A writer who reminds us of the need for civilization, neighbourliness, and decency
Although he began his career as a novelist Benedict Kiely, like Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain before him, established his reputation in the, particularly Irish, vocation of the short story writer.
Kiely was born in Dromore in 1919. He left the town aged just one and was raised in Omagh. His upbringing in Omagh though by no means idyllic was nonetheless a happy one.
The town with its tight-knit community impressed on him a sense of togetherness and a unity that he would, in later life, find lacking elsewhere in the province. Importantly for the aspirant writer Omagh, a garrison town, was also a very literary place.
Kiely recalled it as being ‘full of old sweats’ all of whom were well read and contributed to the imaginative talk to be found on every street corner.
It was whilst a young teenager that Kiely began to feel the urge to become a writer. He immersed himself in the work of George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Jonathan Swift.
Goldsmith was an especially important influence. After leaving school (Mount Saint Columba CBS) he went to work in the sorting office of the local post office. However, he soon realised that the post office was not going to provide him with the life of the scholar which he had so desired. He left and began a new life, training as a Jesuit priest.
Soon after joining the Jesuits he suffered a spinal lesion, it was a serious illness and required a lengthy period of hospitalisation.
During his 18 month convalescence Kiely had ample time to ponder the course his life had taken, and still might, take. He realised that he had never truly been committed to his religious vocation and abandoned his training as a Jesuit priest.
When he came out of hospital it was 1939, the second world war had begun and Yeats was only recently dead. Waiting for college to begin in the fall of 1939, Kiely, once again, had time to reflect. These were indeed the formative years, a hinterland of imagination which Kiely would often travel as he searched for the sustenance that would nourish his writing.
Despite attending University College Dublin, Kiely found time to pursue part-time work as a journalist and contributed to a number of newspapers including The Weekly Standard
Indeed what started as a part time job became for many years his chief occupation and from 1945-1964 Kiely worked primarily as a journalist on publications and newspapers including The Standard, The Irish Independent and The Irish Press.
His time as a journalist was immensely important in terms of his development as a writer. Kiely found his fellow journalists to be intriguing, perhaps the only people who ‘could talk shop and make it interesting’. He would eventually leave the profession and take up a number of teaching posts in American universities, but not before he had gathered an abundance of material which he could put to use in his novels and short stories.
Kiely’s first published work was a critical study Counties of Contention: A Study of the Origins and Implications of the Partition of Ireland (1945). A well researched and thorough text, it nevertheless displayed a naivety borne out of the young writer’s innate and romanticised hopefulness.
In 1946, Kiely’s first work of fiction, the novel, Land Without Stars was published. It examined the situation in the north and the terrible violence inflicted on its communities. Like many of his later works the novel was in essence an appeal for a peace and understanding which might heal Northern Ireland’s fractured society.
Considering his journalistic commitments at this time Kiely’s output was prolific. In 1947 he produced another critical work, Poor Scholar: A Study of the Works and Days of William Carleton 1797-1869. To Kiely, Carleton, the story teller and social documenter, was a ‘kind of folklore’. Not only did the themes in Carleton’s work resonate with Kiely, there was also the fact that he had lived in the Clogher Valley not far from where Kiely grew up.
As he continued with his career as a journalist Kiely found it increasingly difficult to find the time to dedicate himself to the scholarship which novels or extensive critical works required.
He began to concentrate instead on writing short stories. If the novel were a ‘map of the district’ then to Kiely the short story was ‘a crossroads, a brief encounter’. However, he soon discovered that not only was he adept at this mode of writing, but that such work was profitably paid.
Soon his stories were much in demand from publications such as The New Yorker. His short story collections include A Journey to the Seven Streams (1963), A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly (1973) and A Cow in the House (1978). His Collected Stories were published in 2001.
The novel Proxopera (1977), is not only one of Kiely’s finest literary accomplishments, it is also a powerful and damning analysis of the conflict in Northern Ireland and the impact of violence on its people. He combines his knowledge of society and history with an imagining of times to come and the individual’s role in Northern Ireland’s conflict.
It also displays great attachment to place - Kiely is, like Kavanagh, a writer devoted to ‘the undying difference in the corner of a field’. In the end though we are left cherishing Kiely’s work for the simple fact that he reminds us of the need for civilisation, neighbourliness and decency.
Benedict Kiely was elected Saoi of Aosdána in 1996, ‘for singular and sustained distinction in the arts’.
Benedict Kiely, writer, broadcaster and journalist, born August 15, 1919, died February 8, 2007
Counties of Contention, Mercier Press; The Collected Stories of Benedict Kiely, Methuen Publishing (2001); Drink to the Bird: An Omagh Boyhood Recalled, Methuen Publishing (2001); Proxopera, Gollancz (1977).
Film: Wordweaver – The Legend of Benedict Kiely, Stoney Road Films (2003).