John Wilson Foster, ‘Revisitations: Criticism and Benedict Kiely’ (2009)


Source: John Wilson Foster, ‘Revisitations: Criticism and Benedict Kiely’, in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture (Dublin: IAP 2009), [Chap. 8] pp.101-17. The book was launched at QUB in December 2009 with an introductory speech by Terence Brown. No previous publishing venue is cited for this paper.

I
Benedict Kiely’s most sustained critical achievement was his slim book, Modern Irish Fiction - A Critique (1950), a pioneering map of Irish novels and story collections published between roughly 1918 and 1948 (though with some backward looks). The survey has all the energetic briskness of a young critic simultaneously engaged on his own aspiring first additions to the body of Irish fiction, and the critique appears to have been written while the first novels, Land without Stars (1946) and In a Harbour Green (1949) were in the process of being written or being published. His was the earliest critical harvesting of post- independence Irish fiction and one gathered by a would-be professional writer rather than professional critic, of whom there were very few in Ireland in 1949 when the book would have gone to press.

Simply as a survey of Irish fiction by writers other (and later) than the great names of the recent Revival (Joyce, Stephens, Moore), Modern Irish Fiction would have been ground breaking. This must have been the first time that writers such as Brinsley MacNamara, Francis MacManus and Forrest Reid were given a hardbacked critique. Kiely was writing not only before Irish Studies was a recognizable ‘field’ (a word that would have been exotic in 1950, like ‘Irish Studies’ itself) but also before extended native criticism of Irish writing had got fairly into its independent stride. Writing between the 1890s and the 1930s, Douglas Hyde, W.B. Yeats, W.P. Ryan, John Eglinton (W.K. Magee), Stephen Gwynn, Daniel Corkery and Ernest Boyd represented the first wave of Irish critics and literary historians self-consciously devoting themselves to Irish literature. But these were primarily poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists, portraitists or literary missionaries, and only Boyd’s Ireland’s Literary Renaissance, published in 1916 before the author emigrated to the United States in 1920, kept its eye firmly on the works under scrutiny. The professional (and professionalized), dedicated and campus-based Irish criticism of Roger McHugh, Maurice Harmon and Augustine Martin was half a generation away in the future from Modern Irish Fiction while the American Thomas Flanagan’s scholarly monograph, The Irish Novelists (1959) was a decade away. {101}

As a critic, Kiely established and inhabited a kind of historical no man’s land between the Revival enthusiasts and these soberer lecturers and researchers; unsurprisingly, he gave himself greater leeway than academics in the conduct of his arguments and use of ‘ secondary sources’. He had a Yeatsian casualness about the merely factual, especially dates: it was the spirit of the times, and the spirit of place, like the spirit of the writer in question, that gripped him. The result was that his criticism is stimulating and expeditionary rather than exhaustive or conclusive. Take away Yeats, Joyce and the Irish Revival as subjects, though, and the loneliness of book-length Irish critical surveys even in mid-century is made apparent. Certainly no one had surveyed the post-Revival fictive landscape before Kiely. He rightly called Modern Irish Fiction ‘to a large extent a journey across uncharted country’, [1] a metaphor that as we shall see has a particular pulse in Kiely’s attitude to life as well as literature.

Kiely’s criticism sprang from his own voracious reading and fiction-writing, and from heated and witty discussions in pubs, libraries and newspaper offices: various scenes in Ulysses and At Swim-Two-Birds might give us some sense of the critical incubation. Here, I think, are the sources of the oral and highly readable qualities of Kiely’s criticism. Kiely having been a student from the country and having come up to Dublin from County Tyrone, it was perhaps inevitable that he would discover William Carleton. Yeats after all had famously awarded Carleton the Celtic palm, and Kiely would have known that, even if before he left Omagh he hadn’t already heard of his legendary fellowClogher-Valley man by word of mouth. Inevitable, too, that he would find lively vestiges of Carleton’s rough-and-tumble Dublin with its contentious journals and fierce disputes. In 1966, Kiely recalled that the writer in 1930s and 1940s Ireland ‘seemed to fit in nowhere except, perhaps, in a pub, talking his guts out and doing no writing’, indulging the brisk critical judgement at the expense of the creative work, though Kiely himself both got the writing done and saved enough critical breath to write an entire survey. [2] Although a history graduate from University College Dublin (and to that extent, at least, an academic), criticism for Kiely was to be an adjunct to the creative work as stimulus and expressive opportunity and, secondly, a means through journalism to help him make a living. The Dublin coterie he inhabited - which included Mac Manus, Brian 0 Nolan (alias Flann O’Brien alias Myles na gCopaleen), Patrick Kavanagh and Frank O’Connor: as near to public intellectuals as Ireland could then produce [3] - had their counterparts in New York and London where the pub and the café had not yet been superseded by the academic conference auditorium and the seminar room. Later of {102} course, writers of distinction and some educational background and who spoke well, including W. R. Rodgers, O’Connor and Kiely (by then all veterans of Irish and British radio), were invited to American campuses as writers-in-residence and in the decades before political correctness and Perrier water, they fitted in quite well, managing to lend seminar rooms the semblance of snugs, with their Irish informality recreating as best they could their febrile native habitats.

