Bruce Stewart, review of Benedict Kiely, A Raid into Dark Corners and Other Essays (Cork UP 1999).

Bibliographical note: The following review was commissioned by and supplied to the editor of the Irish Literary Supplement (Boston College, Irish Studies Center) in 2000. Presumably on account of its critical attitude towards some aspects of that collection it went unpublished especially as regards the affection understandably felt towards the Kiely in the year of his 80th anniversary. I include it here if as a complement to the conspicuously more appreciative judicious commentary by John Wilson Foster entitled ‘Revisitations: Criticism and Benedict Kiely’ - extensive extracts from which appear under Commentary on the Kiely page of this website and the RICORSO Library of “Irish Literary Classics” [ as attached]

In 1996 the American Irish Historical Society’s Reporter marked Benedict Kiely’s 75th birthday with a special issue containing tributes from a list of writers and critics of such distinction that the recipient might well congratulate himself according to the Yeatsian prescription. Late last year, when RTÉ carved the next significant notch on his walking-cane, John Montague attested to the integrity of the man in asserting that the honeyed Ulster brogue to be met with in the stories, literary journalism, broadcasts, seminars and seisúns is a sort of constant moral voice: what you hear is what you get with Ben Kiely. In so saying Montague identified a law that equally applies to the critical essays in this collection - issued on the same occasion. A conversational tone informs many of these pieces, among which commentaries on Sylvester Mahony (“Fr Prout”), Gerald Griffin, Charles Kickham, Canon Sheehan, James Stephens, Liam O’Flaherty, Kate O’Brien, Sean O’Faolain, Francis MacManus, as well as J. J. Campbell, Shan Bullock, Brendan Behan, Patrick Boyle, Seamus Heaney, John Montague, Thomas Flanagan and - somewhat anomalously until one reflects on the history of the Irish press - that Jack of all literary trades, the novelist-journalist-commentator and art-critic Bruce Arnold.

In addition, there is an appraisal of the socio-historical world inhabited in common by Maria Edgeworth, Somerville & Ross and Elizabeth Bowen (“The Great Gazebo”), a lively meditation on “Dialect and Literature”, and a minor classic entitled “The Whores on the Half-Doors” in which Kiely takes the measure of Irish literary life in Irish 1940s when he and other writers endured assault and battery at the hands of Professor William Magennis of the Censorship Board and the clerical powers arrayed behind him. Originally dating from 1966, the last-named essay was previously reprinted in Conor Cruise O’Brien Introduces Ireland in 1969 and now appears with some additions, while others appeared at dates between the 1946 and the present in such journals as The Capuchin Annual, The Irish Bookman, The Hollins Critic, The Kilkenny Magazine, and The Irish Times - though these too show signs of revisitation either for purposes of the present compilation or, certain instances, at some intermediate point (or both). The precise history of publication in many such instances is only lightly suggested by the bibliographical appendix to the book itself.

Quite conspicuously, for the Irish studies student, there are no essays here on W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, or Samuel Beckett and, to that extent, it falls short of a concerted guide to modern Irish literature; yet - perhaps by reason of these sins of omission as much as anything - it greatly fortifies Kiely’s position as the foremost living exemplar of the regionalist tradition in Irish letters. If that is perhaps too arch a way of saying that his interest is in the rural and even the parochial Irish writers more than in the metropolitan and cosmopolitan, it also points to the fact that Kiely and Beckett are oil and water; and, if a road leads back from Beckett to the kind of anecdotal Irish writing that Kiely excels in, no path leads forward from Kiely to Beckett other than the via negativa of sheer contradictory mood and method, intellect and interest. Benedict Kiely stands within a national literary tradition, Sam Beckett au contraire.

Notwithstanding that demur - which must put any modernist off Kiely if he was not already alienated by the ‘honeyed brogue’ and all that it implies in terms of sentimental nuance - several of the pieces here are indispensable for serious students of Irish writing equally on account of the quality of readings driven by the twin engines of anecdote and intuition, and because they supply both conscious and unconscious illustrations of the workings of the regionalist mind and its habitual ideological counterpart, literary nationalism.

