Benedict Kiely

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Benedict Kiely 1919–

Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, and journalist.

A deep sense of Ireland pervades Kiely's fiction. In addition to the seanachie's gift for a good nostalgic story, Kiely presents the dilemma of a divided Ireland with complexity and sophistication.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed. and Contemporary authors New Revision Series, Vol. 2.)

Grace Eckley

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At the time of Land Without Stars, World War II casts darkness over the British Isles. While Northern Ireland's soldiers fight with Britain against Germany, the Republic of Ireland remains neutral. The novel, then, chronicles perhaps nine months in the lives of two brothers who, at the beginning, return to their Northern Ireland home for the Christmas holidays. Davy Quinn arrives from the North, his brother Peter from the South, both to find the town crouching behind blackout blinds. (p. 54)

Dissension between brothers, which is at once the most dramatic and disheartening aspect of civil war, provides in Land Without Stars the clearest insight into the character of Ireland; like many of their countrymen, the ideals of Davy and Peter Quinn are as sharply different as their personalities are. (p. 57)

In presenting the conflicting viewpoints of Davy and Peter, Kiely in this novel approaches the objectivity of his later work. (p. 61)

In a Harbour Green in pure irony tells about murder, robbery, suicide, an illegitimate child, and rape in a small Northern Ireland town which stifles creativity, slanders reputations, votes Unionist, and opposes progress. (p. 62)

The novel interweaves the following plots: the destiny of the acquitted murderer, the sex experiences of May Campbell, the approaching death of Aunt Aggie, the fate of the town "bad woman," the robbery, the evil Bear Mullan, the innocent romance of Dympna Campbell and Jim Collins, and Rafferty's flood-control project. These plots involve approximately thirty-two characters, not to mention those simply called "the nurse" or "the priest." Appearances, as in [a] photograph, deceptively indicate among all these people some unity in purposes and practices, in morals and ideals, an even tenure of the townspeople's ways; but, from under the surface calm, their hatred, intolerance, jealousy, and pettiness emerge, taking the form sometimes of open enmity and violence. The setting at the outbreak of World War II parallels the life of the town; the smoldering hatreds and ambitions of nations seemingly at peace soon will erupt in international confrontations just as murder, robbery, rape, and violence lie shallowly beneath the surface of the usually tranquil and moral life of the town. (p. 64)

On the surface, concern for propriety best characterizes the town's citizenry; but there dwells underneath propriety a basic respect for human decency—though this respect too is ironic. It is a respect best nourished by those persons whose high ideals of God and man motivate them most quickly to point out the errors of their fellows. Always people can hope for a better society; and, in the archetypal springtime of the novel's conclusion, May Campbell's baby brings new life and hope…. True, at the end, world war is imminent; but it no doubt will have little effect on a town sheltered and secure "in a harbour green." (p. 66)

In relationship to the earlier novel, Land Without Stars, [In a Harbour Green] continues the misuse of power as leitmotif and establishes two characteristics of Kiely's writing: the boys' world viewed as one of freedom, adventure, innocent fun, and terror; and sex for women, even premarital sex, viewed as natural fulfillment. (pp. 73-4)

The difference in artistic levels can be seen by comparing Kiely's early novel, In a Harbour Green, with … Dogs...

(This entire section contains 1457 words.)

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Enjoy the Morning. The artist of the last novel has no need to defend Catholicism, though he writes of a Catholic community with much humor and detachment, or to crusade against either side of any polaric views. Though the setting is much the same in both novels, the communities are different; propriety has given way to freedom of opinion. The Partition between Dublin and North Ireland is now nonexistent; Ireland is now one country of the heart and mind; and … the characters move freely between their town and Dublin. Point of view also moves between that of the omniscient storyteller and the "I,"… through whose mind all has been observed and presented. The story does not end but trickles away with reluctance as the waters pass through the tentaclelike weeds of the old canal; and, certainly, as Kiely asserted in Modern Irish Fiction, no story ever ends.

In Dogs Enjoy the Morning, Cosmona, a fair village of the plain, stretches a scant mile between the antique and historic mill at one end and the ruined abbey and hospital at the other. (pp. 141-42)

The plot, which spans three days, focuses on a single mating event of the second day and on its sequels that day and the next in the lives of several Cosmona citizens. (p. 143)

The novel begins with a description of birds flying about the abbey and hospital; the birds are alive and free, but the people are hampered by surgical appliances. Partly, the perfect blending of natural setting and action marks the stylistic advance of this novel over previous novels…. This blend of the natural and the man-made develops a theme which only the very sagacious, perhaps the miller and the priest who dominate the last pages, realize; on this island of the living, each person is closed in his own particular island of the mind; but he thinks he could shock the others who have not his particular brand of knowledge, just as the gull seems to assume monarchy of all he surveys. The perfect harmony of man and nature abides through all human difficulties, preserves the good things of life, and endures.

Stylistically …, Kiely achieves an accomplished ease in using vernacular dialogue…. Humor is most professional in the dry dialogue of the newspapermen, who have been and done many things, mostly while occupying seats in the local pub. The Kiely predilection for literary allusions blends naturally, also, in the thoughts, for example, of the fatherly miller looking upon three village children, who emerge from his childhood's memory of Longfellow via the sixth reader as "grave Alice and laughing Allegra and Edith with golden hair."… There is, also, an artful use of irony. While the newspapermen in the hotel bar speculate on the possibilities of the village whores, a voice from a visiting chest X-ray truck blares via loud-speaker, "You don't have to undress." The names of characters reflect a coy acceptance of human idiosyncrasies: Nurse Walters, called "The Mouse"; Sister Grignon de Montfort called Sister Thermometer; Cousin Grace so designated because she will never be wife or mother; Gabriel, a flying angel on his bicycle; the miller called Martin Mortell while Saint Martin is said to be the patron saint of millers.

Pedantry in folklore and hagiography comes mostly from the village bore, Charles Roe, and only secondarily from Peter Lane, the clerical student drifting further and further from monasticism. Instead of blind reverence for holy men, the residents of the hospital and the community judge them, as well as others, as individuals. No one in this novel is, in the final analysis, a type; but the attempt is to show ideas and persons from several viewpoints. (pp. 143-45)

The novel includes some thirty characters; it is closely and dramatically unified on the basis of the one common denominator—sex….