The connection with Carleton stayed rural as well as urban. Irish writing as a ‘field’ was more literal than figurative. The texts in trees and sermons in running brooks that the two men from Tyrone read and heard were rather more insistent than Wordsworth’s, since the congested Irish landscape was more deeply or at least more recently inscribed (one might better say incised or scarred) than the Lake District with history and bloodshed. Reading Kiely’s stories, novels, memoirs and itineraries (a word to which I’ll return) is to see Ireland as an immense hedge-school, a vast roofless academy and field- laboratory as busy as Joyce’s streets, where one saw in the wild what one talked about in the city pubs, where one listened and learned, where life was narrated and sung (in the pub, life was more likely to be quoted), where one saw life in its ancient and protean forms. One might even detect in Kiely (as in a younger writer he early championed, Seamus Heaney) some deliberateness in hedging his feelings about academia, a conscious reversion to an elder way of connecting literature and life. In Poor Scholar (1947), his study of William Carleton, Kiely’s recreation of his subject’s education as a hedge-school pupil – an education as autodidactic as it was didactic, simultaneously half- baked and pretentious – is insightful, sympathetic and even admiring. And in his musical perambulation, And as I Rode by Granard Moat (1996), Kiely recalls his own Carletonesque beginnings. He opens with memories of the teachers of the Christian Brothers’ school in Omagh, of country walks with Brother Walker while discussing James Joyce, of an outing with schoolfellows to the mountain-top of Mullagharn inspired by something a teacher said and a reference in a Kavanagh poem, from the top of which they looked down on Ireland (Kiely never lost his hungry bird’s-eye view of the island) and sang in Irish and English. Somehow, all writing, including his own, the fiction and the criticism as well as the creative non-fiction, would be informed by place, by neighbourhood, by mountain and stream. [4]

This, however, is to distract at the outset from the serious revisionist literary history of Modern Irish Fiction. The book contradicts at length two post-Revival beliefs that Kiely claimed to detect.

One: that somehow peace and semi-independence by 1923 spelled [103] the end of large-scale Irish cultural history, a belief that we can readily imagine was held by those who lived through Easter 1916, the Troubles and the Civil War. (His representative End-of-History man is Padraic Colum.) [5] His book is written by a member of the first post-independence generation who is determined to infuse Free State Ireland with significance and to demonstrate its cultural achievement and energy. Modern Irish Fiction is not a counter-Revival work of literary criticism (Kiely is far too respectful of literary achievements wherever or whenever they have appeared, and he never betrayed the kind of generational rivalry and animus Kavanagh harboured); rather it is a work that attempts to lever post-Revival fiction into the Irish tradition whatever Revival survivors might think.

Two: that the Irish society that developed after independence (and the Revival) was inimical to the kind of creativity required for the production of novels, especially novels set firmly in the ‘real’ world. This was famously the opinion of the dominant culture-givers of the 1930s, O’Connor and O’Faolain. [6] It has had a long shelf life, from the 1930s until the present. [7] Kiely, with some good-humoured fatigue, demurred from his late friend O’Connor’s view in the pages of the Kenyon Review in 1968, [8] but it clearly rankled with him, as though casting doubt on the value of his own career as a novelist. He had clearly intended Modern Irish Fiction to be an earlier rebuttal by critical demonstration. In any event, Kiely claimed in his book that there had been proportionately more prose fiction produced by Irish writers between 1918 and 1948 than in any previous thirty-year period.

With some acidity, Kiely remembered, both in Modern Irish Fiction and ‘The Whores on the Halfdoors’ the self-justification by Professor Magennis of the Irish Censorship Board that the novels he was censoring were really short stories padded out to novel length for vulgar English readers, that Ireland had in fact few real novelists. This for Kiely ought to have been a double insult: both critical and bureaucratic denigration of Irish novels. Yet O’Faolain, for example, seems to have been incensed by the very active state censorship of the Free State government more than Kiely, who seemed, judging by his own words, to have taken censorship in his stride, or at least to have shielded any raw indignation by a sense of humour. His most sustained account of literary censorship can be found in ‘The Whores on the Halfdoors’ but it is an account that retroactively at least tries to laugh censorship, and the memory of censorship, into absurdity. The darkest days seem to have been the 1940s; he tells the horrifying story of The Tailor and Ansty yet recalled it merely as ‘a gruesome {104} interlude in the proceedings, normally ludicrous, of the Dublin censorship’. But just when things seemed to be looking up in the 1960s ‘they were at their old tricks again’ (a Yeatsian echo) and from the vantage-point of 1990 he recalls how John McGahern’s second novel (The Dark, 1965) was banned and the novelist sacked as a teacher.

It is hard for me to recover what Kiely at the time felt and thought when his own early novels were banned in the 1940s. By the 1960s, he tells us, everyone knew that ‘the censorship was a cod’ though surely it was anything but a cod at the time, since it was not only ‘steamy’ scenes in novels that were being banned, but ideas and opinions (AR, pp.140-45). Perhaps for Kiely as an Ulsterman, and to that extent an outsider in Dublin, there was fractionally less at stake. [9] And one could always wear like a badge having one’s book banned, as Kiely and some other writers seemed to have done. Perhaps, though, it was partly Kiely’s temperament: he had none of Carleton’s occasional spoil for a knock-down fight or O’Faolain’s capacity for intellectual affront. There is a long Irish tradition of meeting oppression or suppression with scathing or oblique humour and Kiely belonged to that tradition.

