Benedict Kiely, Drink to the Bird (London: Methuen 1991): Reading Notes [extracts]

See further extract on the origins of Proxopera [infra]

‘The meticulous reader may detect digressions [...] It may also be that the same meticulous reader will herein find [1] repetitions. But may not a septuagenarian with eight granchildren, two in Ireland, two in England, four in Canada, may he not when he sits in the orner betweeen the fire and the wallm were the poet, Austin Clarke, following tradition, placed the storyteller, may he not, I repeat, be occasionally permitted to repeat himself? And if you are writing a book of memories, it has to be, of necessity, about the things you remember not about matters that the reader, hoever percipient and consider, thinks you remember. And the grown, or aging, or aged man, remembers earier days has also to be present all the tim. And if, now and then, his mind, such as it may be, leaps back and forward, then it’s only to be expected. He is fated to be in several places at the same time.’ (pp.1-2.)

‘Some time about the end of 1936, or the beginning of 1937, the Lord, or Somebody, suggested to me that I might enlist among the sons, or followers, of St Ignatius of Loyola. Actually I have an uneasy feeling that the suggestion came from Thomas Carlyle. [...; 2] the three Fathers [at Belevedere] asked me why I wished to become a Jesuit. / Now the brutal truth was that I did not know. But under the circumstances, and see that I had travelled that far [from Omagh], I had to think of something. So I called to my aid my good friend Thomas Carlyle, and came out with something that Carlyle had, with all the suavity and courtesy of Ecclesfechan, Scotland, said about the Jesuits. What it was, right or wrong, I cannot now remember. Something absolutely bloody, I might guess, out of the grindings and groanings of the “Latterday Pamphlets”. But, as I may later on mention, I had at an early age a freak gift, nothing to do with intelligence, for remembering and rattling off anything in prose or verse (but not in statistics) that I had read once or twice. And, like the whitefaced Fauntleroy that I was, I capped my quotation by saying that it was what poor Carlyle, who I am sure meant no hard, and other enemies of the Church (guess which) had said that determined me to join the Jesuits [... / they accepted me as a novice.]’ (pp.2-3.)


‘But from any eminence, however slight, in that Laois countryside, you could look to the east and see the sun in the morning on the Dublin-Wicklow mountains, and then remember that Dublin City, and a lot of real people, were all over there at the foot of those mountains. Dublin was not yet, by no means, my town. But I had known it from an early age, and it had long been proved that Dublin did exist. From an early age I had known the place through my having had the good fortune to own an elder sister who was married to a genuine Dublinman. and living there. On that good sister, and on her genial husband, I had been allowed to inflict myself for the summer holidays, learning my way around the city on a simple, fool-proof plan.

‘That plan was to make my way, for a start, as far as Nelson’s Pillar. The decent, disabled man still stood up there, watching his world (about to) collapse as the poet, Louis MacNeice, was to see him in the years of the Second World War. Nelson himself, or, rather, his graven or cast image, was to hold out until 1965 when some of the happy-golucky architects of the New Ireland, tire Nela, and welt the floor, your trotters shake. blew him up or down, and hinted at their constructive plans for the lots of fun to come.

‘But in my days of exploration around the Pillar the electric trams creaked their joints and rubbed noses almost, and switched their tails and altered directions, as Leopold Bloom had observed them to do, and then took off, slowly but certainly, towards all points of the compass.’ (p.9.)


‘Now Sister Francesca had discovered me, in my retreat, reading poetry of all things, and rightaway she began to tell me how the poet Padraic Colum and her brother had jubilantly agreed on a title for Colum’s collection: Wild Earth. From Colum’s poem: “Poor Scholar of the 1840s”:

And what to me is Gael or Gall?
Less than the Latin or the Greek
I teach these by the dim rush light
In smoky cabins night and week.
But what avail my teaching slight?
Years hence, in rustic speech, a phrase,
As in wild earth a Grecian vase!

‘So Sister Francesca said to me: “They talked about wild earth.” And I said: “Turf mould. Or: the Bottom of the Irish Bog.”

