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The Geography of the Imagination: Benedict Kiely’s Dubliners

Thomas O'Grady
p. 257-272


Benedict Kiely est peut-être mieux connu pour ses romans et nouvelles (et surtout pour son roman Proxopera) qui inscrivent le tissu social, culturel et politique du territoire dans et autour de sa ville d’enfance d’Omagh, comté de Tyrone en Irlande du Nord. Mais Kiely a résidé à Dublin pendant plus de 65 des 87 années de sa vie, inscrivant également sa ville d’adoption dans un certain nombre de nouvelles mémorables, en particulier « A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly ». Localisant les nouvelles de Kiely situées à Dublin et liées à Dubliners, le recueil emblématique de James Joyce, cet article engage une discussion sur la notion significative de Guy Davenport, « la géographie de l’imagination », pour éclairer la façon dont les nouvelles de ces deux écrivains importants, concomitantes dans leurs similitudes, sont finalement plus conséquentes dans leurs différences.

Entrées d’index

Studied authors :

James Joyce, Benedict Kiely

Texte intégral


1Surprisingly, given how virtually every word that James Joyce left behind has been subjected to microscopic scholarly scrutiny, relatively little attention has been paid to his own estimation of “Two Gallants,” the sixth story of Dubliners. In a letter he wrote to publisher Grant Richards in May of 1906, Joyce emphatically defended the story’s inclusion in what would one day become a landmark collection:

To omit the story from the book would really be disastrous. It is one of the most important stories in the book. I would rather sacrifice five of the other stories (which I could name) than this one. It is the story (after ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’) which pleases me most. (Selected Letters 87-88)

2Joyce’s satisfaction with “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” is understandable: employing, essentially, the dramatic mode—an almost minimalist reliance on dialogue, as opposed to third-person narration—to expose the myriad failings of the cross-section of Dublin political hacks and hangers-on that gathers in Richard J. Tierney’s Committee Room, the story epitomizes the “style of scrupulous meanness” that Joyce had described in an earlier letter to Richards as a defining quality of Dubliners as a whole (Selected Letters 83). Culminating in Joe Hynes’s equivoque “One grief—the memory of Parnell” (Dubliners 135), the story reflects, via Joyce’s irony-tempered realism, the extent to which, more than a decade after the downfall and the death of messianic Charles Stewart Parnell, Ireland had still not awakened from what Joyce would later inscribe as the “nightmare” of history (Ulysses 28). This, of course, would endure as a central theme of Joyce’s writing all the way through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and even Finnegans Wake.

3Obviously, “Two Gallants” does not resound quite the same way through the entire body of Joyce’s work, either stylistically or thematically; nor has it attained in its own right the iconic stature of other stories from Dubliners, particularly “Araby” and “The Dead,” that have been anthologized too many times to count. Still, a reader of “Two Gallants” might easily suppose that Joyce was most pleased with the way the tune played by the Kildare Street harpist—Thomas Moore’s “Song of Fionnuala” (“Silent, O Moyle”)—allows the entire story to reverberate with Moore’s many other Irish Melodies that associate the harp with Ireland feminized; or that he was most pleased with how that particular melody directs the reader to the ironic implications of Moore’s footnote to the song that explains how “the coming of Christianity” to Ireland, signaled by the ringing of a mass-bell, would herald a salvific “release” for Fionnuala, a daughter of the Irish sea god Lir, who had been transformed into a swan (Moore 46). Or a reader might suppose that Joyce was most pleased with how he engineered the story’s ending to exemplify that “spiritual manifestation” he described in Stephen Hero—that “most delicate and evanescent of moments” he labeled “epiphany”: how when the reader looks over Lenehan’s shoulder at the coin illuminated in Corley’s hand, “Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance” (Stephen Hero 211-13). This is the very emblem of uncouth betrayal that gives the lie to the deeply embedded notion of romantic Ireland (a recurring theme of Dubliners) long before William Butler Yeats would declare “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in the grave” (107-08).

4Actually, Joyce’s satisfaction with “Two Gallants” probably involved the amalgamation of all of those details and elements, along with the very simple evaluation of the story that he proffered to his brother Stanislaus not long after he had defended it to Grant Richards: “And after all Two Gallants—with the Sunday crowds and the harp in Kildare street and Lenehan—is an Irish landscape” (Selected Letters 110). In fact, Joyce’s confidence in his inscription of that landscape—the streets broad and narrow traipsed first by Lenehan and Corley together and then by Lenehan alone—anticipates by more than a decade his bold pronouncement, when writing Ulysses, that his intention was “to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book” (Budgen 67-68).

