Wednesday, October 1, 2008


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 18, Number 2 (February 2007), p. 18.

Over the past year I have been filling this space with musings on the various ways in which Irish writers—poets in particular—inscribe specific place. But recently my mind and my reading have drifted more toward writers of fiction, especially toward Benedict Kiely and his short stories. Indeed, taking the weight and the measure of Kiely’s Collected Stories, published a few years ago by Godine on this side of the Atlantic, I am struck by how so many of his stories dovetail with the theme of “A Sense of Place,” an essay he wrote a quarter-century ago in which he observed: “the interweaving of love and imagination with locality is something that our ancestors were particularly good at, back to the days of the earliest written records and beyond.”

Strictly speaking, Kiely is referring to the ancient dinnseanchas tradition of engagement with specific locale. Described by philologist Whitley Stokes as “a collection of stories (senchasa), in Middle-Irish prose and verse, about the names of noteworthy places (dind) in Ireland—plains, mountains, ridges, cairns, lakes, rivers, fords, estuaries, islands, and so forth,” the stories themselves, though preserved in manuscripts dating from as late as the fifteenth century, evidently evolve from a deep-rooted social, religious and legal recognition of place in the communal imagination dating from pre-Christian times. Perhaps needless to say, and Kiely himself would grant this readily, the latter-day attachment to place for the individual in Ireland tends to be far more complex, frequently involving a pronounced ambivalence if not outright antipathy toward the hold that place can have on the self.

In fact, the fiction of Benedict Kiely, a writer unabashed in his mostly affectionate attachment to his native territory—“Omagh in the County Tyrone, and . . . the verdant land around that Town,” as he has sketched it in his memoir Drink to the Bird—may be a good case in point for testing the central assertion made by literary critic John Wilson Foster in his essay “The Geography of Irish Fiction”: “The contest between place and self is crucial in Irish fiction.” Observing in Irish short stories and novels a “preoccupation with place as an unseverable aspect of self,” Foster detects as a recurring theme the phenomenon of “place transformed into memory of place and therefore transportable. When this theme is conscious, we have that recurring Irish topophobia, hatred of the place that ensnares the self.” Yet even when this theme is not conscious, he continues, even when a writer seems to be expressing a “love of place,” he or she is really expressing “a love of self which only in the short run contravenes the theme of self-escape. Ultimately, the Irish writer’s concern with place is evidence of a subjectivity he is unwilling or unable to transcend. The richer the imagination the more expansive and decorative the capacity.”

In particular, a story like Kiely’s “Homes on the Mountain” illustrates how a writer of fiction might resolve the tension described by Foster. Recounting a Christmas Day visit to the newly constructed home of the narrator’s Aunt Brigid, returned from Philadelphia to the roughest, wettest slope of Dooish Mountain in County Tyrone, “Homes on the Mountain” acknowledges the hold that nostalgia can have on an individual. For the first-person narrator of the story, twelve years old when the events take place and obsessed with collecting and reading—though not singing from—Irish sentimental songbooks, such nostalgia seems plausible. For his mother it seems unthinkable: “‘Dreamers,’ my mother said. ‘An American apartment on the groundwalls of an old cabin. Living in the past. Up where only a brave man would build a shooting lodge. For all they know or care there could be wolves still on the mountain. Magazines and gewgaws and chairs too low to sit on. With the rheumatism the mountain’ll give them, they’ll never bend their joints to sit down so low.’”

A typically entertaining Kiely tale, filled with humorous anecdotes and candid talk on the part of the characters, “Homes on the Mountain” yet insists that the reader consider several serious undercurrents that run through the narrative. One involves the validating poignancy of the uncle’s dream of building on the old homestead: “When my mother died and my father took us all to the States we didn’t know when we were going away whether to leave the door open or closed. We left it open in case a traveling man might pass, needing shelter. We knocked gaps in the hedges and stone walls so as to give the neighbours’ cattle the benefits of commonage and the land the benefit of the cow dung. But we left the basic lines of the walls so that nobody could forget our names and our claim to this part of the mountain.” As Kiely notes in the chapter devoted to “Exiles” in his book Modern Irish Fiction, “exile begins where life begins,” and thus even the wise pragmatism of the narrator’s mother cannot nullify outright the uncle’s emotional attachment to this otherwise most inhospitable spot on the mountain.