Although he himself became a short storywriter of the front rank, he championed the Irish novel against the critical denigrations he recorded in his critique. What was at stake was the truth or falsity of whether post-independent Ireland was the broken, divided, barren society O’Connor and O’Faolain claimed it was, thus preventing good novels, especially good realistic novels, being written. Kiely was a lifelong promoter of unity and harmony who only occasionally lost his spirit: Proxopera (1977) was unusual in being written in anger and despair. It was paradoxically as an Ulsterman, and a Catholic Ulsterman to boot, that he was better placed than southerners to claim through experience the essential unity of the island. Nor did he ever admit any irremediable fractures inside the Free State, be those fractures political, social or cultural. To that extent, it was necessary for Kiely to see some sort of tradition in fiction stretching unbroken across the decades of fractious politics.

The tradition Kiely sought to extend into his present and his own beginning career he outlines in his eight-and-a-half-page Foreword to M odern Irish Fiction, and it is one we can see expressed piecemeal in his v arious essays elsewhere. The first instalment of his literary tradition is now orthodoxy: Edgeworth, Lever, Lover, the Banims, Lady Morgan, Le Fanu, Griffin, Hall and Carleton were the exclusive figures of t he 1800-80 period. They were followed (and Kiely’s second instalment is still not orthodox in its entirety or components) by Kickham, O’Grady, Sheehan, Moore, Barlow (forgotten in 1950), Somerville and {105} Ross (whom he takes more seriously than did the Revivalists), Bullock (a retrieved Ulster novelist), Joyce, Corkery, Stephens and Lawless (forgotten in 1950) in the 1880-1922 period. In the first essay reprinted in A Raid into Dark Corners (1999), ‘Ned McKeown’s Two Doors: An Approach to the Novel in Ireland’, Kiely adds W. H. Maxwell and Charles Maturin to the earlier period. [10] Either way, the two instalments were broadly a movement from the Anglo-Irish (Protestant) nineteenth century to the native Irish (Catholic) twentieth century.

Kiely’s tradition is a procession of personalities, of individual talents, rather than a transmission and alteration of techniques or preoccupations. This concern with personality stretched to his treatment of the writing as well as the writers, with characters (and their environment) occupying the foreground of his attention. His Table of Contents in Modern Irish Fiction is a preponderance of human types; the chapter titles are: Rebels, Peasants, Townsmen, Heroes, History, Dreams, Exiles, Lovers and Creeds. He was aware of Liam O’Flaherty’s simplified typology in A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland (1929) - priests, peasants, publicans and politicians - for in ‘’The Whores on the Halfdoors’ (1966) he comments on its scantiness. He is equally quizzical about Sean O’Faolain’s better-known and then recent study, The Irish (1947), which in Modern Irish Fiction (p.43) Kiely thought a rather simple and personal survey of Free State Ireland. O’Faolain’s typology runs: The New Peasantry, The Anglo-Irish, The Rebels, The Priests, The Writers, The Politicians. In fact, though, all three writers share a perspective on Ireland that is native and Catholic, with the peasant at its centre, the Catholic middle class off-centre, the Anglo-Irish at its historical margin and the Ulster population essentially (even in Kiely’s case) off-camera. Despite its impression of diversity and democracy, it is in fact a rather partisan view that shares with the Revival’s cultural nationalism the centrality of the peasantry, if not the marginality of the Anglo-Irish.

From Kiely’s perspective, the most important fiction writers in the 1922-48 period are O’Faolain, MacManus, Francis Stuart and Kate O’Brien; they occupy four of Kiely’s eight categories/chapters and are, as it were, his first eleven. Then come O’Connor, O’Flaherty and MacNamara. Elizabeth Bowen, Mervyn Wall, Mary Lavin, Reid and Maurice Walsh are interesting writers to whom he pays eloquent tribute but they do not alter the shape of whatever overall picture emerges. Of the important figures, O’Faolain functions like the book’s tutelary genius. (Graham Greene, too, is something of an off-island touchstone, and to a lesser extent another Catholic novelist, Fran ç ois Mauriac. Kiely is himself aware of what is missing from {106} his survey but beyond his control. Having spent some lively pages on Joyce, Kiely might be right when he claims in Chapter 3, ‘Townsmen’, that the Irish novel has since 1922 (and by 1948) failed to keep up with the development of modern Dublin (p.47), that Dublin in contemporary novels is historical, fleeting, romantic, oblique or futuristic but almost never present and real. At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) by Flann O’Brien he sees as belonging to no city but rather to the ‘blue parishes’ of fantasy where ‘wild humour can transform an undergraduate puking porter into a figure of healthy fun’ (p.50). But in any case, one senses that Kiely does not deeply miss the novel of urban realism or indeed any kinds of novel he doesn’t discuss.

Otherwise, he might have added to his human character-types to include (or give greater prominence to) engineers, say, or scientists, or merchants and captains of industry, travellers, policemen and detectives, or soldiers, women, residents of England and other expatriates (instead of the culturally loaded characters and authors named ‘ exiles’). For if it is untrue, and it is untrue, that there was a greater volume of Irish fiction produced between 1918 and 1948 than in any thirty-year period before the end of the Great War, the error is readily made if one has a certain, and only a certain, Ireland in mind, and an Ireland in which women were marginal qua women and qua writers. [11] For the truth is that the Ireland Kiely had in mind (and in heart) was one over which Carleton threw a shadow even larger than the one he threw over Yeats’s Irish imaginary. Poor Scholar was heavily dependent for its biographical facts on D.J. O’Donoghue’s Life of William Carleton (1896) but Kiely’s Carleton is, pioneeringly, a figure for the Irish twentieth century, especially after the divisive events of the Rising, the Troubles, the Civil War, and partition which Carleton could be thought of as somehow presaging, he ‘had in him also so much caprice, so much self-willed, unrestrained imagination’, giving offence, as O’Donoghue had said, to every class of Irishman, straddling unstably all the often lethal distinctions of Irish life. [12]

