Benedict Kiely was born on August 15th 1919 in the village of Dromore, “close to Omagh I was born, and on its streets and on the roads around it I grew up.” Two years later Northern Ireland was also born and Kiely, as a toddler, had found the subject of much of his writing: Colum McCann once defined this subject, “he has had his hands in the dark pockets of a divided country since his earliest fiction.” Though, for Kiely there were no unreconcilable divisions, he believed in an identity and politics that could encompass all differences and developed a literary style that celebrated Northern Ireland’s landscape alongside an understanding of the recurrent tragedies of its history.
Kiely’s father was a veteran of the Boer War who had worked on the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. His father’s personality was a formative influence on Benedict’s writing: “My father… had found himself in many strange places and could tell strange stories of the places he had been and seen… He said: ‘Never spoil a good story for the sake of the truth.’” Kiely’s work is dominated by his stories “of the places he had been,” while his vivid, affectionate portrayal of Omagh speaks of the happiness of his childhood there. In the 1920s and 1930s Omagh was dominated by the presence of the British Army barracks and overlooked by the spire of the Catholic church (Kiely would repeatedly write about both) yet it was a relatively integrated community. The Kiely family even lived briefly with a Presbyterian brother and sister when they first moved to Omagh, as Ben pointed out, “You don’t know anybody until you’ve lived in the one house with them.”
Looking back on his youth Kiely wrote, “Dear God, but it was an innocent sort of world.” He would first encounter sectarianism as a teenager when he was suspended from the GAA for playing soccer, “if people cannot agree on how to kick a football it will be hard to get them to agree about anything else.” In 1937 he entered the Jesuit seminary at Emo Court (in County Laois) but after developing spinal tuberculosis he spent “eighteen months of Christian patience” in hospital giving him the time, and the attraction of “laughing young nurses”, to decide against the priesthood. By this time Kiely had already began to write journalism. His first published article appeared in the ‘Ulster Herald’ in 1936. It was an account of the funeral of a school friend but the young Kiely felt that the priest didn’t do justice to his friend so he substituted “a fitting panegyric for the parish priest’s pitiful effort. It was the only sermon of mine that was ever published.”
He entered University College Dublin in 1940. Alongside his degree Kiely worked part-time on a weekly paper, the Catholic Standard, before joining the Irish Independent where he discovered “a vivid, living society” he relished for the rest of his life. Among his colleagues were the poets Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clark, and he soon found the company of Brian O’Nolan (who wrote under the name Flann O’Brien) in Dublin’s Palace Bar, as well as the companionship of Brendan Behan in many other pubs. This would be Kiely’s environment until 1964, Dublin’s newspapers and pubs in the company of every twentieth-century Irish writer of note. He was a lively companion and an inspiration to several generations of writers. Colum McCann spoke for many when he said of Kiely: “I doubt that there is anybody who has met him who has not emerged both charged and changed.”
Kiely’s first book, Counties of Contention (a study of the partition of Ireland), was published in 1945 and, surprisingly, it ended on a note of optimism: “Partition will end automatically when all the people that compose the nation find, after the disputes of centuries, some common ground in the muddled, complicated present.” That Kiely’s centenary should fall while Brexit has raised ever more intense debate about the border merely emphasises the continuing importance, and relevance, of his writing. He quickly published several novels, Land Without Stars in 1946 while In a Harbour Green (in 1949) was banned by the Board of Censors. Kiely later said, “If you weren’t banned, it meant you were no bloody good.” In 1964 he left journalism to teach at US universities and became a regular broadcaster on RTÉ radio,
Perhaps Kiely’s greatest contribution to Irish literature are his short stories and several of Kiely’s own favourites among his stories are now published in Down Then By Derry to mark this centenary. His stories have a conversational manner, reading Kiely is to hear the sound of his voice (erudite, always amused by the sheer variety of life to be found around him). John Updike, the American novelist, commented that “Mr Kiely has always been a garrulous writer.” His stories are digressive, within a single story there are many other stories to be told. Perhaps the defining feature of Kiely’s storytelling is captured in his comment: “everything in Ireland reminds me of something else.” Kiely’s humour is most evident in his stories while much of his greatest writing draws on his love of folk music. His stories have refrains that are repeated (much like a chorus in a song) and he once wrote: “It’s a poor place that cannot have at least one good ballad written about it.” The stories in Down Then By Derry provide that for Omagh, as well as evoking the beauties of Bundoran, Lisbellaw (in County Fermanagh) and Dublin.
In the 1970s and in response to the deepening sectarianism and violence of the Troubles Kiely’s writing, especially Proxopera (1977) and Nothing Happens in Carmincross (1985), looked to previous cycles of Irish history and mythology to understand the violence. Kiely understands that Northern Ireland’s violence did not begin in 1969 but was rooted in the events of centuries before, “the Elizabethan land-grabbers who came, uneasy in codpieces on awkward saddles, to conquer and possess.”
Proxopera may be Kiely’s greatest work, the most humane literary response to the Troubles, and it gained renewed significance when an explosion in Omagh on August 15th 1998 (Kiely’s 79th birthday) killed 29 people. In Proxopera a retired teacher, Granda Binchey, is forced to drive a bomb into his local town (another fictional portrait of Omagh) while his family are held hostage. The plot was built around the darkest violence of the Troubles, based on the kidnapping of a Dutch industrialist by the IRA in 1975 it is Kiely’s angriest work, yet its conciseness and power comes from Kiely’s knowledge that this event is part of a continuum. It is not a story rooted in a single era of Irish history. Proxopera is as much a warning (for readers in 2019) of what could happen, again, in the future as a record of what was happening to Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
For Kiely a shared Irish inheritance (North/South, Protestant/Catholic), a history expressed in folklore, music and mythology, was being enlisted, and tainted, by the increasing violence. Granda Binchey represents the values of that older Ireland, and those values are being appropriated by the men of violence: “Could Pearse in the post office have, by proxy, summoned Cuchulain to his side.” Proxopera, with its echoes of old ballads, references to past violence in Irish history and its faith that the landscape (though tainted) will survive, insists there is an older Ireland that outlasts such violence. His short story ‘Down Then By Derry’ celebrates such survival: “The wintry land brooded waiting, as it had always done, and would do for ever.”
In 1996 Kiely was elected Saoi of Aosdána, the highest honour an Irish writer can receive. He had already been awarded an honorary doctorate from Queen’s University, Belfast. His final major works were two volumes of autobiography, Drink to the Bird (1992) recalled his childhood in Omagh while The Waves Behind Us (1999) evoked Dublin’s literary life.
Benedict Kiely died in 2007 but his life and work is celebrated by the Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend held in his native Omagh every year. This year it will be held from October 11th to 13th with several events dedicated to remembering Kiely, including a lecture on Kiely by another Omagh novelist, Martina Devlin.
Celebrating Kiely gives a new generation of readers the chance to discover one of the great Irish writers of the twentieth-century. Kiely’s work embraces all life, especially that to be found in the towns and villages of Ulster, its humanism refuses to consider that there are unbridgeable differences between people and stubbornly insists there is always reason for hope. In Proxopera Kiely wrote: “Ireland, when I hum old songs to myself, is still Ireland through joy and through tears, a most abstract idea, and hope never dies through the long weary years.” Kiely documented many of the horrors of Northern Ireland’s history but left behind a body of work that preserves those values that kept hope alive during a century of “long weary years.”