5Yet as that very landscape of “Two Gallants” helps to illuminate, Joyce does not have an exclusive claim on either Dublin or Dubliners. Clearly, the opening sentences of the story stake that claim:

The grey warm evening of August had descended upon the city and a mild warm air, a memory of summer, circulated in the streets. The streets, shuttered for the repose of Sunday, swarmed with a gaily coloured crowd. Like illumined pearls the lamps shone from the summits of their tall poles upon the living texture below which, changing shape and hue unceasingly, sent up into the warm grey evening air an unchanging unceasing murmur. (Dubliners 49)

6Yet, as registered in the opening sentences of Benedict Kiely’s signature story of Dublin, “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly,” that claim may be contested:

On a warm but not sunny June afternoon on a crowded Dublin street, by no means one of the city’s most elegant streets, a small hotel, a sort of bed-and-breakfast place, went on fire. There was pandemonium at first, more panic than curiosity in the crowd. It was a street of decayed Georgian houses, high and narrow, with steep wooden staircases, and cluttered small shops on the ground floors: all great nourishment for flames. The fire, though, didn’t turn out to be serious. The brigade easily contained and controlled it. The panic passed, gave way to curiosity, then to indignation and finally, alas, to laughter about the odd thing that had happened when the alarm was at its worst. (The Collected Stories 351)

7A “grey warm evening of August,” a “warm but not sunny June afternoon,” the crowds, the streets of Dublin…—mere coincidence of narrative “place setting”? Perhaps not.

8Or perhaps. For like Joyce before him, who declared to Grant Richards that “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories” (Selected Letters 89), Benedict Kiely recognized in his own right that the raw material of realistic fiction is grounded, literally, in place specificity. Obviously, this recognition determines so many of his short stories set in and around Omagh, County Tyrone, his boyhood town in Northern Ireland; indeed, with only a few exceptions, story after story in his substantial Collected Stories resounds with the author’s own version of the obsessive spirit of the narrator’s father in “A Journey to the Seven Streams,” the title story of Kiely’s first collection, published in 1963: “My father, the heavens be his bed, was a terrible man for telling you about the places he had been and for bringing you there if he could and displaying them to you with a mild and gentle air of proprietorship” (Collected Stories 200).

9Tellingly, in those few exceptions, set mostly in Dublin, Kiely is no less proprietary about the city where he lived for more than 65 of his 87 years. In fact, he is no less proprietary about Dublin than Joyce was, and yet the picture of Dublin—and of Dubliners—that Kiely presents is ultimately so different from Joyce’s. It would be simple enough to shrug away the difference by acknowledging that a span of a half-century and more separates the settings of Kiely’s Dublin-based stories from the settings of Joyce’s—that notwithstanding the wishful or wistful thinking of some readers that “Joyce’s Dublin” lived on and on (and lives on still), the city where Benedict Kiely made his life and made his living beginning around 1940 was not really the same “Hibernian Metropolis” that Joyce had engraved in his memory around the turn of the century. A more scholarly strategy might be to acknowledge that Joyce had a very specific agenda for his book of short stories: “My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country,” he explained to Grant Richards in May of 1906, “and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis” (Selected Letters 82). A couple of weeks later, he declared: “I believe that in composing my chapter of moral history in exactly the way I have composed it I have taken the first step towards the spiritual liberation of my country” (88). In fact, in projecting his writing as a “nicely polished looking-glass” (90), Joyce essentially established the realistic short story in Ireland as a viable and vital form of social commentary; Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain (among many others) owe much to his example. Benedict Kiely less so.

10But a little essay by the great American short story writer Raymond Carver may offer a much more interesting—and much more illuminating—way of contemplating the difference between Joyce’s and Kiely’s Dubliners. Carver observes:

Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don’t know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that’s something else… Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.
It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone.
It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time. (13)

11Obviously, Joyce’s “way of looking at things” has been dissected extensively by fully three generations of scholars. “Who Killed James Joyce?” Patrick Kavanagh asked—and answered—as early as 1951, in a poem he wrote for the special Joyce-centered issue of the magazine Envoy: “I, said the commentator, / I killed James Joyce / For my graduation” (51-52). There have been a lot more guilty parties since then, and obviously the Joyce industry is still alive and well and thriving.


