Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend

Darach MacDonald enjoys digressions in the road as well as on the page

One of Ireland’s most challenging literary works, Finnegan's Wake, sets off ‘from swerve of shore to bend of bay’ to bring readers ‘by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs’. The weekend fare at the Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend (September 12-14) in Omagh spread its net wider still, from a bend on Kiely's beloved River Strule at a point where a road starting near Malin Head ‘goes to Australia’ or anywhere else you might want to be.

The theme for this year's weekend, The Shortest Way Home, allowed visiting writers to delve into every delightful digression along the way to illustrate the proverb that the ‘longest way round’ is indeed the favoured route.

Over the course of three days, the talks and entertainment at this vibrant literary event in Tyrone’s county town explored facets of life and learning that many believe were encapsulated in the man himself – journalist, writer, scholar, singer, broadcaster and teacher.

Appropriately the weekend opened in the Strule Arts Centre with Friday evening’s address by Conor O‘Clery, the former foreign correspondent for the Irish Times. O'Clery's adventures and often wry observations on postings in the collapsing Soviet Union, China, South Africa and the United States have been related in his 2009 memoir,

May You Live in Interesting Times

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O'Clery paid homage to Kiely, whom he met in awe in the 1970s. He recalled that Omagh’s erudite scholar was widely accepted in Dublin as a ‘man of the world’ not only because of his travels but also by the shear breadth of his learning. ‘Benedict Kiely was indeed Ireland’s first foreign correspondent,’ O’Clery said.

Yet his own precision in detailing events witnessed at first hand - the Twin Towers attack three blocks from his New York home, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the liberation of East Timor and many other events - demonstrated that the greatest understanding is imparted by empathetic observation rather than rational advocacy. ‘I have always let the detail tell the story for me,’ O’Clery said, a practice he noted also in Kiely’s work.

Saturday morning began with Dr Catherine Morris, the Liverpool-born Cambridge graduate whose post-doctoral research at UCD has uncovered a wealth of material on poet and revolutionary Alice Milligan. She was daughter of the manse from Omagh and alumnus of Belfast’s Methodist College, and spent her final years in relative obscurity in the ‘camp of the enemy’ at nearby Mountfield.

While acknowledged as one of the towering figures of the Irish Literary Revival at the end of the 19th century, Milligan's work was forgotten because she chose to publish in the mass media rather than in book form. Morris has now tracked down a wealth of Milligan’s work from newspapers, forgotten publications and other sources.

In the process, she has established clearly that Belfast was a pivotal centre of the cultural revival that is more commonly associated with Dublin. Her book on Milligan will be published next year and her exhibition on the life and work of the writer is scheduled for the National Library in Dublin from November.

Portadown-born poet Sinead Morrissey, who lectures at Queen’s University, next captivated the Omagh audience with mesmerising readings of her prize-winning work. With poems such as ‘Cycling at Sea Level’, ‘Apocrypha’, ‘The Clangers’, and ‘Electric Edwardians’, Morrisey's language conveys often complex matter with quirky humour and a deft touch.

The keynote address by novelist, short story writer and editor Anthony Galvin, took a suitably digressive look at Kiely’s own short story, 'The Shortest Way Home'. Recounting his own encounters with the charming Omagh man of letters when he first came to Ireland from his native Boston, Galvin also explored the concept that much of Kiely’s work, particularly in looking back at a place that lived on in his memory, is imbued with the ‘pain of recalling our past’.

Galvin's own recollections and reminders segued nicely into the launch of the fourth imprint of Kiely’s classic novel, The Cards of the Gambler, a fabulous tale of life, death, wealth and power first published in 1953. This book, Galvin assured his audience, surpasses even The Captain With the Whiskers and its enigmatic and imposing military father Chesney of Derry – a name association that surely evokes current intrigue!

An afternoon recording session for RTE Radio’s Sunday Miscellany presented a host of guest performances on themes and topics associated with Kiely. They included Omagh writer and journalist Martina Devlin, now living in Dublin, returned local comic Kevin McAleer, musicians Cathal Hayden and Juliet Turner and Omagh’s One Voice Choir, as well as visiting journalist/writer Mary Morrissey.

Afterwards, a bus tour through Kiely Country took a meandering path with commentary by the writer’s friend and local historian, Stephen McKenna. The trail ended at a lakeside shelter high in the rain-swept Sperrins at the Gortin Glens with invigorating tipples of Blackbush and other libations. It was a welcome prelude to the craic and camaraderie of dinner and local entertainment in the Silverbirch Hotel.

Sunday morning’s programme featured two masterful contributions beginning with writer Eugene McCabe who read from his epic novel, Death and Nightingales, as well as his more recent novella, The Love of Sisters. They illustrated the raw underbelly of Ulster’s sorry drama and the human need for place and identity, as well as the underlying fixations on ‘power, money and (live)stock’ that the Clones writer and farmer outlined at the outset as the underlying saga of the Brown Bull of Cooley in his novel.

Finally, by ‘commodious vicus of recirculation’ Joe Mahon of the Maiden City, host of UTV’s Lesser Spotted Ulster, brought us back via a lonely road from Inishowen by a sequence of deceptive, colourful and humorous digressions on ‘taking time and taking tea’. Kiely would have preferred a more robust tipple to lubricate tales of Robert Graham’s expertise with the Drumquin limekiln and Mrs Kelly Purdy Pudding. But that’s a tale for another day.