Broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, on 20 October, 2013
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My path crossed that of Benedict Kiely long before I realised it. Like everyone else I had been mesmerised by the rolling tones of the storyteller as he relayed his anecdotes and shared his insights on Sunday mornings through Sunday Miscellany. I had relished his books, his volume of short stories, ‘Journey to the Seven Streams’, his novel ‘Nothing Happens in Carmincross’, his wonderfully intense novella of the Northern Troubles, ‘Proxopera’, and many many more. I had the privilege of meeting him first in the mid-eighties, and any time I met him afterwards it was like bumping into an old friend.
Ben’s intimate knowledge of the Irish countryside and country life fascinated me, as did his phenomenal repertoire of stories, songs, and recitations. I was even more fascinated by his memory, his ability to recall any element of his encyclopaedic knowledge at will. During the early nineties, Guinness’s brewery treated the writers of Ireland to a series of complimentary lunches in different pubs in Dublin. It might have been to acknowledge the free promotion they had received from writers in the past, or the quantities of their product that had been consumed by this sector of the community. We did not question their motives, however, as we enjoyed their complimentary lunches and imbibed their complimentary drinks. At the end of one of these Guinness lunches I was sitting beside Ben and he started telling me the adventures of someone called Big Bill Enright, the greatest swimmer in Omagh town. He was still narrating when Frances, his wife, came over to say that their taxi had arrived. Ben excused himself, regretful to have been interrupted in full flow.
Six months later, I was seated for another Guinness lunch when Ben entered and sat beside me. ‘Jack,’ said he, ‘I was telling you about Big Bill Enright, the greatest swimmer in Omagh town’. And he took up the story exactly where he had left off, as if he had dropped out momentarily to go to the toilet.
When I was at secondary school in Ballyleague, Co Roscommon, my teacher, Fr Tom Foy was an ardent literary man, and persuaded the diocesan newpaper, ‘The Angelus’, to allocate a page to new poetry from local poets. Fr Foy himself edited this page, titled ‘Poets’ Corner’, and published my earliest literary efforts. My father was a blacksmith, but was working for Bord na Mona at the nearby Mountdillon Works. One day he was eating his lunch when a workmate beside him unwrapped his sandwiches and began reading the page of the ‘Irish Press’ in which they had been wrapped.
‘Hey, John, isn’t this your young fellow?’ he said, passing over the page of the newspaper to my father.
That evening it was spread out in front of me on the table at home. It was an article or column by someone called Patrick Lagan, who was sufficiently impressed by Fr Foy’s ‘Poets’ Corner’ to write an article about it. He extolled the virtues of having such a page in a local newspaper, and analysed the poems included. He finished off the article as follows: ‘I’d like to quote all these Elphin poets but space does not allow me. But since I’ve a particular fancy for the green land around Lanesboro, for its lakes, canals, and above all the spreading, majestic Shannon, let me quote a sonnet by Jack Harte of Lanesboro. He calls it ‘Lakeside Reverie’.
He then included the full text of the poem. And he ended up: ‘Every man, said George Moore – thinking of his beloved Lough Carra – has a lake in his heart. There’s a poet who would agree with him.’
I was overwhelmed. This man called Patrick Lagan had called me a poet and had re-published my poem in the Irish Press. It was my first step in the literary world, and I was enormously grateful to him. I cut out that article, with all its buttermarks and fingerprints, and pasted it into a brand new scrap book. I still have it to this day.
Towards the end of his life, Benedict Kiely published two volumes of autobiography, ‘Drink to the Bird’ and ‘The Waves Behind Us’. It was only when I read these that I found out Ben had written a column in the Irish Press under the name, Patrick Lagan. If I had known all those years earlier that it was Benedict Kiely who had praised my poem, I would have been even more overwhelmed.
When I mentioned to Ben that he had set my literary career in progress back in the sixties, he just smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I had some good times travelling the country, Patrick Laganing’. And I could sense another story coming on.