Kiely made his reservations about Carleton clear: they parted ways when Carleton was judgemental and dismissive of certain kinds of fellow-Irish (though who these were varied according to Carleton’s current agenda), preferring as Kiely did the huge appetite for character and incident we find in Chaucer, whose demotic embrace might come to mind as we read Kiely’s own novels and itineraries. [13] Nor was Kiely impressed by, though he understood its circumstances, the fact that his subject ‘never kept his two feet in the same place long enough, to find for himself a stable, logical approach to the central political problem that had so much to do with the chaos of the Irish {107} nineteenth century’ (PS, p.129). Kiely himself moved around Ireland a good deal (few parishes were innocent of his footprint), but Dublin was his base camp. Yet if Kiely’s political position was relatively stable - on the constitutional question there was some political movement towards the centre implied in the span between Counties of Contention (1945) and Proxopera (1977) – it was not primarily logical either, being of the heart and sufficiently blurred to accommodate the political chaos of the Irish post-1969 twentieth century; Kiely too straddled deep fissures in Irish life, if not serially like Carleton, then simultaneously. The ‘great heart’ that he heard beating even in Carleton the propagandist (PS, p.146) beat in Kiely too.

And if Kiely thought he was distancing himself from what he regarded as Carleton’s essential empiricism, the latter’s dependence on clear memory rather than imagination which Kiely thought was never strong (here Kiely came close to contradicting himself on the matter of Carleton’s inventiveness which he had already described as ‘unrestrained’), [14] we are surely reminded of the elder writer when we are witness to Kiely’s fictive modus operandi in which memory and anecdote play a huge role. For Kiely, experience is never unique or unprecedented, nor is invention the chief business of literary expression: ‘every experience takes the form of a quotation’, one character says in Nothing Happens in Carmincross (1985), but his companion amends this to ‘every experience is a quotation [my italics] and ... every quotation is a renewed experience, a light switched on again in a darkened room to reveal familiar objects’. [15] A successful quotation requires memory while experience is memory. In such wise, Kiely blurs the distinction between first-hand and second-hand, between life and art, with quotation as the distillation of both and the bridge between. Fittingly, Carmincross opens with four quotations whose authors are not identified until the novel’s last page, giving the authors the force of off-stage characters. And on the last page Kiely disclaims each of the two extremes of fictive creativity, both historical fact and pure invention: ‘The earnest student of atrocities will detect anachronisms. Specimens have been moved about in time. And in place. Does it matter?’ If his criticism is an elaborate form of quoting literature, so is his fiction (with its pastiche, allusion, narrative impersonations and of course quotations) while the forms of that fiction, moreover, are elaborate quotations from life.

Whatever their differences, Kiely’s knowledge of Carleton’s world and work is so intimate that one feels he internalized them, resulting in criticism that is steeped in fellow-feeling of an order that became out of place in later academic criticism. That sympathy suffuses the {108} first ‘establishment shot’ of Poor Scholar, the first three paragraphs that beautifully recreate the Clogher Valley before the biographical critic zooms in to provide glimpses of this puzzling, contradictory, unsettling figure going in and coming out of cabins. It became characteristic for Kiely in his writings to begin with the evocation of place, and his sharing of geography with Carleton was a kind of brotherhood across the generations.

II
At the risk of writing anachronism, and for all his political tergiversations, I see Carleton as a figure theoretically at home in the Irish Free State that was dominated by the small-farmer class and the urban lower middle class. (He and O’Connell rather than Yeats, Hyde and the other Protestant Revivalists were perhaps the culture-givers of the Ireland between 1922 and, say, the 1980s. Carleton, of course, is also imaginable in the Ulster countryside after 1969, riven with sectarian animosity.) To a lesser extent than O’Faolain in terms of the general culture, but to a greater extent in terms of the novel, Kiely helped in Modern Irish Fiction to establish the literary curriculum of the Irish Free State. I say this despite his dissenting opinion on censorship and the impressive range of European figures he adduces in his essays and in Modern Irish Fiction to help place his Irish writers, including Turgenev, Flaubert, Alexander Kuprin, Gorki, Baudelaire, Voltaire, Balzac, Gide, Camus, Savonarola, Pascal and Zola. (There was a paradoxically unacademic breadth to Kiely’s reading. [16]) It was partly this reading, and partly the reading of Irish authors, that led Kiely to conclude that ‘the strongest force in the Irish soul is centripetal. A nation that has produced exiles and wanderers by the thousand does not seem to have produced many cosmopolitans; assuredly not one ... who has shaped his feelings into creative fiction in the last thirty years’ (MIF, pp. 129-30). This doesn’t quite rise to an indignant criticism; Kiely too, his broad stretch of reading to the contrary, seems to have been quite at home in the Free State and early Republic, at home even in the partitioned island through which he freely circulated, satisfied enough with the status quo as long as it meant peace and encouraged decency. [17]

Nor, of course, need the ultimate narrowness of the curriculum, one centred on the post-independence state still in formation – and which permits Samuel Beckett, the author of Murphy (1938), to be omitted – obviate first-rate penetrating readings of his favourite fiction writers. [18] In Modern Irish Fiction there are pages on Joyce (132-36), Kate O’Brien (139-43), and Bowen (151-8) that should be the envy of trained literary critics. These are joined by essays later collected in A Raid into Dark Corners, on (again) Kate O’Brien (1992), James Stephens (1946), Sean O’Faolain (1991), Thomas Flanagan (1981) and Canon Sheehan (1990s). These are essays that contemporary specialists could read with profit. He is hard on Sheehan, which is unusual for Kiely; he is normally so sympathetic that when he wishes to criticize he merely becomes condescending (‘poor MacGill’, he writes elsewhere, though MacGill was a writer who deserved no condescension); one wonders if Kiely in a familiarly Irish way found Sheehan’s intellectuality off-putting.