  • 1 Incidentally, Davenport was the first student ever to write an Oxford M.A. thesis on Joyce, circa 1 (...)

12The Kiely industry has not been so robust; nor has it been so lethal. In fact, Kiely’s body of work has suffered not from over-attention but from the benign neglect that trends and tendencies in the literary marketplace and in academia can effect: Kiely has suffered not even from being misunderstood but from being un-understood, to adapt from Myles na Gopaleen a coinage he applied to early readings of Joyce (6). One way of redressing that un-understanding is by engaging with a sampler of the short stories that represent his “unique and exact way of looking” at his adopted and adoptive city of Dublin via a strategy described by American man-of-letters Guy Davenport in his essay “The Geography of the Imagination”: “The imagination is like the drunk man who lost his watch, and must get drunk again to find it. It is as intimate as speech and custom, and to trace its ways we must reeducate our eyes” (5).1 Davenport’s wonderfully cryptic comments may be interpreted to mean first of all that the writing process is largely intuitive, that the writer can only follow imagination’s lead and thus cannot easily reconstruct the incidental path that it cuts; and secondly that the reader thus needs to recognize that imagination confounds easy mapping—the reader needs to be alert to the sometimes subtle (sometimes even barely perceptible) and unpredictable twists and turns that the writerly imagination may have taken en route to its narrative destination, and the only way to have that alertness, paradoxically, is to allow oneself to become wholly intoxicated by what the writer has concocted and distilled. Given the astute observation by John Wilson Foster that “Kiely is hypnotised by his own verbal facility” (5) and another by Daniel J. Casey that “at times his story outgrows the printed page and has the author in its grip” (40-41), Davenport’s simile involving the drunk man’s watch seems altogether apt.

13And so does his simile about “speech and custom” which, taken literally, takes the reader back to that first paragraph of “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly”—actually to the last sentence of that first paragraph and the single brief sentence comprising the second paragraph—as a point of entry into “Kiely’s Dublin”:

The panic passed, gave way to curiosity, then to indignation and finally, alas, to laughter about the odd thing that had happened when the alarm was at its worst.
This was it. (The Collected Stories 351)

14With that announcement of narrative intention—or perhaps with the “alas” that precedes it—the reader is suddenly in the “intoxicating” midst of a Kiely short story. Abruptly abandoning the detached, third-person past-tense narrative of the opening sentences of the story, Kiely adopts an engaged and engaging present-tense account of the plight of a half-Japanese prostitute known as Madame Butterfly—“From a window on the top-most floor a woman, scantily-clad, puts her head out and waves a patchwork bed coverlet, and screams for help”—and before long the narrator has announced himself in the first-person, in effect denouncing the purported “omniscience” of the story’s beginning as he admits of the lop-sided protagonist, Pike Hunter: “Why he sagged to one side, just a little to the left, when he sat down, I never knew” (Collected Stories 351-52).

15As Declan Kiberd has noted in his essay “Story-Telling: The Gaelic Tradition,” many well-known modern Irish writers—Seumas O’Kelly, Padraic Colum, James Stephens, Daniel Corkery, Frank O’Connor, Mary Lavin—“employ in their stories a style which verges on the conversational” (20). Just a few years before the first publication of “A Ball of Malt” in The Kenyon Review in 1969, however, Irish short story master Frank O’Connor had complained in his book The Lonely Voice that “generations of skilful stylists from Chekhov to Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce had so fashioned the short story that it no longer rang with the tone of a man’s voice speaking” (xix). As “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly” exemplifies, Kiely set out to restore that voice. For although the narrator of this story of not-quite-requited love identifies himself only late in the narrative as a newspaperman—a common Kiely persona, not to be confused with the author himself—his presence is felt throughout in the remarkable variety of literary references and allusions that, even if conceivably attributable to the obsessively literary Pike Hunter, could hardly have been passed on intact from the prostitute Butterfly, his paramour, to the fireman Austin, her confidant, who is the narrator’s primary source for the anecdote on which the story as a whole is purportedly based. In a tour-de-force performance that includes quotations from and paraphrases of not only William Butler Yeats, who has a walk-on part in the story, but also Joyce, John Millington Synge, Edmund Spenser, Guy de Maupassant, and Gilbert and Sullivan, the narrator plainly reveals—and revels in—his own literary background and bent.

