The nines have it this year at Strule Arts Centre. In a nice bit of symmetry the 9th Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend, celebrating the work of the memoirist, author and travel writer, will run over the weekend starting September 9. The theme of the Literary Weekend is ‘The Shortest Way Home’, one of Kiely’s short stories.
‘The Shortest Way Home’ draws on Kiely’s own experience at the infant school of the Loreto Convent (he lasted a week). It meanders elegantly from a confrontation with a book-confiscating nun to the nettle-gathering Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
This is the story that Anthony Glavin, author, editor and personal friend of Kiely, recommends to anyone at the Literary Weekend who isn’t familiar with the writer. Or to anyone who wants to get to know Omagh better. Kiely was an Omagh writer to his bones and the county was almost a character in its own right in his stories.
‘It’s a wonderful short story and a wonderful introduction to Kiely’s work,’ Glavin, who is one of the speakers at the Literary Weekend, says affectionately. ‘Sometimes the long way around is the shortest way home, and Kiely makes a craft of digression. It is also a very real portrait of Omagh during Kiely’s youth. ‘
Glavin, author of Nighthawk Alley and two short story collections, first got to know Kiely through his travel writing in the Irish Times. It wasn’t until Glavin, originally a Bostonian, moved to Donegal that he encountered Kiely’s fiction.
‘It was a story called ‘There are Meadows in Lanark’ in the Irish Press,’ Glavin recalls. He met Kiely himself for the first time at a party - ‘being a Yank I just went over and introduced myself’ - but it was a meeting in Dublin that started their friendship. ‘I recognized him and, still being a Yank, went over to him. He was on his way to a meeting and told me “Come along, come along; this might be useful for you".’
‘This’ turned out to be a meeting with the Sunday Miscellany, an RTE radio programme, and Kiely introduced Glavin to them. It was a generosity that, based on Glavin’s fond account, was typical of the writer.
In 1980 Glavin published a poetry collection that got a bad review. Kiely wrote to him, telling him not to let it bother him. It’s obvious that Glavin is still touched by the gesture, ‘I thought it was very kind of him.’
As well as Glavin’s keynote address on September 11, the Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend will include an art exhibit themed around ‘The Shortest Way Home’, a relaunch of Kiely's classic novel Cards of the Gambler, a reading by Eugene McCabe and a talk by UTV’s Lesser Spotted Ulster presenter Joe McMahon.
‘Sinead Morrissey, a cutting edge poet, will be there, as will Catherine Morris, a brilliant academic, and the Irish Times foreign correspondent Conor O’Clery. It’s not often you get a line up like that,’ Glavin points out.
Would Kiely have approved?
‘He would have revelled in it!’ Glavin says with a chuckle. ‘He was a remarkable man: erudite, a raconteur and a wonderful person. There was no ego to him that I could discern. He was a modest man, but he would have been right at home with all these writers and scholars.’
The Benedict Kiely Literary is at Strule Arts Centre from September 9 -12. It is £80 for a weekend pass.