Oddly enough, considering that Kiely is the acknowledged authority on that novelist, there is no single chapter on William Carleton here, though recurrent allusions to him throughout the book serve to illustrate the argument, or even to dictate the train of thought. Kiely knows his Carleton inside out as his masterful study The Poor Scholar demonstrated in 1947. Following that work, indeed, Kiely produced the what was virtually the first extended account of Irish literary history to be written, and certainly the first (and for a considerable time the last) to sketch in the minor writers who populate twentieth-century Irish writing. Here, in pointing to the literary predicament of nineteenth-century Irish writers, Kiely writes: ‘It must [...] be remembered that earlier Irish novelists writing in English struggled to some extent under the shadow of Walter Scott who, in his turn, claimed to have drawn inspiration from Maria Edgeworth.’ It was of course Carleton who first made mention of this matter in an extended ‘Portrait’ of John Banim (The Nation, 23 Nov. 1843) where he lamented the suppression of ‘an originality of manner much more Irish and national’ evinced in The Fetches (1825) for a pale conformity with the example of the British novelist afterwards. It is worth noting that, since the submergence of Banim - initially a regionalist - in the mass of British historical fiction with The Boyne Water (1826) was one of the down-turns of nineteenth-century Irish literature which Kiely properly laments.

Examining Carleton by the same light, Kiely offers this formulation of the matter:

William Carleton, when he wrote a book, not a very good one, about Redmond Count O’Hanlon, was very conscious that he was putting himself into invidious comparison with the Wizard of the North.

—that is, Sir Walter Scott—

But Carleton liberated himself from the shadow when he kept his eyes steadily on his own people; and when he adopted, as he easily did, the method and style of a Seanachie. (p.116.)

Now, the ‘method of a Seanachie’ is, of course, very much the one adopted by Ben Kiely in his own writings, albeit mixed with styles more familiar to readers on the New Yorker than the denizens of the chimney-corner à la Alexander Irvine. It stands to reason that the accents and inflections of the seanachie are those of a regional literature even if, in theory, it eludes that designation by being - or claiming to be - autochtonous, or ‘racy of the soil’ - which is what, ad nauseam, that kind of Irish writing inveterately claimed to be from Carleton onward. At the same time those very accents have been raised by the best of Irish writing (viz., Synge) to the level of a national literature and even, where the audience is available, an international - or, at least, a transatlantic - one. That, in very brief is the inner history of the Irish literary revival, whereas only the cosmopolitans among modern Irish writers writers resolutely abandon the speaking voice of the community story-teller, with its hob-nobbing methods of narration and its frequently hob-nailed narrative concerns.

Indeed, a common feature of those writers about whom Kiely writes best is their share in sentiment of the Irish people in the highly politicised and mainly demotic sense which is characterised in practice by an adherence to what Kiely calls in one place ‘the Irish speech’ - a possibly too definite conception of the range of idiomatic features now generally known as Hiberno-English.

It may be worth a digression to reflect here that Provo-speak in An Phoblacht and elsewhere invariably refers to ‘the Irish culture’ in a similarly hypostatic way - usually in conjunction with the charge that the English have wilfully deprived us of that quantity in the course of colonial repression. Now close Kiely stands to this orthodoxy is difficult to measure; certainly he has some share in it, but equally he celebrates the coming-into-existence of the distinctive medium of Hiberno-English in which he writes his longer and shorter fiction. Though herein lies a treacherous anomaly inasmuch as the early Kiely of Counties of Contention (1945) seemed quite willing to stake all, culturally-speaking, on the cause of a united Ireland while the author of Proxopera (1977) and many of these essays, in which the real savagery of the militant republicans is unambiguously made known, opts for a form of civility which is not, it seems, crucially associated with Irishness - nor, indeed, Catholicism - but might be met with in any decent law-abiding community such as, for instance, the citizens of the United Kingdom.

It now appears, for certain, that the method of the seanachie is not the one adopted by the major Irish writers of this century - not even by such a writer as Colum McCann who looks to Ben Kiely with something like filial adoration; yet the method of the Irish story-teller in his rural manifestation is certainly the one espoused by Kiely, both as an author and a broadcaster. It is hardly surprising to find that it applies to his critical writings also for he is not, on any showing, a man capable or willing to write with two voices. Urbanity is not what he is so well loved for by the loyal audience of RTE's Sunday Miscellany where he made innumerable appearances and where, in effect, his 'honeyed brogue' became synonymous with the idea of Ireland talking to herself, out loud, on radio. (Why did he not, then, attempt radio plays, or plays of any description? Perhaps the essentially dialoguic quality of drama is contrary to the springs of his inspiration.)

Benedict Kiely was an exponent of the ‘sense of place’ avant le mot - allowing that that epithet became an umbrella term for Irish writing with the delivery of Seamus Heaney's famous lecture of that title at the Belfast Museum in 1977. (It would be a simple, if ultimately numbing, task for any cultural historian to trace its growing popularity over the decades 1980-2000, before it finally subsided - as all such definitions must - in a morass of intellectual boredom and cultural embarrassment.) The obvious technical correlate of the sense of place is the voice of the story-teller, speaking not as an individual but as one man to others in a presuppositional community of minds - essentially the voice of local patriotism adhering to a local place - small as a parish or wide as a nation - and to the values that reside therein. The result of Kiely's exploitation of this ethos is a sort of hermeneutic loop inasmuch as his voice has become a sort of touchstone for a shared sentiment of Irishness, the identitarian property of the plain people of Ireland - a phrase which finds its locus classicus in the 1916 Proclamation. Censorious as he may have been about the bad behaviour of latter-day Republicans, Benedict Kiely was emphatically in favour of the ‘chivalrous’ nationalism of their historical role-models.