  • 2 For specific background details regarding “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly,” see Frank Kersnows (...)

16More than one Kiely commentator has suggested that his narrative style shows “characteristics of oral narrative” that reflect his exposure to the storytelling of seanchaí during summer visits to the Rosses in Donegal during his boyhood (Dunleavy 160). Essentially an urban folktale that Kiely admits “I built around many stories told me by men older than myself” (The Waves Behind Us 125), “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly” certainly exemplifies a feature of the oral tradition noted by J. H. Delargy in his important study The Gaelic Story-Teller: “the art of the folk-tale is in its telling” (13).2 But by way of that abrupt transition—the typesetter’s two hard line breaks, the first taking the reader to “This was it,” the second into the immediacy of the story—“A Ball of Malt” exemplifies another crucial feature of that tradition as well, as it creates for the reader the illusory experience of the story being heard not read: as scholar Vivian Mercier has noted in “The Irish Short Story and Oral Tradition,” the distinct and distinctive relationship between the narrator of a story and his audience is “the indispensable component of the oral tradition”—“without it, the finest of storytellers loses his function” (110).


  • 3 In his memoir Drink to the Bird, Kiely acknowledges his basic writerly strategy: “You pick a bit fr (...)

17In fact, when we “trace” (in the way that Davenport suggests) the meandering path taken by Kiely’s literary imagination, that relationship between narrator and audience proves indispensable even in his Dublin-based stories with more “literary” first-person narrators. In each of these stories, the narrator bears a resemblance to Kiely himself—each is a newspaperman or a budding writer: in “God’s Own Country” the narrator writes for the weekly Catholic newspaper The Standard, in “The Green Lanes” he works for a Catholic “missionary magazine” (perhaps based on the Father Mathew Record), and in “Your Left Foot is Crazy” he is a minor civil servant, originally from County Tyrone, who (like Kiely in the 1940s) is writing a book on William Carleton.3 The role of the narrator in “God’s Own Country” may be the most unusual, as the first six pages, a series of vignettes (including several cameos involving a character identified simply as “the big poet,” readily recognizable as Patrick Kavanagh), seems to establish the story’s focal point as the offices of The Standard with the narrator at the center of all of the activity. Abruptly, however—as abruptly as those line breaks in “A Ball of Malt” but without the announcement of “This was it”—the first-person narrator (with all the liability and unreliability associated with that narrative point of view) morphs into a third-person omniscient narrator who proceeds to recount, with full authority, fully unwarranted, the journey of a fellow newspaperman, Jeremiah Slattery, to the Aran Islands with two bishops (one Irish, one American) and a cameraman:

The night before the voyage they rested in a hotel in Galway City. The wind rattled the casements and now and again blew open the door of the bar in which Jeremiah sat alone until well after midnight, over one miserable whiskey. Nobody bothered to talk to him, not even in Galway where the very lobsters will welcome the stranger. The bar was draughty. He wore his black greatcoat, a relic of his clerical ambitions. (Collected Stories 306)

18The best explanation for this sort of unconventional shift may be embedded in the admiring review of Kiely’s collection of stories The State of Ireland published on the front page of the New York Times Book Review in 1980: “His skill is such that we have to distinguish between writing stories and telling stories. Once you have seen how Mr. Kiely builds a narrative, you must admit that he is not doing what Joyce or Chekhov or Maupassant were doing. His is a different art altogether.” Coincidentally enough, that review was written by Guy Davenport (“An Irish Story” 1).

19The first-person narrators in “The Green Lanes” and “Your Left Foot is Crazy” operate more conventionally within their narrative structures. In “The Green Lanes” the eighteen-year-old editorial and circulation assistant at the “missionary magazine” has his eyes opened to the ways of the world—or at least to relationships between the sexes—not only by a forty-year-old mother-bridled drinking partner who is a self-styled womanizer but also by a sixty-year-old hunchbacked colleague who, twenty-one years earlier, fathered a child by a friend’s wife. In “Your Left Foot is Crazy,” the narrator-protagonist learns those ways of the world on his own, thanks to a pair of identical twin sisters and another pair of young women up from the country whom he and his friend Peter meet at a ballroom dancing academy near the Liffey. In each of these stories Kiely activates his impressive ventriloquial skills to invest his narrator with the ability to tell a story. Describing the twins, the narrator of “Your Left Foot is Crazy” observes:

