My Passage to India  

IndiaIndia 2

I wasn’t unaware of the commotion in the media about the upcoming fifth anniversary of the so-called 9/11 atrocities. I hadn’t deliberately chosen to fly to India on the 11th September, 2006. I was going there for the launch of a collection of my short stories, translated into Hindi, and the publishers had a reading tour organised, taking in venues around Delhi and Mumbai. That was excitement enough for a writer, enough to keep his mind off threats, and portents, and significant dates.

So I didn’t pass much heed in late August when the rumour of a threatened attack on an aeroplane entered the media. The authorities were taking the threat seriously, though. A ‘spectacular’ on the fifth anniversary of the Twin Towers event was not to be discounted. Reports suggested that a suicide bomber might try to assemble an explosive in the aircraft cabin by mixing two liquids brought on board in separate bottles.

But I had other things to think about, a visa, currency exchange, medical precautions. With all of these ticked from my list, I set off  without a care. In Dublin Airport I scoured the shops for suitable presents for my hosts, and in the Duty-Free shop there was a special offer on two litres of Irish Whiskey. That was perfect. Alcohol was scarce and dear in India, as I knew from an earlier visit. Armed with two litres of Irish I would be a very welcome guest indeed.

I flew out from Dublin to Heathrow having left myself several hours to catch the connecting flight to Delhi. Just as well. Heathrow was the epicentre of this security scare. When I arrived in Terminal Two I could sense the tension. There was a feeling of disorder, not usual in airports. I passed no heed. I had to get to Terminal Four so I caught the shuttle. Arriving at Terminal Four, however, I was whacked by the sight of thousands of passengers milling around in front of an extensive security screen.

I hadn’t expected a security check between the two terminals, but luckily I had plenty of time. So I began filing towards the screening area. Then vague memories of the half-digested news stories began to surface and congeal in my head. The word ‘liquids’ began to shake a rattle right between my ears. And I looked down at my right hand carrying two litres of the best Irish whiskey.

When I reached the first security official, who looked like a bewildered soldier on sentry, I decided to play naive. I explained that I had bought the duty-free whiskey in Dublin Airport and was on my way to Delhi. He smiled ruefully but sympathetically. ‘Not a chance, mate. They’re confiscating baby’s milk, so you don’t stand a chance’.

‘Can I appeal to anyone?’ I asked.

He looked around the chaos in which he was engulfed. ‘Go ahead to the girl at the start of the electronic screening. She will know. But I am certain you can’t take that through.’

So I followed on to the girl he nodded at. ‘No, sir, I’m sorry, but we have to confiscate that,’ was her immediate reply to my query.

‘But I bought these bottles at Dublin Airport. Here is the receipt. And look the seals have not been broken.’ She looked a little uncertain.

‘Ask my colleague on the other side’, she said, and placed my two-bottle pack in a tray.

On the other side of the scan, her colleague, a corpulent black man of pleasant demeanour, smiled. ‘Where do you think you are going with that?’  He laughed. And I gave him my story too.

‘No, no, my friend, you have to leave that here with us.’ And he laughed again.

‘But it doesn’t seem sensible, because the seals are still intact. Can I speak to whoever is in charge. There might be a case for letting them through.’

The black man shook his head. He nodded behind him at a pretty white woman. ‘She’s in charge. Try your luck with her. But you don’t stand a chance.’

The supervisor too looked benign among the chaos. She stared at me as I related my sad tale once more. She listened, but kept staring. ‘How did you get those bottles through all this security?’ she asked in disbelief.

‘They weren’t sure, and they said to check with you. If it’s ok with you, it’s ok with them.’

She almost snorted a laugh. ‘Well if it’s ok with them, it’s ok with me.’

Scarcely believing what I heard, I thanked her, gathered my belongings and proceeded quickly before she had a chance to change her mind. How lively I stepped towards the aircraft. I had my two bottles of Irish to share with my friends, but better still, I had a story, a great story of how I got two litres of whiskey through Heathrow Airport when they were confiscating orange juice, and Coca Cola, and even water. It was a story to dine out on.