But Kiely was not chiefly in the business of arranging curricula or establishing traditions, nor even of providing sustained readings of texts; his was primarily another way entirely of relating to writing: it was through writers more than texts, and writers in their native or adopted haunts. And that way of relating critically was finally indistinguishable from his other creative engines. The critic Kiely expressed himself along a continuum that involved the storyteller in him, the novelist, the short storywriter, the memoirist, the singer and reciter, the broadcaster, the bon vivant, the raconteur and the ‘ itinerant’. This horizontal chain of identity and connection was also vertical. Even more important than tradition (a rather dry category where Kiely was concerned, to be established and then left alone) was his ahistorical idea, akin to E. M. Forster’s chosen way of thinking about fiction in Aspects of the Novel (1924). Writers form a timeless guild or company and should be read as though they all wrote at the same time, immersed in history as they wrote but read by us out of history, thereby isolating what separates them from historians or sociologists while leaving intact the place out of which they wrote. [19] He relished his own membership of this ancient guild as surely as does Seamus Heaney, whose poetry Kiely wrote appreciatively about some years before the professors. [20]

When Kiely ‘placed’ a writer, he did so quite literally, recreating the part of the island out of which the literature sprang. Kiely defined a realistic novelist as one ‘who quietly watches his people in their environment’ (MIF, p.35) but Kiely himself in his fiction always watched his people in their environment, quietly in the case of the short stories, noisily in the case of the novels, and to that extent he was a realistic fiction writer even when his writing could suggest a kind of magic realism: the magic lay in the reality of Ireland, not in fictional style or perception. When to ‘Ned McKeown’s Two Doors’ he gave the subtitle ‘An Approach to the Novel in Ireland”, Kiely was {110} taking the topographical metaphor fairly literally. Just as paths towards a destination can be various, so are literary judgements. In ‘The Great Gazebo’, he thought that the decision as to whether Somerville and Ross’s novels The Real Charlotte and The Big House of Inver were greater or lesser than the Irish R.M. ‘galloping reminiscences’ was an arguable one ‘and contingent on your mood and humour’ (AR, p.33). This is hardly the basis for sound judgement but it was part of Kiely’s sense of the contingencies of artistic appetite and not a thousand miles from the high modernist James Joyce’s hospitably eclectic and unjudging penchant for parlour songs, operetta arias and pub humour.

In his musical itinerary, And as I Rode by Granard Moat, Kiely relished the artistic miscellany resulting from the paramount criterion of places and their associations: ‘it pleases me and may have pleased them that Oscar Wilde should stand side by side with Felix Kearney, the ballad-maker from Clanabogan Planting’. [21] In the speaking of poems, he then says, ‘there is a higher democracy’ but for him this is clearly true for the reading of poems, and literature, and the novelist too is a kind of reader, not only of literature but of life, and Kiely like Joyce and Chaucer indulges this democracy guiltlessly. If you want your own anthology, he cautions the reader who might object to his approach and his selections (which really means his associations), make it yourself. He tells us we should never recite by category, author or theme. It is place, memory and association that are the tutelary deities of song and verse, and his criticism too aspires less to objective invidious judgement than to anthology, the very etymology of which (a flower-gathering) implies place.

Ideally for Kiely, the reading of an author whom you come to cherish and identify with inspires you to visit the author’s native haunts. Criticism itself, then, is a kind of itinerary. Many of the essays collected in A Raid into Dark Corners involve criticism conducted in situ, as though Kiely were a documentary film-maker in the field; the mode of operation is most evident in his essay ‘Land without Stars: Aodhagin O’Rahilly’ which opens deftly: ‘In autumn the reds and browns of the mountains colour the cooling air’ (AR, p.8). (As though to fasten the connections between criticism and fiction, Kiely borrows the title for his first novel, Land without Stars.) Even when the writer in question is dead, the pilgrim-critic has guides, such as the tall man who had been gamekeeper to Lord Castletown and who had gone duck-hunting with Douglas Hyde around a lough commemorated by John Keegan, the Laois poet (a bonus association). [22] Often, itinerant criticism corroborates the work under consideration: {111} Kiely, when discussing Heaney’s ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’, quotes one of Heaney’s sources for folklore of the eel and remembers his own successful childhood experiment by which the hair of a horse’s tail turned into an elver (later discovered to be the product of a practical joke). Heaney’s bull in ‘The Outlaw’ is corroborated by Kiely’s own memory of bulls at the Mitchelstown Creamery. Kiely as critic is a kind of witness, occupying a sympathetic space halfway between detached observer and active, if belated, participant. Such a posture presupposed the stability and perseverance of the Irish countryside, a posture that must have become increasingly difficult to adopt as rural Ireland changed so much in his lifetime.

