Brendan Kennelly 1936-2021

It’s been a sad few days for Irish literature as we note the passing of two notable Irish literary figures. Máire Mhac an tSaoi was not only a poet, but also an Irish language scholar, author and at one point a career diplomat.

It is Brendan Kennelly’s passing that I feel the most, however. Coming from a scientific background I am no literary critic, but to me his work seems accessible, powerful, impactful and unpretentious all at the same time. My favourite poem of Kennelly’s is “De Valera at Ninety Two” which I first discovered included in Tim Pat Coogan’s well-known biography of the President, and which I have reproduced below.

The poet composed the work based on discussions with De Valera near the end of his life. Within the poem, which I hear in the subject’s voice, you can hear Dev’s innermost thoughts on his own decline, his defiance against criticism of his actions in the early 1920s, nostalgia for simpler times before the trouble, and his recollections of his grandfather and the associated language and traditions long lost to history.

De Valera at Ninety-Two

To sit here, past my ninetieth year,
Is a joy you might find hard to understand.
My wife is dead. For sixty years
She stood by me, although I know
She always kept a secret place in her heart
For herself. This I understood. There must always be
A secret place where one can go
And brood on what cannot be thought about
Where there is noise and men and women.

Some say I started a civil war.
There are those who say I split the people.
I did not.
The people split themselves.
They could not split me.
I think now I was happiest when I taught
Mathematics to teachers in their training.
From nineteen hundred and six to nineteen sixteen
I taught the teachers.
Then the trouble started.
In jail, I often sat for hours
Especially at evening
Thinking of those mathematical problems
I loved to solve
Here was a search for harmony,
The thrill of difficulty,
The possibility of solution.
Released from jail, I set about
Making a nation,
A vicious business,
More fools among my friends than in my enemies,
Devoted to what they hardly understood.
Did I understand? You must understand
I am not a talker, but a listener.
Men like to talk, I like to listen.
I store things up inside.
I remember what many seem to forget.
I remember my grandfather
Telling of his brother’s burial in Clare.
The dead man was too tall
To fit an ordinary grave
So they had to cut into a neighbour’s plot,
Break the railings round a neighbour’s grave
To bury a tall man.
This led to war between the families,
Trouble among the living
Over a patch o’ land for the dead.
The trouble’s still there. Such things, as you know,
Being a countryman yourself,
Are impossible to settle.
When my grandfather scattered things on the kitchen floor
He used strange words from the Gaelic.
I wonder still about the roots of words.
They don’t teach Latin in the schools now.
That’s bad, that’s very bad.
It is as important to know
Where the words in your mouth come from
As where you come from yourself.
Not to know such origins
Is not to know who you are
Or what you think you’re saying.
I had a small red book at school,
‘Twas full of roots,
I still remember it.

Roots. . . and crops. Origins… and ends.
The woman who looks after me now
Tells me to sip my brandy.
Sometimes I forget I have a glass in my hand
And so I do what I’m told.
I have been blind for years.
I live in a world of voices
And of silence.
I think of my own people, the tall men,
Their strange words, the land
Unmoved by all our passions about it,
This land I know from shore to shore,
The Claremen roaring their support
And all the odds and ends
(What was that word he had for them?)
Scattered on my grandfather’s kitchen floor.

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