The trouble with that idea of the Irish democary is that it fails to reflect the actual demography of now-a-days Ireland, still less its changing constitutional character in the post-Maastricht and post-Belfast Agreement world that we now inhabit. Instead it refers to the Catholic and predominantly rural community which subsisted outside the pale of bourgeois culture until the most recent times; and, in such a context, Ben Kiely begins to look more like a rearguard resistance to the bourgeoisification of Ireland - for better or worse - than a benign and somewhat sacredotal dispenser of national verities of a down-home variety. (In Irish tradition, the roles of the parish priest and the pot-poet are somewhat conflated, as the punning term ‘curate’ used to describe the dispensing barman clearly indicates. I say ‘for better or worse’ because embourgeoisment, in Ireland and elsewhere, is coextensive with the rise of individualism but often synonymous with a new conformity and a certain form of global heartlessness known only in polite communities, so very different from the face-to-face brutalities of rural life and especially the secret societies which, from time to time, beat a drum for ostracism and murder in the counties of Ireland.

In the sense that Kiely uses the term, some Irish writers are decidedly more Irish than others, in proportion as they are more in touch with the communal sympathies of the ‘Irish people’ - a popular formation the identify of which he supposes himself to know. And since it is just such a formation which holds the intellectual rights, as it were, to the Irish nation, he is indisputably entitled to make just such a claim. The trouble is that it is not necessarily the best claim that can be made on the part of either the population at large or the literary practitioners of Ireland. Where Kiely speaks expressly of the people (aka ‘the Irish people’) he adopts a curiously forensic tone - as when he speaks of Charles Kickham in an essay from which I have already quoted his remarks on Carleton: ‘I submit he [Kickham] knew his people for now as well as for his own time.’

This entails several definite and less-definite propositions equally about the two sides of the epistemological equation: the writer (Kickham) and ‘his people’ - the inhabitants of rural Ireland for whom he became a sort of sentimental laureate. In the first place, it supposes the existence of a continuous, even unchanging form of social identity attaching to those people - or rather that people, since it can only be an unitary thing for such a statement to make sense at all. It is unitary in the sense that Benedict Anderson invokes when he speaks of an ‘imagined community’ that takes upon itself the idea of unity both in time and space such that any two persons living in different geographical locations and different periods of history can conceive of themselves as belong to the same entity: a nation.

Everything that Irish literary historians write, insofar as they are historians of the Irish nation, however conceived, pays duty to this idea. It is proper to their profession to do so: without the idea of a national literature, criticism is, so to speak self-corrosive: it rapidly attains the condition of metacriticism and dissolves in epistemological conundrums. Given the recent date of the prevailing political settlement upon which modern Irish society is founded, it is natural that the majority of writers should also pay duty to this idea - but it is not necessarily an idea that makes for the best literature nor, indeed, the best criticism.

Kiely is aware of this, and though he urgently wants to sound the nationalist trumpet, he also wants to prove himself cognisant of the complexity of the matter. Thus he hedges the bald assertion that Kickham's people is still our people (‘then’ and ‘now’) with qualifications of one kind and another. First, he qualifies it by admitting the quasi-religious perspective involved in such an assertion: ‘Any consideration of Kickham as a writer’, he tells us, ‘must inevitably be influenced by his nobility as a man and by the fact, too, that he is a national piety’. In other words, Kickham has been canonised in the eyes of his own people; and this makes his importance such that the ordinary tools of literary criticism have diminished bearing on him.

Yet Kiely is writing in a context where literary criticism matters more than ‘national piety’ and one, indeed, in which a certain form of virtually dogmatic liberalism holds sway as the dominant form of Anglo-American criticism - or held sway until the latest era, which most younger academics now inhabit, when ‘deconstruction’ and ‘death of the author’ saw the romantic expression of nationhood off the stage or, more precisely, branded it a bourgeois fabrication and part of the illusionism of the capitalist-imperialist hegemony. In Kiely's hey-day, however, matters stood differently and the problem was to assert the particularity of Irish literature while arguing that the best Irish writing was equal to the best writing anywhere - and even, sometimes, arguing that Irish writing was the best anywhere because it was generated by specifically Irish conditions. (Beckett contributed to this game when he said that ‘the British and the Bishops buggered us into literature.’) It is like playing cards under two sets of rules, or rather, with two different suits as trumps. Of Kickham, again:

He who is still, I should hope and trust, so close to the heart of his people, observed and understood them with all the exactitude of the ideal Jamesian novelist, on whom nothing is lost. (p.111.)

