Teller of rumbustious stories that celebrated an old-style, non-sectarian Irish nationalism
Tuesday 13 February 2007
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.
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