Thomas Kinsella was born on May 4, 1928 in Inchicore, a suburb of Dublin. He enrolled at University College Dublin in 1946, while working as a civil servant in Ireland’s Department of Finance alongside the Irish economist and reformer T.K. Whitaker.
Kinsella began publishing in the 1950s with his first chapbooks, The Starlit Eye and Three Legendary Sonnets, both published by Dolmen Press in 1952. Soon thereafter, he released his first full-length collection Another September (Dolmen Press, 1958), while still working for the Department of Finance. In 1972, Kinsella started his own press, Peppercanister, and released its first publication, the poem “Butcher’s Dozen,” in the same year. Written in the aisling tradition, “Butcher's Dozen: A Lesson for the Octave of Widgery” was a response to the Bloody Sunday massacre. Kinsella published over forty books of poetry and prose during his career, many with Peppercanister. His collections include Late Poems (Carcanet Press, 2013); Marginal Economy (Peppercanister, 2006); Collected Poems, 1956–2001 (Carcanet Press, 2001); and An Duanaire, 1600–1900: Poems of the Dispossessed (Dolmen Press, 1981). He is best known for his version of The Táin (Oxford University Press, 1969), translated from the Irish epic Táin Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the longest of the Ulster cycle of heroic tales—and illustrated by the Irish painter Louis le Brocquy.
Kinsella’s poetry explored themes related to family, love and marriage, nationhood and identity, abuses of power, and the roles of art and the artist in societies. In 2007, Kinsella was named a Freeman of Dublin and a plaque was erected in his honor in Inchicore. In 2018, the University College Dublin awarded him an honorary doctorate.
Irish poet and editor Gerard Smyth described Kinsella's craft as a combination of “the direct vernacular of everyday speech with high artistic purpose and Joycean attention to detail.” The Irish poet Eavan Boland called Kinsella “a glowing powerful source in Irish poetry,” while fellow poet Dennis O’Driscoll described Kinsella as “a true dissident: obstinate, inconvenient, discomfiting, essential.”
Kinsella was the writer-in-residence at Southern Illinois University from 1965–68. In 1970, he became a professor of English at Temple University, where he remained for the next twenty years. Kinsella returned to Dublin after he retired from teaching in the U.S.
He died in Dublin on December 22, 2021.