The first time I finally went to a record store, I found a slightly beat up copy of Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat. My dad had always mentioned that his dad, my grandfather, had loved Cat Stevens. He died long before I was ever born, and the album got me thinking about what type of person my grandfather, Francis Vincent Kinsella, was.
I knew that he was an Irishman and was just as stubborn as Irishmen are traditionally described. My father told me had a degree in chemical engineering and pursued a master’s in literature just for fun. Although his job was in engineering, he always loved English.
One of the first things I remember hearing about my grandfather is that he was the one who chose my father’s name. He named him after an Irish poet, Thomas Kinsella. My dad and I had always thought that he was an older poet, one that maybe Francis had studied while he was getting his master’s. Surprisingly enough, I soon found out that we had been very wrong.
Thomas Kinsella is still alive today and is now living in the U.S. I decided to see what else I could find out about the man whom my grandfather admired enough to name his youngest child after.
Thomas Kinsella was born in Dublin in 1928 (coincidentally, my birthday is a day before his) to a “family traditionally employed at the Guinness Brewery”1. He didn’t follow in his family’s footsteps but had a rather interesting career path. He turned down a science scholarship and instead “studied physics and chemistry before receiving a degree in public administration”2. He worked as a civil servant in the finance department for almost two decades and attended night classes to complete an art degree. Kinsella began publishing his poetry in the 1950s. His work touched many topics, always with an Irish influence. He wrote about things like war and politics, existentialism and love.
It wasn’t until 1965 that Kinsella chose to leave his job in the civil service and become a writer in residence at Southern Illinois University. During his residence there, he published another collection of poems, a translation of a famous and well-loved Gaelic saga and one of his most popular poems, “Nightwalker.”
This piece was considered groundbreaking. He abandoned traditional form to a “more open and technically challenging free verse that resulted in a complex poetry of personal interrogation which is simultaneously traditional in theme and formally experimental”3. With lines like “A dying language echoes / Across a century’s silence” and “Pupils from our schools played their part, / As you know, in the fight for freedom. And you will be called / In your different ways – to work for the native language, / To show your love by working for your country,” Kinsella comments on Irish culture and aspirations for independence4. These lines are from one of his longer poems, which is still frequently referenced today even though it was first published in 1967.
In 1969 Kinsella took a teaching position at Temple University, where he published even more poetry, this time focusing on “themes of love, death, and rejuvenation.” He taught at Temple for 20 years5. In 1972, Thomas Kinsella founded his own publishing company in Dublin, Peppercanister Press, where he was able to publish pamphlets and individual poems.
Even life for “one of Ireland’s most successful contemporary poets”6 isn’t always full of happy times. In one interview, his wife reflected on some of his earlier works: “’I was terribly hurt at ‘Wormwood’ [one of Kinsella’s poems] . . . I was a private person and I did not want to be exposed . . . . I didn’t realize the capacity of the mind I had married,’ says the poet’s wife of 50 years. ‘That’s really the truth, and I was a bad reader, and it didn’t help the marriage’”7. They are still happily married, but this passage shows just how much Kinsella’s work has touched others. Even if some of his work didn’t sit too well with his wife, it touched her in a way she didn’t realize was possible. His work is emotional and deep and covers so many topics that everyone is bound to connect with at least one of his poems.
Although he is considered one of the most successful contemporary poets in Ireland, Kinsella is still “‘regarded as central and at the same time marginal, his poetry is both canonical and existing on the fringe’”8. This is largely due to his reluctance to promote his work and read in public, though his “work is of critical importance because it reflects the conflicts of the Irish experience and of humanity in general, with the unrelenting precision of a writer who has thought deeply about these issues for many generations,” making him an exceptionally influential poet in Ireland9.
I feel like I’ve learned so much about my grandfather through the research I have done so far. Thomas Kinsella (the poet) reminds me so much of what I think Francis was like. I knew he was an engineer, but the literary aspect of his life wasn’t something I really knew anything about. That bit of knowledge made his connection to this Irish poet more understandable. The two of them were from Ireland; they were hard workers and interested in both the sciences and literature. I wonder if Francis saw some of himself in Thomas or if he perhaps idolized him in some way.
I definitely plan on immersing myself in more of Thomas Kinsella’s poetry, and I am proud to share his last name. I hope to continue my research and see if there is any chance he and my grandfather ever met. Maybe I will be able to find a copy of Francis’ thesis and find a connection to the poet there.
I have discovered that I have a lot in common with my grandfather and I hope I would have made him proud.