‘Then she went on her way, laughing, and the green bird, quite obviously passed on to her by Long John Silver, screaming from her shoulder.

‘Too cute I was to show my ignorance by asking her who her brother was or had been. Until the hospital chaplain, Fr Joe Furlong, the curate priest from Finglas village, said to me: “That old battleaxe, Francesca. A great and good woman, believe it or not. She does great work for the poor. You may not know it, Ben boy, but you are meeting great people. That brother she talks about was the poet Thomas MacDonagh who, as we all know, was murdered by the British in 1916 ... Listen to her. She’ll educate you.”


‘Then came Fr Aubrey Gwynn, Jesuit and professor of medieval history in University College, Dublin, to, guess what, give a retreat to the nuns. He was one of a famous learned family, some of them Protestant, some Catholic, most Protestant, and so long and closely associated with Trinity College, Dublin (Queen Elizabeth’s cesspool, Fr Furlong used to say, meaning the first Elizabeth) that it was a sort of a Dublin joke to raffle off. Trinity is Gwynnity and Gwynnity is Trinity.

‘Fr Aubrey came to see me every day of his stay and frequently, out of the kindness of his heart, afterwards. He talked about everything from his first meetings with Hilaire Belloc to the fun it was to read Wild West stories in French translations. Now that was great company for a young fellow with literary aspirations. And particularly since the younger Jesuits visited regularly, bearing books, a generosity that I have never forgotten. It takes a lot of books to keep you going for eighteen months. (p.16.)

Speaks of three brothers killed by loyalists [Bashi-Bazouks] in the 1920; calls the PIRA ‘the Destabilisers, the creators of Éire Núa [sic]’ in connection with the bombing of the Knockamoe hotel [28]


On the Christian Brothers: ‘I have heard them blamed for many things. Like beating education into boys which anyway, and looking at the world the way it now is, does not seem to be such a bad idea. Blamed forthe pandy-bat, as it was called in Dublin, or the leather as we called it in the North. But I never found that the Brothers I encountered used it any way but sparingly. And Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, when and where flogging was all the rage, and there may yet be something to be said for the fraternal pandy-bat.

‘The Brothers were blamed, also, for teaching to their pupils a sort of [69] die-in-the-ditch Irish patriotism. Not so. But they did teach a sort of national pride and self-respect, and respect for the neighbour. Close my eyes is all I have to do and see Hamill, and two Burkes, one for rugby, one for hurling, both brothers in Christ, men of simple self-sacrifice and, behind them in their Order, a long history of the same.

‘For instance: Gerald Griffin, the author of The Collegians, a most scrupulous man and, because of his soul-racking scruples, the closest to us of any of the Irish novelists of the early nineteenth century, was, it has been said, first drawn to the work of Edmund Ignatius Rice and his followers not so much by their teaching school as by their heroic behaviour among the poor, in Griffin’s native Limerick City, during a cholera epidemic. Griffin was later to burn his manuscripts and turn his back on fame and the world, and become a Christian Brother.

‘There were grim times in Ireland round about June 1816, when the Brothers arrived in Limerick City. Desmond Rushe in his fine biography of Rice has described how the good men set up school in the only place they could find, in Hill’s Lane in Irishtown, a “vast mass of dilapidation, filth and misery”. They even had to beg from door to door to provide decent clothes for the worst-off of their pupils. No wonder the sensitive and austere Gerald Griffin was impressed.

‘Edmund Rice had been a rich merchant in Waterford City and, when left a widower, he took the words of the Gospel quite literally, and sold what he had and gave to the poor and followed Christ. He had, too, considerable possessions. It seems clear that the death of his wife and the birth of a daughter who was mentally retarded sharpened his perceptions of the nature of the passing vanities of this life. It seems quite as clear that the impulse to give and to deny himself, for the sake of his fellow man, was there from the beginning, was bred into the bone: giving, not with any wild demonstration or public enthusiasm, but with resistless, businesslike, Norman method.

