Benedict Kiely: ‘His voice sounds as vividly and as vitally at 100 as it ever did’
On the centenary of his birth, his friend George O’Brien pays tribute to the celebrated writer, broadcaster and critic
Ben Kiely at the presentation of a new portrait of himself by Stephen McKenna at the Arts Council , Merrion Square, in 2001. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Let’s start with the voice, because when it comes to Ben Kiely – the centenary of whose birth is August 15th – it’s what most people remember. That “organ Omagh voice”, as his fellow countryman John Montague called it (though Ben was born in Dromore), was his signature, fondly famed above all for its years as one of the mainstays of Sunday Miscellany, where it took listeners on many a companionable dander along the highways and byways of matters Irish and otherwise.
Since Ben had not only read everything but had instant and mostly impeccable recall of it all, those talks were the best of good company. His voice wasn’t merely a sonorous instrument, either, alluring though its warm timbre, well-paced tempo and distinctive inflections were. Its conversational ease, its lack of condescension, its awareness of being listened to lent to any and every topic a friendly air of communication, something like neighbourliness. As such, it was a reminder that those qualities were by no means alien to Northern tones, and that someone from that part of the world could indeed expatiate pleasantly and pleasurably of matters of mutual interest to speaker and listener. This at a time when the typical sounds of the North were neither genial nor sociable.
Broadcasting was only one of the many strings to Ben’s bow, of course. Novelist, short-story writer, critic, anthologist – what he made of the word is almost limitless. To quote Samuel Johnson on Goldsmith, “he left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn”. Strangely, perhaps, for a writer best-known for his imaginative works, Ben began his career with two non-fiction books, Counties of Contention (1945), which deals with the genesis and consequences of partition, and Poor Scholar (1947), a never-bettered study of William Carleton, one of his literary forefathers. Both works, in their way, are expressions of fidelity, the first to the community into which he was born, the second to a writer who, starkly divided though he was in himself, never entirely forgot where he came from. In those two books, Ben marked out the tasks of his own career, establishing his own imaginative ground while at the same time negotiating the challenges of belonging to that place.
Just a Dubliner
Carleton was the first Northern writer to pursue a writing career in Dublin, beating a path taken later by such luminaries as Patrick Kavanagh, Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel (in a way), and Ben himself. But though Ben lived in Dublin virtually all his adult life, he considered himself to be just a Dubliner, and not the genuine article, a Dublinman. He credited the distinction to Seamus Kavanagh, an actor friend, who defined a Dublinman as someone who doesn’t have to go home for Christmas – he’s at home.
As told in his novel There Was an Ancient House (1955), Ben came to the city via a Jesuit seminary in Emo Park, Co Laois, from which illness forced him to withdraw. Undergraduate studies at UCD followed, and while there he began his career as a journalist, contributing to the Standard, one of a number of Catholic newspapers of the day. He then worked at the Independent and later, after a censorious editorial attempt to clip his wings, at the Press, where he eventually became literary editor.
His productivity, especially in the 1950s, was remarkable. Along with holding down a full-time day job, he wrote for radio, reviewed, penned lengthy articles on cultural and historical subjects, and regularly published novels, each more thematically and technically ambitious than the last. At the same time, he also maintained a very active social life among the assemblies of scribes and others who convened in the Pearl, the Palace Bar and other choice oases. This Dublin of roisterers and raconteurs is largely absent from Ben’s rather sober early novels set in the city – though not many would have known that as, beginning with In a Harbour Green (1949), three of the six novels of the 1950s were banned. In later years, Ben viewed this as a badge of honour: “You’d be damn nearly ashamed of yourself if you weren’t banned. You were annoyed in one way, but you also felt you had joined the elect.”
A national treasure
By 1960, though, it was time for a change. Ben left the newspaper office for the classroom, he left Ireland for America, he gave the novel a rest in favour of the short story and he allowed the voice a lot more play in his fiction. And though these various departures weren’t permanent, the Ben who became a national figure – a national treasure, indeed (as confirmed by his election in 1996 to the rank of Saoi in Aosdána), began to emerge.
In America, Ben made a whole new group of friends whom he tutored and guided – ever ready with glass, song and yarn, as the legend of those days invariably has it – in discovering a richer, more culturally complicated Ireland than they had previously known. The motif of returning implicit in the visitors’ doings began to feature, too, in Ben’s stories, most of them set in Omagh and environs. Told in what became his trademark digressive, conversational style, these stories led to Ben being labelled a seanchaí, which was meant to be complimentary but instead sat him down on a stool in the corner. But his method renovates tradition rather than mimics it.
These stories of return see the locale he loved so well through the lens of its essential humanity, lifting individuals and community above and beyond sectarian divide and provincial narrowness with an artful simplicity that takes friends, family and neighbours for what they are. Focused on being of the people and for the people, the stories advance a complicated idea of a common ground, a place where conflicting experiences can address each another. These are the fundamental experiences that none can defend against – love and loss, past and present, youth and age. So all can relate to them. Opening a dialogue between them is no easy task. One must go easy, take contradictory factors into consideration, keep an open mind, and not bully a way through to pre-judged outcomes. As the storyteller’s manner reminds us, the longest way round is the shortest way home. Digression is just a long embrace.
Reconciliation and acceptance
And place is the beloved. In spite of his wanderings – and few knew Ireland better than Ben – he never left his native ground. Or rather, he found a way of expressing as wholeheartedly as he could that it never left him – “the Town followed me”, he said. No wonder that so many of his stories are intimate pictures of reconciliation and acceptance. And if the place of harmony has to be a little out of the ordinary to accommodate what needs to happen, that’s the pleasure and the value of it.
As we know all too well, however, this vision was shattered, and place and people despoiled. The author of Counties of Contention found himself, half a lifetime on, facing conditions that ran exactly counter to that book’s argument for open-mindedness and good will. Possibly more than any other Irish writer at the time, the Troubles affronted all that Ben’s imagination nurtured and upheld. His response was full-on. In the novella Proxopera (1977) and his final novel, Nothing Happens in Carmincross (1985), he not only exposed the heartlessness of the proxy bomb and similar sneak attacks on civilians, depicting those stooping to such tactics as virtually sub-human. He also used his considerable literary arsenal to make no bones about the rage and horror the violence could not but evince. By the time that last novel of his appeared, Ben was obviously so sickened by the course of events that the book rejects the whole Republican project and tradition, even its songs. What he must have felt when word of the Omagh bombing came through is hard to imagine. That atrocity took place on his 79th birthday.
Age hardly dimmed him, though. He had much still with which to enrich the reader, including two volumes of memoirs and, in And as I Rode by Granard Moat (1996), an anthology of verse and song that profiles as clearly as any autobiography his travels and taste, his encyclopedic knowledge and his ear for an air, from wherever or whomever it might hail. That book’s variety, ecumenism, historical range and local attachments make a fitting chord to end on. Being reminded of those qualities of his is to remember why his was one of the necessary voices and why that voice sounds as vividly and as vitally at 100 as it ever did. After all, we’re still addressing what Benedict Kiely sang, praised and probed throughout his writing life – “that matter”, as he called it, “of knowing who one and what one really is, and of what mixtures go to our making up”.
George O’Brien is editor of In a Harbour Green: Celebrating Benedict Kiely (Irish Academic Press). Down Then By Derry: Three Stories by Benedict Kiely is published by Turnpike Books. The Best of Benedict Kiely: A Selection of Stories is published by New Island.