In this way, a ‘national piety’ becomes a fit vehicle for humanist exactitudes - an unlikely outcome, and frankly a barely credible one.

The amalgam is further complicated by the fact that Kickham attains the status of humanist novelist by abstaining from overt political enthusiasms while at the same time covertly sharing in a lineage of ideas that unites James Fintan Lalor, Michael Davitt and James Connolly. Thus, according to Kiely’s argument, Kickham’s standing as a Jamesian novelist who sees things steady and sees them whole is really the means by which he fulfils his character as a truly national writer. ‘Surely’, Kiely urges, ‘the point is that Kickham was not writing Knocknagow as the revolutionary and political propagandist that he was but as the novelist that he also was.’ Yet - and here comes the vital qualification - if ‘[h]e wasn’t James Connolly, Michael Davitt or Fintan Lalor’ he was still ‘aware of much that was and was to be important to them.’ Which is tantamount to saying that he really was at one with these personages in his social and political outlook and hence, according to the terms of the argument, a true national Irishman in his imaginative sympathies. Whether the rural idyll of the strumming landlord in his novel is therefore a propagandist plea for cross-class harmony in land-war Ireland or a Tolstoyan moment in the Irish national novel is unresolved in this discussion. In either case, it little resembles the outlook of the three political philosophers whom Kiely cites, in whatever order their ideas and activities are preferred.

It has been widely recognised that since the appearance of Proxopera (1977) - pointedly subtitled ‘a tale of modern Ireland’ - Kiely sets his face against the men of violence whose genocidal campaign in the border counties struck him as a tragic and disgusting degradation of the chivalrous ideals of the 1916 Rising. Likewise, he is very much aware what inhuman traces uncritical political passions have left on Irish life in earlier periods: the examples of crazed ribbonism depicted in Carleton’s “Wild Goose Lodge” and Michael Banim’s Crohoore of the Billhook are both expressly cited in this collection. It is important for him to add, therefore, that Kickham’s sympathies with the Irish people were not at all uncritical though we are left to guess exactly what aberrations he is held to have despised:

As a novelist, his concern was to write it down as it was, to record the people he knew and their social usages. Which does not mean that he accepted those social usages, any more than he approved of all the people. Although, indeed, his natural sympathies were very wide. (p.117.)

What Kiely is getting at here may be illustrated by comparable remarks on Francis MacManus, a novelist and friend in whom he finds very much the same affective orientation towards the mass of Irishmen and women as in Charles Kickham:

McManus accepted his people without any reservation; without the nationalst enthusiasm, that, for Daniel Corkery, could transform louts into mystics, without O’Faolain’s stipulation that the people would be more acceptable if they were more continental. MacManus took them as he found them, and if it is clear that ... he found them with charity blossoming in their souls, it is equally clear that ... he found them as mean as dirt, as means as the dirt of the land-hungry and the worldly-wise can pride themselves on possessing. (p.102.)

This involves, of course, a condensed account of Irish land-tenure history and with it a mitigation of the narrow outlook of modern Irish land-owners - that is, descendants of former tenants. Centrally it postulates an imaginative bond between the writer and the community which Kiely seems intent on treating as a touchstone for literary rectitude. Back to Carleton, then fast-forward to other Irish writers in a synoptic view of modern Irish literature, viewed from the popular standpoint:

William Carleton accepted his own people at the price of a dozen denials that, in his worst writing completely separated him from his own people. James Joyce denied them horse, foot, artillery, and then experienced and defined the agony of the man who has torn up everything except the roots of his own soul. (p.101)

The inappositeness of those remarks on Joyce enduring the agonies of the Garden of Gethesemane in Zurich or in Paris sufficiently explains why Kiely has done well to avoid a frontal approach to Ulysses. There is more in this prescriptive vein:

Sean O’Faolain’s [...] formula for acceptance made allowance for the way a castaway feels about his coral island; while Frank O’Connor could be as outrageously at home with his people as a country parish-priest skelping the courting couples out of the hedges. That was one of the ironies of Ireland and of Irish fiction at that time; and of Frank O’Connor.

The emotional bedrock of this set of comparisons becomes apparent at little after where Kiely speaks of ‘the hard racial memories that can draw the generations together and squeeze blood through the pores’. Whose pores, though?

