Colum McCann, ‘Death closes a chapter but stories continue’ [on Ben Kiely], in The Irish Times (13 Jan. 2007)

Details: ‘Death closes a chapter but stories continue’, in The Irish Times (13 Jan. 2007), “Opinion & Analysis”, p.16; Sub-heading: - “The only way to keep voices like Ben Kiely’s alive is to read his work, writes Colum McCann”. [Available online; orig. access date unknown.]

William Faulkner once famously wrote that the past is not dead, it’s not even past. There are certain voices that come along and make the claim that nobody should forget and - even more radically - that nobody should be forgotten. These voices remind us that life is not yet written down: there is more left to happen. The true value of literature is that there’s always another story to tell.

Ben Kiely has passed. May his stories continue.

Born in Omagh, 1919. Died last Friday in Dublin. Wrote 10 novels. Four collections of stories. Two volumes of memoir. Countless newspaper articles. Opened the windows of Irish life. Never met a song he didn’t like. Was unpretentious. Generous. Savvy. Angry when he wanted to be. Wrote, it seemed, effortlessly. And managed, in the end, to create works of lasting literary compression.

The work of any writer is concerned with the doings of his fellow men and women with whom he shares some territory, some rage, a little loss and maybe even some faith. He doesn’t speak for them, but with them. Of all the Irish writers of the past 50 years, Ben Kiely has been closest to the voices of the people about whom he wrote - the journalists, the farmers, the tradesmen, the publicans, the hookers, the firemen and countless others who make up the bric-a-brac of our world.

Kiely was well aware that there were many ways of living besides his own. He found value in that which others left as useless. Only someone who listened well could have produced the stories that he told. He could sing and shout with the best of them. He could also haul a laugh out of the darkest corners. He saw malice as another name for mediocrity. He spoke the truth in wild, gabby, discursive ways. He had a great affection for the anecdote, the song, the scrap of local verse that brought a wakeful grace to the language of ordinary people.

It is possible of course to over-saint our writers when they die. Too little, too late perhaps. Kiely was indeed recognised on the international stage - Guy Davenport, on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, called him a “master of the art” of stories. The town of Omagh began a festival to celebrate Kiely and his work. Roger Hudson made a documentary of his life. He was elected to the position of Saoi in Aosdána. And yet, for all of that, it seems that - as critics, readers and writers - we have somehow allowed him to slip between the floorboards of what we thought was new and what we reckoned was old.

Kiely’s books were given an old-fashioned taint that they never truly deserved. He has often, in fact, been called a seanchaí, which lends an unfortunate aura of the Grey Eminence to his work. But the “come-all-ye” rust around his writing is completely misleading. Even when he was bawdy and banned (three of his novels got the “national literary award” from the Irish Censorship Board), he kept quiet about it. No big film advances. No Booker prizes. He proceeded from a reckless inner need. He knew that truth threatened power, now and always. He worked beyond the piety of the Catholic Church. He put the boot in, but he didn’t sing about the bruises.

His early work is surely equal to that of Seán Ó Faoláin and Frank O’Connor. His later novels put him in a realm of his own. Perhaps now - with the remarkably hopeful steps that have been made in Ireland’s peace process, it will finally be acknowledged that Kiely was one of the few to go to the actual pulse of the wound in relation to the Troubles. His novella, Proxopera, which he subtitled A Tale of Modern Ireland, is about the terrible tribal truths of our times. A retired schoolmaster and his family are taken prisoner by the IRA (though it could have, in Kiely’s head, been the UVF or the UFF, since he didn’t discriminate when it came to hatred). The old man is forced to drive to town with a creamery can loaded with explosives. Kiely knew the poison of narrow lives, and where empathy could trump it.

In 1985 he followed Proxopera with the extraordinary Nothing Happens in Carmincross. It is a novel of exile and loss that should be on every Irish bookshelf.

Given all that, an initiated reader might think there would be no room for great laughs or music in his work. But in fact there has been no Irish writer, before or now, so exquisite in the realm of song and verse. He haunts our heads, our hearts with music. His stories find form in the realm of rhythm. Not only this, but he manages to make us laugh, even in the face of doom. There adheres in his work a sense of astonished being. He is acutely alive. His tales are never written in abstraction. It’s as if he reaches into our bodies - he touches the funny bone, but at the same time wrenches our hearts a notch backwards.

He was like that in life too. Those who had the chance to spend some time with him - as many did, including the likes of greats such as Montague, Heaney, Behan, Flanagan who all learned from him - will know that Kiely could hold aloft a song and a story as well as any man. It often happened with a ball of malt in his hand. He was generous with his time. He forgave and encouraged younger writers. It was a wonderful thing to spend time with him in his later years, and his partner, Frances, in their house in Donnybrook. "May the ghosts forgive me," he’d sometimes say, at the end of a story. His memory was prodigious - one only wonders how many songs and poems he’s taken with him.

There is often a temptation with the passing of any life - but especially a significant life - to lament the loss of a generation. There goes McGahern. There goes Seán Mac Réamoinn. There goes Ben Kiely. It is as if all of a sudden the stopping clocks agree - there goes Old Ireland too. Fair enough, maybe it’s true. But the only way to counter such doom - the only way to keep these voices alive - is to read the work. Ashes don’t return to wood, but to paper they just might.

There will be stories told this week: in pubs, on stone bridges, in train stations, at swinging gates, by firesides, along the banks of his hometown "serpentine Strule". Stories of Kiely’s stories. Stories of how he told stories. Stories of how his stories became songs. Songs, indeed, of his stories.

No better music. Beannacht Dé lena anam.

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