Benedict Kiely, 87; author explored effects of Ireland’s partition in numerous works

Times Staff Writer

Benedict Kiely, an Irish author and journalist who wrote about the small-town Northern Ireland of his youth with humor and appreciation for life’s absurdities, died Friday, the Arts Council of Ireland announced on its website. He was 87.

Kiely, who also wrote poignantly about the effects of the partition of Ireland in the 1920s, died in Dublin, where he had been a resident for almost 70 years. The cause was not given.

“His exquisite prose explored and celebrated humanity in all its complexity and intrigue,” Arts Council Director Mary Cloake said in a statement. He was “a major figure in Irish arts and literature,” she said.


Kiely was born in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. His first book, “Counties of Contention” (1945), is a nonfiction study of the impact of the 1920 partition that divided Ireland in two. He called the effect a spiritual wound and predicted ongoing civil strife.

He explored the subject in fiction as well. In “Proxopera,” Kiely’s widely acclaimed novella of 1977, a retired teacher is ordered by Irish Republican Army soldiers to plant a bomb in his town in Northern Ireland. If he refuses, his family will be killed.

The story was later included in “The Collected Stories of Benedict Kiely” published in 2004. “Proxopera” is “a masterpiece of protest fiction,” noted the New Criterion in a 2004 review of the collected stories.

He returns to the theme in his novel “Nothing Happens in Carmincross” (1985). This time the violence erupts at the end of a couple’s romantic drive north to a wedding. The book is “both a novel and a discourse and extraordinary both ways,” Richard Eder wrote in a review for the Los Angeles Times.

Kiely wrote almost a dozen novels and many short stories and novellas. His fiction builds on tragedy, impermanence and loss. Yet “his essential sunniness nearly always sheds a softening light on these themes,” wrote the New Criterion in 2004.

Kiely was born Aug. 15, 1919, in the town of Dromore and raised in nearby Omagh. He entered Jesuit training as a young man but left after about a year. He moved to Dublin and graduated from the National University of Ireland before he went to work at the Irish Independent newspaper and later the Irish Press, where he was literary editor for more than 10 years.


For some time he was regularly featured on the Irish public broadcasting network.

He married Maureen O’Connell in 1944 and had four children. His survivors include two sons and a daughter.

Starting in the early 1960s, Kiely’s stories appeared in the New Yorker magazine, Kenyon Review and other U.S. publications. His first book to be published in the United States was “The State of Ireland, A Novella and Seventeen Stories” (1980).

His light-handed touch shows in such stories as “A Great God’s Angel Standing,” in which a priest and his friend visit a mental institution. The friend is mistaken for the priest and is called on to hear a resident’s confession.

“Mr. Kiely’s vision, for all his sense of the tragic, is essentially comic,” wrote Guy Davenport in a 1980 review of the book for the New York Times. His stories reveal “a deep, unyielding tolerance for ... human experience,” Davenport wrote.

Several of Kiely’s novels were banned in Ireland. “There Was an Ancient House,” published in 1955, was censored for a scene of a woman bathing in a lake. “If you weren’t banned it meant you were no bloody good,” Kiely said in a 1999 interview with the Irish Times.

For five years in the 1960s, he lived in the United States, where he was a writer in residence at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., and later a visiting professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He was also a writer in residence at Emory University in Atlanta.

Along with fiction and nonfiction, he wrote a travel book about Ireland and several memoirs.