You would meet him at the close of day. Or at the start, or in the middle. Coming from café or bookshop. Because when Brendan Kennelly wasn’t in a lecture hall or in his room in Trinity, he was walking the streets, talking to strangers and friends.

You couldn’t miss him on his beat between College Green, Grafton St, Dawson Street and Stephens Green. A boulevardier with the face of a fallen angel, he spent much of his time quoting poetry. Never his own. Usually Patrick Kavanagh.
At one time he talked a lot to me. Before he went back to Kerry, where he died last weekend. 

But as if Kennelly wasn’t sacrifice enough for the Kerry gods, last week-end they claimed Maire Mhac an tSaoi too. The mythic ones are falling so fast we are like Oisin after Tir na nOg, grieving a lost world of Fianna and poets.

Maire Mhac an tSaoi, an early sexual revolutionary, was precursor of a wonderful flowering of Irish women poets like Eavan Boland, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Rita Ann Higgins. But like Kennelly, it was Kerry – specifically for her the “fior Gaoluinn”, of Dun Chaoin – which gave her voice.

Kennelly and Mhac an tSaoi had much in common. Both wrote great public poems but behind all, both probed the depths of love. I can’t help feeling it was the contrasts of Kerry –  a crucible of savagery at the birth of this nation but also an Eden of nature untamed – which fed those unbound human hearts.   

In the summer of 1966, as a student, I came to Dublin for the first time. I was hired as a waitress for the Brown Thomas café Social and Personal. My job was to wait on the board of directors who worked in the building under the basilisk eye of their chairman, Senator E A Maguire. I passed my days carrying trays of pea soup with ham hock from the kitchen to the lofty (though rickety) management quarters. To lighten the tedium, I often stopped to study the form of those fortunate enough to be on the other side of this labour divide – the coffee drinkers.

Thus it was I became fascinated by a young couple, who sometimes sat in a corner, faces almost touching, so intense was their conversation. His was the cherubic countenance later to become so familiar to strollers in the south inner city. She was what the |Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood called “A Stunner” – flame-haired, pale skinned, beautiful. They never smiled. I decided theirs was a doomed love affair. Or perhaps an Irish Beauvoir and Sartre. I determined to find out all about them.

He was a junior lecturer in English at Trinity and she had just finished a first class degree there. Their names were Brendan Kennelly and Eavan Boland. They were not lovers. Their passion, it turned out, was poetics, infinitely more intense than any fleshly fires.   Both became great poets.

Brendan Kennelly wrote reams of visceral poetry about restrictions on political and personal freedom in independent Ireland.. “The fox eats its own leg in the trap to go free.”  He wrote about battles and betrayals. He wrote about the massacre at Ballyseedy during the civil was; he wrote about the nail bombing of children during the Troubles.  As with many artists he couches the private in public language. And vice versa.

“Supremacy of silence is what I hate
Only gods and graves have a right to that
Or one who knows what this is all about.”

The face Brendan Kennelly presented to the world from an early age was that of a happy warrior. In his native Ballylongford, he played Gaelic football and his contemporaries recounted how his opponents once complained that he had a “fierce long kick for a small poet.”
Rumbunctious he may have been as a young man, but there was always something ineffably sad about him.

Brendan Kennelly.

He was frustrated, as a poet and as a person, about the limitations of language. Perhaps that was why, on love, he usually took refuge in someone else’s lines. The Kavanagh poem he quoted from beginning to end most frequently to strangers was a sonnet called “Hospital.”  

“A year ago, I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital: square cubicles in a row
Plain concrete, wash basins – an art lover’s woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know….”

There is scarcely a line more life-enhancing in the English language than “But nothing whatever is by love debarred.” Such optimism seemed to elude Kennelly. He knew all of Patrick Kavanagh by heart and saluted him in subtle ways. In his acclaimed  “Begin”  Kennelly writes

“Begin again to the morning traffic
 all along Pembroke Road.”

Pembroke Road of course was Patrick Kavanagh’s haunt, his enchanted way, despite all of love’s vagaries.

For Kavanagh, grief was a fallen leaf; for Kennelly, it was terminal, as in The Dead Wife, which is translated from an Irish poem by Muireadach O’Dalaigh:

“It breaks my heart
To look at that bed.
The woman who was stretched there
 is dead.”

The hidden Ireland of the Irish language was in the DNA of Brendan Kennelly, legendary professor of English in Trinity. But in Maire Mhac an tSaoi, it was life’s blood. What she later called the “barbarism” of Irish spurred a fierceness in her. With her, nothing was hidden, even when it was supposed to be.
Her life was rich in symbolism, beginning with her birth just as the state was birthing (she died as it reached its centenary). Her name contains the word (saoi) Irish for wise person or genius (she was both) and her parentage embodied the complexity of the two traditions in Ireland, nationalist and unionist. 

Her father, Sean Mac an tSaoi, a northern nationalist and commander in the forefront of the 1916 Rising brought her, as a very small child, to Belfast to meet a Unionist politician called Tommy Alexander, who intervened to save him from the death sentence after the GPO.  