One of them affected, as we’d have said in another century, bright colours. I’m talking now about the twins. The other went abroad in more demure shades. Brenda was the bright one. They were handsome girls, both of them: if one was the other almost had to be. They spoke well, the good, clear, unaccented (almost) English of the Dublin middle-class: as in Bernard Shaw. They had dark-blue berets and brown eyes that were always smiling. They were good-humored but never laughed out loud, not, at any rate, while we were with them. They were self-assured, capable I’d say, good managers, good housekeepers, the pride and joy of their parents, and rightaway I could see how they had Peter rattled. One of them would have rattled a veteran. Two was, or were, by much too much or too many. (Collected Stories 620)

20The narrator of “The Green Lanes” is not so loquacious, but what these stories have in common with each other and also with “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly” and “God’s Own Country” is that forged relationship, described by Mercier, between the “speaker” in the story and the “listener”/reader.


21As Colum McCann observes in his fine Introduction to The Collected Stories, “in all of Kiely’s stories, the writer and reader become twinned in an act of verbal and personal intimacy” (xiii). Indeed, Kiely’s narrators in his Dublin-based stories—or Kiely himself through those narrators—charm the reader into entering wholly into the world of clerks and newspapermen, domestic workers and dance instructors, priests and drinkers and prostitutes: the world of teeming streets, of bone-numbing and spirit-chilling offices, of green parks and green lanes where lovers rendezvous, of warm and welcoming pubs.

  • 4 This photo, from the archives of The Irish Times, appears on the cover of Peter Costello and Peter (...)

22But his narrators do not merely charm—they also disarm; and it is that disarming quality that allows his stories their ultimate power not just to entertain but also to move the reader profoundly. An apt metaphor for this effect might be the famous photo of Flann O’Brien/Brian O’Nolan/Myles na Gopaleen that shows that multifarious man-of-letters—“three men, or more, in one” Kiely once described him (The Waves Behind Us xii)—standing by a roadworks detour sign on Clifton Avenue in Monkstown; the sign, with an arrow pointing toward O’Brien/O’Nolan/Myles, reads: DUBLIN DIVERSION.4 Kiely’s narratives likewise operate as “Dublin diversions,” leading the reader by a circuitous route indeed—usually involving hilarity of one sort or another—to a place that, along the way, the reader probably did not suspect he was headed. Recognizing that as Kiely’s career advanced his stories became “more subtle, more suggestive, darker, more complex,” Daniel J. Casey, one of his earliest commentators, assured readers: “While they seem to lack narrative unity, . . . [these] stories move in loose psychological streams that have a tendency to keep doubling back on one another, melding in a single cumulative effect” (32). Colum McCann offers similar assurances: “Often the stories have double or triple helixes in operation, stories wound around other stories, layers of narration that would confound even the best architects, and yet the buildings remain essentially simple, we do not get lost inside them” (xiii). Perhaps American novelist John Gardner’s rich image in The Art of Fiction of how a writer composes an utterly coherent world begins to describe Kiely’s specific artistry in this regard:

to make us see and feel vividly what his characters see and feel—to draw us into the characters’ world as if we were born to it—the writer must do more than simply make up characters and then somehow explain and authenticate them (giving them the right kinds of motorcycles and beards, exactly the right memories and jargon). He must shape simultaneously (in an expanding creative moment) his characters, plot, and setting, each inextricably connected to the others; he must make his whole world in a single, coherent gesture, as a potter makes a pot… (46)

23“Bloodless Byrne of a Monday” is a good example of this art and craft. It is also a good example of a Kiely story that achieves that effect of “verbal and personal intimacy” remarked by McCann even while employing a less personal and less intimate third-person voice.

24While, strictly speaking, the protagonist of this story is not a Dubliner—and certainly not a Dublinman (“there is a difference” Kiely has pointed out emphatically [Dublin: Small Oxford Books vi])—the story itself has Dublin written all over it. Perhaps, as with “A Ball of Malt,” there is a whiff of urban folklore to this tale of Arthur, a hungover Sligoman who wanders into a recently vacated Dublin hotel room and briefly assumes the identity of its previous occupant, a fleeting figure named Mulqueen, ordering brandy go leor from room service while lounging in the man’s bed and taking telephone calls from his wife, his mistress and a business associate. As this passage displays, Kiely proves himself the equal of James Joyce in deploying Ulysses-like “interior monologue” (think Leopold Bloom, though, rather than Stephen Dedalus) to convey the state of his protagonist’s mind—and body—as Arthur skirts past the porter in the hotel foyer:

This morning anything is possible. He raises his left hand to reinforce his nod, and passes on. Upstairs or downstairs or to my lady’s chamber? Destiny guides him. So he walks upstairs, soft carpets, long corridors, perhaps an open, detached bathroom even if he has no razor to shave with. Afterwards, barber’s shave, oh bliss, oh bliss. He finds the bathroom and washes his face and those tired eyelids and tired eyes, and combs his hair and shakes himself a bit and shakes his crumpled suit, and polishes his shoes with a dampish handtowel. A bit too risky to chance a bath and total exposure, although he has heard and read the oddest stories about deeds performed in hotel bathrooms by people who had no right in the world to be there. Bravely he steps out again. A brandy in the bar, and the road to the bank and his own hotel and sobriety, and home: Bright sun before whose glorious rays…
Before him in the corridor a door opens and a man steps out.
(Collected Stories 578)

25But as Guy Davenport remarked admiringly in his review of The State of Ireland, “A Kiely story is usually several stories at once, for his finest habit is to tell a story within a story to illustrate a point, and his characters all have stories to tell too” (“An Irish Story” 37). In this case, the stories within the story—including (but not limited to) three Dublin dock workers exchanging anecdotes about a frightfully anemic, toothless, pigeon-fancying, feline-despising, and ultimately vengeful drayman named Byrne, Arthur’s nostalgic reminiscences of his annual male-bonding reunion in Dublin with former schoolmates, and Mulqueen’s apparent personal troubles (domestic, romantic, and professional)—finally culminate in Arthur’s grappling, through the haze or the glaze of morning-after brandies, with the recent death of one of his schoolmates and with vague misgivings about marital so-called bliss. After leaving the hotel, Arthur discovers that Mulqueen’s own life of quiet desperation led him to jump into the Liffey, from which he was ignominiously retrieved. Arthur ponders the implications of his having briefly played Mulqueen in his hotel room: “He has never seen the man’s face. Shared his life for a bit. Shared it? Lived it” (584). Obviously, the reader is enjoined to conclude, along with Arthur, that life could be worse.

26But it could also be better. And with that recognition the reader moves a bit deeper into Kiely’s Dublin landscape—the geography of his imagination—in search of that drunk man’s watch. For “Bloodless Byrne of a Monday” exemplifies how, almost invariably, a more ominous tone or note resonates behind even the most self-delighting voices of Kiely’s narrators and how the hilarity of even his most “diverting” stories tends to moderate if not into the sobering contemplativeness experienced by Arthur (and shared by the reader) then at least into an unsentimental poignancy capable of expressing otherwise ineffable aspects of the human condition.

27Another of Kiely’s Dublin stories, “Through the Fields in Gloves,” represents an extreme version of this tendency, as establishing his protagonist as the center of consciousness for the narrative, Kiely takes the reader right into the mind of a certifiable Dublin eccentric, or psychotic: a man who has made a name for himself—“Peter the Painter”—by way of his compulsion to spray red paint on slender young women. Apparently this compulsion was triggered by his overhearing a couple of lines from a minor poem by minor poet Frances Cornford that he took as a summons to prove his love for his exceedingly obese wife:

Once in a pub, he could remember exactly when, because it wasn’t often he darkened the door of a pub, redfaced bastards on whiskey and overdressed bitches drinking gins and tonics that cost the moon and sixpence, and a fat woman walked past to the loo as they called it nowadays and a drunk at the counter said why do you walk through the fields in gloves fat white woman whom nobody loves: and then said to the barman that that was a poem, as if anybody wouldn’t have known, even if it wasn’t much of a poem.Misery Martha can’t walk through the fields but she loves nice gloves. She has lovely small hands, not too pudgy about the knuckles and how did that drunk know that nobody loved the fat woman who walked out to the loo? (Collected Stories 604-05)

