Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend
Jenny Cathcart meets the authors scheduled to read at the 11th edition in the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh
The 11th Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend will take place at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh from September 7 - 9. The event will be launched with the official opening of an art exhibition curated by Terry Sweeney on the theme of Memory, Imagination and Myth. On display will be works Louis LeBrocquy, Colin Middleton, JB Yeats, Anthony Scott, Hughie O’Donoghue and others.
In the evening, Dr Derek Hand, who teaches in the English department in St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra and who has recently completed a History of the Irish Novel, will chair a discussion to address the premise, 'Memory is the treasury and guardian of all'.
Taking part will be Glenn Patterson, author of six novels and several non fiction works. Evelyn Conlon, short story writer and novelist and lecturer in creative writing, and Sinead Gleeson, arts journalist with the Irish Times who has edited a forthcoming anthology of Irish short stories,
When I spoke with Hand, he was keen to place Benedict Kiely in the context of the Irish literary scene from the 1940s to the late 1980s. Born in 1919, Kiely grew up in County Tyrone at a time when the two communities co-existed thanks to a code of rules, respected but not specified.
But the Troubles blew all that apart and Kiely, who by then was living and working as a journalist and writer in Dublin, was aghast at what was happening in the North. Gradually, he became aware he could no longer tell the big story that the novel allows and abandoned longform fiction for the short story, the better to capture a world which for him was changing all too rapidly.
Hand reflects that Seamus Heaney, who grew up on a farm in County Derry in the late 1940s and early 50s remembered rituals that went back 400 years.
'Maybe only Ireland has experienced that sudden shift and once it did happen, it moved so quickly from that fixed world where the elders said nothing – perhaps because they had nothing to say – to today’s world, where the common notion is "I tweet therefore I am",' said Hand with a grin.
Kiely felt his job was to save what did remain; to celebrate real lives and connect those lives to places. While his short stories encapsulate personal memories they are also about collective memory. He wanted to capture, in a formalised way, the rhythms of speech, the anecdotes, the folk traditions, the tensions between myth and history.
Eventually, Kiely became best known for his frequent contributions to RTE’s Sunday Miscellany. Like Kiely, Omagh-born journalist and writer, Martina Devlin, who, as well as her novels, has published and broadcast her short stories, feels Kiely was self deprecating of his Ulster-Scots accent, which was perfect for the radio.
'He knew how to pause and not to hurry,' Devlin explains. 'He had the listener fully engaged. All writing hinges on communication with the audience. Remember it’s not only about good writing but good storytelling too!'
On the Saturday afternoon, Devlin will speak on the topic 'Short Story as a Vehicle for Memoir'. She feels that the stories she heard when she was growing up have been a big influence on her writing. Idiom, speech, rhythms have melded together almost subconsciously.
She regrets that while the short story was once quite lucrative – F Scott Fitzgerald used the format to finance his other writing – there are now fewer outlets in literary magazines or newspapers.
Devlin, who enjoys the discipline of the genre, recalls how Ernest Hemingway famously illustrated his economic style of writing with a short story in six words, which he wrote on a napkin while lunching at the Algonquin: 'For Sale, baby shoes never worn.'
In a radio essay on memory that she wrote for Sunday Miscellany, Evelyn Conlon notes that when writing a memoir it is just as important to know what to leave out as what to include.
'Some people think because they know the alphabet they can write. Not everyone has a book in them and some who have should have left it there!' opines Conlon. 'Memoir is only interesting to me when it is firmly lodged in the centre of something that radiates out.'
Conlon admires gifted writers like Alice Walker or William Faulkner, who wrote about every single thing within one square mile. They managed to make the smallest things totally interesting. By contrast, a poor writer can make the most amazing things uninteresting.
In Conlon’s view, autobiography often contains a staggering amount of emotional incontinence that adds to the dissatisfaction the readers might feel with their own lives.
'Some of my very good friends have written memoirs and mostly, they made me cringe. On the other hand, Else Lasker-Schuler is one of the most riveting storytellers I have ever read. You keep thinking she is going to collapse into sentimentality but she doesn’t.'
For her part, Conlon says she tends to introduce elements of her own memoirs into her fictional writing. On the Sunday morning of the Literary Weekend, Malachi O’Doherty, writer in residence at Queen’s University and author of six autobiographical books, will aim to answer the question, 'Why my Life? Who wants to know about me?'
The Belfast journalist and writer told me, 'You can write something in good faith with the total conviction it's true. Then someone in the family will say it's wrong. You can aggrandise yourself. There are serious questions you have to bring to a memoir.'
O'Doherty admits that he tends to write about things he is fretting about. Growing up in the Anderstown district of west Belfast, O’Doherty faced the moral anguish of not joining the IRA like his peers, a theme explored in his first book, I was a Teenage Catholic.
The Troubles are addressed again in The Telling Year, 1972, when O’Doherty was working as a journalist on the Sunday News. Looking back, he feels that the history of that period was worth recording because we now have a generation who know nothing of the Troubles.
In Empty Pulpits, O’Doherty traces the demise of the Catholic church, which he claims started before the abuse scandal. 'In 2008 Cardinal Daly ordained more catholic priests in Nigeria than he did in Ireland,' observes O’Doherty.
In his most recent book, On My Own Two Wheels, O’Doherty describes his efforts to get fit when diagnosed with type 2 diabetes aged 60. He also explores his relationship with his father, who drove a black taxi up and down the Falls Road and was a keen cyclist himself.
O’Doherty intends to submit his books, together with an essay on his approach to writing memoir, to Queen's University in the hope of gaining a PhD. Like Martina Devlin, Dr Litvak, reader in Victorian studies at Queen’s and director of this year’s Dickens Festival, is interested in how adults are formed by childhood experiences. He is charged with comparing Kiely and Dickens in terms of their recollections of boyhood.
Charles Dickens, who produced a fragment of autobiography written in a very literary style, in the 1840s, only partly reveals the trauma and difficulty of his childhood working in the boot blacking factory.
In his fiction, however, there are characters who are clearly portraits of family and friends. Wilkins McCawber is a version of his own father, John Dickens, who was imprisoned for debt and never got a handle on his finances. Some of the female characters resemble women Dickens knew.
In 1837, his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, with whom he was quite taken or even obsessed, died in his arms. He wore her ring for the rest of his life and wanted to be buried in the same grave. Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, which was written soon afterwards, bears quite a resemblance to Hogarth. Dickens’s mistress, Ellen Ternan, turns up as Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities or Estella in Great Expectations.
Dr Litvak acknowledges that Benedict Kiely is not as famous or impressive a writer as Dickens, but he finds his work charming. 'Anything but parochial, Kiely has a really good feel for the local, and a love for the County Tyrone landscape.'