Kiely, Benedict ('Ben') (1919–2007), writer, critic and journalist, was born Thomas Joseph Benedict Kiely near Dromore, Co. Tyrone, on 15 August 1919, the sixth and youngest child of Thomas Kiely, a British army veteran and measurer for the Ordnance Survey (born in Moville, Co. Donegal, son of an RIC man from Co. Limerick), and his wife Sarah Anne (née Gormley), formerly a barmaid. Kiely had two brothers (one of whom died aged eight) and three sisters. When he was one year old the family moved to Omagh, Co. Tyrone, where his father became a hotel porter. Kiely received his primary and secondary education from the Christian Brothers at their Mount St Columba's school in the town; he always spoke of his teachers with respect, recalling with particular admiration a lay teacher, M. J. Curry (model for the central character in his novella Proxopera) and Brother Rice, a most unusually enlightened Christian Brother who introduced him to the work of James Joyce (qv). Kiely was a member of the local GAA club but was suspended for playing soccer with Omagh Corinthians.
Much of Kiely's literary oeuvre draws on his youth in Omagh, and throughout his life he imaginatively recreated the townscape with its surrounding Strule Valley, its social and political divisions, concealed or unconcealed scandals, second-hand reports and fantasies of the wider world, and juvenile sexual curiosity – both the sexuality and the lure of an exotic world being sharpened by Omagh's ongoing history as a garrison town. From 1932 (when he attended the Dublin eucharistic congress) Kiely regularly holidayed in Dublin, staying with a married sister; the mid-Ulster town and the southern city were to become the twin poles of his career and imagination. Other holidays, in the Rosses area of Co. Donegal, also contributed to his imaginative formation.
After completing his secondary education (with a first place in English and second in history), Kiely worked as a sorter in Omagh post office (1936–7) before deciding he had a religious vocation and entering the Jesuit novitiate in Emo Park, near Portarlington, Co. Laois, in the spring of 1937. After a year in the novitiate Kiely was diagnosed with a tubercular lesion of the spine; he spent eighteen months at Cappagh hospital, Finglas, Co. Dublin, and wore a back brace for five years. Kiely later claimed that his vocation dissipated within a week of his arrival in hospital, partly due to his move from an unworldly all-male environment to the presence of shapely female nurses. In hindsight, Kiely believed the short-lived burst of fervour that produced his religious vocation had been a misunderstood yearning for a wider life of culture and scholarship. He retained from the novitiate a sizeable collection of miscellaneous religious knowledge, a number of clerical friends whom he respected, and a lifelong habit of rising at 5 a.m. and getting in several hours' work before breakfast.
Dublin and journalism On discharge from hospital late in 1939 Kiely returned to Omagh, where he persuaded his elder brother (a self-made businessman) to lend him the money for a BA course at UCD (commencing autumn 1940). While studying history, literature and Latin, Kiely was a part-time editorial assistant on the Standard, a catholic weekly, and wrote articles, stories and verse in journals published by the Capuchin priest Fr Senan Moynihan (1900–70) (notably the Capuchin Annual, Father Mathew Record, Bonaventura and Irish Bookman). During his student days Kiely also organised a protest against the niggardliness of the coverage of James Joyce's death by Irish newspapers.
After graduating in September 1943, Kiely began a research MA in history, but abandoned it after he was recruited by Peadar O'Curry (1907–85) to a full-time job on the Standard, where he took over a 'Life and letters' column previously written by Patrick Kavanagh (qv). Francis MacManus (qv) became a literary 'guide, counsellor and friend' (Eckley, 164), persuading him to cut down a rejected novel, 'The king's shilling', to a long short story (later published as 'Soldier, red soldier'). In 1945 Kiely joined the editorial staff of the Irish Independent. He later commented wryly on the difference between the romanticised image of journalism that he had acquired from his adolescent passion for the writings of the English catholic columnist G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936) and his subsequent experience of sub-editors' queries and quotidian visits to provincial towns to cover 'human interest' stories; this experience, however, reinforced his fascination with the interplay of locality and personality. From his earliest journalism to his last years, much of his writing took the form of an itinerary. He also regularly reviewed books in Irish journals and on Radio Éireann.