But the flight from London to Delhi left me time to think. The faces of those lovely people in Heathrow, trying to do their job, haunted me. What if I had been a terrorist? They had allowed their good nature to override their instructions. And if I had had nasty intentions, they would have been responsible for letting me through. That is where we are all vulnerable – in our humanity. And to be safe and secure we would have to set aside our humanity. Do we do that? Do we want to do that? Oh, let us not, let us not.

By the time the plane reached Delhi, I was hoping that Airport Security there might confiscate the bottles. I no longer had the taste for them nor for the story of how I coaxed them through the tightest security in the world.

Discussing Sufism and Peace in a War Zone

addressing conference

This piece was broadcast on Sunday Miscellany on 8 February, 2015.  If you would like to listen to the podcast, go to the RTE site:   http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/

At the centre of the top table is Salman Taseer who was assassinated a few months later by his own bodyguard – he took umbrage at Taseer’s criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws. On his way to court he was showered with rose petals by approving supporters.

I was close to Osama bin Laden when he was still alive. Of course I didn’t realise that as the bus conveying us from our well fortified hotel to the National Library of Pakistan meandered through the endless series of concrete roadblocks that punctuated the main thoroughfares of Islamabad. The steel helmets of soldiers peeping out from sand-bag bunkers, and the armoured cars before and after the bus, were further evidence that the country was in the grip of what we in Ireland might have described as an Emergency.

This was March 2010, and Bin Laden was living in the suburbs of the city with his family and friends around him. I was in Islamabad to participate in a Conference on the topic of ‘Sufism and Peace’. The motley collection of international writers and scholars included many who were deeply versed in Sufism. I myself was no more than somewhat informed on the subject. I had visited the shrines of Sufi saints in India. I had spent some time in a Dervish monastery in Turkey. And of course I had read some work of the Persian poet, Rumi.

It was a curious conference to be organised in Islamabad, with the full support of the existing Government, at a time when fundamentalists, particularly the Taliban, were perpetrating vicious attacks on Sufi shrines. The image in the West was that Pakistani officialdom was sympathetic to Muslim fundamentalists, and was conniving to assist them at every turn. But Sufism was anathema to the fundamentalists; they regarded it as a heresy that had no right to exist inside or outside Islam.

Sufism, like Islam itself, is a vast and varied religious tradition. In a nutshell it can be defined as the mystical brand of Islam. But nutshells and definitions are of little help in understanding something so complex. The central belief of the Sufis is that the experience of God is personal – and achievable, even in this life, by meditation and ascetic practice. They saw religious ecstasy as close to the aesthetic experience, so music, dance, poetry, could all be pathways to the experience of the divine. The practice and propagation of Sufism is based on the relationship of teacher and acolyte. Many of these teachers have been venerated as holy men, just as saints have in the Christian tradition.

Not surprising therefore that artists found much that was congenial in Sufism. Not surprising either that it raised the hackles of the Taliban who had carried out atrocities against Sufi worshippers at sites around Pakistan over the previous years. To them the veneration of saints was a form of idolatry.

But to judge by the absolute and unequivocal support of the government, Sufism had a very strong following in Pakistan. Presiding at each session of the Conference was a member of the Government, including the Minister for Education, and President Zardari himself, whose wife, Benazir Bhutto, had been assassinated four years earlier. The session at which I spoke was presided over by Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, who was gunned down by his own bodyguard a few months later because he criticised the country’s Blasphemy Laws.

Most of the delegates were from within Pakistan, and of course all of the audience. It was fascinating to talk with them and to get even a small glimpse into their lives. If I had closed my eyes, I might have been listening to the aspirations of the people of Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s. All they wanted was a peaceful world in which to rear their children and grandchildren. But they saw that world being torn from them by the militarists and the religious hard-liners. They talked of the manoeuvring of these self-appointed arbiters of theological correctness to control the minds of the ordinary people of Pakistan.