28But as Kiely reveals through the artfully managed interior monologue of the story, his protagonist is clearly haunted by memories of his obsessively gambling mother, “a thin, quickwalking, brownfaced woman, hat pinned on one side, sixpence each way, never more and you couldn’t have less, up and down the street all day long to the bookies, she could run like a hare” (604), and the squalid wretchedness of his domestic life is exacerbated by Martha’s devoutly religious live-in cousin Julia who spouts malapropisms about “Looseyah” (Sr. Lucia of Fatimah fame) and “the Children of the Atom” (606). Notwithstanding his belief that he is somehow defending the honor of his grossly overweight and chair-bound wife, his own obsession with assaulting young women with spray paint has about it at least a hint of deep-rooted misogyny. Perhaps the reader gets to know “Peter the Painter” a bit too well, as the “diverting” element here seems to produce a textbook instance of what Vivian Mercier described in The Irish Comic Tradition, his study of eleven centuries of comic expression in Irish literature and culture: “It seems to me that there is a laugh—call it the aesthetic laugh, if you wish—which laughs at whatever is not beautiful. Essentially, this laugh is provoked by the grotesque” (48).

29After an impressive array of “diversionary” tactics—literary allusions (William Carleton, William Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson), historical allusions (the practices of Gaelic poets, Napoleon, the Battle of the Bulge), references to movies and movie stars (Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron), the naming of traditional Irish dances (the Walls of Limerick, the Siege of Ennis, the High Caul Cap), glosses on Ballyvourney in West Cork and St. Gobnait, and sundry sidetracking anecdotes—“Your Left Foot is Crazy” ends rather grimly too, with the narrator-protagonist recounting first his discovery that the identical twin sisters had been randomly switching between him and Peter on dates and then his discovery that the two winsome country girls he and Peter had met at the dance academy had died in a bicycle accident: “They got two and a quarter inches, single-column, provincial papers please copy, and I kept the clipping for a long time. And that was that, the man’s bicycle one in the saddle one on the bar, brakes that snapped and the stone bridge at the foot of the precipice of a hill…” (627). “The Green Lanes” ends a bit more ambiguously, a couple of decades on, with the image of the now elderly hunchback being helped across the street by his handsome grownup son—“They were talking and laughing and he didn’t see me,” the narrator remarks—contrasted with the image of the once-cocky womanizer dying in his mother’s home: “His face was thin and old the last time I saw him and his sharp voice was failed to a feeble sort of a whisper. He was aged all of a sudden, I thought, but then I remembered that I was, at that moment, the age he was when I first met him. That’s the way it is in being friendly for a long time with people older than yourself” (Collected Stories 350). The narrator is wiser, yes; but he is also older.


30Has the drunk man found his watch yet? Not quite. But perhaps locating both “Two Gallants” and “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly”—or at least the way that each story ends—relative to a specific moment in Joyce’s Ulysses will help a reader to narrow the search for a remedy for the “un-understanding” of Benedict Kiely’s distinctive vision and narrative strategy vis-à-vis Joyce’s Dublin and Dubliners. That moment takes place in the “Aeolus” episode, which is set in the offices of The Freeman’s Journal (and the Evening Telegraph). Under the headline of DEAR DIRTY DUBLIN, Stephen Dedalus is about to share his “Parable of the Plums” with a motley assembly of newspapermen, idlers and scroungers (including Lenehan from “Two Gallants”). A tale of “two Dublin vestals” eating plums atop Nelson’s Pillar on Sackville Street, Stephen’s sketch is his first fully realized attempt to register Dublin as the Joycean “centre of paralysis”: too “giddy” to look outwards and “too tired to look up or down or to speak,” Anne Kearns and Florence MacCabe are content merely to gaze obliviously at the statue of the “onehandled adulterer” Lord Nelson, in Stephen’s mind an ironically obvious symbol of the vitality—in this case a metaphorical virility—so wanting in turn-of-the-century Dublin. Steeling himself before these men whose prowess with words has already made him blush, “his blood wooed by grace of language and gesture,” Stephen considers what is at stake, his thinking conveyed by Joyce through interior monologue: “Dubliners.” Rising to the occasion, Stephen then emboldens himself, his thinking again conveyed via interior monologue: “On now. Dare it. Let there be life” (Ulysses 121-22).