On 5 July 1944 Kiely married Maureen O'Connell (d. 2004); they had three daughters and a son (born 1945–9). The marriage broke down in the early 1950s, partly because of the strain between family life and the nocturnal, pub-centred lifestyle of a journalist. From the late 1950s Kiely lived with Frances Daly, whom he married in 2005 after his first wife's death in Canada.
Kiely as critic Kiely's first publications were non-fiction works. Counties of contention (1945) is a series of essays on partition whose central argument is that unionism is a defence of ascendancy sustained by appeals to protestant 'persecution mania', and that reconciliation and an end to partition are necessary to save the whole island from mediocrity. Poor scholar (1947) was a pioneering study of William Carleton (qv), whose experiences as a storyteller, who was both inspired by and at odds with Tyrone, in many respects paralleled Kiely's own. In his last years, Kiely was a patron and regular attendee at the Carleton Summer School in Clogher, Co. Tyrone.
A number of published essays on contemporary Irish writers (mainly in the Irish Bookman) were reworked into Modern Irish fiction: a survey (1950) published by the Standard's Golden Eagle Books imprint. Much of this material, with further reflections and reworking, was incorporated into the essay collection A raid into dark corners (1999), which also contains reassessments of nineteenth-century Irish writers from throughout Kiely's career. (These serve the dual function of identifying material on which Kiely himself can draw and justifying his departures from nineteenth-century idealism and decorum for conservative provincial readers who might still see Kickham (qv) or Canon Sheehan (qv) as models.) Kiely's literary criticism, in its attempt to chart a path for post-revival and post-partition Irish literature, is noteworthy for its implicit rejection of the cultural nationalist view (as expressed by Daniel Corkery (qv)) that most nineteenth- and twentieth-century Irish fiction was not really Irish, and the view (associated with Sean O'Faolain (qv) and Frank O'Connor (qv)) that post-revolutionary Irish society was too provincial and uncertain to allow for the development of the novel as a social art form. Kiely presents contemporary Irish literature as divided between an ethos of rebellion incarnated by Joyce and one of acceptance reflected in Corkery. His own literary work tries to bridge this gap, as he moved between the thriving and confidently pious Dublin catholic weeklies and reviews and the more cynical worlds of the dissident literary intelligentsia and of Dublin journalists brought into contact with aspects of Irish life unacknowledged by the idealised self-image of catholic Ireland.
Early fiction Kiely's first three novels are 'state of the nation' exercises: group portraits of Ireland in wartime as a Plato's cave of stasis. Their narrative structure moves among groups of characters in cinematic style. The first two are set in a thinly disguised Omagh in the period 1938–40, and are characterised by a dyad of naïve young enthusiast and detached older intellectual which recurs in Kiely's work. Land without stars (1946) portrays a romantic triangle involving two brothers (a spoiled priest turned journalist and a romantic republican and ex-postal sorter, brought to destruction by association with a sociopathic IRA killer). In a harbour green (1949), set in 1938–9, is a more panoramic view of small-town Ulster catholic life owing something to Joyce's Dubliners; its depiction of a young woman's simultaneous sexual involvement with a naïve young farmer and a sybaritic older solicitor led to its being banned by the Irish censorship of publications board (while in Britain it was taken up by the Catholic Book Club). The ban encouraged Kiely's move (at the behest of M. J. MacManus (qv)) from the Irish Independent to the less clericalist Irish Press, where he became literary editor, editorial writer and film critic. Kiely's third novel, Call for a miracle (1950), a similar group portrait set in Dublin in 1942, escaped banning despite its portrayal of marital separation, prostitution and suicide, possibly because its dark ending could be interpreted as the wages of sin. Kiely later jocularly commented that he had disproved Aodh de Blacam's (qv) proud claim that no Ulster writer had been banned; this underplayed the anger visible in his 1966 anti-censorship essay, 'The whores on the half-doors', written in response to the censors' last stand against authors such as John McGahern (qv) and Edna O'Brien (b. 1930).