The symmetry of her marriage to Conor Cruise O’Brien, the man who set out to consciously “shock the psyche” of the Irish Republic about unionists’ rights in northern Ireland is inescapable. That marriage in 1962 was one of the scandalous punctuation marks of twentieth century Ireland.
But before that drama, her life was already a rich tapestry.

Apart from that epic voyage of a small child around her father in Belfast, he was necessarily absent from her early life: he was saving the world or, more precisely, building the infant Free State.

From infancy she and her siblings spent almost half of every year in the wilds of Dun Chaoin, a Gaeltacht where her uncle (her mother’s brother) Monsignor Padraig de Brun, a Gaelic scholar lived. She could never remember a time when she was not bi-lingual.  Her mother, a teacher, was an early feminist who insisted on working and earning her own living and when certain schools took exception to that, she simply changed schools.

For her, it was the perfect childhood, spent among scholars, who encouraged her poetic prowess. Her poem Oiche Nollaig, recited at some stage by every schoolchild in Ireland, was written when she was only fifteen..

But idyllic childhoods rarely the great poet make. And it was a coup de foudre – the sight, when only sixteen, of an Adonis of a Gaelic scholar, framed in the light of her uncle’s doorway – that hurt her into poetry.  He was married. She loved him totally, “for twenty years at least.”

So her poetry began in earnest. Daniel Corkery, the grand old man of Irish letters at that time, approved of her technical accomplishment, familiarity with the tradition and graceful language when she was only twenty. What the ascetic Corkery thought of her subject matter is not recorded: an ambitious long poem, Ceathruinti Mhaire Ni Ogain (Mary Hogam’s Quatrains,) introduced this spare, shocking voice to the world.

I care little for people’s suspicions
I care little for priests’ prohibitions
For anything save to be stretched
Between you and the wall

I am indifferent to the night’s cold. 
I am indifferent to the squall or rain
When in this warm narrow secret world
Which does not go beyond the edge of the bed.

Did ever eight simple lines better express the pain of illicit love?

John Jordan in the Irish Times said ”She is a prober of the condition of love and no living Irish poet has brought more honesty and insight to the subject.”

Illicit love was, in some respects to be her hallmark, although the quiet careerist of the Department of Foreign Affairs did not seem at first glance to be a femme fatale. Serious, some said self effacing, and carrying a torch for a married scholar, few could have guessed at her secret life.

And then one day, without telling anyone, she left her desk at Iveagh House and turned up at a press conference in the university of Ghana, where a former Irish diplomat called Conor Bruise O’Brien was Vice Chancellor. In the middle of the conference, he announced he was getting a divorce in order to marry the woman by his side, Maire Mhac an tSaoi.

The rest is history. For a while the shock waves rippled through Africa, the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland. And then they settled down. The reason for the dramatic announcement was that O’Brien knew the British tabloids had got hold of the story of their affair and he decided on a pre-emptive strike, because he was sure of one thing; he loved and wanted to spend the rest of his life with Maire Mhac an tSaoi.

There had been no time to inform anyone but those most intimately affected – his wife and children – in Ireland and there were emotional casualties, especially among her family.

She always said it was he who fell in love first. And it clearly endured. Many years later, when she was seriously injured in a car crash, he temporarily abandoned his life-long atheism and prayed for her.

Maire Mhac an tSaoi at the funeral of her husband Conor Cruise O’Brien in 2008, Photo:Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

I knew Maire and Conor in their late middle age and like Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra their life was testimony to the unquenchable force of love in middle age. You looked at her and knew that for him age could wither her nor yet the sun diminish her infinite variety.

A true feminist, she lived her life by her own lights, She revelled in marriage and motherhood but nothing stopped her tackling the big themes of the twentieth century in her poetry. Her Holocaust poem Shoah was published in The Great Book of Ireland and was illustrated by a survivor of the Nazi camps, who signed his work with his camp number.

Most women poets, at some stage, confront their father in their search for truth. On Trouble Spot, General Post Office 1986, she confronts the nation’s history and her own history through him.

“Here father, is this where it started?
Here we became strangers to each other?
Was it here?”

Politics created a void in their family and so

“We retreated from you into the Pale of Irish;
That was our familiar terre de guerre
And the Ulsterman
In you
Could not follow our tracks
Or tame our barbarism –
Spenser’s civilite
had beguiled you.”

But she was her father’s daughter. Whether it was Spenser’s civilite or Cicero’s res publica she was as honour-bound as he. And she was never braver than when she took on all of Aosdana to challenge anti-semitism in the work and dealings of one of its elders, Francis Stuart.

She stood alone. Nobody, not one single artist in Ireland in receipt of the state’s salutation and shilling, stood with her.

Auden was right. Poetry makes nothing happen. Except poetry, of course. Which is why we are a poorer nation since the deaths last week-end of these two giants.

Romantic Ireland is Dead and Gone. It’s with Kennelly and Mhac an tSaoi in the grave.