Controversial Brendan Kennelly biography by former TCD lecturer banned from campus

By James Prendergast

Staff Writer

A biography of Brendan Kennelly, the poet and former Professor of Modern Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, has been banned from campus, Trinity News has learned. The book, entitled Brendan Kennelly: Behind the Smile, which was published in April 2013, was withdrawn from sale in the College bookshop following legal advice obtained by College.

According to evidence obtained by this paper, Kennelly, who is a Fellow Emeritus of College, had communicated reservations about the book directly to the bookshop manager before it was banned. A talk which had been scheduled to be given in the Long Room Hub by its author, Sandrine Brisset, who has previously lectured at the School of Law, on 10th October was also cancelled.

Trinity News understands that Kennelly approached the College having been made aware passages in the book relating to sensitive aspects of his daughter’s personal life. The Communications Office issued a statement to this paper on Saturday, saying that the decision to remove the book from sale was made “as a number of claims in the biography are in dispute.” It added that College “did not want to potentially fuel the controversy around these disputed claims, and cause further hurt to any of the parties involved.”

A correspondence seen by Trinity News also indicates that the book was withdrawn from sale by the bookshop Hodges Figgis, following complaints made by both Kennelly and his daughter. It said this was done as a “favour” to Kennelly, as he is a “good friend” of the owner.  The ban was described by the author of the communication, who works at the bookshop, as “exceptional in [his] experience.”

A member of staff approached by this reporter over the weekend said the store was not able to comment on the situation, but remarked that the book had been withdrawn from sale “a long time ago”.

A talk that was due to be given by Brisset last Thursday was also cancelled by the Long Hub Room as a result of its controversial nature.

In a letter seen by Trinity News, Professor Jürgen Barkhoff, director of the Long Room Hub, said that the institute wanted to avoid potentially fuelling the controversy around “disputed facts and claims”. However, he added that “the College is not in a position to comment on the nature or details of disputes between third parties.” Barkhoff also took issue with the change of the name of the talk from “Bardic Poetry in Modern Ireland” to “Whatever you say, say something – Brendan Kennelly:  Bard of Modern Ireland”, though a member of staff had initially approved the new title.

Responding to a query from this paper, the Communications Office clarified that, “It only became apparent recently that the actual theme of the talk was around the biography on the retired Trinity lecturer and poet, Brendan Kennelly. In keeping with College’s decision on the book, the Trinity Long Room Hub did not want to potentially fuel the controversy around these disputed claims, and cause further hurt to any of the parties involved. It subsequently decided not to hold or promote an event which might in any way aggravate this situation.”

Kennelly’s daughter previously claimed on Twitter that, on hearing about the talk, “many people very, very high up in Trinity had no idea. And are very shocked and upset.”

Brisset’s talk went ahead on the scheduled date at a location outside campus, which was only revealed to guests who arrived at the Long Room Hub at the appointed time. Speaking to a small audience, she said that Kennelly’s poetry has been a “plea for the expression of truth” and that it “denounces the process of scapegoating.”

The April launch of her book was a major event in the Shelbourne Hotel, and was attended by Kennelly as well as Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, singer Mary Black, and Senator David Norris.

In his speech at the launch, Minister Deenihan had said that Dr Brisset “enjoyed daily contact” with Kennelly during her time living in Dublin, becoming “a colleague, neighbour and most of all a close friend” of the poet. He quoted Brendan Kennelly as saying of Brisset, “she knows more about me than I do about myself.”

The publication of the book was initially supported by both Kennelly and College. However, in letters seen by Trinity News, Kennelly’s solicitors subsequently asserted that he has withdrawn all “endorsement of and support for” the biography. Trinity News understands that Kennelly claims he would not have supported its publication had he been made aware in advance of some of its content. Speaking to this reporter on Saturday, Kennelly said he has still not read the entire book, but that his daughter was “very upset” by sensitive material in it. He expressed his desire to move on from the controversy, adding that, “as a father, I have to look after my daughter as well as I can.”

Brisset told Trinity News that she hadn’t received any “direct complaint” from Kennelly as to “what passages are deemed problematic.” However, Doodle Kennelly has since spoken publicly about her upset over sensitive material in the book, which in one section compares her to James Joyce’s daughter Lucia.

At her talk last week, Brisset said that she stands by everything she wrote, arguing that Kennelly’s family life is “closely related to his writing”. While acknowledging that “privacy should be expected”, she claimed that sensitive material about Kennelly’s family had already been in the public domain.

In a letter sent to Brisset since the book’s launch, Kennelly’s solicitors requested that she cease describing herself as a “close friend”. The letter also called on her to “refrain from further advertising, describing or otherwise referring , or encouraging others to so refer, to your book as being authorised or endorsed [by him].”

Though College initially supported its publication, it said that to continue citing its support is “inaccurate and misleading”, given that it has since been withdrawn from sale on campus.

Brisset told this reporter that she was “highly disappointed” that her talk on campus being cancelled. She said, “Freedom of expression and academic freedom are essential values that the university should protect so that the public can gain access to the truth.”