The Essential Brendan Kennelly: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2011) www.bloodaxebooks.com

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