Kiely's next novels continued the earlier works' preoccupation with neurotic states of mind while experimenting with different narrative techniques and closer attention to single protagonists. Honey seems bitter (1952), a first-person narrative of neurotic obsession involving a murder, emotional voyeurism and sexual infidelity, was banned. The cards of the gambler (1953), regarded by some critics as Kiely's best novel, is a literary reworking of a traditional folk tale (a genre often favoured by nineteenth-century Irish writers): the gambler's receiving three wishes from an enigmatic God, and his attempts to evade Death take place in 1950s suburban Dublin. The novel is influenced by Chesterton's novel The man who was Thursday (1908) and by the 1929 play (and 1934 film) Death takes a holiday. After various ambivalent triumphs and traumas (including a narrow avoidance of hell described as another version of suburban Dublin, inhabited by pious haters so concerned with keeping up respectable appearances that they refuse to acknowledge the true nature of their surroundings), he departs for heaven via a celestial version of Dublin airport, then seen as symbolising a new Irish modernity.
Kiely's next novel, There was an ancient house (1955), was also banned. It describes a preliminary year in a religious novitiate seen principally through the eyes of McKenna, an idealistic young novice, and Barragry, a progressively disenchanted ex-journalist pursuing a late vocation, both of whom eventually leave. The portrayal of religious life is respectful but increasingly implies that idealism, religious or otherwise, takes too little account of everyday humanity and is finally inhuman. The book, like Kiely's other fiction with autobiographical elements, should be read as a fantasia inspired by real-life events rather than a simple transcript of Kiely's own experiences. (It is set in the mid 1950s, and involves a fictitious religious order based on the Redemptorists and the Marists as well as the Jesuits.) The ban may have been due to the strong hint that Barragry's spiritual crisis was caused by his girlfriend having an abortion. (After leaving the novitiate he resumes the relationship.) The captain with the whiskers (1960), much admired by Kiely critics, is a grim Gothic study of a tyrannical gentry patriarch's malign overshadowing of his children's lives even after his death, as told by a narrator who himself is corrupted by his fascination with the captain; it can be read as a comment on colonialism.
Broader horizons The 1960s saw Kiely's professional blossoming as Ireland grew more prosperous and more open to outside influence. From the late 1950s the New Yorker began to publish his short stories, and Kiely established contact with American academics such as Kevin Sullivan, author of Joyce among the Jesuits (1958), whose search for his ancestral Kerry glen inspired Kiely's famous story 'A journey to the seven streams', and the novelist and critic of nineteenth-century Irish fiction Thomas Flanagan (1923–2002). Kiely moved away from professional journalism to become writer-in-residence at Hollins College (latterly University) in western Virginia (1964–5), visiting professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon in Portland (1965–6), and writer-in-residence at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia (1966–8). During this period in academia, Kiely contributed a fortnightly American letter to the Irish Times, commenting on American society with particular reference to the black civil rights movement and the wider upheavals of the 1960s; he also wrote numerous book reviews for the New York Times and essays and reviews for other periodicals (including the Nation of New York).
After returning to Ireland in 1968 Kiely spent the rest of his life as a full-time professional writer. (He was also an extern lecturer at UCD.) His later work is more exuberantly pagan and less haunted by faith. The 1968 novel Dogs enjoy the morning, an outspoken celebration of the sexual impulse and the bawdier aspects of Irish provincial life and folk culture which had been denounced or denied by censors such as William Magennis (qv), marks this new confidence and recognition in contrast to the social insecurity and aura of disreputability he experienced as a journalist-writer in the 1950s.
From the appearance of his first story collection, A journey to the seven streams (1963), Kiely's output was dominated by short stories, which became his most popular works and on which his literary reputation chiefly rests. In contrast to the 'well-made' short story encapsulating a life in a single emblematic incident, based on French and Russian models and favoured by many twentieth-century Irish authors, Kiely preferred an outwardly 'artless' approach, in which carefully structured digressions, multiple foci, garrulous narration, incorporation of familiar quotations and verse snatches, drawing on personal memories (generally recombined and reinvented, rather than straightforwardly reminiscent), and refusal to tie up apparently loose ends draw strongly on the oral storytelling tradition. (Surviving drafts in the NLI suggest Kiely composed many of these stories in his head for oral delivery, and that they underwent relatively little revision after being committed to paper.) Some critics complain that with age this operatic or performative style lapsed into self-indulgence, and Kiely's reliance on quotations and allusion grew to such an extent that his later works are virtual or actual anthologies. Kiely's later collections are A ball of malt and Madame Butterfly (1973), A cow in the house (1978), and A letter to Peachtree (1987). Several selections from these stories have also been published, and a Collected stories appeared in 2001 with an introduction by Colum McCann.
