Talk about meeting famous people randomly. It’s becoming a feature of my life. This morning I bumped into the famous Irish poet Brendan Kennelly walking through Trinity College on my way to work.
Kennelly hails from the small town of Ballylongford in County Kerry and still has that musical Kerry brogue. He is a poet of international renown – his poetry being summed up by the title of one of his epics: “Poetry my Arse”.
We sit in Carluccio’s and order a coffee. Brendan, though 77, flirts outrageously with our Lithuanian waitress. I am not sure she understands a word of what he says, nor do I think she would approve if she did. Brendan is profoundly politically incorrect. Out of the blue he asks if they sell underwear in the shop. She looks at him blankly and tells him that they sell latte or cappuccino. He laughs and chooses latte. She leaves confused while he chuckles away. He certainly seems to be enjoying himself.
I tell him that last night I had heard Luke Kelly on the radio sing Ragland Road – a sad and beautiful love song about longing and sexual obsession. The words are taken from Patrick Kavanagh’s poem. Kennelly tells me he knew Kavanagh personally and had also met the 22-year-old beauty who inspired the grand obsession: Hilda Moriarty.
‘Kavanagh could just not move on from Hilda,’ Kennelly said, ‘and seeing her you could see why. She had this amazing long raven black hair,’ he added, smoothing down imaginary locks, ‘women know how to use their hair far more than men. It can define them, their look, and their mystery. I walked down Raglan Road many a time,’ he continued, ‘There’s a laneway there: Raglan Lane, and I wrote a song about it that Mary Black once sang.’
And with that Brendan Kennelly began to sing his song out loud. At first I felt a stab of embarrassment as people glanced over but I swotted the feeling away. I know I am privileged to be sitting in the presence of this great poet who provides a living link to Patrick Kavanagh and his poem.
Kennelly finishes his exquisite song and sips his latte. He begins to recount more tales of Patrick Kavanagh: Kavanagh extracting free drinks from American admirers. Kavanagh’s way with words. To punctuate his stories Brendan breaks off and lets out the occasional “whoop” at a passing lady, causing her to jump and look at him as if he is mad.
I smile, dampening down the uncomfortable feeling that I will never be welcomed back into Carluccio’s again. So what, I chide, I am being treated to an impromptu performance by one of Ireland’s greatest poets while sipping creamy espresso on a grey Friday morning. Does it get any better?
We finish our coffees and I tell Kennelly that one of my literary regrets is that I have never been able to read James Joyce’s Ulysses.
‘You do not read Ulysses,’ Kennelly says, waving away my complaint, ‘try speaking it out loud instead.’
‘Form the start?’ I ask amazed. ‘It’s a very long book.’
‘No, with Ulysses you dip in and out.’
‘Really?’ I ask, as if contemplating literary sacrilege.
‘Yes – try the last 60 pages – they’re good!’
I promise I will just as Brendan says something very profound, (he alternates between grave profundity and outright irreverence).
‘A lot of people think they have to understand Ulysses,’ he says looking at me with bright eyes washed blue by the soft Kerry rain, ‘but you don’t have to understand it – you just have to listen to it.’
‘You don’t have to understand it . . .’ I repeat, knowing this statement is vitally important as I struggle to make sense of it.
Then the penny drops. I try – we all try – to understand everything with our heads; but sometimes that is impossible. Can you understand a sunset? Or falling in love? Or a sudden intuition? You experience these things; you don’t need to “understand” them even if you could.
I check my watch. It is time to go. As I get up to leave I realise that I have just been given a gift; as priceless as it was unexpected. Chance (if you can call it that) has put me in the path of a poet of the human soul; and this poet has just reached out and touched mine.
Below is the great Luke Kelly singing: On Raglan Road – it is a gift. Enjoy it!