The Best of Benedict Kiely: A Selection of Stories, by Benedict Kiely, New Island, 272 pp, €14.95, ISBN: 978-1848407510
The Captain with the Whiskers, Turnpike Books, 288 pp, £10, ISBN: 978-0993591303
Half a century ago my reading was largely confined to the canon of the Irish short story, specifically to the holy trinity of Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain and Benedict Kiely.
I do not recall stopping to compare and contrast these three in my headlong rush to the next instalment, but I can own to a special regard for Kiely; back then the Free State was terra incognita, and so for northerners like myself Kiely was the main man; moreover, he hailed from (and largely wrote about) my mother’s home county of Tyrone, the place of our annual child-evacuation from loyal Coleraine during the marching season. So it is with mixed feelings that I approached The Best of Benedict Kiely. Would I still enjoy them, empathise with their rural themes, collude with their soft sectarian notions in the aftermath of our own thirty years’ war? The answer to all three questions is an enthusiastic yes.
Author Anthony Glavin has selected a dozen stories, from four published collections as follows: five from A Journey to the Seven Streams (1963), three each from A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly (1973) and A Cow in the House (1978) and one from A Letter to Peachtree (1987). Ten of the twelve were first published in The New Yorker. Kiely was a visiting professor of creative writing in the United States for a time and the Irish-American Glavin may be making multiple salutes with the opening story. In any case it is a splendid choice. “The Dogs in the Great Glen” features an American professor searching for his grandfather’s people in a remote region of Kerry, near Valentia Island to judge by the reference to transatlantic cables. He has a place name that doesn’t exist on any map but he also has a wise-cracking Irish companion (the narrator) who will enliven his search with anecdotes over pints. It is classic Kiely and yet the dogs steal the show.
A Journey to the Seven Streams is another expedition, but with a different crew. A father hires a hybrid car – “Citroen blood had been crossed with that of the Model T” – along with a driver “who dressed like Lindbergh” and a sidekick who says of the car, “She’s chuman”, a verbal variant that I haven’t heard since Primary School. This time the locale is Gortin in Tyrone and the terrain proves too much for the car.
Religious orders feature in two stories. In “The Shortest Way Home” a pre-school child escapes the tyranny of nuns to bask in the kindness of the Wee Brother who belies the physical force tradition image of the Christian Brothers. Equally, “A Room in Linden” finds a poetry-reading young man in a nursing home run by a kindly Mother Polycarp; in this unlikeliest of circumstances there may be room for romance. A different take on romance informs “Maiden’s Leap”. With a touch of Austen’s poor relation syndrome, writer Robert St Blaise Macmahon shares the ancestral home with a female cousin once-removed who keeps house for him; a sudden turn of events forces Robert to see her in a very different light and the best lines belong to the Garda sergeant.
Sectarianism raises its ugly head, both innocently and less so. In “The Night We Rode With Sarsfield”, a Catholic child is goaded into singing for former Protestant neighbours. His choice of a rebel-rousing “Off to Dublin in the Green” has them weeping with laughter. The humour is more edgy in “Bluebell Meadow” where a convent girl is visited by the Worshipful Master of the Lodge, warning her off any dalliance with Lofty, a young man destined for the B Specials: “for your own good and for Lofty”.
Glavin commendably closes his selection with a story that distracts the reader from “the dreary steeples”, as Churchill put it. “Bloodless Byrne of a Monday” is set south of the border, in the Dublin where Kiely spent the latter half of his long and productive life. The protagonist is on a blinder following a school pals reunion, and finds himself – courtesy of an open hotel bedroom door – sharing the life of a potential suicide. But it all ends well or well enough. At this remove of space and time I am thinking that I need to read more of these Dublin stories.
The Captain with the Whiskers is the seventh of nine novels by Benedict Kiely; first published in 1960, it is reissued in this the centenary year of his birth. A wise literary friend describes this novel as “an Irish Brideshead Revisited”. Facing a deadline I eschewed Waugh’s four-hundred pager for the BBC film and, yes, the comparison is apt. The eponymous Captain rules his family with physical and emotional violence, while Lady Marchmain applies the double cuffs of penury and Eternal Damnation. In each case the outsider-narrator is drawn into relationships with the damaged offspring.
In this Bildungsroman Owen Rodgers is a schoolboy when he first comes under the sway of Captain Conway Chesney, veteran of the Boer War; he must weigh his fascination for the martinet against the loving gentleness of his own musician father. When he returns from a first visit to Bingen House, his father asks “How do you like the barracks?” Owen does not report the captain’s mistreatment of his sons that he had secretly observed earlier that day.
Owen is home from medical studies in Dublin when the captain wreaks further havoc on his children; when runaway son Edmund is recaptured and beaten he betrays his elder brother’s secret affair “with a skivvy!” to save his own skin. Alfred is beaten “like a cur dog” and locked in the stable with the stallion. The third boy, Frank, bound for the church, is lucky to survive his father’s faux-medical ministrations. The daughters, Maeve and Greta, are housemaids-cum-nurses, summoned by the bell-pull. The captain releases them all into increasingly fragile lives when he dies of a heart attack shortly after.
Although it is not Marchmain-like religion that drives the novel, it is part of the background, notably in the wry wisdom of the near-alcoholic cleric Doctor Grierson, who dreams of Louvain. And alcohol plays loudly throughout, not least in the trio Owen makes with “James Kinnear, student of law, and Geoffrey Austin Macsorley, student of the arts and aspiring creative writer”. Owen abandons medicine and takes to hotel management, avoiding the trap of becoming his own best customer.
There is no Sebastian Flyte among the Chesney brothers as Owen witnesses their descents, Alfred to prison for sex with an underage girl, racing-car enthusiast Edmund to brain-damage and Frank to cold-comfort piety. In between he has affairs in turn with Maeve, who deserts him for London, and Greta, who takes her own life. He settles into marriage with his first love, Lucy.
While the bare bones of this novel may not always attract, the telling of it makes for a highly engaging read. As noted above in relation to the short stories, Kiely’s weaving of anecdote-driven dialogue is more than compensation. A host of minor characters have their say, often through the medium of half-remembered song lyrics. In the final analysis, it is a celebration of the narrator’s good father.
Iggy McGovern’s most recent publication is The Eyes of Isaac Newton (Dedalus, 2017)