‘Ireland has had reason to be grateful. Rice thought that the poor, of whom Ireland then had more than her share, needed gainful employment and decent homes, and food and respectable clothes, and books, and education, and the love of God. Books and libraries were very high up on his list. But the love of God, and the unselfish love of his fellow man, ruled over all. (p.69-70.)


Account of a Christian-Brother called Rice [not however Edmund Rice] in the Omagh classroom: ‘Somewhere in the South of Ireland, or the Free State, a thundering and puritanical professor had made an attack on the morals of a poet, as evidenced in a new collection of the poet’s poems. The poet was F. R. Higgins. Was the collection The Dark Breed or The Gap of Brightness ? I can’t recall. The professor roundly condemned passages which he considered lascivious. Lascivious, to us, sounded fine. A definite improvement on sines and cosines. Out of a book Rice read three poems. We listened hopefully but ended up little the wiser. Any evening going home from school through Fountain Lane you could hear better from some of the girls who went with the soldiers. Then in Irish and English he read out more-or-less parallel passages from Douglas Hyde’s The Love Songs of Connacht . Surely to God nobody could accuse the great scholar Douglas Hyde, who was to become the first president of the Irish Republic, of lasciviousness. So the professor was a fool, Years afterwards I met the man, not in the halls of academia but in connection with a weekly newpaper, and I realised that Rice had been right. / That day, from the defence of Fred Higgins he sailed on to his defence of Joyce, giving us his life and times and literary merit in a splendid speech: as good an introduction to the man as anything I have encountered since. It was the best trigonometry lesson I ever sat through.’ (p.74.)


‘But higher than the barracks on the hill above the river, higher than anything except Scott’s flying circus which in those days visited the Town, so high that they were halfways to heaven and indicating to sinners the way to go to get there, were the spires. On the Church of Ireland, a slender sylph, plain, unadorned, good enough for Protestants with no more ritual than a Jesuit in Holy Week. But up above the Church of Rome, or of the Sacred Heart, and thanks to Almighty God and the pounds and crowns of the faithful at home and the dollars of their relatives in the United States, two giants, one taller than the other, to challenge Cologne and out-Pugin all the Pugins, and to show the Prods that anything you can do we can do better. Winston Churchill must have passed this way. It is one of the few things we have against him that he may have had those three wonders in mind, the naked sylph and the encrusted giants, when he wrote about the integrity of the quarrel represented by the dismal spires of Tyrone and Fermanagh: in the face of the collapse all over the world of crowns and realms, and the breaking of nations and the rolling-up of maps. We had never so thought when we looked at those spires: for never anywhere in the world did I meet an [87] Omagh man, Protestant or Catholic, or atheist or anything else, who had not some sort of pride in those aspiring structures.’ (pp.87-88.)


‘My sense of magic is not diminished by my having spent many childhood summers in the valley below there. There are many such private corners in Ireland and elsewhere, and I’m told Tibet and New Guinea are full of them, places scarcely honoured with a glance by a horseman passing by on the main road but with their special significance for other people: those who live there and, perhaps even more for their juvenile relatives who come to camp on them for holidays. The place is less than ten miles from the Town but in the days before motorcars were all that common it could have been in another world. It was escape and haven and a refuge from school. Every stone on the road and bush on the roadside were well-known and welcoming friends.

‘There were and, I daresay, still are big pike and redeyed rudd in those two quiet, spherical boglakes. Long ago I used to puzzle over how in hell they got there, how, like, did they ever hear of the lakes of Claramore. The simple mind expects to find big fish only in big waters and, also, there is something remote and oriental about the rudd and their cousins, the roaches.’ (p.98.)