But memory has longevity. [23] The number of writers Kiely met or knew, as both stimulus to the criticism and corroboration of the writing, is impressive and violated the critical ethos that prevailed between New Criticism and post-Structuralism when authors were demoted in the critical transaction. [24] (I never asked for his reaction to the Death of the Author announced by Roland Barthes in 1967.) His first meetings with, or renewals of friendship with, Kate O’Brien, Seamus Heaney, Sean O’Faolain, John Montague, Francis Mac-Manus, W. F. Marshall, Frank O’Connor and Thomas Flanagan enliven his criticism of their work, and in his world restore these writers to the timeless guild. If he didn’t meet Yeats, he met (and chaffed) Mrs Yeats. [25] If he didn’t meet Patrick MacGill, his mother did (‘The Whores on the Halfdoors’, AR, p.136). His account of meeting Alice Milligan is a memorably funny one:

The door opened and the dear lady appeared in wreaths of smoke. There was a jackdaw in the chimney for whose invasion and occupancy she courteously apologized. We sat in the musty drawingroom and listened to her telling us how she had once spent a wonderful day with Miss Gonne and Mr Bulfin (Mr Yeats couldn’t make the trip), studying druidic remains in Glencolumcille. The smoke thickened until she could be seen only fitfully, and we were set free to imagine visions of the woman Homer sung of, or of that statuesque thought from Properties, going with the walk of a queen along that most wonderful of western glens. (‘The Whores on the Halfdoors’, AR, p.137)

Personal acquaintance has the simultaneous effect of making the writers larger than life and no larger than ourselves. On occasion the enlarging can become a dubious aggrandizing and the epithet ‘great’ is perhaps bandied about: if Joseph Campbell is a ‘great poet’ and Francis Stuart a ‘great novelist’, should Heaney be especially flattered {112} to be called a ‘great poet’? But these accolades are bestowed in And as I Rode by Granard Moat in which we can cut Kiely some critical slack, and the adjective might be used as we use it carelessly in Ireland: ‘he’s a great writer altogether’, the verbal equivalent of a clap on the absent back.

If Kiely tracks his writers back to place, then place conjures up writers before our eyes. And as I Rode by Granard Moat is a circuit of Ireland, visits to places that are commemorated in song or verse, or that were the haunts of singers, composers or poets. It is an enlarged and life-affirming and secular version of the Catholic stations. Before he leaves Ulster where he begins, he has managed by association to quote and discuss W. F. Marshall, Joseph Campbell, Seamus Heaney, John Montague, M. J. MacManus, Padraic Colum, James Clarence Mangan, Thomas McGreevy, William Drennan, Patrick Kavanagh, W. R. Rodgers, Maurice Craig and Louis MacNeice. It is impossible for the reader to distinguish an itinerary in virtual time from memories of visits to places and thereby memories of writers and their work, and it would be idle for the reader to try to do so. Kiely was engaged, as novelist, short story writer, memoirist and critic, in revisiting where he had been. He calls his journeys recounted in All the Way to Bantry Bay ‘revisits’ and Granard Moat itself revisits, or recycles, material from the earlier itinerary as well as from essays.

By analogy, A Raid into Dark Corners consists of essays many of which Kiely has revisited before sending to the publisher, and these revisitations, which sometimes involve changes of opinion or heart, are occasionally difficult to keep track of. ‘The Whores on the Half-doors: An Image of the Irish Writer’, an entertaining and illuminating piece of literary history, is a veritable critical palimpsest. We are told in the Acknowledgements that the essay was published in Kilkenny Magazine in 1966, and one assumes it was written then and from the perspective of that year, yet it opens with an anecdote of an incident that took place in 1975 before in its second paragraph shifting its scene of critical action to around 1945. Only at the end of the essay do we realize that the opinions of 1945, 1966 and 1975 are framed by a critical narrative dated 1990, when presumably the book of essays, p ublished by Cork University Press in 1999 to mark Kiely’s 80th birthday, had not yet been conceived, leaving us with a bibliographical puzzle. Furthermore, Owen Dudley Edwards has stated that Kiely’s essay was written at Edwards’s request for inclusion in Conor Cruise O’Brien Introduces Ireland, edited by Edwards and published in 1969 (not, therefore, 1966). Presumably we again are in the midst of versions and revisitations. [26] {113}

Not only did Kiely reread himself, but unlike most academic critics, he reread his authors at intervals, incited as he was by affection and a deep personal pride in authorship. He rereads Kickham for ‘Charles Kickham and the Living Mountain’ (AR, p.115), though here, as elsewhere, the essay may have been stimulated into existence by the rereading. He paused in his rereading, he tells us, to quiz his literary friends on their attitude to Kickham and by this device rehearses the case against Kickham (a propagandist, he is told) before resuming his rereading and vindicating Kickham as a novelist who brought his Ireland imperishably to life. He rereads Montague for ‘John Montague: Dancer in a Rough Field’ (AR, p.119); in ‘Sean O’Faoláin: A Tiller of Ancient Soil’ he confesses to a fourth reading of Bird Alone ‘some years ago’ (AR, p.126); a rereading of Corkery for ‘ Chronicle by Rushlight: Daniel Corkery’s Quiet Desperation’ causes him to reread Thoreau (AR, p.156). He believes that the best tribute one can pay to a ‘great writer’ on his 80th birthday is to reread him, and he does so to honour Liam O’Flaherty (AR, p.192), though the essay he writes as a result was first published in 1949 whilst O’Flaherty’s 80th birthday fell in 1976. It is another Kiely revisitation as well as rereading.

