Thomas Kinsella: 'Reading a poem requires the kind of care needed to cross the street'

Published date14 January 2022
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
You grew up in the Inchicore-Kilmainham area of Dublin. In your book, A Dublin Documentary (2006), which is part memoir, part poetry book, you refer to this place as "the Ranch". Could you describe what it was like growing up in Dublin in the 1930s and 1940s

Inchicore is a district on the western outskirts of Dublin. The Ranch is a settlement of six small streets westward from Inchicore. In the 1930s and 1940s if you went one step further westward from the Ranch you were heading into the country toward Ballyfermot and picking blackberries.

I believe The Ranch was designed for workers on the Great Southern Railway, though I have never checked this. It is connected with the railway works by a pathway people called "the Khyber Pass", which suggests a date around the time of the Boer War.

The Ranch was a perfect place to grow up. The streets safe, free of all traffic. One boundary was the Liffey Hill. From there, downhill and across a wide field, and you were on the bank of the river Liffey. The other boundary a high blank wall – the wall of the old landlord Inchicore Estate: in walking distance from the Model School.

Poems such as Hen Woman, Ancestor, The High Road, A Hand of Solo and Tear evoke the world of your childhood and the people and places of your early life. The aforementioned poems were first published in Notes from the Land of the Dead and Other Poems (1973), after you had started reading Jung. Do you think that Jungian philosophy facilitated this imaginative exploration?

Awareness of Jung came after the event. I had been wondering at the insistence of certain subjects: detailed memories of random places and happenings, gestures and voices, distinct as though they were there. A phrase heard only once, a glimpse through a doorway, that would never go away, always part of my daily thoughts. With these insistent memories it was not enough to leave them as recorded memories. There was a need to put them in intense words – words that would try to remake the memory and my response so as to make it possible always to re-experience the exact memory and the response.

Reading Jung's psychology of the unconscious, I recognised and understood. Art as a means to resist, in Jung's own words, "the relentless flight of time…the poison of the stealthily creeping serpent of time…"

On April 10th, 2019, you attended the opening of a sculpture garden with President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina Higgins at the Inchicore Model School which you attended as a child. Your poem, Model School, Inchicore from Songs of the Psyche (1985), celebrates the school – can you describe the school's significance for you?

The Model School was small and a place of discovery. I learned there, for the first time, that there was a world outside The Ranch with enormous activities and things to understand. Our classes were small. We had two teachers, friendly and willing to answer all questions.

There was a growing awareness of the troubles in Europe. I remember being uneasy at talk of General Franco and the voice of Hitler on the radio, full of hate. Our time in The Ranch ended with the beginning of the war, and a brief move to relatives in Manchester "to make bombs". After the failure of this move and the return to real poverty in Dublin, again in reach of the Model School, I finished my primary education there.

Mr Brown, one of the teachers, had an understanding with the Christian Brothers to send them any promising boys for secondary education and I was passed on to the O'Connell Schools. My father was interested but my mother was annoyed: she assumed I would leave school at 14 like everyone else and "get a job", but she accepted. The Christian Brothers was very different from the Model School; seedy and strict, pressured totally towards success in the exams. History was a succession of wars. Studying a poem meant memorising stanzas and phrases for quotation.

I left the Christian Brothers into a changed world. After a false start in university, to the beginning of a career in the civil service.

Both your grandfather and your father worked in Guinness Brewery. Your grandfather ran one of the barges from the brewery to the sea-going vessels in Dublin harbor and your father worked in the cooperage and was also a union organiser in the factory. How influential were these men in shaping your world view?

My father's presence was strong. I tried to show this in The Messenger (Peppercanister Press, 1978). Born in a hard time and place, with an impulse toward literature and music when books and music were hard to find. With left-wing leanings in a closed Catholic world. He ended as a helper, a labourer, on a Guinness delivery lorry.

His father was an old dark presence, never an influence. It was the heel of his thumb and his plug tobacco that I couldn't forget. Or his shadow presence at night, in the kitchen, playing the fiddle to himself.

Your late wife, Eleanor Kinsella, is an important presence in your poetry. Can you describe how you and Eleanor met and talk a little about the early days of your relationship?

We had known each other in a friendly way in UCD. Once when she was in hospital I paid her a friendly visit. The stirring of interest during that first meeting was a surprise to both of us; it continued without interruption. For some years after our marriage poetry wasn't the dominant presence that it became. It fitted into my time as a civil servant; that seemed sufficient. But with the poetry and the translation growing more demanding there was a conflict, especially with the translation of The Táin.

I would probably have abandoned The Táin but, at the crucial time, I was offered a position in the US by a university in the Midwest that I had never heard of. I was offered three years to focus on my own work, required to meet informally with a few students interested in poetry. It was a major decision, resigning from the Department of Finance, but it was the beginning of the right career. I feel uneasy still when I think about it but it was the proper move...

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