Dogs Enjoy the Morning provides a variety of approaches to [this] fond subject before it presents the climactic scene on the top of the phallic tower, a scene which acts as a pivot for altering and generally expanding the views of all. (p. 145)

Dogs Enjoy the Morning blends the pagan, the Christian, the present, the past, the lore of saints and of sex. (p. 155)

Kiely offers no simple solution for North Ireland's problems; and his own fiction, for which he frequently draws backgrounds and characters from disparate regions to unite them in a Northern fictional setting, may be said to have metaphorically bridged the political gap. There is, also, a deep abhorrence of violence reflected in Kiely's conversation and in his literary characters. At the same time, although at least two of his novels have dominant atmospheres of evil, the evil is not political. In The Cards of the Gambler, evil is the knowledge of imminent death, which is personified in a little man who carries a black bag; and Kiely evokes an atmosphere of foreboding by combining animated environment with personal emotion…. Dogs also has passages of horror, but these are relieved by more frequent passages of humor and by the varieties of personalities in the town of Cosmona. Horror is generally limited to the dying son of the miller—his illness and his memories…. (p. 160)

Always the tone of the writing is quiet, controlled; and the atmosphere, whatever its type—be it horror or humor—seems to evolve from understatement, almost from indirection…. (pp. 160-61)

Grace Eckley, in her Benedict Kiely (copyright © 1972 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.: reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1972, 184 p.

The Times Literary Supplement

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A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly is uniformly excellent. Mr. Kiely's style is bawdy and hilarious. He writes with spacious confidence and, it is probably necessary to add, compassion. His priests—there seems to be one on every page—have earthly weaknesses. Most of his other men have a weakness for the ladies.

In "A Great God's Angel Standing", a priest takes Pascal Stakelum, "the notorious rural rake", with him on a visit to an asylum. Stakelum is mistaken for the priest and a patient insists on making a confession to him. But still he manages afterwards to meet behind a hedge a red-haired nurse who has "great blue eyes, looking up at him like headlamps seen through mist".

"The Green Lanes" features another rural rake whose doomed antics are recorded by a young man working the dispatch department of a religious magazine. There is a jolting worldliness in this tale—it is quite superb. The title story does not run as smoothly as the others, though it is undoubtedly the work of Benedict Kiely.

"Rakes and Realists," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3723, July 13, 1973, p. 797.∗

Daniel J. Casey

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To a greater degree than even he would perhaps admit, the content and technique of Kiely's fiction are dictated by a voice out of the past….

For more than thirty years Kiely has stood with one foot in the past and the other in the present, mingling joys and disappointments of the two worlds, and, so postured, he has managed to create a fiction that is more than credible; it is convincing. (p. 24)

He is symbolist, allegorist, and myth maker, and his fiction employs ambiguity, paradox, irony, satire—whatever device serves to heighten involvement at the moment. His writing is influenced by naturalism and existentialism on the Continent and by the psychological novelists of Britain and the United States. He might have been a realist, a naturalist, some sort of avant-garde experimentalist, but he has too much imagination to be any of those. Surely he is one of the last of the Irish romantics but with an abiding fascination for the darker side of man's nature. Imagination overwhelms reality, and myth and legend introduce a new level of consciousness to his work. He cannot avoid blending the strange and the real, adding song and poetry, or embellishing his landscape with a rich flow of images that stir scenes replete with illusions. (pp. 31-2)

[Kiely's early short stories and] novels were straightforward narratives. They were sometimes flawed by contrived situations, by characters that were stereotyped, and by unnecessarily elaborate descriptions, but the flaws were overbalanced by numerous imaginative incidents, convincing characters, and fine lyrical passages. Kiely's language is a strange blend of poetic inversions, fragments, and rambling, adjective-weighted sentences in the early writings, but the dialogue is good, good enough to make them twice readable. If the early fiction is uneven and if it tends toward the conventional, the stories themselves, and particularly "Rich and Rare Were the Gems She Wore," still fare better than most other fiction of the period. (pp. 33-4)

The beauty of Benedict Kiely's later stories does not rest solely on his talent for skillfully manipulating three levels of life and three levels of history, or in recreating the loveliness of [the countryside]…. There are the humorous diversions, as well. The author combines the perfection of a complex narrative technique with lovely poetic description, and he elicits a feeling of nostalgia that is surely heightened by comic relief.

If Kiely has been criticized for pedantry, elaborate description, and lack of narrative unity, such criticism is out of place for these later stories. Every phrase, indeed every word, contributes to the artistry of the piece. (pp. 38-9)

Over the years Benedict Kiely's fiction has been consistently good, aesthetically superior. The early stories had occasional flaws; the later ones showed a marked stylistic development and perfection of narrative skill. Through all of the writing there is, however, a dependence on biographical and historical references. Not that he has striven for faithful representation of character, place, or event; he has, in fact, transformed the landscape and consciously altered history, legend, and lore to fit his design. Kiely's art is a conscious art. But there is, too, an awareness we have in reading him that at times his story outgrows the printed page and has the author in its grip. The seanachie's instinct is so compelling that he has to resist it intentionally if he is to stay beyond its grasp. Instead, he delights in stepping out of the shadows, sizing up the audience, putting an ember in his pipe, and opening the story in a resonant Ulster brogue.

Benedict Kiely combines the best of the traditional and the modern. He is important on the current Irish literary scene—important for his novels and short stories and important for his continuous influence on modern Irish criticism…. He is immensely talented, a gifted writer with an unfettered imagination. He comes to us an apt pupil, an able critic, and a conscious artist, whose contribution to Irish fiction and criticism have been universally acknowledged, whose fuller contribution to Irish writing lies ahead. (pp. 40-1)

Land without Stars is, in many respects, impressive, and as Kiely's first novel, a consideration of it is critically important to establishing narrative techniques, stylistic influences, and the early themes. It is an uncomplicated psychological novel of multiplying contrasts that examines human strength and weakness with honesty and compassion. The author shifts easily from third-person narrator with Peter as sentient center to first-person narrator with Davy and Peter reflecting on their innermost thoughts and feelings and addressing the reader directly. He contrasts the man of reason with the man of passion, the whore and the innocent, the Unionist and the Nationalist. And he offers a vivid, exotic mise-en-scène as well, setting the rocky shores of the Donegal seacoast against the verdant inland valleys.

