Words by Joe Armstrong, Photo by Caroline Brady
Brendan Kennelly is probably the best-loved figure in Irish public life, said Senator David Norris, speaking at the Irish PEN award ceremony on Friday 29th January 2010. He described Kennelly as one of the world’s greatest teachers. In a funny and entertaining speech that had the captive audience at the Royal St George Yacht Club laugh loud and often, he revered Kennelly for imagining himself in poetic form inside the mind of Cromwell, his nation’s bitterest enemy, and Judas. To the appreciation of those gathered, he quoted from one of Brendan’s acclaimed poems ‘I See You Dancing, Father’ which ends: ‘Whatever happens or cannot happen/In the time I have to spare/I see you dancing, father.’
He thanked Brendan on behalf of Irish PEN for all that he has done to enrich our lives. ‘You have been my teacher, my mentor, my advisor. It is a great privilege to be here presenting this award, in this most distinguished company of your peers, your fellow artists. It is appropriate that you should receive this. You are a brilliant poet.’
‘I can’t say how honoured I am. It’s an amazing award,’ said Brendan Kennelly of the Irish PEN accolade. He peppered his softly lilted twenty-minute speech with several recitations of poetry in English and Irish. He recited poems from memory, such as Kavanagh’s ‘The Dawning of the Day’ first in Irish and then in English. He recounted a tale of Kavanagh asking someone for a large whiskey and then a fiver. He then asked for another large whiskey and another fiver. He continued in this vein, requesting whiskey and fivers until eventually the other man said No and Kavanagh, twinkle in eye, called him stingy. All who heard Brendan speak and recite felt honoured to be there, privileged to share the moment. It was like what a sacrament is meant to be: a recreation anew of eternal truths of humanity. The priest: Kennelly. The liturgy: the poetry.