Benedict Kiely 1919-
Irish short fiction writer, novelist, essayist, children's author, and memoirist.
The following entry provides information on Kiely's short fiction career from 1972 through 1991.
Kiely is noted for his lyrical, descriptive stories that evoke the people, mythology, traditions, and rural landscapes of his native Ireland. He is regarded as a storyteller in the tradition of the Gaelic seanachie, a teller of tales and oral historian. Critics often praise the humorous and expressive nature of Kiely's short fiction and compare his work to that of other contemporary Irish writers, such as Sean O'Faolain, Liam O'Flaherty, and Frank O'Connor.
Kiely was born on August 15, 1919, in Dromore, Country Tyrone, Northern Ireland. He grew up in nearby Omagh and graduated from the Christian Brothers School. Kiely grew up Catholic in Northern Ireland, which provided background and material for his later fiction. In 1937 he entered a Jesuit order, only to leave the next year on account of a debilitating back injury that required immediate hospitalization. After Kiely was released from the hospital in 1939, he entered University College, Dublin. There he received his bachelor's degree in 1943. Kiely began his journalistic career in 1939, writing for several Irish newspapers and periodicals. His first nonfiction book, Counties of Contention: A Study of Irish Partition, was published in 1945. Kiely's novel, Land without Stars, was published the next year. In the late 1960s he taught creative writing at several American universities. Kiely returned to Dublin in 1968, where he continued his journalistic career. In addition, he served as president of the Irish Academy of Letters. Kiely has also made numerous radio and television appearances and teaches at the School of Irish Studies.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Many of Kiely's stories initially appeared in the New Yorker and were subsequently published in short fiction collections. Several of his short stories are drawn from his Northern Ireland background and strive to evoke the rhythms of his native land. For instance, “Down Then by Derry” chronicles the return of an elderly journalist to his childhood home of Omagh. He reminisces about the area during his youth, when there was no religious and civil conflict. In “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly,” a lonely man, Pike Hunter, is inspired by a portrait of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats and his muse Maud Gonne to court a Dublin prostitute known as Madame Butterfly. His constant romantic attention disrupts her work. Eventually she marries a dockworker, and he declines into alcoholism. “A Journey to the Seven Streams” describes the humorous, often poignant attempt of a middle-aged parent to show his children his childhood village. His running commentary on the characters and stories of his youth are interrupted by the imminent and humorous breakdown of the family's automobile. In “Mock Battle,” Kiely utilizes a mock staging of the Battle of the Boyne as a foil for the story of a failing marriage.
Critics have situated Kiely's work within the context of the Irish short story tradition. Stylistically, reviewers note his unique narrative style, especially his utilization of such stylistic devices as sentence fragments and poetic inversions. Although most critics have lauded the gentle humor of Kiely's short fiction, others have deemed his stories as too sentimental and contrived and his characters as stereotypical. Yet some reviewers maintain that Kiely's later stories exhibit a marked stylistic development. The autobiographical aspects of his fiction are another area of critical discussion, as many commentators assert that his stories are often based on people and settings from his own life. A few scholars have investigated the influence of the Irish author William Carleton on Kiely's work.