Fr Kevin Hegarty
In October we lost three cultural icons with the deaths of Paddy Moloney, Máire Mhac an tSaoi and Brendan Kennelly.
Their deaths, within days of each other, provide an opportunity to reflect on the value of culture to society.
Artists, in which designation I include writers, poets, musicians, singers, painters and dancers, enrich our lives. They inspire us, stretch our imaginations and help us discern universal truths. They can lead us into laughter and joy, they can cause us to break down in tears. They can help us to understand what it is to be human in a complex world. In the words of Wallace Stevens: ‘things as they are are changed upon the blue guitar’.
Paddy Moloney was a central figure in the revival of Irish traditional music. An accomplished uilleann pipe player, he was the founder and leader of The Chieftains.
For well over five decades the group popularised Irish traditional music from Dublin to Beijing. Among The Chieftains’ achievements were collaborations with musicians from other native traditions and with pop and rock artists. The 1994 album The Long Black Veil stands out, featuring collaborations with Mark Knopler, Sting, Sinéad O’Connor, Van Morrison, Ry Cooder, Marianne Faithful, Tom Jones and The Rolling Stones sang mainly traditional songs accompanied by the Irish band. Though composition of The Chieftains changed over the years, Moloney was a constant, his charismatic presence enlivening every performance.
Máire Mhac an tSaoi belonged to a family steeped in Irish public and political life. Her father Seán McEntee, took part in the ‘Easter Rising’ and was a Fianna Fáil government minister for several years. Her mother lectured in classical Irish at UCD. Her uncle, Monsignor Pádraig de Brún, was a Maynooth professor and later President of UCG. Another uncle was a cardinal. She married the writer and politician Conor Cruise O’Brien.
However, she was never defined by the men in her life.
She was called to the bar in 1944. As a diplomat in the Department of External Affairs she gave distinguished service in France, Spain and the United Nations.
It is as a poet she especially desired to be remembered. She produced five collections in the Irish language which are highly regarded. A recurrent theme in her work is the exploration of female sexuality. She also wrote and autobiography in English entitled ‘The Same Age as the State’. In it she evokes the Kerry Gaeltacht in the early decades of the 20th century. She spent long periods of her childhood in Dunquin (Dún Chaoin). The Gaeltacht experience influenced her greatly as is evident from the following translation of her poem ‘Slán’.
It’s not on the dreary streets of Dublin,
Though its people see me as one of their own,
That my scattered thoughts go their wandering way
In the dark and lonesome stretches of the night.
They go their way to the far western seaboard
Where the sun goes down in the yellow glory of evening.
A land of hills and caves, of isles and inlets,
The only place in the world where my heart is free.
Brendan Kennelly was a professor of Modern English at Trinity College for over 30 years. His students testify to his understanding, vision and kindness. He had a cherubic smile that lit up every room he entered. A loyal son of Kerry, Dublin became his second home.
Poetry was his first love, and he produced over 30 collections. He wrote that “poetry is above all, a singing art of natural and magical connection, because, though it is born out of one person’s solitude, it has the ability to reach out and touch in a humane and warmly illuminating way the solitude, even the loneliness of others. That is why, to me, poetry is one of the most vital treasures that humanity possesses; it is a bridge between separated souls.”
In his poems he explores human light and darkness and our chequered history. Ultimately he strikes a note of hope and optimism as is clear from the following excerpt of ‘Begin’.
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.
Paddy Moloney, Máire Mhac an tSaoi, Brendan Kennelly, rest in peace. We are the poorer because of your deaths. We are the richer because you lived amongst us.