[Cousin Joe Gormley:] ‘He could sing at the top of his form that sweet song about the maid in the lonely garden and the well-dressed gentleman who, passing-by, promised her a high high building and a castle fine and a ship on the ocean. “They’ll all be thine if thou wilt be mine.” He had been with the IRA in the old days, going through the motions of military training at a camp somewhere in the Sperrin mountains. But his only story of frontline action that I ever heard him tell was a quasi-humorous account of how he and a few bold heroes wandered around a whole night with a can of petrol looking for something to burn by way of striking a blow for Ireland. But not finding any obvious military target up there in the lonely hills they compromised by burning a barn belonging to somebody who was at any rate an Orangeman. He would smile woefully at the memory of the stupidity of it all: yet, in all truth, it was a respectable sort of IRA in those days, Destruction was still in its infancy, as the man from Bormiconlon, County Mayo, who had been, in the days of the maisons tolerées to Paris and back, said about sex in Bonniconlon.’ (p.104.)


[Claims that Seamus Heaney wrote a poem about an unlicensed bull owned by a Kiely living in Castledawson, Co. Derry; p.106.]


Now and again I visit it [the Royal Oak at Kingsbridge, later Heuston, Bridge, Dublin] and raise a glass to my father’s memory. For in its hallowed precincts he struck up talk with a gentleman who convinced him that for a dashing young fellow like himself, all of eighteen and a bit, there could be no better place to be, nor no better comrades to be found, than in a well-organised [109] group, now no more, but then known as the Leinster Regiment. There were at the time other notable religious orders or bands of angles: the Dublins and the Munsters and the Connaught Rangers. The talkative gentleman being a certified agent of Queen Victoria, who could not be personally present, a small coin, stamped with her image, changed hands to confirm the contract. Long years afterwards, and looking back on years hallowed by youth and foreign sunshine, he never regretted that moment and that meeting.’ (p.110.)


[Characterises the Boer War as ‘nonstop flying farce’; p.113.]


On Alice Milligan: ‘The country people said that if you met her on the raod you’d give her a penny, mistaking her, perhaps, for Padraic Colum’s Old Woman of the Roads [...] But unlike the old woman of Padraic’s poem she had a house of her [129] own, nor was it, by any means, a little house. It has once been a rectory and she lived there by some special arrangement with the Church of Ireland which still owned the property. [...] she had a drawing-room to which she led us. About such drawing-rooms I had at that time, or up to that time, heard something from Dickens and Thackeray [...; compares room with film set of Great Expectations at Denham studios] The drawing-room in Mountfield, and the appearance of the aged poet, Alice Milligan, were not Unlike the Denham drawing-room or conservatory, and the appearance of Miss Haversham: and I was old enough in 1940 to spare a thought on how well Ireland would reward you for a life of patriotism and poetry.

As we sat down across the heartrug form the poet, she did ask us, in themost considerate and ladylike fashion, if we objected to the smoke. She didn’t mean smoking. She didn’t mean tobacco: as she talked to us the clouds from the chimney rooled and roled around us until, although I could hear her, we could no longer see her. Not because of any constructional fault in the chimney nor because of the angle ofr the wind. But because of the nesting jackdaws. Their screams we could hear now and then, and she paused in her talk to listen.

But paused only briefly. Then talked on and on about Mr Yeats (W. B.) and Lady Gregory, and about the early days of the Abbey Theatre, where her verse-play, The Feast of the Fianna, had been produced: about Patrick Pearse and [130] Thomas MacDonagh [...] and about some wonderful days long ago that Alice had spent in Glencolumbcille in Southwest Donegal with Miss Gonne, not then old and grey and full of sleep, but with that proud head as though she had gazed into the burning sun. With them walked Mr William Bulfin, whose daughter was to marry the son of Maud Gonne, and who at that time was an exile, home on a holiday from the Argentine, and killing himself cycling round Ireland on a Pierce bicycle (also ponderous and made in Wexford and on the same principle on which the firm made their farm-mowing machines), so as to write a book, now a quite classical period-piece, called Rambles in Erin.

In the course of which journey, or book, he briefly visited a Martello tower, rudely converted into a dwelling-place at Sandycove on the coastal fringe of Dublin, and met there a wit, a poet and an Englishman. Three of them

Dear Alice Milligan in the smoke was a prime discover for an ignorant young fellow with literary notions, and just emerged from a Jesuit novitiate and an orthopaedic hospital [...]’ (pp.129-31.)


[ close ]

[ top ]