Kiely, Benedict (Short Story Criticism)
Benedict Kiely 1919-
Irish short fiction writer, novelist, essayist, children's author, and memoirist.
The following entry provides information on Kiely's short fiction career from 1972 through 1991.
Kiely is noted for his lyrical, descriptive stories that evoke the people, mythology, traditions, and rural landscapes of his native Ireland. He is regarded as a storyteller in the tradition of the Gaelic seanachie, a teller of tales and oral historian. Critics often praise the humorous and expressive nature of Kiely's short fiction and compare his work to that of other contemporary Irish writers, such as Sean O'Faolain, Liam O'Flaherty, and Frank O'Connor.
Kiely was born on August 15, 1919, in Dromore, Country Tyrone, Northern Ireland. He grew up in nearby Omagh and graduated from the Christian Brothers School. Kiely grew up Catholic in Northern Ireland, which provided background and material for his later fiction. In 1937 he entered a Jesuit order, only to leave the next year on account of a debilitating back injury that required immediate hospitalization. After Kiely was released from the hospital in 1939, he entered University College, Dublin. There he received his bachelor's degree in 1943. Kiely began his journalistic career in 1939, writing for several Irish newspapers and periodicals. His first nonfiction book, Counties of Contention: A Study of Irish Partition, was published in 1945. Kiely's novel, Land without Stars, was published the next year. In the late 1960s he taught creative writing at several American universities. Kiely returned to Dublin in 1968, where he continued his journalistic career. In addition, he served as president of the Irish Academy of Letters. Kiely has also made numerous radio and television appearances and teaches at the School of Irish Studies.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Many of Kiely's stories initially appeared in the New Yorker and were subsequently published in short fiction collections. Several of his short stories are drawn from his Northern Ireland background and strive to evoke the rhythms of his native land. For instance, “Down Then by Derry” chronicles the return of an elderly journalist to his childhood home of Omagh. He reminisces about the area during his youth, when there was no religious and civil conflict. In “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly,” a lonely man, Pike Hunter, is inspired by a portrait of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats and his muse Maud Gonne to court a Dublin prostitute known as Madame Butterfly. His constant romantic attention disrupts her work. Eventually she marries a dockworker, and he declines into alcoholism. “A Journey to the Seven Streams” describes the humorous, often poignant attempt of a middle-aged parent to show his children his childhood village. His running commentary on the characters and stories of his youth are interrupted by the imminent and humorous breakdown of the family's automobile. In “Mock Battle,” Kiely utilizes a mock staging of the Battle of the Boyne as a foil for the story of a failing marriage.
Critics have situated Kiely's work within the context of the Irish short story tradition. Stylistically, reviewers note his unique narrative style, especially his utilization of such stylistic devices as sentence fragments and poetic inversions. Although most critics have lauded the gentle humor of Kiely's short fiction, others have deemed his stories as too sentimental and contrived and his characters as stereotypical. Yet some reviewers maintain that Kiely's later stories exhibit a marked stylistic development. The autobiographical aspects of his fiction are another area of critical discussion, as many commentators assert that his stories are often based on people and settings from his own life. A few scholars have investigated the influence of the Irish author William Carleton on Kiely's work.
A Journey to the Seven Streams: 17 Stories 1963
A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly 1973
A Cow in the House and Nine Other Stories 1978
*The State of Ireland: A Novella and Seventeen Stories 1980
A Letter to the Peachtree and Nine Other Stories 1987
Collected Stories of Benedict Kiely 2001
Counties of Contention: A Study of Irish Partition (nonfiction) 1945
Land without Stars (novel) 1946
Poor Scholar: A Study of the Works and Days of William Carleton (biography) 1947
In a Harbour Green (novel) 1949
Call for a Miracle (novel) 1950
Honey Seems Bitter (novel) 1952
The Cards of the Gambler (novel) 1953
There Was an Ancient House (novel) 1955
The Captain with the Whiskers (novel) 1960
Dogs Enjoy the Morning (novel) 1968
Proxopera (novel) 1977
“All the Way to Bantry Bay”: And Other Irish Journeys (nonfiction) 1978
Nothing Happens in Carmincross (novel) 1985
Drink to the Bird: A Memoir (memoir) 1991
Trout in the Turnhole (children's fiction) 1995...