Kiely’s preoccupation is, in every genre he practised, with localities - of setting, of character, of scene of action, of dialogue, of plot – just as his patriotism is not nationalism but local pride (and affection) multiplied and extended to every shore of the island. His base unit of place that offers meaning, comfort and cause for celebration and commemoration is the country neighbourhood and unlike the more fundamentally religious Kavanagh, he does not have recourse to the parish, for that of course would be in the end sectarian. And neighbourhood is in practice inseparable from companionship: Kiely tramped and drove throughout Ireland but rarely alone (his inability to drive made companionship a practical benefit). His companions, like his writers (who were in the deepest sense also his companions), were chosen by neighbourhood. The writer came close to being the genius loci and critical survey was for him a kind of platonic Irish atlas. His most cherished companions when he walked abroad were the literary – scholars or creative writers who were natives or expatriates and who by courteous mutual agreement become his guides; he seemed to me the least rivalrous of writers. [27] In Bantry Bay he is accompanied on his revisits in turn by Heaney the poet, Flanagan the critic and novelist, and Kevin Sullivan the Irish-American academic. Should his writers and erstwhile companions be dead, his companions are ghosts who swell the living itinerants, as Kavanagh does in Bantry Bay. {114}

His literary criticism, too, is full of companionship and place, and memories of those things. It may not satisfy the requirements of criticism today, being more essayistic and personal than scholarly and detached, for the close encounters he had with literature were not textually particular but wholesale – autobiographical and biographical, and ultimately experiential, even existential. It recalled literature to the human and humane, gave it space and body (which we gesture towards in our term ‘body of work’) and a personal existence, and by rendering it vulnerable to the past, like writers and readers alike, increased our obligation in both capacities to remember and celebrate and to occupy the world energetically in order to do so.


