Benedict Kiely Kiely, Benedict (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

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

Raid into Dark Corners and Other Essays (essays) 1999

Waves behind Us (memoir) 1999

*This collection includes the novella Proxopera

Grace Eckley (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 municipal decoration. The trams moved with a heave and a great effort. The moving trolleys set the paper burning and falling. Andrew laughed along with Belfast.2

It is his ability to catch the spirit of the trivial as well as of the great which yields sentiment, in itself a somewhat necessary quality; and Kiely's stories indicate that he considers poetic prose a necessary quality of good writing.

Kiely frequently constructs his short stories, seventeen of which have been collected in the volume A Journey to the Seven Streams, on an episode recalled or on an idea illuminated by a bit of conversation. The stories are very colorful, and they are narrated with a humorous restraint which, perhaps, develops naturally from the Irish tendency of understatement. Frequently, understatement means that obvious connections are omitted, as in this example from “The White Wild Bronco”:

“He has good blood in him,” Tansey said. “I'll try him in a trap.”

Some of the fragments of the trap, they say, were found fifty yards away. …


Another stylistic device, the sentence fragment, also aids brevity and compression, but it appears most frequently in the earlier stories. At the beginning of a paragraph, it clarifies a situation and marks the passage of time. “A whole tortured fortnight,” for example, appears as a sentence after a lapse of time indicated by a space to mark the accumulating doubts and unresting dismay of a woman in love. Individuality of style includes, also, a tendency to mix adjectives, prepositional phrases, and participles in sequence: “Edmund, of an age with myself, bright brown eyes darting upwards from under a low fringe of curly hair that would never lie back straight as he wanted it to do, did try to talk.”3

In subject matter, Kiely draws the short stories mostly from his North Ireland background, and most frequently he uses the name of Ballyclogher for his fictional Omagh. Other names which reappear are Jack MacGowan for a theatrically inclined friend and Gormley, his mother's family name, for farm or quarry. He allows tales of military exploits to hover in the background, not because of revolution, but because of his father, as in “Wild Rover No More”; and he treats thematically the military life that he has known from residence in a garrison town. His love of poetry, especially of ballads, appears in several places when appropriate lines, usually without quotation marks and in prose rather than verse form, fill a paragraph. In all stories, sympathy, gentle humor, and understanding mark the Kiely treatment of all types of people. To appreciate his versatility, one should contrast the sentimental vignette “The Little Wrens and Robins” with the poignant, bawdy, humorous story “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly.”


The earliest of Kiely's short fiction, “The King's Shilling,”4 was first intended to demonstrate the loveliness of the Strule Valley in the hay-cutting season; by the time of its publication, however, Kiely had edited it carefully and had minimized details of setting to let plot and character predominate. In the narrative, the escape of young Mickey Given from the British army, where he had been lured by huge recruitment posters and where he had quickly experienced disillusionment and homesickness, catapults him into a series of adventures. While seeking shelter from both military and civilian police, he is torn between the North Ireland people's alternate sympathy and hostility. To take the king's shilling means to join the British army. In the end, the daughter of the returned American for whom he had worked places in the hand of a British captain a shilling for which she pretends to buy Mickey's freedom; the captain, newly aglow and magnanimous in his successful courting of the girl, helps Mickey across the border. Kiely has not made Mickey an antihero in the sense of a person who merely accepts rather than directs his fate. Though a deserter, Mickey quickly uses his fists and his heavy military boots to beat his adversaries' flesh into unsightly bruises and swellings; he risks his stolen freedom to win a bicycle race from the local policeman champion; and, except for loyalty to an Irish lass, at times he seems destined to win the love of the American's daughter.

The lure of far places also characterizes Awkward John, the milkman, in “Soldier, Red Soldier,”5 which is dedicated to Padraic Colum, “whose poem provided the title.” The villain of the story, Sergeant Cooper, has cooperated with the schoolmasters to teach small boys the rigors of the barracks gymnasium; and all male members of the community share a dread of him. But, in mistreating Awkward John, his most docile and least wily recruit, Sergeant Cooper eventually causes his own embarrassment and loses his wife to a lover. The fleetest British soldier cannot outstrip Awkward John, who jumps ditches, bogs, and flax dams and leaves the pursuing sergeant floating in the stench of retting flax. The army's strict regimentation, which uses the sergeant's only talent, never parallels the town's easy, relaxed, humor; the sergeant's loss of dignity and of wife occurs because the army does not recognize those differences. “‘What else could you expect,’ said Yellow Willy, ‘if you let the like of Awkward John into the army.’”


In treating love as a theme, Kiely uses the North Ireland and Dublin settings with varying results. He has personally conducted many visitors on the tour described in “Rich and Rare Were the Gems She Wore,”6 a title also taken from a familiar ballad; and his acquaintance with the clergy enables him to write with ease and compassion the beautiful and funny story “A Great God's Angel Standing.”7

Pride occasions the disappointment of the two heroines of “Rich and Rare Were the Gems She Wore” and “The Bright Graves”:8 pride in being a “nice girl” for Fanny in the first story, and pride in choosing a man of refinement for Elizabeth in the second one. Asked to show an American major around the city of Dublin on the eve of his departure for battle, Fanny, conducting him on a historical tour of Dublin—the Nelson Pillar, the Book of Kells, the National Library of James Joyce fame, and Howth Head—finds him charming but with effort keeps herself primly proper, recoils in shock when he presses his hotel-room key into her hand, loses the conquest to an unworthy streetwalker, and ends in doubt and confusion about the virtue of virtue.

