Proxopera by Benedict Kiely: ‘the most humane literary response to the Troubles’

‘You sense Kiely’s outrage that a history expressed in folk culture, music and mythology, was being enlisted, and tainted, by the men of violence’

Benedict Kiely’s memoir Drink to the Bird opens: “Close to Omagh I was born, and on its streets and on the roads around it I grew up.” On August 15th, 1998, Kiely’s 79th birthday, an explosion in Omagh killed 29 people. The Omagh bombing had been an event that Kiely had “circled” (in Colum McCann’s word) 20 years earlier in his finest work, Proxopera. This new edition of Proxopera, the most humane literary response to the violence of the Troubles, brings it back into print at a time when anyone aged 25 or younger could read it (if they have an optimistic view of contemporary Northern Irish politics) as a historical novel.

In Proxopera an elderly man, Granda Binchey, is forced to drive a bomb into his local town while his family are held hostage. The plot was built around the darkest violence of the Troubles. Based on the kidnapping of a Dutch industrialist by the IRA in 1975, it is Kiely's angriest work. Yet its conciseness and power comes from Kiely's depiction of this event as part of a continuum: it is not a story rooted in a single era of Irish history. Proxopera (which Kiely movingly dedicated to the "memory of the innocent dead") is as much a warning (for readers in 2015) of what could happen, again, in the future as a record of what was happening to Northern Ireland in the 1970s.

Benedict Kiely’s first book, Counties of Contention (a study of the partition of Ireland), was published in 1945 and, surprisingly perhaps, it ended on a note of optimism: “Partition will end automatically when all the people that compose the nation find, after the disputes of centuries, some common ground in the muddled, complicated present”.

By the mid-1970s, when Kiely wrote Proxopera, the possibility of “common ground” must have seemed remote. In “the muddled, complicated present” a shared Irish inheritance (North/South, Protestant/Catholic), a history expressed in folk culture, music and mythology, was being enlisted, and tainted, by the increasing violence. Granda Binchey (significantly, a retired teacher) stands for the values of an older Ireland, values that are most easily expressed through ballads and mythology. You sense Kiely’s outrage that these values are being appropriated by the men of violence: “Could Pearse in the post office have, by proxy, summoned Cuchulain to his side… could all that delirium of the brave not have died by proxy.”

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It can sometimes seem that only Northern Ireland's writers stood apart from the violence. The Fermanagh poet, and editor, Frank Ormsby has written that poetry was the "embodiment of 'semantic scruples' in a province where language is often a dangerous, sometimes a fatal, weapon." Proxopera, with its echoes of ballads, references to past cycles of violence in Irish history and its faith that the beauty of the landscape (though tainted) will survive, has an universality, the air of a fable, that insists there is an older Ireland that will survive the violence of the present. It is the folk memory of this older Ireland that most inspired Benedict Kiely.

In his wonderful memoirs, Drink to the Bird and The Waves Behind Us, Kiely’s memory is made up of music, songs and their singers, and the pubs where all this singing took place. In Proxopera Granda Binchey fears that “Because of the times we live in it is greatly to be feared that some quiet places will never be the same again.” Yet he holds fast to his faith: “Ireland, when I hum old songs to myself, is still Ireland through joy and through tears, a most abstract idea, and hope never dies through the long weary years.”

Proxopera documents the horrors of Northern Ireland’s “long weary years” but at its heart is a preservation of those values that kept hope alive.

James Doyle is the founder of Turnpike Books, which has just republished Proxopera, priced £8