Ahead of the 16th Omagh Literary Festival: honouring Benedict Kiely, Colum McCann talks about one of his earliest influences.
Colum McCann is one of Ireland’s leading contemporary writers, and in many ways his literary life has reflected the modern time he’s writing in. Having started in journalism, with his own page on youth culture at the Irish Press, which he has since described as both enjoyable and hideous, McCann was pulled away by the allure of fiction. He moved to America and had a go at writing a novel, before he decided he’d have to learn a few things first, and set off on a cycling trip across the United States.
More than twenty years on, that trip still provides countless memories, which McCann says, as a writer, he’s still trying to figure out; but having settled in New York, where he’s now lived for over two decades, he has seven novels to his name, including Let The Great World Spin, which won the National Book Award. Alongside his work, he teaches creative writing at Hunter College, New York, has co-founded Narrative 4, a global charity dedicated to creating social change through storytelling, and helped open a New York pub – which, unsurprisingly, if you’ve heard him talk glowingly about James Joyce, is called ‘Ulysses’.
In many ways McCann is an archetypal, successful 21st century writer, but to hear him speak about Benedict Kiely, as he is never shy to do, is often to hear a fond, romantic description of the Irish writers of old.
In the past, he’s written the forward to The Collected Stories of Benedict Kiely, and readily spoken about him in interviews. In his words Kiely was and is one of the great Irish voices, not necessarily as known as he should be, but belonging to the top tier of short story writers, alongside Raymond Carver, Checkov, Beckett and Hemingway.
McCann tells a story on The New Yorker: Fiction Podcast. ‘I used to go hang out with Ben in his house. He would always be in his pyjamas early in the morning. He’d get out of bed and sit in his pyjamas and write for a few hours, and then at lunch time he was finished, and he’d get dressed and go down the street to the pub, and be surrounded by lots of younger writers who wanted to see where this beautiful voice came from.’
‘When I started writing in earnest I went and visited Ben in Donnybrook. He was a mentor for me. He opened my world.’
Ahead of the Sixteenth annual Omagh Arts Festival: honouring Benedict Kiely, which takes place in October of this year, and features writers such as Carlo Gebler, Jan Carson and Sheena Wilkinson, I asked Colum to reflect on the relationship he had with Kiely and the impact it’s had on his writing.
‘My father was Literary Editor of the Evening Press newspaper and, as such, he worked with many, many writers. Ben was one of those – and possibly one of the best my Dad ever worked with.’
‘I remember at the age of sixteen reading the story A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly and being totally bowled over by the style. I wasn’t aware that you could be “allowed” to write like that. It cleaved me open. I had discovered something, and someone, entirely new.
‘A couple of years later when I started writing in earnest I went and visited Ben in Donnybrook. He was a mentor for me. He opened my world.’
As a teacher, McCann says he doesn’t have a great understanding of writing. He claims he doesn’t know what plot is, and though he admits he can recognise a character, he insists he doesn’t know how to create them. Rather, what he tries to do with his students is instil a fire and a drive in them. He regularly sights stamina as a necessity, and insists that in writing, as in anything else, consistent hard work can be as important as talent. But is there anything in particular he learned from Benedict Kiely?
‘I was interested in the allusive, digressive character of [his] prose. And I was overwhelmed by the music of how he wrote. But it wasn’t just music for Ben, it was meaning too. I remember reading Proxopera and being bowled away not just by the story and its political meaning, but by the intimate symphonic intent of the language.’
‘I think Ben was able to focus when he went away from Omagh…he was interested in learning how to properly focus on that which he had left behind.’
Unlike McCann, Kiely is a writer who stayed in Ireland, at a time when many of his contemporaries left. Despite this however, he featured on the cover of the New York Times and regularly had stories in the New Yorker, and McCann feels that Kiely’s move from his hometown of Omagh to Dublin, though not a distant immigration, shouldn’t be underestimated.
‘I think Ben was able to focus when he went away [from Omagh]. He wasn’t interested in nostalgia but he was interested in learning how to properly focus on that which he had left behind. As for me, I left Dublin mostly out of curiosity about the world. I’m still curious and still away, though my affection for Dublin is unchanged. I miss it much more than it could ever miss me.’
