The Northern Ireland singer’s widow Brenda reveals how Van Morrison played a role in his unusual proposal and why his music will live on, writes David O’Dornan
He will forever be remembered as one of the greatest songwriters from these shores, but when it came to romantic gestures, Bap Kennedy didn’t always possess the same flair as his lyrics.
Four years on from his death, his widow Brenda reflects fondly on the day the Belfast singer decided they should get married — in a McDonald’s with the help of Sir Van Morrison.
It’s a curious tale that began when the couple went on a trip abroad involving a stay in the city of love, Paris, and a visit to look at diamonds — all the hallmarks of a classic wedding proposal, right?
Wrong. Bap’s desire to admire precious stones was simply because he had at the time become a qualified gemologist, during a hiatus in his music career when he had become disillusioned with the industry.
But the penny dropped just days later back in Northern Ireland, after he met his friend Van Morrison, who inadvertently set Bap on the path to marriage.
“He wasn’t romantic in a sentimental way, he was more hilarious, you know?” Brenda told the Belfast Telegraph.
“I remember whenever the first time I went over to see him, it must have been 2007 maybe, and he was doing something with Mark Knopfler.
“And I made some joke about him being romantic, because he was always good banter and craic.
“So we decided instead of going home we would be going on a wee break. We went to Paris and we went to Amsterdam and went on a lovers’ cruise, and then we even went into a diamond factory and I’m thinking to myself ...
“Because there were jokes going on among people about engagement and that, so I was thinking this was going to be ... my goodness ... but, no, nothing.
“The day after we got home — this was the strangest thing — he’d had a conversation with Van Morrison.
“They had a sort of relationship where they would have coffee together now and again, lunch together and this sort of thing.
“Now, I never met Van, because you know Van keeps himself to himself, but they did seem to have a friendship, you know, and the two of them would meet now and again.”
But Brenda was not expecting what that meeting between the two singers would lead to for her.
She explained: “He loved McDonald’s. So he went out to see Van for coffee or lunch or whatever it was, and he said to me later on, ‘Do you fancy meeting up with me at McDonald’s?’
“So, I met him up at McDonald’s and I was thinking at this stage, he was still unsure what to do with the music, so I said, ‘Was there any craic from Van?’
“He said, ‘He said something that’s just been in my mind ever since’ and I’m thinking, ‘This has got to be something about music?’
“At that time Bap had produced my first album, and he said, ‘Van said to me what about your girlfriend’s album?’
“I was flattered he had been asking that and then he said, ‘Something about it didn’t sound right. We’re not boyfriend and girlfriend, we’re married really aren’t we? We may as well be.’
“And I said, ‘I suppose you’re right.’ I never thought about it and then he said the next day, ‘I was really serious.’
“So, then, when we told his Mummy, oh my goodness, she was all, ‘Was he very romantic, where did he propose?’
“I said, ‘McDonald’s!’ She said, ‘And you’re only home from Paris!’ His mummy couldn’t get over this!
“And then she said, ‘Did you not get a ring?’ And he said, ‘Well, I think there was an onion ring!’
“So, that’s what I mean, he wasn’t romantic in the normal conventional sense. We used to laugh about that afterwards.
“That was the joke, he was very endearing, he used to say, ‘Do you not think I’m very romantic? What about all my lovely songs?’
“I used to joke with him and say, ‘There’s not a romantic bone in your body!’”
It’s one of a multitude of cherished memories that Brenda has held on to after losing her husband four years ago, with the anniversary of his passing this Sunday.
Bap, who was christened Martin, died from pancreatic and bowel cancer, spending his last two months receiving palliative care at Belfast’s Marie Curie clinic with Brenda by his side.
Now he is to be honoured with the Oh Yeah Legend Award at this year’s NI Music Prize on November 12 in recognition of his career as a solo artist and with his band Energy Orchard.
“It’s a great opportunity for people to remember Bap again,” said Brenda. “What I’ve noticed is that the music has actually become more popular since he’s died.