Elizabeth of “The Bright Graves”—bright because the Irish graves are covered with gleaming white gravel—spends much of her time kneeling over the grave of a rejected lover, rejected because he was a little too big and noisy, though not uncouth. He died by accident shortly after her refusal to marry him. Kneeling by an opposite grave, another man attracts her attention; she creates an unfounded fantasy about his mourning a cherished wife only to learn, when the man's language becomes coarse and vehement, that the grave shelters the body of a despised sister. Unable to reconcile imagined ideals with crass reality, and feeling herself kissed in indecorous, angry defiance of the dead sister, Elizabeth rejects the second suitor. She returns to daydreaming about her experiences with the first big man; only in daydreams can she fortify herself against the merely human.

If “The Bright Graves” indicates a reason for spinsterhood, “Ten Pretty Girls”9 offers an explanation of bachelorhood. Andrew Fox returns from a visit to Belfast with a story of having met exactly ten desirable young beauties and having lost all of them. The exigencies of city travel which require changing buses and trains while protecting women and staying near a boxed champion greyhound (the pride and mark of a rural man) certainly confirm his bachelorhood, though afterwards he yearns for the lost opportunities.

In the “Enchanted Palace,”10 literally a local cinema, Jack MacGowan and his friend observe romance on three levels: a film version of the Cupid and Psyche story in which a shattered war-torn hero and an ugly girl fall in love; a real romance brewing between Hughie, new from the country and for the first time in a theater, and Bridget, a town girl who shows him how the theater seat works; and a romance repulsed by Katy, a quiet and wealthy local prostitute who is approached in the darkness by a hunchback. When last seen, Katy is driving milk cows on her father's farm, having removed herself from all approaches. The ugliness of the warped body can be overlooked, even miraculously transformed by love, only when there is a corresponding beauty of soul.

In “A Great God's Angel Standing” Kiely uses an incident he witnessed when a madman confessed his sins to a black-suited layman of doubtful repute. Also, Kiely possesses a small volume of love poetry, beautifully bound and engraved and inscribed by a young woman to a priest. For some time, he meditated the mystery behind the gift of love poetry to a celibate priest and then wrote it into the story of a character he calls Pascal Stakelum, and whom he makes a notorious rural rake. An inseparable, though unlikely, companion of the gentle, serene Father Paul, who is chaste in thought and action, Pascal lives the antithesis of all that Father Paul stands for—except when a madman mistakes Pascal for a priest. Then Pascal, culling from forgotten childhood the proper words and from observation of Father Paul the proper gestures, so reverently completes the ceremony that he subdues into silence the once-jeering keeper of the mental hospital. While making the rounds of the hospital with Father Paul, Pascal arranges a rendezvous with a nurse. After Paul dies, Pascal as narrator tells the story of Paul's gift to him of a book of love poetry by William Morris inscribed to Paul with love by a girl in Virginia. In one poem, a great god's angel standing by a bed holds a blue cloth for hell and a red cloth for heaven. Pascal ponders the mixing of the symbolism at the same time that he ponders the mystery of the chaste Father Paul's lost love.

In “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly,”11 Kiely blends two favorite themes: the literary and historic past of his country, and the literary-minded character who quotes poetry to unappreciative and uninformed acquaintances. A very moving portrait of the silver-haired Yeats and an observed meeting of him and the elderly Maud Gonne inspires in pinched and celibate Pike Hunter the desire to regard one of Dublin's geisha girls called Madame Butterfly as the incarnation of ideal feminine love and beauty. Usurping her time from other customers while paying her irregularly for her time because he wants their relationship to be poetic rather than mercenary, Pike soon quarrels with, and loses, his Madame Butterfly. When the keeper of the Dark Cow passes on, the fatherly fireman Austin McDonnell tells Butterfly the story of Lord Nelson, now on a pillar, who took for mistress a “slavey” [servant girl] who became his Lady Emma Hamilton. Ironically, Butterfly, inspired by the romance, rises to respectable marriage with a docker; the poetic Pike Hunter, having loved and lost, descends into lonely alcoholism. A delightfully humorous, somewhat bawdy story, it honors both the Maupassant and operatic influences suggested by its title.


A genuine love of books motivates a writer to take one of two positions: veneration of books and authors or harassment of those who misuse either for self-aggrandizement.

In “The Heroes in the Dark House,”12 the heroes of Irish folk tales are written about by an old scholar named Arthur Broderick, who, in the progress of the story, proves himself a hero of a special kind. Because of his own love of the stories themselves, he has nine times sent them away for printing and nine times had them rejected and returned. For a few brief days he labored over them with footnotes to augment the understanding of the garrisoned United States Army whose young men could read them in pamphlets. Then one morning, before publication, he awoke to find that the army's orders had been changed; they had vanished “like snow off a ditch.” Learning, by way of a newspaper, that a young scholar who had visited him—had shared the heavy tobacco smoke in his dark home, had received his hospitality, and had gone on his way—had appropriated the stories and published them under his own name, Broderick passes through the town, communing with the sights and the people. “No young man can steal from you what you want to give away,” a familiar statue seems to speak to him. In the midst of what would have been a crushing blow to most authors, Broderick's gentle humor and sympathy come...

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Daniel J. Casey (essay date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Julian Moynahan (review date 29 November 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Robert L. King (review date 27 March 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Benedict Kiely and Jennifer Clarke (interview date spring 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

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Joan Trodden Keefe (review date autumn 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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Thomas B. O'Grady (essay date summer 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

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