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SOURCE: Eckley, Grace. “Rich and Rare Gems: The Short Fiction.” In Benedict Kiely, pp. 40-53. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.
[In the following essay, Eckley offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Kiely's short fiction.]
Sean McMahon, when he commented on Kiely's fiction for Eire-Ireland, described it as “glowing with eloquence and distinguished by a facility that makes writing seem as easy as singing. Indeed, if he has a fault, it is a tendency to be operatic. Some people have been disconcerted by this and by an occasional contrived brilliance when he is too consciously a performer. He has been accused of sentimentality, an odd fault in so realistic a writer.”1 But not merely Kiely's diction makes the prose work poetic or operatic; both his sentences and his paragraphs are rhythmically and symmetrically constructed, as is shown in the following paragraph, which begins simply, swells like a cresendo in its most descriptive long sentence at the center, and again falls away into simplicity:
Then somewhere in the crowd a student threw into the air a roll of toilet paper. As it went up it unwound to drape itself around a trolley cable. In two minutes the air was thick with soaring and unwinding and descending rolls of toilet paper, the street rustled like a beechwood, black Belfast roared with laughter at the indecorous scheme of...
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SOURCE: Casey, Daniel J. “The Instinct and the Art.” In Benedict Kiely, pp. 23-41. London: Bucknell University Press, 1974.
[In the following essay, Casey notes the influence of William Carleton on Kiely's fiction and traces the development of his short stories.]
Irish writers have made significant contributions to modern fiction, yet it is a seanachie's voice that can be heard in the work of some of the most accomplished of them. It is unmistakable in the stories of Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain, Liam O'Flaherty, and others of the breed; it is unmistakable in the stories of Benedict Kiely.
Kiely admits to sometimes hearing a Gaelic folksinger accompanied by the wind in the bushes and the waves on shore, and he sometimes imagines himself rendering his tales in a sort of splendid isolation in a Gaeltacht cottage with fires dancing shadows off the walls. Nearly every story seems to revive a forgotten melody, nearly every one is played against the wail of Uilleann pipes. He reminds us, “But in Ireland the man attempting to shape the present by looking back into or listening attentively to the past runs the risk of becoming the victim of a perpetual meeting and agreement and disagreement of opposites, hears one voice telling of beauty and another voice wailing of death, one voice shouting in joy and another voice creaking with bitterness.” He also reminds us that in Ireland...
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SOURCE: Moynahan, Julian. “A Modern Master.” New Republic 183, no. 22 (29 November 1980): 40-3.
[In the following laudatory review of The State of Ireland, Moynahan contends that “this richly varied and beautifully produced collection puts Benedict Kiely in the front rank of modern short-story writers.”]
This richly varied and beautifully produced collection [The State of Ireland] puts Benedict Kiely in the front rank of modern short-story writers. While he follows from such Irish masters as Moore and Joyce, O'Connor and O'Faolain, the temper and manner of this northern Irishman's writing are very different from his predecessors'. Though once destined for the priesthood, Kiely secularized his outlook so thoroughly that he can express a fascination for women and their lives and a guiltless pleasure in the attractions of sex that are never undercut by any note of damp Jansenist remorse. His sense of society is democratic and complicated, reflecting the experience of growing up during the 1930s and World War II in a town, Omagh (County Tyrone), of a British province that was half Catholic and half Protestant and that was used as a staging area by American troops making ready for D-Day. Later on, after he had been in and out of seminary and launched a Dublin career as a novelist and journalist, he became a sort of Irish Charles Kuralt, junketing frequently to the remotest areas of the...
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SOURCE: King, Robert L. “Differing Styles Ironically Jostling.” Commonweal 108 (27 March 1981): 184.
[In the following review, King provides a favorable assessment of The State of Ireland.]