In his foreword to the collection, John Montague recalls Kiely’s horror at learning that the innocent descendants of his favourite Fermanagh novelist, Shan Bullock, were gunned down in old age by IRA assassins who crossed the canal and invaded their isolated farmhouse near Lough Erne. (The present writer visited that house with a family member in the 1980s and felt the horror and stupidity of that crime also.) Repugnance against such atrocities has naturally been widespread and extends deep into the nationalist community. When, for instance, the bomb went off in Omagh recently, Seamus Mallon spontaneously told the TV news-crew that it was the result of ‘sheer, bloody atavism’ and that, of course, is another term for ‘hard racial memories’. Although we must obviously be guarded in our use of such seemingly-ethnological terms, it would be misguided to deny that ‘racial memory’ of the kind in question marks the site of a real historical trauma and a real pyschological disturbance. It would be equally misguided to identify Benedict Kiely with the very forces against which he has spoken out so courageously.

At the same time, the proximity between pacific nationalism and physical-force nationalism is a such that slippage from one into the other is no uncommon thing and it is not surprising that his position has been interrogated by those for whom the chivalries of Irish nationalism are less an essential feature of the emotional diet than for men of his age, class, and cultural tradition. For these the method of the seanachie is so much persiflage designed to wrap dysfunctional forms of social and political culture in swathes of sentimental reminiscence, sometimes softening but equally often nurturing vicious retaliatory impulses. Thus, in reviewing his autobiographical volume Drink to the Bird (1992) for the Times Literary Supplement, Patricia Craig has spoken of the ‘blurred edges’ of an ‘ebullient Irishness designed to take us in’ while giving ‘hardly anything away, neither his attitude towards his upbringing nor the reasons for his espousal and renunciation of the priesthood’, and rather more pointed comments as regards the psycho-sexual record of the Christian Brothers. From this standpoint, Kiely’s ‘celebratory cast of mind’ can seem like ‘a way of being self-effacing’ and therefore an evasion of the inherently contradictory nature of his belief that the ‘old style nationalism’ had ‘nothing to do with blowing the legs off girls in coffee bars’ - to quote a sentence from his novel Nothing Happens in Carmincross (1985).

The link between nationalism and literature has been a persistent theme of Kiely’s critical writings from the outset. This is indeed a dangerous juncture and one that has elicited a good deal of heart-searching on the part of critics such as Conor Cruise O’Brien whom Kiely here commends for urbanity in a characteristically polite aside. Thirty five years ago, in the preface to Modern Irish Fiction: A Critique (1950), Kiely noted that ‘[t]he struggle for national independence and distinctiveness has coloured the whole development of Irish literature written in English, and the removal of the necessity for that struggle was bound to affect writers’. This was of course an allusion to the apparent success of the separatist movement as represented by the independent Irish state. Yet the sentence also reflects the author’s concern that without a national struggle there can perhaps be no national literature (to vary another Yeatsian prescription). Yet even amid disillusionment in the 1920s and after Irish writing continued to flourish work - much assisted by Edward Garnett and Jonathan Cape - and so Kiely was able to add, ‘[I]t is my hope that the following pages will at least show that the stories did not end when the struggle ended, and that the Irish prose fiction of the last thirty years ... opens a wide window into the soul of the people of this island.’ ( It was, of course, a good deal more natural to write about ‘soul’ in 1950 than today, at least in Ireland if not in European cosmopolitan centres. Yet it might be felt that ‘soul’ serves somewhat ambiguously in this sentence as a sort of metaphysical mandate for both the literature and the political struggle. That is all very well in the past tense; but what happens when the struggle is renewed?

In Drink to the Bird Kiely was moved to write: ‘One of the evil effects of the present horrors is that a man may feel guilty about singing even in privacy’. This need not be read as the confessions of a bathroom tenor; rather, it is a reflection of the effect of IRA activitism on the national reportoire of rebel rann and song: ‘The Provos and/or the conditions that produced them have even polluted the old songs’ (p.48). In something like the same vein, he writes in the new collection, ‘the part of the world I come from and the absurd political contrivance set up there by the British and history and ourselves in 1920 was falling or being blown to pieces’. That ‘history and ourselves’ plays an oddly inept variation on the theme associated with Joyce’s Celtic sympathiser Haines and though it sketches in a line of shared responsibility for political mess in the ‘counties of contention’ (to cite the title of his study of Partition published in 1946), it falls short of revoking the sentimental attitude towards patria and homeland which underpins his general theory of Irish literary fiction. What was blown to pieces by the modern troubles was not so much a political contrivance as ‘that hallowed place’ where Kiely had the ‘good fortune’ to be born. What is not, apparently, exploded is his cosy conviction that if the reader had ‘had the above-mentioned good fortune [he] would say with pardonable pride, “As an Omghaigh mé. [I am from Omey]’’ ( Drink, p.146). By an irony of the deepest complexion, Omagh was attacked by the Real IRA on Benedict Kiely’s birthday in August 1998.