The image of Kiely as cosy storyteller was reinforced for a generation of Irish radio listeners by his melodious Northern voice reminiscing in six- or seven-minute radio essays on the Sunday morning RTÉ radio programme Sunday miscellany (from the early 1970s). The germ of these can be found in an Irish Press column about travels throughout Ireland (written with Sean White under the shared pseudonym Patrick Lagan). Kiely the raconteur is also in view in such works as All the way to Bantry Bay (1978), a collection of essays describing journeys in Ireland; Ireland from the air (1991), for which he provided text for a photobook; Yeats' Ireland: an illustrated anthology (1989); and And as I rode by Granard moat (1996), a selection of Irish poems and ballads with linking commentary on their local and personal associations. In 1982 Kiely received an honorary doctorate from the NUI. He served as council member and president of the Irish Academy of Letters, and in 1996 became a saoi of Aosdána. Admirers such as Colum McCann have complained that this late image of the 'grey Irish eminence' conceals Kiely's edge and significance from potential readers.
Troubles fiction Kiely was profoundly affected by the Northern Ireland troubles from 1969; while denouncing unionist misrule and the extremism of Ian Paisley (qv) as having precipitated the conflict, he was horrified at the revelation of the violence latent in Northern Irish society, lamenting 'the real horrors have passed out the fictional ones', and commenting that the churches had contributed greatly to the divisions which made such things possible (Ir. Times, 29 January 1977). He praised Omagh as a solitary bright spot, marked by its people's efforts to maintain good cross-community relations. His last two lengthy works of fiction were the novella Proxopera (1977), whose cultured elderly protagonist is forced at gunpoint by IRA men to drive a proxy bomb into his native town, and the novel Nothing happens in Carmincross (1985), set in the early 1970s, in which the elderly Irish-American protagonist's joyful rediscovery of Ireland (in the company of an uninhibited old flame) on his way to a family wedding in an Ulster village ends with the death or mutilation of numerous villagers (including the bride) by bombs planted to divert the security forces from an IRA operation elsewhere. (This is based on the murder of Kathleen Dolan, killed by a loyalist car bomb in Killeter, Co. Down, on 14 December 1972 as she posted wedding invitations; Kiely abandoned a commission to write a coffee-table history of Ireland when the publishers refused to allow him to commence with this incident.) In contrast to his usual methods of composition, Kiely worked on Carmincross for twelve years; its narrative techniques experiment with postmodernism (the ageing lovers, pursued by the old flame's estranged husband, are ironically assimilated to Diarmuid and Gráinne (qv) pursued by Finn (qv)) and, beside Kiely's usual collage of literary and folkloric references, incorporate newspaper reports of real-life atrocities committed by republican and loyalist paramilitaries and state forces, and by regimes and guerrillas elsewhere in the world, whose fragmentary horrors mirror both the destructive power of the bomb and the breakdown of grand narratives of identity. These stories acquired additional significance after 15 August 1998 (Kiely's seventy-ninth birthday), when twenty-nine people were killed and over 220 injured in Omagh by a car bomb planted by the Real IRA splinter group.
Some critics hailed the Troubles stories as masterworks; other commentators (generally but not always holding republican views) argued that they were essentially outraged and myopic expressions of bourgeois complacency, and that their reduction of republicans' political motives to one-dimensional psychopathy was an artistic as well as a political flaw. (These criticisms are more applicable to Proxopera, where IRA members are portrayed directly.) A variant on this criticism argues that Kiely's view of culture as a naturally unifying force founded on human decency unfitted him to portray genuine disagreement as anything more complex than a destructive irruption of anti-culture (though his nuanced portrayal of the conflict between sacred and secular calls this into question). While these criticisms have substance, it can be argued that they run the risk of normalising the un-normalisable; a cry of pain and horror has its own integrity.
Kiely's last major works were two memoirs, Drink to the bird (1991), about his Omagh boyhood, and the more fragmentary and anecdotal The waves behind us (1999). He died in St Vincent's hospital, Dublin, on 9 February 2007 after a short illness and was buried with his family in Drumragh cemetery, Omagh. The principal collection of his papers is in the NLI, and additional material is in Emory University. Since 2001 he has been honoured by an annual Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend in Omagh. He awaits comprehensive reassessment; at his best he was a remarkable explorer of the pieties and darknesses of a mid-twentieth-century Ireland overshadowed in popular perception by the first and last thirds of the century.