The style combines idyllic descriptions of the Ulster landscapes with clever, telling dialogue. Young Peter Quinn quotes poetry, not because he is a pedant, but because the mood or the circumstance stirs a memory of Yeats or Shelley or Higgins…. There is humor, too, but it comes in occasional quips of understatement and in the comic relief of one of Mandy's folktales or the bawdy verse of a Gaelic song, rather than the broad ribald humor of the later fiction. The writer succeeds in varying character, scene, and tone. (pp. 45-6)

The setting for In a Harbour Green is remarkably similar to the Ballyclogher area of Land without Stars; it has the ubiquitous rivers and bridges, courthouse, barracks, lunatic asylum, county hospital, Catholic church with the imitation Gothic spires, Devlin Street, and the numerous shops. (p. 47)

[In a Harbour Green] is influenced by the work of [William] Carleton and Land without Stars and incidents drawn from the author's life in and around Omagh, those influences add to the sensitivity and the credibility of the story. Kiely offers a more comprehensive view of life in the Northern Irish town and a socioeconomic cross section of a community that is already twice divided by religion and politics. There are Unionists and Nationalists, Protestants and Catholics, but more importantly, there are castes—the professionals, the merchants and tradesmen, and the unfortunate poor who abide always. (p. 48)

Kiely may have marked the dramatic disparities that divide the class-conscious Northern town, but he allows the characters to speak for themselves and leaves the reader to make his own judgments about them…. [They] are the actors in a tragedy that is reenacted in country towns the world over. (p. 51)

The small town of In a Harbour Green is corrupt, hapless, and desperate. The county councilman, the priest, and the schoolmaster are powerless to effect change for the ills bred into the bankers, shopkeepers, clerks, and laborers have also tainted them…. But in Kiely there is always a measure of hope in despair—hope in the child born of Pat Rafferty and May Campbell who will be reared by the solicitor, and hope in the future of Jim Collins and Dympna Campbell, and hope in youthful adventurers scouting their imaginary world. (p. 53)

The author is a romantic with an uncommon respect for the pishrogues. Pat Rafferty keeps a living trout in the well for good luck, and the mourners at Aunt Aggie's funeral greet one another with "Blessed are the dead that the rain rains on," leaving Jim Collins to complete the adage, "Blessed is the bride that the sun shines on." There is, too, a favorite ghost who haunts a local mansion with his buck goat. And Kiely uses the Gaeltacht setting to find the common denominator of Irish character, the noble savagery of the Western World, and he uses the féis to gather the hosts for crises of the soul. He is fond of songs and poems out of the past and introduces them with a generous spontaneity throughout…. Kiely believes that, while the old ways may not have always been the best, the memory of them is heartwarming. (pp. 53-4)

In a Harbour Green offers a realistic picture of the Irish country town with its hypocrisy and smallmindedness, but it is a picture balanced by the promises of the dreams and ambitions of the young. It is sensitive, imaginative, and well written. (p. 55)

Call for a Miracle is essentially a psychological study of four exiles adrift in Dublin, of their attempts to salvage something of their lives and make peace with God, but it is also a serious novelistic inquiry into certain metaphysical questions. Is there a grand design according to which man serves his time on earth, a divine plan which cannot be thwarted by the human will? Brother Juniper and Brian Flood will travel many a mile and cross many a bridge before they unravel the mystery. It has been suggested that in this novel of conscience Benedict Kiely also touches common ground with Graham Greene, that there are striking similarities in theme and treatment, but Kiely is, in every sense, his own man, and Call for a Miracle is an integral part of the Kiely canon. The novel examines the philosophical questions that give direction to the later work, and it anticipates situations and characters that appear later.

Kiely seems to have an intuitive sense of narrative design and technique, a sense that may emanate from an awareness of the sean sgéal, what may be loosely termed "the Irish novel tradition." The complexities of his plot, his intricate patterning, and asides in poetry, song, and anecdote, combine to make a well-wrought long story. What's more, his early novels have the stylistic strengths of the short fiction…. (pp. 63-4)

The Ballyclogher-to-Dublin novels show a discernible movement from village to town to city, but they also chart a discernible maturity in Kiely's technique. Land without Stars is more than a "passable" first novel, it is compelling fiction by a first-rate writer. In a Harbour Green … [is] a realistic portrayal of the narrowness of rural Irish life. And Call for a Miracle raises awesome questions that few other Irish Catholic writers have had the courage to ask. (p. 64)

In Honey Seems Bitter … Donagh Hartigan, a civil servant suffering from a case of nerves, narrates events stemming from a murder in a small village within commuting distance of Dublin. (p. 65)

Honey Seems Bitter is a thriller and a love story and a psychological study all in one. It is for the reader to determine whether the murder mystery or the romantic triangle or Donagh Hartigan's psychic introspection should take precedence. Whichever he decides he will not be disappointed, for Kiely manages to weave the three strands into a whole cloth with customary novelistic genius. (pp. 65-6)

Is Donagh Hartigan to be pitied or admired? He voluntarily seeks entry to the psychopathic world of Kafka, Sartre, and Dostoevsky; he treacherously betrays a man he believes to be his friend; and he takes perverse delight in witnessing or imagining human misery. But Hartigan is, for all that, a fascinating character, one of the most fascinating in the Kiely gallery. The author has drawn him without compassion, a weak, selfish, bookish little man who broods with the intensity of Dostoevsky's diarist….

There are in Honey Seems Bitter the delightful stylistic passages that have come to be expected of Kiely. In one passage Donagh's passions erupt amid the lush tropical foliage of the Botanical Gardens, an eroticism fired by exoticism of place and name, and, in a second, the mystical forces of an ancient fairy fort are unleashed. (p. 70)

But over and against these fantasies, there are the sordid details, nauseating sights and smells and the vivid memory of "a slattern of a woman chewing the bacon rinds of a late breakfast" and pouring the drinks.