A more disquieting dimension to “Homes on the Mountain,” however, involves the side visit that the narrator and his father and brother make to a second home on the mountain—the unspeakably squalid cabin inhabited by the uncle’s hermit-like cousins John and Thady O’Neill. Recalling the physical squalor of pre-Famine Ireland that Kiely’s fellow Tyroneman William Carleton records in so many of his stories published in the middle of the nineteenth century, this hovel both houses, in the persons of those cousins, and symbolizes the psychosocial squalor that Kiely associates specifically with their remote region of Ireland. Even for the young narrator’s uncle, these cousins embody an inward grotesquerie that exceeds their outward appearance: “‘Aunt Sally’s two sons were there at our American wake,’ said my godmother’s husband. ‘Thady was never quite right in the head and . . . couldn’t let a woman in the market or a salmon in the stream alone. John, the elder brother, was there with Bessy from Cornavara that he wooed for sixty years and never, I’d say, even kissed.’” For the narrator, the visit seems only mildly disconcerting. For his inveterately nostalgic father, ruminating on the stunted love between John and Bessy, the moral of the occasion is ruthlessly manifest: “Something happens to it on these hills. . . . It’s the rain and the mist. And the lack of sunshine and wine.”

Tellingly, while illuminating the tension described by Foster, the duality of Kiely’s vision in this story may in turn be illuminated by a slightly different sort of place-related tension described by Seamus Heaney in his essay “The Sense of Place”: “I think there are two ways in which place is known and cherished, two ways which may be complementary but which are just as likely to be antipathetic. One is lived, illiterate and unconscious, the other learned, literate and conscious. In the literary sensibility, both are likely to co-exist in a conscious and unconscious tension.” Having grown up in the town of Omagh before settling in Dublin around the age of twenty, Kiely has maintained throughout his life a deep affection for the surrounding countryside of County Tyrone, including the specific setting of “Homes on the Mountain.” But situated between the backwater villages of Dromore (near which Kiely was born in 1919) and Drumquin (his mother’s birthplace), the barren plot on Dooish inhabited by John and Thady O’Neill is located within an area not only physically isolated from the rest of Ireland but also, as a result, socially, economically, and psychologically isolating for its inhabitants. Kiely knows very well, then, that something happens, indeed, on these hills located in what is known by geographers as the drumlin-drift belt of south Ulster—a range, thirty miles wide, of rolling glacial mounds numbering in the tens of thousands and running east-northeast across the border area between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. As E. Estyn Evans, whose life’s work as geographer was centered on the North of Ireland, observes in his book The Personality of Ireland: Habitat, Heritage and History (1981): “The landscape [of the drumlin country] has a charming intimacy. Roads winding their way through bushy hollows among the little hills bring constantly changing views, but horizons are always near and the vision restricted. One might think of the moulded drumlins as moulding, in turn, the outlook of the farmers who dwell among them.”

Yet, in his book Modern Irish Fiction, published a quarter-century before Foster’s essay, Kiely wrote: “I do not think that the word ‘hostility’ can be used to describe the relations between any Irish writer, expatriate or not, and the four million people living on the island of Ireland. A writer may trace his origins to the peasants on the rocks of Aran, like Liam O’Flaherty, or to the relics of the landed classes, like Elizabeth Bowen, or to the section of Ireland moulded by Trinity College, like L. A. G. Strong, or to Catholic Dublin, like James Joyce; he may abuse the island and stay away from the island but all the time the basic feeling is the nostalgia that has produced a hundred sentimental ballads.” That is ultimately the spirit that prevails in “Homes on the Mountain,” as in the great majority of Kiely’s stories set in Omagh and its surrounding countryside. While Kiely’s own nostalgia may be tempered by ambivalence, the miles and the years that separate him from what he has referred to as “that first, best country that ever is at home” allow him to arrive at a measured and compassionate understanding of the “something” that can happen in that distinctive social and physical milieu.

Interestingly, then, Kiely’s literary relationship with his place may thus be understood in terms of yet another sort of place-related tension, this one described by geographer William J. Smyth in his essay “Explorations of Place”: “Geography is a naive kind of discipline, even a foolish one, since it tries to marry these two perspectives: the outsider-perspective of the map, and the subjective, felt world of place. There is therefore always a tension in the discipline, and particularly in cultural geography, between knowing the world and experiencing it, between scholarly distancing and caring, between truth and love.”

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