31For Stephen Dedalus, this imperative amounts to a version of Raymond Carver’s “unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking”—essentially, the exigency for Stephen to inscribe “life” not simply as he knows it experientially but rather as he conceives it in an exact literary manner. Of course, this was Joyce’s imperative too, as just weeks after the fictional Stephen shares, on June 16th of 1904, his “Parable of the Plums” with his fellow men of words in the newspaper office, the real-life Joyce announced in a letter to his friend Con Curran: “I am writing a series of epicleti—ten—for a paper. I have written one. I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city” (Selected Letters 22). Eventually, Joyce’s “unique and exact way of looking” would be reflected in the way that “Two Gallants” ends with the death of romance in Ireland exposed “epiphanically” by Corley’s cynical exploiting of the slavey so that he and Lenehan can have a night of boozing at her expense: “Corley halted at the first lamp and stared grimly before him. Then with a grave gesture he extended a hand towards the light and, smiling, opened it slowly to the gaze of his disciple. A small gold coin shone in the palm” (Dubliners 60).

32In telling contrast, Kiely’s story has, in effect, two endings. The second one involves Butterfly, the half-Japanese Dublin prostitute who had been able to reciprocate only within the limits of her profession Pike Hunter’s commitment to her, which was triggered by a chance meeting that he had witnessed on a Dublin street between the aged William Butler Yeats and his beloved Maud Gonne: “Something odd had happened to him: poetry, a vision of love?” (Collected Stories 355). “Poor Pike,” she says of the timid, retiring civil servant who hoped to win her with the words used by Yeats to woo that woman Homer sung: “he’d puke you with poethry” (360). Eventually, taking heed of the exemplary tale told to her by fireman Austin McDonnell of Lady Emma Hamilton’s rise from lowly slavey to celebrated mistress of Lord Nelson, Butterfly proves susceptible to a different vision: “She may have been wearied by Pike and his sad attachment to poetry, but she rose to the glimmering vision of herself as a great lady beloved by a great and valiant lord. A year later she married a docker, a quiet hard-working fellow who had slowly sipped his pints of black porter and watched and waited all the time” (367-68).

  • 5 This article revises a talk, titled “Through Streets Broad and Narrow: Benedict Kiely’s Dubliners,” (...)

33Pike’s ending comes first. Unraveling into clinical madness after a “fatally poetic” rendezvous atop Howth Head, where he tried to recreate the scenario of Yeats’s early (and not especially striking) poem “The White Birds”—“I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea!”—Pike is committed, the narrator tells us, to “Saint Patrick’s Hospital where, as you may all remember, Dean Swift died roaring” (366). Effectively, the story concludes with the narrator’s audience—or Kiely’s readers—not quite roaring with the laughter that the story’s opening may have provoked. Call that last laugh “the aesthetic laugh, if you wish”: ultimately, “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly” emblematizes how Benedict Kiely’s “proprietary” view of Dublin and of Dubliners stands on equal footing with the distinctive signature of James Joyce’s “Irish landscape.”5


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---. The Collected Stories of Benedict Kiely. London: Methuen, 2001. Print.

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1 Incidentally, Davenport was the first student ever to write an Oxford M.A. thesis on Joyce, circa 1951.

2 For specific background details regarding “A Ball of Malt and Madame Butterfly,” see Frank Kersnowski, “Ben Kiely and His Ball of Malt,” Journal of the Short Story in English 1 (Autumn 1986), 17-27.

3 In his memoir Drink to the Bird, Kiely acknowledges his basic writerly strategy: “You pick a bit from here and a bit from there” (147). He also admits: “My father told me never to spoil a good story for the sake of the truth” (52).

4 This photo, from the archives of The Irish Times, appears on the cover of Peter Costello and Peter van de Kamp, Flann O’Brien: An Illustrated Biography (London: Bloomsbury, 1987).

5 This article revises a talk, titled “Through Streets Broad and Narrow: Benedict Kiely’s Dubliners,” presented at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin on July 30, 2013.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Thomas O'Grady, « The Geography of the Imagination: Benedict Kiely’s Dubliners », Journal of the Short Story in English, 66 | 2016, 257-272.

Référence électronique

Thomas O'Grady, « The Geography of the Imagination: Benedict Kiely’s Dubliners », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 66 | Spring 2016, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 07 août 2020. URL :


Thomas O'Grady

Thomas O’Grady is Professor of English and Director of Irish Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He has published articles, essays and reviews on Irish literary and cultural matters in many scholarly journals, including Éire-Ireland, James Joyce Quarterly, Études Irlandaises, Irish University Review, New Hibernia Review, Joyce Studies Annual, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, The Irish Review, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, The Recorder, The Clogher Record, An Sionnach: A Journal of Literature, Culture, and the Arts, and Nua: Studies in Contemporary Irish Writing.

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