Through his first three novels one recognizes Kiely's preoccupation with loneliness and intellectual barrenness and his unmistakable progression toward existentialism. Honey Seems Bitter is the culmination of that effort. Donagh Hartigan, as intriguing and convincing a character as he is, represents the dark side of humankind and voices the hidden fears of all humanity. He is obsessed with sin and guilt and the threat of instant annihilation; he is acutely aware of both sexual and spiritual natures. Hartigan does not resist moral choices; he says No, and thereby posits his existence. Kiely's is a godly brand of existentialism and Honey Seems Bitter one of the finest modern Irish novels in the mode. (p. 71)

If Kiely admits to sometimes hearing the muted voice of the Gaelic story-teller accompanied by the rush of wind in the bushes and the thundering of waves on the shore, surely those phantasms affect The Cards of the Gambler … more than any other of his works. The folktale rendered by the tweedy seanachie in the thatched Gaeltacht cottage provides a frame, indeed more than a frame for this fifth novel. The ancient narrative that is reproduced with all of its nuances through prologue, epilogue, and seven interludes, charts the progress of the modern novel and furnishes characters, incidents, and devices. The tale is ready-made.

The fuller reading of Cards depends upon an understanding of Celtic mythology and symbolism, as well as an understanding of the pagan-Christian syncretism that fails to come to grips with essential questions. What Kiely does in Cards is to offer universalized conceptualizations of God and Death and hell, and inquire further into the elusive distinction between "what is" and "what appears to be." "Some dreams are true," Death tells the doctor-gambler. But can we posit reality and distinguish between good and evil? The gambler decides that he should have asked God, as his third request, to tell him the how and the why of things, "for in heaven one learns a lot. The hell of hell is that the soul endures so much and finds out nothing." Cards is, then, a philosophical allegory that probes beyond the existential issues raised in the earlier novels. (pp. 71-2)

The Cards of the Gambler is replete with symbolism—cabalistic, numerological, mythological, and chromatic. Twelve Oriental apostles dance circular configurations around the immutable God; three, seven, and nine are the recurring numbers; a golden-haired Aengus seeks the comfort of airy heights near an ancient stone circle; and the red and the black of the cards signify always blood and death. (p. 75)

There are, among many successful techniques, the two anecdotal letters, the "Dialogue Between Two Women," "The Monologue of a Forgiving Wife to a Dark Husband," the three "Awakenings," and the elaborate personification of allegorical figures to set the tone for Kiely's variation on the Gaelic source. It is the folktale, rendered in its entirety through the interludes, that is Kiely's masterstroke in this novel, and Cards succeeds because of his skill as a seanachie and his talent as writer of modern fiction. (pp. 75-6)

There Was an Ancient House comes out of the author's personal experiences in the Jesuit novitiate, but it is not so esoteric as to be discounted as a successful novel. On the contrary, Kiely offers here a realistic account of the tenor of novitiate life and a novel that is ostensibly religious in tone, mood and theme. In the process he sketches a collection of sensitive and amusing characters, giving the reader, as it were, the best of both worlds. Behind the scenes the wily novelist slings his heavy brush with reckless abandon and smiles a tight-lipped smile. (p. 80)

Benedict Kiely's seventh novel, The Captain with the Whiskers …, comes five years after There Was an Ancient House and demonstrates once again his ingenious skill for spinning out several skeins of a complex plot and concocting a kind of verbal wizardry in the process. The vivid landscapes and frequent poetic runs of songs and ballads meld easily with the poetry of Yeats and Stephens and Kavanagh to create an atmosphere that shifts from lovely to wistful to fantastic with the force of the wind or the mood of the poet. An Irish Boer War ballad, several of its verses neatly woven into the narrative texture, gives title to the novel; Ledean Swans wing ominously through the pattern, suggesting always psychic transmigrations; and withal, there is the inimitable touch of the Tyrone novelist whose imagination has run wilder than ever in this, his latest work. (p. 82)

The Captain with the Whiskers is the study of a psychopathic martinet, his wife and five children, and it is the story of Owen Rodgers, the narrator, who is drawn into the inner sanctum of Bingen House by the mutual fascination that exists between the Captain and himself. (pp. 82-3)

The Captain's encyclopedic knowledge ranges from alchemy to zoology, and the strange love-hate relationship he develops with his family and with young Rodgers stems from an inner darkness, a sadomasochism just below the surface. His cruelty is legend; he brutalizes his wife and children, eventually bringing ruin on their heads. But it is not simply the Captain's perversity that intrigues the young narrator; Owen is also taken with the notion that, even if a sardonic God showed no mercy to the Captain's widow or his orphaned progeny, he himself might impose order on the chaos, if he chose to. But, like Donagh Hartigan he elects to maintain his distance; he takes an intellectual pleasure in witnessing the disintegration of the Chesneys. (p. 83)

With the death of the Captain, confusion and mutiny broke out, leading to dissolution and despair. (p. 84)

[Tragic events] shock Owen to a fuller awareness of his Judas complex. Mesmerized by the wickedness of Captain Conway Chesney who was damned, he realizes that his own part was perhaps more perverse. He had willed to stand by, a morbid observer of the disintegration and decay at Bingen. (p. 85)

Dogs Enjoy the Morning is different from the earlier novels; it is more complicated fiction in a more complex style, a style that effectively integrates the author's narrative strengths. It is aesthetically more developed than the earlier long fiction, and it gives the reader a Benedict Kiely who is now more angry and more confident than the novelist who left Ireland for America four years before. As a major novel by a major writer, Dogs Enjoy the Morning must be counted among the important works in contemporary Irish fiction.

The novel is not, however, a complete departure; it is the same Kiely who ranged far and wide creating an undisciplined fantasy that says at every turning: "There is more to life than meets the eye."… It is the same Kiely who weaves myth, folklore, religion, rebellion, exile, and romance into a sensible fictional pattern; who contrasts pagan and Christian, ascetic and sexual, rural and urban, youth and old age; who develops a host of convincing characters from that strange half-light of experience and imagination. Dogs Enjoy the Morning draws from the earlier fiction, but it does far more than the earlier fiction. It represents more than an accumulation of Kiely motifs and themes; it represents the culmination of them and a new level of artistic achievement. (pp. 87-8)

In fact what we have here is a farce and a laugh riot, and a novel that fairly bristles with hilarity. It is Kiely's most humorous fiction to date but, at the same time, his most profound commentary on human strength and human fallibility….