A forthright appraisal of Kiely’s position as a literary critic has recently been seen in Gerry Smyth’s examination of ‘the construction of Irish literature’ under the title Decolonisation and Criticism (Pluto 1998). Here Kiely is roughly handled less on the point of sentimental nationalism than for his complicity in the Anglo-American attempt to promote liberal-humanism as the dominant cultural ethos of the post-War era, though actually a façade for anti-Marxian and neo-imperialist operations everywhere - or so I understand this writer. On this score, Ben Kiely was not as fast out of the blocks as Sean O’Faolain who betook himself to Harvard in 1926. Availing of the writer-in-residence culture that sprung up in a later period, Kiely reached Hollins College (Virginia) in 1964 before moving on to the University of Oregon. While at Hollins, he once read out Daniel Corkery’s story “The Ploughing of Leacea na Naomh” in response to a request for a chapel oration and arranged for Seán Ó Riada’s “Mise Éire” to be played on the organ after. Yet, if he was bringing Irish goods to America, he had been bringing American wares to Ireland for some time previously according to Smyth’s conception of the matter:

By the time he came to write Modern Irish Fiction [1950] Kiely had [...] learned [...] more of the techniques of the international critical trade and was now ready to compete with international critics on their own terms, speaking their language with their own accents.

To this Smyth adds sotto voce, ‘there is a sense of Kiely trying to get in first on what would soon be an incredibly fertile field of research’, though the theory that he attempted to outrun the mandarins of post-war literary criticism whose mandarin outlook brought them to consider such Irish Olympians as Yeats, Synge and and Joyce is hardly sustained by the contents-page of the new collection which offers no single chapter on any of these writers. Yet Smyth has a point: effecting a convergence between the claims of regionalism and those of international literature is not a simple matter and some unhappy sacrifices may be needed in the process. Hopes of turning Shan Bullock or Patrick Boyle into universally admired writers cannot, for instance, be very sanguine although both are rich in resonance for the regional and even the national reader. Whatever about the bitter-sweet of the writings themselves, pathos is the common note in the career of many such minor Irish writers. Moreover, neither of them feed the postcolonial mind with its usual staple of cultural hegemony and resistance leavened by nuggets of Bakhtinite dialogism and Babha-esque hybridity in any obvious sense. (For that concoction, Flann O’Brien is your only man.)

Gerry Smith is fairly representative of the ‘new voices’ in Irish criticism and it is surely the prevalence of such critics that has placed the publishers on their guard in issuing the present collection. The easier form of advocacy deployed to launch As I Rode Out by Granard Moat (1996), now seems superannuated - borrowing a meed of encomium from Brendan Kennelly: ‘Kiely is a great storyteller, a very gifted novelist, an extraordinary writer of short stories, and a very good broadcaster. He is a writer whose work has been consistent and abundant. [...] This man, together with John Millington Synge, is the best writer about places around Ireland that I have read.’ Though it is reasonably certain that Kennelly had Heaney’s ‘sense of place’ in mind when he penned the last sentence, it is hard to feel sure that has read Eric Newby, whose Irish places as viewed from the saddle of an all-weather bicycle are devoid of recognisable dinnschenchas.

This time out, Cork University Press has taken the peculiar step of informing us in an unattributed notice on the cover that Kiely’s ‘wisdom, insight and humanity recall the essays of the English critic V. S. Pritchett’, while throwing in the rider: ‘it should not be forgotten that Ben Kiely was writing certain of these essays in a social and political atmosphere that was far less warm-hearted than that faced by contemporaries abroad’. Less warm-hearted? More so, if anything. In his amiable forward to the collection, John Montague offers a similar excuse for garrulous tone of the essay which were manifestly written with an audience in mind hardly more discriminating on the literary plane than a fireside cat in a public house, if such an animal may be presumed to exist. Certainly, the literary equivalent of the community of like-minded souls gathered round Ned M'Keon's fire in Carleton's Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830) - an aborted story-cycle originally conceived as a Canterbury Tales or a Decameron - is the proper audience for the spare of literary nods and winks combined with journalistic nudges which give these essays their cosy tone. In the course of reviewing this collection someone will surely make the observation that they seem to have been composed for consumption in a literary snug.

