We need to find common ground in the muddled, complicated present
Brexit crisis gives added force and relevance to the words of Omagh-born writer Benedict Kiely
Benedict Kiely, the centenary of whose birth falls this year, was a critic of unionist misrule. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
We have had no shortage of reminders in recent months of the horrors of the Troubles in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. BBC’s Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History, and Alex Gibney’s documentary on the Loughinisland massacre in 1994, No Stone Unturned, are just two examples of the appetite for an excavation of dark chapters in our recent history; the short and long-term consequences, contested accounts and unanswered questions.
There has also been attention devoted to the work of Omagh-born writer Benedict Kiely, the centenary of whose birth falls this year. A critic of unionist misrule, Kiely was also appalled by the violence wreaked on the North and commented mournfully in the 1970s that “the real horrors have passed out the fictional ones”.
In one of his finest books, Proxopera, published in 1977, an old man, Granda Binchley, is forced to drive a bomb into his local town while his family are held hostage. Binchley laments that “because of the times we live in it is greatly to be feared that some quiet places will never be the same again”. Kiely dedicated this book to “the memory of the innocent dead”.
Kiely characterised unionism as a defence of ascendancy that was sustained by appeals to Protestant `persecution mania'
Kiely at that stage felt Omagh was different and something of a rose among thorns because of the efforts there to maintain good cross-community relations. He also celebrated Omagh in his 1991 memoir, Drink to the Bird, and reached back to a prepartition Ireland including its North-South physical and human links: landscapes, bridges, railways and people. His own family story was also relevant: his father a British army veteran, born in Donegal; his grandfather an RIC man from Limerick. On Kiely’s 79th birthday, however, the 1998 Omagh bomb shattered that sense of comfortable co-existence.
Kiely’s first book was non-fiction: Counties of Contention (1945) and was his meditation on partition. He acknowledged that it would polarise: “The attempt to appreciate Unionist sentiment will possibly offend a few Nationalist Irishmen; while the inevitable result of the writer’s nationalist breeding and background will eventually drive away all but the most impartial and persevering Unionist readers”.”
Kiely characterised unionism as a defence of ascendancy that was sustained by appeals to Protestant “persecution mania” and maintained “reconciliation and an end to partition are necessary to save the whole island from mediocrity”.
A strong believer in the unifying power of culture; of the music, poetry, prose and myth that formed part of a common Irish heritage, Kiely also believed unambiguously in consent in relation to ending partition: “If I were given the choice tomorrow between the continuance of partition and a one government Ireland ruling the Protestants of Ulster against their will I would choose a partitioned Ireland.” He was ultimately optimistic partition would “end automatically when all the people that compose the nation find, after the disputes of centuries, some common ground in the muddled, complicated present”.
The events of the last three years underline that it is imperative we decide on the future of this island together
It is no contrivance to assert that the Brexit crisis has given added force and relevance to the words of Kiely. When introducing Counties of Contention he suggested: “The most that can be hoped for is that all Irishmen will some day learn to view the past without passion, to approach the present in the practical way that the artist or the craftsman approaches the material out of which he is to make something permanent and durable and essentially one.”
We still have to hope for that but we have to accept the necessity of patience. When he was interviewed late in life Kiely acknowledged that any end to partition could only come through negotiations that “go on and on and on”.
The events of the last three years underline that it is imperative we decide on the future of this island together. There is no reason to disbelieve the veracity of the claim that Dominic Cummings, the British prime minister’s risible strategist, has asserted: “I don’t care if Northern Ireland falls into the f***ing sea.” Such contempt is entirely consistent with the neglect and wilful ignorance that has characterised the Brexiteers’ approach to Ireland. Contrast that with the thoughtful lyricism of Kiely, who cared deeply about the North, or, more recently, the poet Ruth Carr’s characterisation of the breakthrough in 1998 represented in the poem The Way I Remember It:
“It was that knot in your chest
lodged so long its clench an integral part of you –
suddenly, unimaginably loosening;
its fist daring to open”
The return of that closed knot – not just a hard border but a people completely bypassed – is inevitable unless those most impacted generate sufficient solidarity to resist what Kapka Kassabova has described in her brilliant Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (2017): “The belief that the centre of power can issue orders from a distance with impunity, and sacrifice the periphery; that what is out of mainstream sight is out of memory.”