Is it perhaps Kiely's intention to create a new fiction of the absurd where there are as many kicks as pricks? If the essence of absurdity lay in a kind of Beckettean awareness of consciousness, a revelation of man's tenuousness or the existential non-sense of being, then Kiely may be said to have transcended the mode entirely. This novel has sanity in its insanity, morality in its indecency, and religiosity in its irreverence. (p. 89)

And it came to pass that the lethargic hamlet [of Cosmona] awoke with a start one day to find that the village idiots were having intercourse atop the sacred abbey tower with the whole world looking on. And it must also have come to pass that the preserved bodies of a thousand friars turned simultaneously in their graves, causing a tremor in the universe. In the gospel according to Kiely nothing is outside the realm of possibility; the outrageous is, in fact, commonplace. (pp. 90-1)

Cosmona is not Omagh. It is a fictional village, a composite of several of the author's favorite watering places…. (p. 92)

The people in Cosmona are not unlike those in earlier Kiely novels, though it should probably be noted that the population is in no way typical of the Irish village, or of any village in the world…. In Cosmona there are no heroes and no antiheroes, but there is instead a humanity that is spread over a continuum of virtues—exhibiting various shades of courage, honesty, generosity, and understanding—and a humanity that is bound together by a common sexual obsession. (pp. 92-3)

Gabriel Rock becomes Kiely's measure of human virtue and human viciousness, and even when he fornicates with Nora on the tower stage, he stands apart and above the men and women who seek the shadows and the ditches to perform the selfsame sex act. Gabriel's annunciation is, in effect, a revelation to the little world that concupiscence has made sinners of them all, but the supreme irony is that Gabriel remains as sinless and guiltless in the act as Father Jarlath's hounds. (pp. 93-4)

[Very] important to the novel is Charles Row, a druid, an historian, and a successor to the friars of Insula Viventium with the hereditary right of burial on the island. Charles's cousin Grace describes him as "a mad professor and a spoiled priest," and so he is. It is pedantic Charles who sponsors the Irish Lupercalia on the mountain that comes complete with virginal sacrifice, and it is druidic Charles who reviews all the lore and legend that stands behind the Cosmona triduum…. But where does the pagan mind end and the Christian mind begin? While Charles Row's procession of hedonists and would-be hedonists wends its way toward the pagan pillar of fertility, the confused Gabriel mounts Nora on the Christian phallus, and the black Liberian abducts a virgin of his own to reenact the legend. All the world is in a kind of sexual harmony. And through it all Charles Row proves himself the worthy successor to the monks of the Island, for his interest in mythology and history never extends beyond an academic concern for liturgical and rubrical proprieties. (pp. 94-5)

There is pathos in Kiely's psychological examination of … [his characters]. In fact, most of those native to Cosmona seem to be victims of divine neglect and human rancor and, if they appear, at times, supercilious, ludicrous, or otherwise comical, the author suggests that they deserve more than a humorous dismissal. (p. 96)

Dogs Enjoy the Morning has a wonderful patchwork design and enough characters for several novels. Kiely superimposes scene on scene again, panning, fading, and blending with the expertise of a film director and, while the stage of Cosmona literally brims with activity, one never gets the impression of overcrowding. (pp. 97-8)

The author's lyrical prose, witty dialogue, and vivid descriptions have been frequently noted. He is a magnificent stylist and a masterful storyteller, and nowhere are those qualities more evident than in this novel. His narrative flows on several levels simultaneously, not awkwardly and not strained. He uses literary devices effectively…. (p. 99)

What is it beyond storytelling that Benedict Kiely is about? Is the Cosmona tapestry only a rug of cartoons? Is the novel blasphemous, immoral, or artless? No, not any of those. What we have here is a satire full of Joycean barbs…. What Kiely is saying is that, if all human life is here, so is all human stupidity and cupidity and wisdom. Gabriel and Nora are exiled, Cathy Henafin is deserted, the miller's son dies, Peejay slays his wayward cock, Grace remains a withering virgin, and the black sailor is locked away in a dark dungeon. Meanwhile the "Ship of Fools," a great galleon of a truck with Christy, Dympna, and Teresa aboard, hurtles toward Dublin, the driver and his mate exchanging inanities with the passengers. These are the inexplicable absurdities of the novel and the inexplicable absurdities of life. What Kiely is saying is that the world needs more millers and doctors and priests like those of Cosmona, for even with their failings, they make the best case for continuity, and as the Monaghan poet says, "Continuity is everything."

Dogs Enjoy the Morning ridicules man's foibles and hypocrisies as it lauds his courage and his kindness. It says that men and women can move in nature's beauty and become worthy of the earth, if only they will curse the intelligence that has enslaved the spirit. It reiterates the author's firm belief that we are all mad, all murderous, and that we all hope for and need a particular and general salvation. As a kind of seriocomic parody on life, it falls short of savage satire, but it succeeds marvelously as a philosophical romance rich in myth and legend and pregnant in meaning…. The existentialism is unmistakable, but the difference in this novel is that there is more reason for hilarity and more reason to hope. (pp. 100-01)

It establishes Kiely's claim as one of Ireland's important modern writers and ranks as one of the most outstanding contemporary novels in English. (p. 101)

Kiely is not only the most prolific writer of fiction on the current Irish scene, his novels are among the most eagerly anticipated by the Irish. He is a writer of immense talent and a writer whose work has grown in stature over the past three decades. (p. 102)

Kiely joins company with Hawthorne and Poe, Gorki and Dostoevsky, with Sartre, Kafka, and Greene. It is, however, in Dogs Enjoy the Morning that he introduces an element of comedy and achieves the proper cosmic balance. The novels are all commendable, but Dogs ranks as one of the outstanding contemporary English-language novels. (pp. 103-04)

Daniel J. Casey, in his Benedict Kiely (© 1974 by Associated University Presses, Inc.), Bucknell University Press, 1974, 107 p.

