Benedict Kiely Kiely, Benedict (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 Enjoy the Morning. The artist of the last novel has no need to defend Catholicism, though he writes of...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tom Paulin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

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Thomas Flanagan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Terence Winch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Guy Davenport

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Robert Tracy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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