Benedict Kiely

Teller of rumbustious stories that celebrated an old-style, non-sectarian Irish nationalism


Benedict Kiely, writer and broadcaster: born Drumskinney, Co Tyrone 15 August 1919; married first 1944 Maureen O'Connell (deceased; one son, three daughters), second Frances Daly; died Dublin 9 February 2007.

In an interview published in an Irish newspaper in 1987, Benedict Kiely was described as "our pre-eminent living seannachie" (storyteller), in acknowledgement of his deep familiarity with, and understanding of, Irish oral tradition. Many of Kiely's own stories, indeed (beginning with the collection A Journey to the Seven Streams in 1963), contain elements of the seannachie's stock-in-trade: discursiveness, allusiveness, high spirits and hyperbole. At his most characteristic, perhaps, Kiely raises local colour, stylish deeds and natural exuberance to a mock- heroic level. But other forms of literary expression were available to him, and he made good use of all of them.

Benedict Kiely was an Ulsterman, though - like his distant family connection Flann O'Brien - he spent the greater part of his life in Dublin. He was born in 1919 near Dromore in Co Tyrone and grew up in Omagh: "sweet Omagh town", as he was fond of quoting, after the popular local song. His father had been a soldier who fought in the Boer War and was later employed as a "chain man" with the Ordnance Survey - "they measured with survey chains".

His mother was a barmaid in Drumquin when Kiely senior met her, and Benedict came last in family of six brothers and sisters. Educated in Omagh at the Christian Brothers' School, without any dissent on his part Kiely then began studying for the priesthood at a Jesuit seminary in Co Laois. But he wasn't destined to complete this course. Transferred after a year or so from the novitiate to Cappagh Orthopaedic Hospital on account of an old spinal injury (acquired while playing street football), he never went back. It was the proximity of so many delightful nurses, he later claimed, that scuppered his already insecure vocation.

Instead, when he left the hospital in 1940, he enrolled as a student at University College Dublin, to read History and Literature. He was awarded a BA degree in 1943, by which time he already had some journalistic experience. This stood him in good stead when he joined the staff of the Irish Independent. Later (in 1951) he became literary editor of the Irish Press, a post he held for the next 13 years.

In the meantime, he had married and become a father of four, as well as publishing works in a number of different genres. His first book, Counties of Contention (1945), he described as "a sort of romantic essay about the origins and implications of the partition of Ireland". The old conflict between loyalist and nationalist, with all its outbreaks of violence and recrimination, he found "very wearisome and very perplexing"; however - in that immediate post-war era, with regeneration very much in the air - he noted the presence in the North of "new ideas, generous ideas" which he thought might come to override the old sectarian imperative.

It didn't happen - and it was in a very different frame of mind that Kiely embarked on the angry, embittered novels of the 1970s and 1980s - Proxopera (1977) and Nothing Happens in Carmincross (1985). These are powerful exercises in indignation, which tackle the distortion of the republican ideology as the terrorist outrage takes the place of principled opposition to the status quo. An old-style nationalism, whose erosion he regretted, had nothing to do with blowing the legs off girls in coffee bars.

But anger did not come naturally to him. He was more of a celebrator, an upholder of local idiosyncrasies and neighbourly reciprocity across the sectarian divide and unbridled conviviality. He remained all his life under the spell of the place names of Co Tyrone: old Drumragh and Cassiebawn and Claramore and Mullagharn. The evocative townlands of Corraheskin, Drumlish, Cornavara, Dooish and the Minnieburns come into the story "A Journey to the Seven Streams"; the journey, recounted in retrospect, takes on a symbolic character that overlays the remembered family excursion in a ramshackle motor-car. It ends on a sombre note, with the funeral cortège of the narrator's father retracing the route of the glorious outing.

Kiely's wordy, rumbustious stories, indeed, add a new body of myths to the myths they're sometimes grounded on. "The Heroes in the Dark House" is a good example of local half-sardonic aggrandisement, with the old collector of Gaelic folk tales, Mr Broderick, finding it "hard to separate the people in the tales from the people who told them". The seannachie had an important role in mid-20th-century Irish life.

Kiely drew on his own experience, naturally enough, for the themes of his stories: not only his fabulous childhood in Co Tyrone or his productive Dublin life, but also on the time he spent in the 1960s as writer-in-residence and visiting professor at various universities in the United States. Carmincross, for example, has as its central character an Irish academic home from America for his niece's wedding; and "A Letter to Peachtree" (the title story of a 1987 collection) concerns an American research student over in Ireland to study the works of the novelist Brinsley MacNamara, and gaining some insight into the Irish escapade while he's at it.

Another story in his 1987 collection, "Mock Battle", contains a good many typical Kiely components: a journey, a local event, an edgy relationship, a lot of borrowed phrases and catchphrases to contribute richness, an incident or two remembered from the past. At the same time, it suggests the way the author himself goes at things full tilt, like the two sides in the annual re- enactment of the Battle of the Boyne at Scarva, in Northern Ireland, which gives the story its title.

If his short stories make the strongest impact on the reader, Kiely's novels aren't far behind, with their agreeably rambling structure and energetic approach. In fact, he began as a novelist, in 1946, with Land Without Stars, which is set in Co Tyrone and Co Donegal. Other titles followed quickly - In a Harbour Green (1949), Call for a Miracle (1950), There was an Ancient House (1955), and The Captain with the Whiskers (1960), among others. (His output also included many essays and reviews, a literary study and a couple of autobiographies.) It wasn't long before he'd gained the peculiarly Irish distinction of being banned by the Censorship Board - a verdict on his work he seems to have accepted with good-humour and equanimity.

Kiely's unshakeable good-humour, indeed, became something of a byword among his friends and colleagues. All of them were struck by his inability "to say a harsh word about another writer, a very rare thing in Ireland". He was also celebrated as a raconteur, an indefatigable quoter of bygone popular songs and recitations ("When I lived in sweet Ballinacrazy, dear, the girls were all bright as a daisy, dear"), an up-beat broadcaster on RTE radio, and a person of immense learning and charm. (He was elected a Saoi of Aosdana in 1996, the highest honour available to an Irish writer.)

But - like the 19th-century Co Tyrone novelist William Carleton, one of Kiely's heroes and the subject of a biography, Poor Scholar, he wrote in 1947 - Kiely remained deeply conscious of confusions and contradictions in the Irish psyche, of a deplorable history and the darkness and desperation of various famine eras in the past. Like Carleton's, his natural ebullience was tempered by a sober or elegiac streak; and, when he envisaged the earlier writer setting out from the Clogher Valley on the trek to Dublin to seek his fortune with all his future literary creations teeming in his head, he saw Carleton as a pilgrim leading a crowd of fellow pilgrims:

And all along the road on which pilgrim and procession passed the walls and houses were falling down, the hedges withering, the fields black with decay.

Patricia Craig

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?