Tom Paulin

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Benedict Kiely's novella deals with the sinister politics of Ulster. His title, Proxopera, derives from the terrorist tactic of having bombs delivered by proxy—in this case by a retired Tyrone schoolmaster called Binchey. The story, which is mediated through Binchey's consciousness as he drives into town with the bomb, deftly manages to be both mellow and tense…. This confusion is abetted by the way Kiely's proper indignation at terrorism falls back on reminiscences of 'the last 50 years' and pushes half a century of bigotry and stupidity into a static rural nostalgia.

Tom Paulin, "Captain Fist," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 94, No. 2418, July 22, 1977, p. 123.∗

Felix Pickering

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[Proxopera is important for] the insight Mr. Kiely gives into a disturbed community. His book, he says, is "a condemnation of the interference by violent men in the lives of ordinary people".

His greatest achievement is in conveying, extraordinarily economically, and as if it was not the technical and imaginative feat that it is, the layers of time coexisting in the mind of someone who has lived all his life in one place…. All the time, Binchey is seeing the past alongside the present: when he walks in the graveyard, the men and women buried there are all alive in his memory…. When he stops the bomb-laden car on the bridge he reads the words he himself scrawled in the wet concrete of the parapet half a century ago. Everything he sees is interpreted through memory and long knowledge.

As the present is overlaid by the past, the peacefulness of the familiar landscape is pervaded by the horror of what is happening. "The birds sang round Dacchau", thinks Binchey. He curses the "gallant Irish patriots fighting imaginary empires by murdering their neighbours"….

Proxopera is a fierce, sad little book, full of feeling and curious perceptions. The writing, mostly spare and northern, breaks sometimes into poetic keening…. In a book so short, on such a theme, immoderateness is not out of place. Though Mr. Kiely never moves out of the mind of one very ordinary man he gives a more painful picture of what is happening in Northern Ireland than could hours of television documentary.

Felix Pickering, "Disturbed Community," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3938, September 2, 1977, p. 1062.

Mary Kenny

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Benedict Kiely [is] an Ulster scholar, novelist, storyteller, talker, walker, bard,…: he knows Ireland from the stones up. And in his book about his travels around the island, All the Way to Bantry Bay, something of the true nature of the border country in Ireland emerges, something which would never be perceived by the Sunday Times Insight team if it researched for a thousand years, for that knowledge lies in the very seedbed of the mystical landscape—and in the intimate knowledge of the physical land, too….

Ben Kiely walks all over Ireland. He has a great ear for the kind of anecdote that men love to tell each other over a libation: here, it is told with the skill of the seannachi. (p. 18)

All the Way to Bantry Bay is a lovely book in the reading … and, like Ben Kiely himself, a perfect companion for a sojourn in Ireland itself. He writes like an angel, but ah! you should hear him talk. (p. 19)

Mary Kenny, "Storyteller," in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 241, No. 7832, August 12, 1978, pp. 18-19.

Mary Hope

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Benedict Kiely's control over his material seems loose enough, but is, in fact skilfully exercised in this free-wheeling collection [A Cow in the House & Other Stories], set mainly in pre-Troubles Northern Ireland. And 'this ground is littered with things, cluttered with memories and multiple associations', which pretty well sums up Kiely's particular gift. Each story is built up layer upon layer, grapevine upon grapevine of allusion, starting off in one direction, expanding to include more and more reference, sparkling with wit and energy, like those rambling conversations you can have in any Irish country pub. The pains of growing up, the complexity of the effect of divided politics on ordinary lives, and bonds of environment: everything is glanced on. Detail upon detail in breezily hilarious juxtaposition: 'her own true love was killed in a hunting field. She was never in a bus'. Like Louis MacNeice, Kiely knows the world 'crazier and more of it than we think. Incorrigibly plural … the drunkenness of things being various'. And these stories, like poems, compress the more of it than the more of most writers ever do.

Mary Hope, "Books: 'A Cow in the House & Other Stories'," in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 241, No. 7839, September 30, 1978, p. 24.∗

Douglas Sealy

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["A Cow in the House"] contains the stories of a man talking easily, of a man whose memories crowd in on him, some merry, some melancholy, but all demanding attention, so that their appearance on the page seems at times to follow an order dictated by the random operations of change, and inconsequentiality seems the ruling principle of life. Memories of lost days of youth in rural Ireland, the Ireland of small towns and small farms where "Edwardian days lasted until 1939", and life moved slowly; rules of logic only falsify such memories and the stories drift along, remembered experiences and people conniving with their invented counterparts to create a fiction which makes the reader say, not "Life could never have been like that", but "That is just how life would be remembered"; and if the emphasis is on tolerance and neighbourliness, it is not because memory is up to its tricks, but because, as the author, ever so gently, reminds us, "there are burned-out buildings in the main streets—and barricades and checkpoints at the ends of the town".

Mr. Kiely's head is well stocked with songs and poems and stories and conversations and people, and he hardly ever starts a hare that he does not follow, but not for long, for every page has several hares, and though one suspects he could talk on for a whole book, mingling fact and fancy down the boreens of memory…. Mr. Kiely does have his ten stories to tell and his leisurely explorations have their goals. The little boy with the broken watch knows that time will never be the same again, a student pays more attention to his girlfriend than to his exams; youthful love fails to cross a religious division; a cow in the house is no less a wonder than a box of chocolates in a nun's habit; bigotry can sometimes be dissolved by humour; for some men women are the most terrifying as well as the most desirable of beings; the world of the imagination can crowd out the world of everyday; such are the ostensible subjects of the stories, but it is the transitoriness of life, of habits, of traditions, of places and of people, that informs these stories and makes the humor turn into sadness….

Mr. Kiely's book is a wave at the past, but I doubt if it is goodbye. Mr. Kiely is at heart a storyteller at the chimney corner, cleaning the rust off the links that bind us to what has gone.

Douglas Sealy, "Waving at the Past," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3998, November 17, 1978, p. 1347.