Hence, in speaking of the early death of Gerald Griffin, Kiely writes in snug-ese: ‘He was dead of typhus at thirty-six, three years younger than was Blaise Pascal when his Lord called him. And Pascal should never be far from the mind when we think of Griffin. Although, as far as I can recollect, Griffin never mentioned Pascal’s name.’ Ramblings of that kind are proferred a thousand-fold and though the air of deftly recovered balance as in a high-wire stunt may be admirable enough, it seems the opposite of any degree of scholarly rigour, thus rendering the whole more interesting as a diagnostic specimen than as a light upon the subject it illuminates. And, though it would be churlish to suggest that the essays shed no light, it is the illumination of anecdotal and memorial reflection rather than that of stylistics, narratology, aesthetics, historicism, or cultural theory of any other form of rigorously organised critical discourse.

Rigour is the really last thing to be sought for here, though the familiarity with primary and secondary sources is truly impressive in many places. In one such place Kiely reminds us of ‘Brodie’s consolatory and even cheerful reflection’ on the death of Thomas Moore as retaled by L. A. G. Strong: ‘Far from fearing death, Moore did not know when it came to him’. Yet the literary wise-acre is incapable of absenting himself from the seminar table and Kiely immediately throws in his own groatsworth of wisdom: ‘It is possible that Moore, for a similar reason, seldom feared life.’ Now, this is cutting - and fully party to the the derogation of Tommy Moore which is the brand-mark of the independent Irishman, as distinct from the abject servant of the British Crown (as Moore is mistakenly taken to be in modern times). At the same time the conspicuously pulled punch of ‘seldom’ in that sentence reveals a temperament that prevents Kiely becoming anything like a true satirist. It is simply that Moore’s dimmed reputation renders him a fitting sacrifice on the altar of literary populism sub species temporis nostri. Ironically, the sentimental popularity that Moore wooed is no different from the one that Kiely courts in his own fashion. For that reason, if no other, it is probably not intended that we take such dismissive antics very seriously. In effect, the constant twitching of facial muscles, as in banter between literary friends, prevents this book from reaching the plane of creditable criticism though it retains much interest as a portrait of the mid-century Irish literary mind.

In the pieces on John Montague and Seamus Heaney Kiely writes more in the spirit of responsive friendship than real critical analysis. The effect is not always becoming when he struggles to emulate the sexualised poesis of the former and the the theme echoing darkness in the latter. For Heaney (who supplies the title of the collection), he has a modest rebuke on the score of the ‘King of the Dark’ whom Heaney recalls from the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh. Not that he does not share in the general reproach of the “Bogland Poems” - which inevitably invite some of the reservations that were more liberally expressed in Proxopera, hence which he now writes: ‘Walking or sleeping that King of the Dark would be just as uneasy a companion, or a master [...]’. This might be classified as part of the slap on the wrist school of Irish criticism, instances of which resounded in the literary atmosphere after the collection North was issued in 1975. That said, Kiely quickly pours unction upon the fraught question of Poetry and the Troubles with this more amiable assertion: ‘Of all this, as I have indicated, Heaney is perfectly aware with the strong, balanced, humorous mind that he displays in poetry, talk, and comment.’ It seems that the dart was blunted and the blunderbuss unloaded after all. As Stephen Dedalus famously reflects in Ulysses after a like asservation: ‘Not hurt? O, that’s all right. Shake hands. See what I meant, see? O, that’s all right. Shake a shake. O, that’s all only all right.’ Yet it isn’t alright - at least the issue of atavism in Irish literature is not alright, and we are entitled to expect something closer to a definition of the ‘darkness’ that Heaney’s rhymes make echo, if only to be instructed what similitude it bears to the region that Yeats once called ‘our Irish dark’ in his late poem “The Statues”.

As to the title of the collection, - other than its indebtedness to Heaney, what exactly are those ‘corners’? And why ‘a raid’? Kiely never makes his meaning clear in this respect. Does it suggest that the truth of Irish literature can only be revealed in the course of violent incursions akin with those moments in the Border War or the modern Troubles that the author evidently abhors? There is a meaning hidden here, or perhaps an ambiguity, with makes a nonsense of the rebuke so lightly administered to Heaney for his lyrical depiction of Mother Ireland as a savage deity who demands assassinations and reprisals as the staple of her diet. What Kiely embraces in this phrase, and perhaps even claims as part of his intellectual heritage is a share in the mentality engendered by colonialism and nineteenth-century misrule in Ireland.

The ‘a raid’ in question is the literary equivalent of the assault on an RIC barracks, an attempt to right the wrongs of history by an imaginative irruption which, however benign and even sentimental in its relation to the beloved country, shares in the character of a guerrilla campaign against the literary if not the political establishment. The difficulty is that the establishment which is being contested is the canon of English literature whereas the dominant power is the Irish Free State and its political offspring the Irish Republic, born in 1948. No matter how complicated the answer, one is entitled to demand cogent attempt to define the relationship between modern Irish writing and the history of the modern Irish state from its foundation to the present and this collection offers nothing of the kind. In this sense, its author has chosen to linger with those who prefer half-lit to full illumination - a preference perfectly embodied in the famous epithet 'Celtic twilight' which, for a time, provided the defining idea of Irish literary imagination. With out so much as a cap doffed at W. B. Yeats, he is a literary revivalist malgré soi.

