‘The best way to serve the age is to betray it”, a line from Brendan Kennelly’s epic poem Book of Judas, was tattooed across his daughter Doodle Kennelly’s back. “It will always be my favourite,” she said. “To betray the age means to ‘tell secrets of the age and face harsher truths,’” was Bono’s interpretation . In Doodle’s life, she exposed her own secrets, foibles and weaknesses at a time when it wasn’t as ubiquitous as now. She was a harbinger who opened the conversation around mental health.
When I met Doodle in 2003 on the eve of her 33rd birthday, she was a young mum of three lovely girls. I was smitten by her wit and unguardedness. She entered any room quietly, almost lightly, transfixing those around her with her sparkling smile and ability to engage without judgment. We became friends immediately.
She’d pick me up on Fridays, her car vibrating with the noise of Nine Inch Nails. Though she spoke softly, her music was loud. She would turn it off as I ran down my mother’s driveway, acknowledging my loathing of ‘nosebleeder’ industrial metal. Then we would drive off excitedly seeking adventure — and finding it.
She rarely drank, but it didn’t inhibit her sense of fun. She’d leave festivities before me, but would rejoin at another stage of the weekend, smiling, impeccably dressed, ready to capture an enlightened audience.
“Who’s your friend Doodle?” I’d hear. “She’s amazing.” There was no small talk, just plenty of sharp wit, and nothing was off bounds. Luckily in those times we didn’t fall foul to the debilitating cult of offence.
Doodle talked endlessly about her girls Hannah, Meg and Grace, for whom she and her husband Peter had created a beautiful home in Blackrock, Co Dublin, brimming with books. “I love being a mom and I have the best dad in the world,” she said.
Born in 1970 to poets Peggy O’Brien from New England and ‘national treasure’ Brendan Kennelly, Kristen, known since early childhood as Doodle, spent her early years in Sandymount, Dublin, while both her parents taught at Trinity College. Then she shuttled between Ireland and Amherst, Massachusetts, where her mother lives.
Their wordiness was not lost on her. She described her teenage years as being spent “in the company of various bong-toting malcontents studying comparative Metallica albumology”.
She attended the Gaiety School of Acting but in her words “abandoned the postgraduate waitressing module to embark on a prolific career as a thoroughbred breeder, popping out a succession of small female creatures fashioned in her graven image”.
When I met her she was embarking on a career for the first time, which was unquestionably daunting. Having spent her 20s raising a family, she missed milestones like university, gap years and part-time jobs. Discovering she had a talent for writing and an outlet for sharing her mental health struggles and eating disorders gave her a great sense of purpose. She was nervous, with no previous benchmarks for success or failure.
Her first autobiographical article appeared in the Sunday Independent, her image on the front of Life Magazine. It was honest, bare and totally trailblazing. She was proud of herself.
People related to her struggles and loved her for it. She became a regular columnist. Appearances on The Late Late Show followed, which she conducted with style and poise.
I read a piece she wrote in 2010. “I would love to think that maybe I could even help people a little. I don’t know if I will, but even helping one person would be enough to make it all worth it. So I will keep writing about depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, and everything else we call western self-indulgence, while admitting that these are all undoubtedly a reality in many of our lives.”
She went on to write a book. Life Through a Spoon was to be its title. She never got to finish it.
Her best friend and ‘soul sister’ Antonia Leslie described her as the friend who would drop everything for you. “She would do anything for her friends. She was invested,” she said.
Doodle had many friends in Ireland and the US. They will miss her friendship, her fearless openness, her humour, peccadilloes, and her mastery of conversation — a dying art form.
She loved Kurt Cobain, hence I’ll finish with his parting words: “If you die you’re completely happy and your soul somewhere lives on.”