Thomas Flanagan

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Benedict Kiely, a writer in whom are joined magnificent lyrical and comic gifts, is one of the most admired of literary figures in his native Ireland…. [The State of Ireland, a selection of his short fiction, which concludes with 'Proxopera,"] exhibits not only the remarkable continuity of his themes, attitudes, and abiding concerns, but also the ways in which, over several decades, these have deepened and enriched themselves. (p. 3)

Kiely's art begins with a profound sense of place, of both physical and human geography, and of the integuments by which people and landscape are bound together. It would be entirely wrong, however, to 'place' him as a regional writer, for the strong center of his craft, in his novels no less than his short stories, is the shaping voice of the narrator. This voice may seem at first to be that of the seanachie, the traditional Irish storyteller, but in fact it is a far more complex and sophisticated instrument. Kiely moves very close indeed to the people of whom he writes—farmers, tradesmen, mechanics, journalists, doctors, priests, publicans—but the voice can complicate itself suddenly, distancing the speaker and reminding us that Kiely is a man of wide literary culture, with a deep, unyielding tolerance for almost every range and variety of human experience. It is this shaping voice within the stories that, I suspect, has fallen strangely upon the ears of a generation schooled to expect from art only a stern, ironical impersonality. But fashions have changed once more, and allow us now to see in his work a sensibility and an intelligence engaged in an exchange both with his readers and with his created world. (pp. 3-4)

With a delicacy that seldom strays toward the sentimentally pastoral, Kiely contrives to suggest that even deep and bitter sectarian divisions are so wedded to landscapes and weathers that they have become part of the natural order of things, emotional and communal signposts, ambiguously reassuring…. (p. 4)

The people of Kiely's [birthplace]—which on occasion is anonymous or given a different name, but which is always Omagh—are aware that they live not only in space but in time, and that time stretches toward them from the distant past. And the narrator, too, lives in time. Omagh changes, decade by decade, as we move through the stories, but so, too, does the man who returns to it in fact or in memory, stays for a visit, and then returns to what conventional wisdom calls a larger world. (p. 5)

[Kiely] is a deeply conservative man, not in the political but in the Vergilian or Wordsworthian sense…. Story after story, whether grave or comic, celebrates a conjunction of setting and feeling. The narrator of 'A Journey to the Seven Streams' remembers a father who knew all of the real or legendary history of the lands beyond his town. 'Townlands like Corrasheskin, Drumlish, Cornavara, Dooish, the Minnieburns and Claramore, and small towns like Drumquin and Dromore were all within a ten-mile radius of our town and something of moment or something amusing had happened in every one of them. The reiterated music of the names worked upon him like a charm.' And upon Kiely and the reader. The story chronicles a family expedition in the twenties to visit 'in one round trip those most adjacent places of his memories and dreams.' (p. 8)

But the story has been told in retrospect, and the final paragraphs return us to the present. The father, we learn there, is dead. And every house on the funeral road along the Erne shore to the home places now has a television aerial…. Tone and detail modulate what might otherwise be a sentimental pastoralism. Past and present are linked by a natural, communal kindliness. (pp. 8-9)

In the most significant of his recent work, however, Kiely's created world has grown more somber. Omagh, like all of Northern Ireland, has become implicated in an evil to which he has responded with the passion of a personal outrage. Indeed, it is only when one has become familiar with the world of his earlier fiction and with the depth of his psychic involvement in it that this outrage can be properly weighed….

Two stories, 'The Night We Rode With Sarsfield' and 'Bluebell Meadow,' mark, in their contrasting attitudes and tonalities, Kiely's deepening concern with the present tragedy of Northern Ireland. (p. 9)

When one comes to a story such as 'Bluebell Meadow' after a rereading of Kiely's earlier work—in which the deep moral and psychic significances of his town and its countryside have been established in slow, loving accumulation—the full weight for him of the present devastation becomes palpable for the reader and almost intolerable. Kiely is not a political man and therefore is not a political writer: he has too rich and too humane a delight in fallen human nature. Ideally, one suspects, he may have wished to see the two Northern communities joined in the business of daily life yet nurtured by separate traditions, as in those two houses of his childhood, divided by plaster, sheltered by a common thatch. Yet he also knows that the I.R.A. song sung in the polished parlor, the Orange lily, and the Orange sash are the ultimate sources of that violence by which men are killed and houses set afire…. It is this dual vision, lenses disclosing irreconcilable perspectives, that brings his recent stories into an uneasy and troubled focus.

There are resemblances between Kiely's Omagh and Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha. Within each of the two created worlds an imagination that is at once conservative and radically wayward is brought to bear upon a society shaped by history and wedded to traditional modes of feeling and action. Nowhere, however, is the resemblance more clear than in the presence, within each world, of a grave and deep evil, which rises at last to challenge both the society and the artist. The rich soil of Yoknapatawpha sustains black and white alike, and the two races respond to each other by complex silences and ambiguous pacts that, in day-to-day matters, involve a mutual respect. But slavery, and those tribal loyalties to race and caste that are its historical legacy, is a destructive evil buried beneath the soil, cancerous and dehumanizing. So too, in Kiely's Omagh, the seeming innocence, indeed the childishness, of sectarian badges and slogans issued at last into the moral and physical corrosion of the society. And these are truths that the two writers, the Southern American and the Northern Irishman, confront with reluctance, for they challenge and mock those versions of the pastoral to which each has been committed. For this reason, the response of each has been impassioned and unmodulated.

'Proxopera' is Kiely's Intruder in the Dust, an indictment of those people, passions, and malignant principles by which the culture that claims his deepest loyalties has been salvaged. (pp. 11-12)

It is, finally, Kiely's sense of the humane that emerges from his stories as their strongest presence. The community by which he was himself shaped has possessed, more fully perhaps than it has realized, strong, traditional powers to humanize, and these the stories have celebrated. But the process has been reciprocal. Kiely's imagination, realizing itself in art through form, attitude, and, especially, through voice, is kindled by the rich variety of traditional society. His stories create a world faithful to the actualities of a given place and time, but faithful also to his own hard-won perceptions of human value. And, like all true art, they strengthen and enrich our own respect for life. (pp. 14-15)

Thomas Flanagan, "Introduction" (© 1980 by Thomas Flanagan; reprinted by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.), in The State of Ireland: A Novella & Seventeen Stories by Benedict Kiely, Godine, 1980, pp. 3-15.

Anatole Broyard

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People, landscape, song, sex, religion and violence—this is what Ireland seems to be made of in "The State of Ireland," a novella and 17 stories by Benedict Kiely. It's a narrow world, yet in this case a narrow world seems to make for good stories. They're brilliantly contained, free of that centrifugal throw that deforms some of the more cosmopolitan writers….