If he’s humble about how Ireland might miss him, McCann is more assertive in his insistence that we shouldn’t forget Kiely, and he cites occasions such as the Omagh Literary Festival as crucial in remembering Ben, and indeed great Irish writers in general.
When given the chance to read on the New Yorker Fiction podcast, McCann chose Kiely’s short story Bluebell Meadow and said: ‘I’m so happy that you’ve given a chance for Ben to come back, because I would love for people to go out and buy his collected stories and look at his work, and for him to be acknowledged as a master of Irish literature. If there’s any one writer I would like to sing back into a good place, it would be Ben.’
Likewise, he says, ‘[Literary festivals are] incredibly important. Death takes away a lot of things, but it cannot take away our stories. Ben lives on because his books live on. And the festival is a great forum from which we can remember him.’
Benedict Kiely’s presence in the Irish Literary scene of his time shouldn’t be underestimated. He was heralded as a great short story writer, perhaps partly because of Ireland’s success with the form in general, but was equally esteemed when it came to his novels. James Doyle, writing for The Irish Times, called his novella, Proxopera, ‘the most humane literary response to the Troubles.’
In a documentary, Wordweaver, Seamus Heaney spoke of how highly Kiely’s name was evoked, both because of his reputation as a writer, and his image as a man around Dublin in the seventies and eighties. Val Mulkerns described how Ben was the friend of virtually everybody, and John Montague talked about how their mutual friend Brendan Behan, whom Ben was very fond of, would join them in the White Horse pub across from the Irish Press.
Likewise, Colum McCann is not the only celebrated contemporary writer who holds Kiely in high personal regard and claims to owe a lot to him. Recently, Sebastian Barry told the Omagh Literary Festival Committee, ‘Ben Kiely was instrumental in my election to Aosdana in 1989 so he is a god in [our] household.’
‘I love the art of the short story. For me it’s a universe unto itself. And like all universes it should reveal deep human truth.’
Another direct recipient of Kiely’s work and personality was Sharon Owen’s, Kiely’s grandniece. Although Sharon never spoke directly to Ben in person, he was a familiar family figure, and one who eventually came to support her at the outset of her literary career.
‘He was my Grandmother Kathleen’s brother, but he became a literary legend and moved to Dublin long before I was born. From time to time Ben would come back to Omagh to see us all. Kathleen had a big family and I would have been just another face in the crowded sitting room of her little house in Centenary Park.
‘He wrote to me when I was first published in 2003, welcoming me to “the firm” and I will always remember him as a kind and gentle man who loved the people and places of Ireland.’
The Omagh Literary Festival is celebrating Kiely’s short fiction this year, with the introduction of the Benedict Kiely Short Story competition. It’s an addition that Colum McCann considers a fitting tribute, both due to Kiely’s success with it and the manner in which Irish writers in general have excelled in the form. He says, ‘I love the art of the short story. For me it’s a universe unto itself. And like all universes it should reveal deep human truth.’
By speaking about Kiely, McCann helps remind us of his work and the man that he was. According to him, Kiely was very much a writer’s writer, and even a musician’s writer. He has said it’s almost like Kiely couldn’t sing, so he had to sing on the page. Fond too are his memories of the man, as they are for many people, including of course Sharon Owen’s.
‘The fire was always lit and the room smelled of tea and turf-smoke. Ben would hold court there, in his trademark tweed jackets, recalling his childhood memories, and telling us stories about his travels in America, his rich voice falling like honey into the hushed atmosphere.’
Images like Sharon’s, much like Ben’s work itself, would be a shame to lose, and festivals like The Omagh Literary Festival: Honouring Benedict Kiely, and countless others across Ireland, exist in the hope that they never will. So long as we continue to celebrate our great literary past, and our finest contemporary writers continue to be inspired by those who came before them, these images and the work of those behind them will be remembered for many years to come, and we will be all the better for it.
Words by Andrew Maguire. The Omagh Literary Festival: Honouring Benedict Kiely takes place in the Strule Arts Centre from Friday 20th to Sunday 22nd October.