Notes
1. Benedict Kiely, Modern Irish Fiction - A Critique (Dublin: Golden Eagle Books, 1950), p.160. I occasionally abbreviate this book to MIF.
2. Benedict Kiely, ‘The Whores on the Halfdoors: An Image of the Irish Writer’, Kilkenny Magazine (Spring/Summer 1966), reprinted with additions in A Raid into Dark Corners and Other Essays (Cork: Cork University Press, 1999), p.140. I occasionally abbreviate this volume to AR.
3. This is not quite correct. By the early 1950s Conor Cruise O’Brien had begun his long intellectual career in the public eye (though his first book was published in 1953 under a pseudonym); Hubert Butler began his early cultural interventions in the late 1940s, but out of the public eye; both of these figures later came closer to the received notion of the public intellectual.
4. The bird’s-eye view, which allowed Kiely to swallow Irish geography and history whole, culminated literally in The Aerofilms Book of Ireland from the Air (1985) in which Kiely supplied his inimitable extended captions to the splendid aerial photographs that offer a different perspective on island time and place.
5. Colum lived on until 1972, though as Kiely reminded us in 1950, he had left for the United States in 1914. I recall a conversation (perhaps more an audience) with Liam O’Flaherty in McDaid’s pub in Dublin, perhaps in the mid-1970s, when the Ulster violence was in terrible spate. When O’Flaherty proclaimed that he thought that the men of Ireland (republicans, he meant) had lost their manhood (perhaps the IRA was then in one of their temporary doldrums) and that the Orangemen were more virile, I thought I detected an End-of-History animosity towards a post-Independence generation from someone who had with perverse pride lived through the turbulent politics and literature of the 1912-22 period.
6. I discuss their ideas in John Wilson Foster, ‘The Irish Renaissance, 1890-1940: Prose in English’, in Margaret Kelleher and Philip O’Leary (eds), The Cambridge History of Irish Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), Vol.II, pp.157-59.
7 I briefly track the opinion in John Wilson Foster, Irish Novels 1890-1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp.6-7,450-51.
8. The fine Kenyon Review essay, ‘Frank O’Connor and the Long Road to Ummera’, is reprinted in A Raid into Dark Corners where it is unlisted in the Acknowledgements and therefore unattributed to that journal.
9. It would be illuminating to know to what extent the proximity of a huge and, by comparison, uncensoring English-speaking country next door (of which Kiely would have been a citizen had he been born not in 1919 but 1922) took the pressure off the Irish censors. The Free State was an inward-looking society attempting to distinguish itself from godless, at best Protestant, and lately oppressing England (while England for its part withdrew its eyes as well as its troops from southern Ireland), with the result that the censorship of ideas in Ireland did not reach the ears or provoke the interest of the English. Writers, however, still had England as a market and critical hinterland so that the banning of their work in the Free State was not the kiss of death.
10. It is unfortunate that this volume did not have a professional editor so that the essays could have been fully cited. This essay was first published in 1983 in Ireland and the Arts: A Special Issue of Literary Review , ed. Tim Pat Coogan (London: Quartet).
11.In Irish Novels 1890-1940, I try to show the busyness and prolificness of Irish fiction in the 1890-1922 period, which - once we admit as evidence popular novels by Irish writers, male or female, set inside Ireland or outside - the 1922-48 period could hardly match, even if we apply the same inclusive criteria to the later years.
12. Benedict Kiely, Poor Scholar: A Study of the Works and Days of William Carleton (1794-1869) (London: Sheed and Ward, 1947), p.5. (I abbreviate this volume to PS.)
13. Kiely referred to several of O’Flaherty’s books as ‘itineraries’ (Benedict Kiely, A Raid into Dark Corners, p.195) and I have adopted this useful genre coinage, from which I inflect ‘itin erant’, the writer of such works.
14. Kiely, Modern Irish Fiction, pp.91, 99. Flann O’Brien strikes me as a different kind of novelist for whom invention plays a more vital role than memory.
15. Benedict Kiely, Nothing Happens in Carmincross (London: Gollancz, 1985), p.39. Recognizable figures from life abound in Kiely’s fiction. As it happens, a character in Carmincross bears a close resemblance to me: he is a red-bearded scholarly Belfastman teaching in Canada and bearing the name of Foster Wilson. The scene in which he is recalled (pp.181-83) is, as it were, an extended quotation of an afternoon Kiely and I spent in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim while the Troubles were at their hottest. The archaeologist who accompanies ‘the third man’ (a major character in the novel) and Foster Wilson was in real life the late Tom Delaney, then engaged in archaeological survey work in the town. Our visit to a loyalist pub grew tense and as was usual in such sectarian circumstances, I lost confidence even in Kiely’s ability to charm the bigoted and aggressive. Whether I was in fact guilty of the factual error attributed to ‘me’ (that someone had been abducted from the pub and mur dered) I cannot now recall, though the third man later concludes: ‘Not that it makes a damned bit of difference’ (p.184). I think it likely that the novel is fashioned from a series of such remembered experiences (I recognize one or two set in Oregon where I first met Kiely).
16. Both near and far. I have yet to open the pages of some Irish writers Kiely mentions in Modern Irish Fiction: Kenneth Reddin, J.H. Pollock, Alan Downey, Dorothy M. Large and Christine Longford, for example.
17. In All the Way to Bantry Bay - And Other Irish Journeys (1978), however, he recalled the out rageous episode at Burntollet in 1969 when a civil rights march was ambushed by loyalists. Always for Kiely, at least after 1969, violence, by definition divisive, annulled a political opinion.
18. Timing was crucial. In 1950 it was possible for a critical surveyor to ignore the cosmopolitan author of Murphy (1938) and not seem hopelessly out of touch (Beckett is listed as an absentee - incongruously to us - alongside Francis Hackett, Shane Leslie, Vivian Connell and Jim Phelan), whereas eight years later to have ignored Beckett’s Molloy (French 1950, English 1955), Malone Dies (1951, 1956), Watt (1953) and The Unnamable (1953, 1958) would have been fatal to the enterprise.
19. Forster asked his readers to imagine the novelists he would talk about sitting down and writing in the British Museum Reading Room at the same time.
20.Kiely, ‘A Raid into Dark Corners: The Poems of Seamus Heaney’, reprinted in AR. (In the Acknowledgements to AR, this essay is misdated as 1978. It actually appeared in The Hollins Critic in October 1970; my offprint is signed by the author who was an early admirer of the young Heaney. However, the article was absorbed into All the Way to Bantry Bay, an itinerary that was published in 1978 and that may be the source of the misdating.) It was no doubt the congeniality for Kiely of Heaney’s native Ulster grounds that first drew Kiely to the young poet’s work. Characteristically, the essay opens with Kiely’s establishment of Heaney’s ‘native country’ which is ‘an old twisted land’ full of thrawn men.
21. Benedict Kiely, And as I Rode ky Granard Moat (Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1996), p.48.
22. ‘The Great Gazebo’, A Raid into Dark Corners, p.42. Benedict Kiely was my own guide around Carleton country in 1970, after I returned to Northern Ireland from Oregon with my PhD; I had written a dissertation on Kiely, Brian Moore and Michael McLaverty, having been converted by Kiely in Oregon from the study of aesthetics to the study of Irish literature. Carleton became the ‘father figure’ in Ulster fiction in the book I was then beginning, Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction (1974), a book encouraged by my critical mentor, Kiely.
23. Kiely’s legendary memory was maintained both by narrative repetition and by the tropes of oral narrative into which his experience appeared to be absorbed. It was not to be described as ‘ photographic’ one way or the other. Certainly it was not dependent on photo graphs. Once when I asked him why he never sported a camera, he responded instantly (perhaps because it was an oral formula of his), ‘Didn’t God give me two good eyes and a retentive memory?’
24. The personal note has re-entered criticism. In 1991 I prefaced my collection of critical essays, Colonial Consequences: Essays in Irish Literature and Culture with what was then an unusual personal account of the originating circumstances of the essays, though I was perhaps unconsciously influenced by both Kiely and Heaney. This kind of personal intervention in Irish criticism is no longer uncommon. (My personal account included my memory of meeting Benedict Kiely in Oregon in 1965.)
25. Kiely, ‘Green Island, Red South’, A Raid into Dark Corners, p.260.
26. Owen Dudley Edwards, ‘In Praise of Benedict Kiely’, in ‘The Waves Behind Us’ : Programme of the 6th Annual Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend (Omagh, Co. Tyrone: Stride Arts Centre, 2007), p.12. This programme includes tributes to Kiely, including my own ‘Memories of Benedict Kiely’.
27. I remember when in Dublin he heard resentment expressed at the material success of the playwright Hugh Leonard (I seem to recall that an expensive car was mentioned), Kiely defended his fellow-writer and colourfully (and here unrepeatably) speculated aloud as to what he would do were he lucky enough to come into Leonard’s money. Likewise, when Flanagan became a newly minted novelist and newly minted millionaire through the success of The Year of the French, Kiely delighted in the success of his old friend: a new member of the guild had prospered.

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