“I’m not just saying this because I’m biased, but he was a remarkable talent, there’s absolutely no doubt about it.
“And his music will live on, everybody says that you know, it really will.
“So, it’s a great honour of course and it’s nice to see the recognition. He was a legend. There’s no question about it, in every way, just for the lovely man that he was and you’d go an awful long way to find anybody that would disagree with that.
“He was very quiet, humble, just an ordinary kind of a guy, and understated, no airs or graces about him, he just quietly got on and was very helpful to people.”
Four years on Brenda focuses on the good times they had together, having met in 2007 and marrying a year later.
She said: “He had Asperger syndrome, he never spoke about in publicly until the very end.
“Whenever I met him, I was giving a workshop in Belfast on Asperger’s and that’s how we met.
“He was only back in Belfast. The three years before it, he went through a bit of a breakdown,
“Everything about the music industry he was finding very, very difficult, it was really taking its toll on his health and then obviously the drink factor and everything, all the hard living.
“And he just decided to give it all up and he got a job at a pawn shop in London and he loved it absolutely loved it, it was sort of the first normal job for a long time.
“And he absolutely loved it and it took a great interest in diamonds, of all things, and became a gemologist and he got some qualifications.
“And this is what he spent the last three years at that time doing, living on his own and just trying to get himself sorted out, trying to give up drink and he eventually did give up drink.
“But he decided this was it, the music industry just wasn’t for him — and then he got a phone call from Mark Knopfler.”
Soon after Bap returned to Belfast and just three weeks later he and Brenda would meet, through her work with the National Autistic Society and his interest in music therapy.
She said: “He came to my house to see my son, because he has Asperger syndrome. And then Kenneth, my son, and Bap got on really well. Bap really got through to him and they just clicked — and then we just clicked!”
Music became a constant in their lives because Brenda is also a talented musician and singer, while volunteering at Marie Curie over the years has helped her feel closer to her late husband.
She explained: “We lived together in Marie Curie for the last 11 weeks, there was a certain pressure, I suppose, to be strong for him because he’s the one that’s going through a terrible time. And it didn’t hit me really till afterwards I think.
“They just made us feel so much at home. The people that work in the front line in there, you just couldn’t praise them highly enough.
“So, it was just actually going in to help afterwards, it made me feel close to him in a way.
“There was something about being sort of part of that team in even a small way, it’s very, very hard to put into words, I suppose you could say it’s a spiritual connection.”
Other artists Bap worked closely with included Shane MacGowan and Steve Earle, but his relationship with his brother and fellow singer Brian Kennedy, who himself has suffered from cancer, was more complicated.
The siblings had fallen out but Brenda was glad there was a reconciliation before Bap died.
She said: “Whenever he became ill, the one thing he said he wanted was to put as much love into the world before he left it.
“That’s what he wrote in his blog and it really was so beautiful. It meant a lot to him, of course, because he made his peace with everybody, which was lovely.
“Brian came just a day or two before he went to the hospice and I organised him to come to the house, so that was lovely that they had that reconciliation at the end.”
Now Brenda is also finding comfort in fulfilling a promise to Bap that she will write his life story and has made the most of lockdown to progress work on the book.
She said: “He had such an interesting life and we used to joke, the way people say ‘you should write a book’ and he was going to, he was definitely quite serious about it.
“Then at the very end he said to me, ‘I think you’re going to have to write this book’.
“That was a very sad moment for me because I knew that meant that he was saying he wasn’t going to be able to live to do it. It was very sad, and I couldn’t even answer him, because I knew that’s what he meant. So, it actually took me quite a while, I spent a long time thinking about it and it was actually only when the lockdown started that I though, ‘Maybe this is my chance.’
“He said, ‘I just want to put as much love as I can into the world.’ I hope the book will help do that.”
For more information on the award, or to donate to Marie Curie, visit: https://nimusicprize.com/ and https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/bapkennedylegendaward