The title of the novella which concludes Benedict Kiely's collection of short stories [The State of Ireland] comes out of the musings of its central character, a retired teacher forced by IRA Provisionals to be an agent of their terror: “Not even the Mafia thought of the proxy bomb, operation proxy, proxopera for gallant Irish patriots fighting imaginary empires by murdering the neighbours. … Proxopera, he says, and likes the sound of the word.” The unwilling Granda Binchey, whose memories of his dead wife are interwoven with lines from Catullus, would use language for stability—to exert a measure of control over a world that could quite literally blow up around him no matter what he chooses to do. So long as he can coin a word, he is more than a delivery man for death, but soon his ordeal will reduce him to quoting a soldier's obscenity as later he will parrot the words of his housekeeper. If style and self are one, then Binchey's is a loss of the spirit, like Ireland's, a state where Kiely sees the once distinctive idiom shrinking to the boundaries of a common expletive.
Kiely's stories almost casually allude to centuries of literature and song; some of his characters prize...
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SOURCE: Kiely, Benedict, and Jennifer Clarke. “Benedict Kiely.” In Writing Irish: Selected Interviews with Irish Writers from the Irish Literary Supplement, edited by James P. Myers, Jr., pp. 73-87. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999.
[In the following interview, initially published in the spring of 1987 by the Irish Literary Supplement, Kiely discusses his Irish upbringing, his creative process, and influences on his writing.]
I don't believe in a god or in an Irish republic or any of those things, but I do believe in my neighborhood. I say that if you don't believe in your neighborhood and that your neighbor's life is sacred, there is no point in shouting about believing in God or in anybody else's God—which seems to me to be perfectly reasonable.
Benedict Kiely, journalist, broadcaster, critic, scholar, novelist, and short-story writer is one of Ireland's leading literary figures although he is not as well known in the United States as he deserves to be. He has published eighteen books, both fiction and nonfiction. His nonfiction books include Poor Scholar (London: Sheed and Ward, 1947), a study of William Carleton, and Modern Irish Fiction: A Critique (Dublin: Golden Eagle, 1950). However, it is as a short-story writer that he has drawn the highest critical acclaim....
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SOURCE: Keefe, Joan Trodden. Review of A Letter to Peachtree and Nine Other Stories, by Benedict Kiely. World Literature Today 63, no. 4 (autumn 1989): 682.
[In the following review of A Letter to Peachtree and Nine Other Stories, Keefe praises Kiely's storytelling ability and unique narrative voice.]
A writer of parts, Benedict Kiely has practiced his craft with a single-mindedness that is the mark of the professional practitioner. His most recent novel, Nothing Happens in Carmincross (see WLT 61:1, p. 102), seemed to crown his long career; but no, here a couple of years later is his fifth collection of short stories [A Letter to Peachtree and Nine Other Stories]. No minimalist he, for his stories overflow with a vigorous richness of vocabulary, incident, literary allusions, and characters, like froth brimming from a pint, of which many are downed in the course of the new collection.
Kiely's voice is unmistakable. He writes the way a storyteller narrates and carries the reader along as if he were a confidential friend. The letter format of the title story is particularly suited to Kiely's methods. It begins:
Always I prefer not to begin a sentence with an I, so I'm beginning this sentence and letter with the word Always. Which can be a beautiful or terrible word, all depending on where you are, how you feel, who...
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SOURCE: O'Grady, Thomas B. “Echoes of William Carleton: Benedict Kiely and the Irish Oral Tradition.” Studies in Short Fiction 28, no. 3 (summer 1991): 321-30.
[In the following essay, O'Grady finds parallels between the fiction of Kiely and William Carleton.]
“He wrote good stories and he wrote very inferior stories,” Benedict Kiely declared of William Carleton in 1948; “he wrote well and he wrote at times with an excruciating badness. …” But despite Carleton's tendency to write “always with a certain spontaneous outpouring of things seen and heard and vividly remembered, with little evidence that he had ever given more than a moment of his mind to models or forms or the practices of other writers,” Kiely could assert unequivocally of his fellow transplanted Ulsterman: “He is among the greatest, possibly the greatest writer of fiction that Ireland has given to the English language” (Poor Scholar 177).
Although few students of Irish literary history would vehemently contest William Butler Yeats's assertion concerning Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830, 1833)—that “with them began modern Irish literature” (Yeats xiv)—Kiely's effusive championing of Carleton must be understood on grounds not strictly objective, but extra-literary and self-apologetic as well. In a fictionalized remembrance of his motives for writing...
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