In Memoriam: Thomas Kinsella (1928 – 2021)

By Edward Reilly

The poet, Thomas Kinsella, the quiet giant of contemporary Irish literature, has passed away at the grand age of 93.

1991 © Wake Forest University Press. Authorised to E Reilly.

Thomas Kinsella is widely recognised as a major twentieth-century Irish poet. He was described in The Cambridge History of Irish Literature as the author of ‘the most challenging, most achieved, and therefore most rewarding body of poetry… over the past half-century’. His work is included in all of the major anthologies and critical surveys of Irish poetry in English. Kinsella is truly exceptional  in the ruck of Irish poets through the contribution made to the understanding of the Irish-language tradition, from his engagements with early Irish in The Táin (1999) through to the translations gathered in An Duanaire (1999) and, in the New Oxford Book of Irish Verse (1999), his presentation of Ireland’s poetry from the beginning, in both languages, with all new translations, a poetry of a shared and painful history, which in the words of the poet himself pointed to ‘a dual tradition surviving the extinction of a language’. Many of his poems are celebrated and loved for their profound personal candour and sensitivity, but he has also been a poet of searing political and public critical insight.

Born in Inchicore, Co. Dublin, the son of a brewery worker, he was first educated in Gaelic at Model School, later matriculating to UCD as a Science student, but shifting over to the Humanities, and then entered the civil service. His first chapbook, Starlight Eye (Dolmen Press, 1952), found a sympathetic publisher in Liam Miller, with whom Kinsella maintained a long association.

By 1965 Kinsella was confident enough in his reputation as a poet to accept appointments in the USA, becoming a noted professor of English at Temple University, Philadelphia, where he developed programs by which students could visit and enjoy Ireland’s culture. Over the following decades Kinsella published a steady stream of limited-edition chapbooks through the Peppercanister Press, the first chapbook being Butcher’s Dozen, a bitter satire on the Widgery Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry. These chapbooks were collected and co-published by OUP and Wake Forest Press, making his work available to a much wider readership.

Through his own writings and in his translations from the Gaelic language, Kinsella signalled an awareness of the particularly broken nature of Irish poetic tradition. Given that divisions of language, faith, politics and acknowledged history are still painfully evident in contemporary Ireland, as is the need to seek reconciliation, the processes of division and healing have become a focus for all of Kinsella’s work. Factors of Space, Time, Language and Psyche constituted the multiple axes about which Kinsella’s poetry, and his other work as a translator and editor, revolved. There had been some quibbles about his role as a translator and editor, with questions of politics and especially Kinsella’s ideology, or rather more accurately, ideologies being raised, strangely enough by Michael Davitt, who also was working towards a repossession of the country’s poetic heritage.

With his contemporaries, such as John Montague and Richard Murphy, Thomas Kinsella contributed significantly to the post-War invigoration of Irish poetry. He marked a well-defined transition between the immediate post-Yeatsian writing as exemplified by Austin Clarke and Patrick Kavanagh on the one hand, and the younger poets such as Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon. His early publications, Poems (1956), and Another September (1958), are marked by a sensitive and lyric quality, dealing with core aspects of humanity, but also by an element which could be called psychic compulsion. Here’s a brief example, the opening lines to ‘Another September’:

Dreams fled away, this country bedroom, raw
With the touch of dawn, wrapped in minor peace,
Hears through an open window the garden draw
Long pitch black breaths, lay bare its apple trees,
Ripe pear trees, brambles, windfall-sweetened soil,
Exhale rough sweetness against the starry slates …

The language seems simple enough, but once the reader gets into the text, reading it aloud, letting the pauses sink in and emotions slowly build until the final quatrain arrives, like a ghost sitting at the end of one’s bed:

                                                … It is as though
The black breath that billows her sleep, her name,
Drugged under judgement, waned – and bearing daggers
And balances – down the lampless darkness they came,
Moving like women: Justice, Truth, such figures.

In the 1960s four volumes of verse appeared: Moralities (1960), Downstream (1962), Wormwood (1966) and Nightwalker and other poems (1968). In these foundational volumes, Kinsella explored his subjects’ psyches, taking off from the particulars of the material world around, towards inner reality. Open to outside influences, reading especially the works of Stanley Kunitz & Robert Bly, Kinsella was deeply influenced by modernists such as Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell. Later he moved into a deeper reading of the works of Carl Jung, and consequently of mediaeval Irish poets such as Brian Merriman, whose Rabelaisian Cúirt An Mheán Oíche / Midnight Court provided a model for Kinsella’s civic satire.

Kinsella never wrote directly of his religious stance, though his anger at the events of Bloody Sunday, and elsewhere were clearly manifest. An orthodox Christian may have gazed in wonder at his excursions into Jung and frank carnality, but in the final Peppercanister, number 29, Love Joy Peace (2013) he is clearly reconciled with:

… ‘memories of the Christ.

The records differ in detail, but all are agree
On His nature as a man: compassionate and precise

In His judgement of men’s conduct:

Arrogant and gentle in fatal combination.
Torn from the flesh in carnal pantomime
– too direct for this world.’

He was widely recognised for his contributions to Irish Literature, being awarded a Doctorate of Letters by Trinity College Dublin, and accorded the Freedom of Dublin City. On news of his death, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Ms A. Gilliland, that the Dublin flags on the Mansion House and City Hall would fly at half-mast. Thomas Kinsella was predeceased in 2017 by his beloved wife, Eleanor, and brother John Kinsella, the composer. He is mourned by his family, colleagues and lovers of Irish Literature around the world.

Edward Reilly MA PhD, formerly a secondary teacher and then tutor at Victoria Uni. He has co-published Three Poets (Geelong Writers 2019) with Robert Drummond & Grant Fraser. Details at Geelongwriters.org.au

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