It is a commonplace of Irish literary history to note the lean and hungry years of the immediate postwar period. In particular, hardly anything of note is thought to have happened to the Irish novel in the 1950’s. Like all critical generalizations, this view of Irish fiction obscures much with its modicum of truth. Benedict Kiely, for one, is an exception to the rule, and the work which he produced during the dull decade (of which The Captain with the Whiskers, his seventh novel, is a fine example) helped to keep alive certain constants in the Irish novel, and in particular the Ulster novel, at a time when both were ailing.
The constants in question do not belong only to the Irish and Ulster novels: They are very much part of Kiely’s own artistic stock in trade. Among them might be noted, first, a devotion to the Bildungsroman, the novel of growth through experience which is Romanticism’s major contribution to the development of the novel form. It is difficult to think of a Kiely (or an Irish) novel which does not owe something to this important genre. Kiely gives the genre a characteristically personal twist in The Captain with the Whiskers by treating the theme of growth in the light of experience as a thoroughly problematic one.
The Captain with the Whiskers also expresses the love of place which is typical of Kiely’s work and which is also a staple of Ulster fiction. Not the least of Captain Chesney’s crimes against humanity is that his ruined heirs unwittingly despoil their native hearth and heath. As though to underline the precious quality of man’s relations with nature, the novel quotes liberally from the ballads and tales of folk memory, which is also typical of Kiely’s narrative strategy.
The political turmoil which has beset Kiely’s native province of Ulster since 1968 has had the effect of earning for his work a wider audience than it hitherto possessed. The Captain with the Whiskers, apart from its numerous incidental pleasures of pace, tone, and its rather broadly conceived theme, is a worthwhile introduction to the world and vision of one of contemporary Ireland’s most noted novelists.