Urgent copy – An Irishman’s Diary on Ben Kiely’s journalism

Benedict Kiely: as well as being a superb literary craftsman, he was also a working journalist of the highest calibre. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Benedict Kiely: as well as being a superb literary craftsman, he was also a working journalist of the highest calibre. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Ben Kiely’s centenary is a welcome reminder that, as well as being a superb literary craftsman, he also a working journalist of the highest calibre, across several Dublin titles, at a time when many writers were more than happy to have found a niche in one.

Unlike some of his better-known fellow-writers, the banning of three of his earliest books in this country was more of a hindrance than a sales point.

He was also unusual among his literary contemporaries in that his very first book, Counties of Contention (1945), was in many ways a prophetic, if overly optimistic, signpost to the Troubles that were to erupt some two decades later.

One of his earliest jobs was as a junior leader-writer on the Irish Independent where, as he used to recall, he was warned by the barrister who worked part-time as the senior leader-writer: “You may say what you like about Godless Communism, or the ratepayers’ burden, but for God’s sake do not come to an opinion about anything else”.

I once commissioned a couple of articles from him for a tourism magazine. These were to explore the links between a couple of Irish writers and their geographical origins. He delivered them on time, handwritten in a Vere Foster copperplate script that must have remained unchanged almost since his schooldays in Omagh, and so beautifully fashioned that sub-editing them was the matter of a moment.

As he became better-known, there was a heightened interest in his work and, on at least one occasion, he was approached by an American university keen on acquiring some of his original manuscripts. In those far-off, carefree days, however, the idea that one’s manuscript would itself have a monetary value was foreign to many writers, especially to younger and inexperienced ones like Ben, who were, quite reasonably, more interested in advances and royalties. So, when he had written and published any of his early novels, the original manuscripts were in some cases probably forgotten in some publisher’s office until they were later disposed of carelessly by some junior member of staff unaware of their significance or value.

As Ben became better-known, one of the American universities began to pursue him and other younger Irish writers with a view to acquiring some manuscript material for their own collections. Some of Ben’s manuscripts had of course by this time vanished into landfill or worse. Nothing daunted, he went to some trouble to re-create some of them for a prospective American purchaser. Nor should this be considered sharp practice. They were, in truth, the only manuscript copies of whatever work was involved.

One of his major outlets for many years was, of course, the Irish Press, now gone but far from forgotten. Here, there was at least one occasion on which his legendary productivity was put to the test. He had left the office and had repaired to a local hostelry – probably the Scotch House – for refreshment, forgetting that he had promised an article to the paper and that the deadline was approaching with dramatic speed.

His libations were interrupted by the sudden appearance in the pub of a young copy-boy who had been despatched on this errand by an increasingly agitated sub-editor with a large hole on his literary pages which Kiely had undertaken to fill.

In those days some youngsters could acquire copy-boy status at the age of about 14, after leaving school early, and many of them matured into skilful and respected journalists.

This copy-boy was in understandable awe of Ben’s perch so much higher up the journalistic ladder than his own, and duly explained the reason for his sudden appearance, accompanied by a request for the missing article, Ben thought for a moment. He then picked up a copy of the New Yorker which he had just begun to read, scanned it quickly, and tore out a couple of pages by a well-known international writer.

Putting them down on the pub table, he wrote, at the top of the article he had torn out, the phrase: “In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Mr. A---- B----- says the following:” He then proceeded to add quotation marks in ink to each of the paragraphs in the article, continuing on to the following page as required.

When he got to the end of the article, he closed the quotation marks, and added a final sentence in his own flowing handwriting, reading: “There is a not a word of that with which I would disagree.”

“Now”, he said to the copy-boy, “Go back into the office, take that up to the news desk, drop it into the copy basket, and run like f***!”

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