It is generally understood that Kiely shares with many Irish writers the view that history has bestowed more shade than light on Irish consciousness but he nowhere formulates that idea in such terms that we can judge its truth of falsehood in this book. His sketch of Anglo-Ireland, though kindly in a mortuary way, is based on the familiar premise that the Anglo-Irish were too remote behind their estate walls from the cottages and shebeens of the real Irish to know what the Irish experience was really about. There is a virtually unpardonable account of Maria Edgeworth returning from a trip to see the ‘fatal field of Ballinamuck’, as Kiely puts it, only to ignore the ‘strange fruit hanging in plenty on trees all the way back’. For this he has neither textual nor historical evidence. Likewise, his determination to read Elizabeth Bowen strictly in the context of her Cromwellian ancestry seems severely blinkered. Nor is it readily comprehensible how a resident of Dublin city of his longevity can imagine that Jane Barlow was daughter of the ‘vice-President’ of Trinity College.

There are others on whom he is authoritative in an distinctly visceral way leading to note-perfect accounts of certain passages in Gerald Griffin and Kickham, Canon Sheehan and MacManus. His reading of the last-named novelist - from whom he inherited the literary editorship of the Irish Press and with whom he shared a history of mutual supportive reviews down the years - is as near to skin-tight as can be, and in spite of wide variance in their stands on Catholicism in Ireland (and elsewhere), the two writers share many points of literary ideology, chiefly in the rootedness of the best Irish writing in a definite relation to the Irish people. Yet what he has to say about Barlow’s rendering of Hiberno-English dialect and - more generally - what he says about the linguistic materials of modern Irish literature is interesting and dependable:

The Irish novelists of the early nineteenth century found themselves, in that way, in a strange situation. they were caught between two languages, or, you might say, even somewhere in the centre between three: English, Anglo-Irish, and the Irish that was still flowing on the tongues of the people. The occasional efforts made to render the Irish speech in an English phonetic spelling could at times be unhappy, and they persisted right to the end of the century in the efforts made by, say, Jane Barlow ...

What follows from this is not so certain and it may be that Kiely has missed significance as a critic by failing to interrogate the reasons why dialect differences, under the pressure of cultural colonialism and nationalist resistance, has produced the tortured and hilarious eloquence of Flann O’Brien or (mutatis mutandis) Samuel Beckett, the Jean qui rire et Jean qui pleure of James Joyce’s wise conception. In such company, Kiely’s version of Hiberno-English rarely rises above a stylistic wobble in the direction of the essentialist alibi of sentimental nationalism. This may be an imperfect judgement on his best fiction-writing, though I suspect it is a fare account of a critical procedure that indulges shifts in register of this order: ‘We are all the spawn of kings and princes, and to talk of peasants, even away back before the Lemass revolution and all the boys in Brussels ... and we bloody running Europe from Dublin Castle, and Bono and U2 sweeping the world with linked sweetness long drawn out’. The effect is much more like ‘the brother’ than Myles na Gopaleen on ‘The Brother’ when self-parody lapses into self-love in this ‘carnaptious’ manner. That lapse is concisely marked by the eulogy of Carleton’s people with which the essay on dialectic ends: ‘They were a people passionately interested in language. And only from such a people can the continual renewal of language come. The lips must never be closed to poetry’. To poetry, yes, but to doggerel?

Cork University Press has performed a contemptuous disservice to the author and the reader in not providing an editor for this collection. Attention should have been been paid to numerous typographical errors (e.g., Kings; ‘inside those novels’ for ‘inside those hovels’; alwasy, possibly due to scanning, as well as - Kiely’s fault - Thady Quirke for Thady Quirk). Worse, the author has been permitted to repeat paragraphs verbatim in disparate places and to reiterate his favourite bons mots in several more. More irksomely, perhaps, the individual essays contain numerous interpolations made at a recent date and solely marked by ‘as I was saying ...’ or ‘... but to proceed’ and like locutions. In one place, the author interjects: ‘The years that have passed since I first wrote that down, possibly under the influence of Corkery, have persuaded me how outrageously wrong I was about Lever [...]’ (p.101), without supplying further notice of his revised opinions. It is possible to be tantalised by such tokens of incompletion and irritated by so many editorial peculiarities without overlooking the fact that this is a lively and attractive series of depositions of the Irish writers who form the ballast of good prose before the latest period for which authors as various as John McGahern amd John Banville, Colm Toibin and Colm McCann, currently bear the standard.

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