6 minute read

Benedict Kiely Biography

Nationality: Irish. Born: Dromore, County Tyrone, 1919. Education: Christian Brothers' schools, Omagh; National University of Ireland, Dublin, B.A. (honours) 1943. Career: Journalist in Dublin, 1939-64. Writer-in-residence, Hollins College, Virginia, 1964-65; visiting professor, University of Oregon, Eugene, 1965-66; writer-in-residence, Emory University, Atlanta, 1966-68. Since 1970 visiting lecturer, University College, Dublin. Awards: American-Irish Foundation award, 1980; Irish Academy of Letters award, 1980. Member: Of the Council, and President, Irish Academy of Letters.



Land Without Stars. London, Johnson, 1946.

In a Harbour Green. London, Cape, 1949; New York, Dutton, 1950.

Call for a Miracle. London, Cape, 1950; New York, Dutton, 1951.

Honey Seems Bitter. New York, Dutton, 1952; London, Methuen, 1954.

The Cards of the Gambler: A Folktale. London, Methuen, 1953.

There Was an Ancient House. London, Methuen, 1955.

The Captain with the Whiskers. London, Methuen, 1960; New York, Criterion, 1961.

Dogs Enjoy the Morning. London, Gollancz, 1968.

Proxopera. London, Gollancz, 1977; Boston, Godine, 1987.

Nothing Happens in Carmincross. London, Gollancz, and Boston, Godine, 1985.

The Trout in the Turnhole. Dublin, Wolfhound Press, 1995.

Short Stories

A Journey to the Seven Streams: Seventeen Stories. London, Methuen, 1963.

Penguin Modern Stories 5, with others. London, Penguin, 1970.

A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly: A Dozen Stories. London, Gollancz, 1973.

A Cow in the House and Nine Other Stories. London, Gollancz, 1978.

The State of Ireland: A Novella and Seventeen Stories. Boston, Godine, 1980; London, Penguin, 1982.

A Letter to Peachtree and Nine Other Stories. London, Gollancz, 1987; Boston, Godine, 1988.

God's Own Country. London, Minerva, 1993.


Counties of Contention: A Study of the Origins and Implication of the Partition of Ireland. Cork, Mercier Press, 1945.

Poor Scholar: A Study of the Works and Days of William Carleton 1794-1869. London, Sheed and Ward, 1947; New York, Sheed and Ward, 1948.

Modern Irish Fiction: A Critique. Dublin, Golden Eagle, 1950.

All the Way to Bantry Bay and Other Irish Journeys. London, Gollancz, 1978.

Ireland from the Air. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Crown, 1985.

Yeats' Ireland: An Illustrated Anthology. London, Aurum Press, andNew York, Crown, 1989.

Drink to the Bird: A Memoir. London, Methuen, 1991.

25 Views of Dublin (commentary), photographs by James Horan. Dublin, Town House in Association with the Office of Public Works, 1994.

The Waves Behind Us: A Memoir. London, Methuen, 1999.

Editor, The Various Lives of Keats and Chapman and The Brother, by Flann O'Brien. London, Hart Davis MacGibbon, 1976.

Editor, The Penguin Book of Irish Short Stories. London, Penguin, 1981.

Editor, Dublin. Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Editor, And As I Rode by Granard Moat. Dublin, Lilliput Press, 1996.


Critical Studies:

Benedict Kiely by Daniel J. Casey, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1974; Benedict Kiely by Grace Eckley, New York, Twayne, 1974.

* * *

Myth and legend, the heroic and the mock-heroic, form the central strands to the short stories of Benedict Kiely. He relies heavily on the Irish genius for creating epic myths about man, his heroic deeds and his human frailties. Although his fiction is largely set in the County Tyrone of his boyhood, a landscape that he knows intimately and with a sense of delight, it is transformed in a story like "A Journey to the Seven Streams" to a land of eternal and universal childhood. The trip to the stone-fiddle beside Lough Erne in Hookey Baxter's whimsical motor car takes on the aspect of a pilgrimage to a shrine or the tale of travellers in a magic, dreamlike land who have to face numerous adventures and dangers.

In a second collection, A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly, Kiely confirmed that although his work continues to be rooted in the Ireland that he knows so well, it has a breadth of vision and humanity in its subject matter and literary style that raises it above the merely provincial. The Tyrone of his childhood and the Dublin of his formative years are favorite backdrops for his novels where the mood changes from the mock-epic to the mock-gothic romance in a work like The Captain with the Whiskers with its memorable scene of the mad captain drilling his three sons in Boer War uniforms in the doomed big house; and in Dogs Enjoy the Morning with its satirical mixture of pub gossip and idle anecdote in the grotesque, but finely drawn, village of Cosmona where a newspaper reporter remarks, aptly enough, that "all human life is here." Kiely is at his best when he is writing short stories in which fantasy, satire, anecdote, and comic inventiveness play vital parts. The stories in A Letter to Peachtree are all told from a narrator's point of view, often as rambling comic monologues, and the end result is similar to listening to saloon bar badinage or half-heard eclectic conversations. Much of it is very funny and in each story the voice of the narrator is of paramount importance. A countryman reminisces about the past in a Dublin pub, attempting to put faces to half-remembered acquaintances in long-forgotten incidents; a writer attends a curious re-enactment of the events of 1690; a "secret poltroon" desires the girls at the dancing class and in the title story an American is caught up in other people's lives as he attempts to write about an Irish writer. It is not stretching a point to compare Kiely's later short stories to the great classical short fiction written by his fellow countrymen Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain.

A new note in Kiely's work was struck with the publication of Proxopera in 1977, a savagely indignant novel with its anger directed against all men of violence in Ireland. The title comes from an "operation proxy" when an elderly grandfather, Binchey, is forced by three terrorists holding his family ransom to take a bomb into the neighboring town. The background is again Tyrone, but the mood is at once savage in Binchey's outrage at the terrorism that Ireland has helped to spawn, and at once an elegy for the non-sectarian, chivalrous past of his own childhood. Everything is seen through the enraged consciousness of Binchey and his sense of loss that nothing, his past, his family, the countryside and his relationship to them, will ever be the same again.

The same theme is continued—although this time on a larger canvas—in Nothing Happens in Carmincross, a novel which is constructed with enormous skill, layer upon layer, until its final and devastating act of violence. Mervyn Kavanagh, the central character, has a career as an academic in America, but has retained a great love for his native Ireland. Unlike many Irish-Americans, though, he has no love for terrorism; this cannot save him from the reality he has to confront when, on a visit to Ireland, he is brought face to face with the violence of his country's past and present history.

At the novel's end the reader is left with the certainty that another meaningless act of horror is about to become just another memory, part of the historical process: in that sense Kiely has faced up courageously to the peculiar tragedy of the Irish situation. In contrast to his morbid theme Kiely writes with zest and grace, humor and irony, in a style which is totally individual, the cadences of his language pointing and counterpointing feelings and ideas.

—Trevor Royle

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - Personal