It is with great sadness that the School marks the death of renowned poet and academic Brendan Kennelly in Listowel, in his native Co. Kerry, yesterday, aged 85.
As a writer, Brendan was creative, prolific, and accessible. While best known as a poet, he also wrote novels, plays, worked as an editor, anthologist, critic, and contributed enormously to Irish public life in his contributions to newspapers and television. He is best known for his 30 collections of poetry, and especially for his provocative Cromwell (1983), The Book of Judas (1991) and Poetry My Arse (1995), which were bestsellers as well as being critically acclaimed. Unique to Brendan’s work was his ability to engage with the world in darkness and light, to bring introspection to the point of mysticism yet to be accessible to a broad public audience, to bring the reader to the point of despair yet to counter that despair with gaiety. His poetry acknowledged that everything joyful wrenched from life is hard won but it is worth the winning.
Brendan was also an extraordinary writer and teacher, and an unforgettable presence in the Department of English in Trinity for over 40 years. When he came up from Kerry on a Reid Sizarship at the age of 16 he was too shy to embark on his degree at Trinity, and wasn’t sure he would even fit in here, and it was only after three years working for the ESB that he nerved himself to start on his degree in Modern Languages. After graduating he embarked on a PhD on Yeats and mythology at the University of Leeds and was appointed a lecturer in English in Trinity in 1963. Soon identified as a rising star in the College, he was elected to Fellowship in 1967 and, after a year as Visiting Professor in Swarthmore College in the US, appointed as Professor of Modern Literature in 1973. For some years he was Head of the English Department but, as he was the first to admit, his gifts were not for administration. He continued thereafter to contribute to the Department as an enormously charismatic teacher.
For generations of Trinity students of English, Brendan Kennelly was a revelation. His lectures, tutorials and seminars were unpredictable, exciting, motivating, intimidating, and cherished. He was enormously generous to his students, and his accessibility was quite unconventional in a time where academics sometimes tended to hold themselves somewhat apart. He had also an astonishing memory for both poetry and people. He could meet an individual student years after he taught them and not only remember them but in cases recite a poem they had written for him.
It was on an initiative of his, together with Davis Coakley, eminent gerontologist and Wilde scholar, that 21 Westland Row, Wilde’s birthplace was secured as the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing in 1997. This then provided the base for the M.Phil in Creative Writing, the first such course in Ireland, with Brendan Kennelly as its Co-Director. Appropriately, the Library in the Centre is now named after him.