Weather is still significant in Ireland, and topography. Religion figures there. People pay attention to their speech, take pleasure in its rhythm and diction. Sex is unambiguous, and there is a fierce sense of community.

One is reminded that such conditions still exist. At first there may be a bit of resistance. Who the devil are these Irish, always talking and drinking and fighting and intriguing for sex? And then, encouraged by Mr. Kiely, you will probably undergo a conversion. How wonderful it is, you think, that weather should make a difference, and the shape and color of the land. And that people don't talk like television commercials or despairing modern movies. How pleasant to find that sex is a natural force again. And that priests are necessary, among other reasons, to keep things in perspective, to put a bit of black into the landscape.

Sometimes the Irish have so much gusto that they get on your nerves—but better this way than characters who get on your nerves because they have no gusto at all. If the Irish seem to make an art out of parochialism, so does the Cathedral at Chartres.

Anatole Broyard, "Books: The Richness of Irish Life," in The New York Times (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1980, p. C34.

Terence Winch

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Most of the stories in … The State of Ireland focus on strange pairings off, on mismatched people whose unlikely relationships lead to surprising revelations, if not to spiritual transformations. In some cases, the participants in Kiely's brand of "strange friendship" wind up reversing their roles and seeing themselves (and their counterparts) with new and deeper insight….

Kiely's experiments with human identity continue throughout this collection. Guides become the guided, as in "The Dogs in the Great Glen," a story about an Irish-American professor who comes to Ireland "to search out his origins" in the wilds of County Kerry. The professor's guide is the narrator who, at the start of the journey, has an amused, condescending attitude towards the eager American. But as the two travelers near the mysterious "great Glen of Kanareen," the American becomes possessed with atavistic wisdom and the narrator … admits to himself that he "was the stranger who had once been the guide." (p. 3)

These serious reflections may make Kiely's work seem more somber than in fact it is. He is a classic Irish storyteller, with all the gifts demanded by the traditions of this art: a sense of humor, an accurate ear for the way people talk, a highly evolved narrative skill. His writing, deeply rooted in a love for the land and its people, opens us to a knowledge of the authentic Ireland. And second only to his attachment to the land is his passion for music—bits of Irish songs blend, almost unnoticed, into his prose and add to the resonance of his work.

"It's a little thing doesn't last longer than a man," is the proverb Kiely cites at the end of one of his stories. His own fiction will outlast us all. (p. 6)

Terence Winch, "Benedict Kiely's Authentic Ireland," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), October 19, 1980, pp. 3, 6.∗

Guy Davenport

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[The first meaning of "The State of Ireland"] is that it's a place where stories are still told, deliciously and by masters of the art, of whom Benedict Kiely is one, perhaps the foremost.

His skill is such that we have to distinguish between writing stories and telling stories. Once you have seen how Mr. Kiely builds a narrative, you must admit that he is not doing what Joyce or Chekhov or Maupassant were doing. His is a different art altogether….

The Irish have always seemed to prefer the mimic to the deliberate craftsman. They alone in all the world will tell you that Joyce was no great matter. There is a radiant speck of truth in this very Irish opinion. Joyce was a European writer. Ireland was his subject, not his audience. Benedict Kiely writes for anybody who loves the charm of a well-told story, but it is obvious in every line that he assumes his audience to be Irish. (p. 1)

A Kiely story is usually several stories at once, for his finest habit is to tell a story within a story to illustrate a point, and his characters all have stories to tell too. The Irish tell stories because they cherish, admire and embrace absurdities. Jewish tales are all about the foolish and the wise; French tales are about ironies; American tales are about clever tricksters; but Irish tales are about how the world is cockeyed and there's no hope for it. (p. 37)

The absurd is Mr. Kiely's grasp of the world. It is a gentle and sensitive grasp. The real flavor of his voice is in its rich idiom, its love of accurate words, and in the sheer fun of perception…. (p. 38)

[In his introduction] Mr. Flanagan [see excerpt above] compares Mr. Kiely to Faulkner, and with good reason. The comparison nevertheless seems partly wrong. Faulkner's vision, for all his sense of the comic, is essentially tragic. Mr. Kiely's vision, for all his sense of the tragic, is essentially comic. Which is to say that Faulkner was unforgiving and (his gentlemanly idealism aside) darkly pessimistic. Mr. Kiely, existing in a complex of culture deeper and richer than Faulkner's, has not needed to take the whole world on his shoulders. That burden is a writer's: a Dante's, a Joyce's, a Faulkner's burden. The storyteller must find the universal in the particular, in the local. Mr. Kiely is a contemporary of Flann O'Brien and Samuel Beckett. Faulkner's business was to trace the parabola through time of an injustice which he could only contemplate with grief. Mr. Kiely's business is to tell us that the I.R.A. punk disguised in a gas-mask can still be identified by his feet, the set and walk of which are just like his father's and his grandfather's, as all the county can recognize. Comedy, an exact art, thrives on detail. (pp. 38-9)

Guy Davenport, "An Irish Story Teller," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 16, 1980, pp. 1, 37-9.

Robert Tracy

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In the best sense of the word, Kiely is a local writer—that is, a writer who knows and loves a particular place and realizes that the life of that place can represent and clarify a larger world….

Kiely makes this affectionate commitment to place the center of story after story [in "The State of Ireland"], and his fiercest anger is reserved for those who violate it….

Remembered songs and poems echo through many of these stories. Often the crude work of amateur poets, they testify to a continual effort to articulate a love of place, and so reinforce Kiely's major theme.

So it is not surprising that Kiely's best portraits are of people who combine an intense love for place with a knowledge of its traditions—the old folklore collector in "The Heroes in the Dark House," and the returned American who remembers ancestral custom in "The Dogs in the Great Glen."…

Kiely's nostalgic affection does not blind him to the long-maintained barriers that divide his land. But he is concerned to urge at least the possibility of civility, of polity, or community, of a shared rather than a rival love for the land and its traditions.

Robert Tracy, "Deft Storyteller Captures Northern Ireland Aura" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 1981, p. 17.




Kiely, Benedict (Short Story Criticism)