So, if I was not an expert in Sufism, what did I contribute to the Conference? I chose to talk about Peace. I started by reciting Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. This little poem embodied a concept of Peace for many generations throughout the literary and literate world. A sentimental concept. Peace implied withdrawal from life with its tensions and its responsibilities. I described the landscape of the Northwest, where the poem was set, the perfect place to escape to, to escape in. Then I brought them to two small rural towns not more than an hour’s drive from the said Lake Isle. Enniskillen and Omagh. I described what happened there. And they knew exactly what I meant. They had been there, except the names were different, Peshawar, Rawalpindi. And I put it to them that Peace could never be established by withdrawal from the world. And if peace was viewed merely as the absence of violence, or as an intermission between wars, there was no hope. Only a philosophy of engagement with the world had any chance, a philosophy that had to be more powerful than any creed that had heretofore sent people out to kill one another. That philosophy could not be based in any one religion. It had to transcend all religions. Or else it had to operate on a level that joined all human beings at the most basic level, beneath that benchmark line, where humanity unites us, but  religion or race has not yet defined nor divided us.

 

 

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Encountering John McGahern in the Censors’ Basement

26 Upper Pembroke St

The house in Pembroke Street, Dublin, that housed the Censorship of Publications Board, with their stock of banned books in the basement.

This is the text of a piece I wrote for Sunday Miscellany, broadcast on 25 January, 2015. If you wish to listen to the podcast, you can do so by going to the RTE Radio site:

 http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/programmes/2015/0125/675161-sunday-miscellany-sunday-25-january-2015/?clipid=1788089

 *          *          *

I first encountered, and fell in love with, John McGahern in a Georgian basement in Dublin in the mid-Sixties. It would probably have qualified as the seediest basement in Dublin at the time. But let me assure you that my infatuation with McGahern was purely literary.

 

When I signed up for a job in the Civil Service as an 18-year-old, I was allocated to the Department of Justice, and posted to an office upstairs in a house in Pembroke Street. On the Ground Floor of that building was the office of the Censorship Board, and in the Basement, behind locked doors and barred windows, was the store of books that had been banned.

 

By the 1960’s the banning of books in Ireland had reached its zenith. Thousands of books were banned as ‘indecent or obscene’. Many classics of world literature were unavailable in bookshop or public library. The list included, for example, ‘Brave New World’, and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ – which has been studied in our schools for many years now.

 

This Basement fascinated me, this vault into which the obscenity and iniquity and blasphemy of Ireland was collected, and kept under lock and key, like a silo of chemical weapons, for fear they might escape and contaminate the public. The catalogue of banned books was itself a formidable volume, hundreds of pages in tiny print.

 

I took an occasional ramble down to the Basement, but always found the door securely locked. My fascination had to be satisfied, however, and so I befriended the man who held the key to this underworld, a jovial old Dubliner called Charlie. When trust and brotherhood were established, I was soon able to express a casual interest in seeing the Censors’ Basement. No problem. Charlie agreed to give me a guided tour on our lunch break the following day.

 

It was a climactic moment for me as the heavy door creaked open and, obeying a furtive nod from Charlie, I entered Satan’s den. But, after that, it was all anti-climax. The rooms were crammed with books, mostly stacked on the floor, although there were some steel shelves with titles displayed library style. It was as if an original intent towards order had been abandoned to chaos, overwhelmed by the scale of the operation.

 

Charlie was the only source of order here. He seemed to know what books were in each bundle. He picked some up fondly and passed them to me for inspection. He seemed to have an intimate relationship with each volume, probably a result of having followed it from its original indictment, to its trial by the Board, to its eventual conviction and incarceration. I asked him if he had read many of the books. He shook his head. Reading dirty books was not for him. But he had no problem letting me borrow some.

 

The first book I borrowed was John McGahern’s ‘The Dark’. Its banning had been a major news story because the author had also been sacked from his job as a teacher. The modern reader would find it hard to see what could prove offensive in this lyrical coming-of-age novel. But I could see exactly, because the copy I was reading was the same copy that had passed around the Censors, and they marked all offending material in heavy blue pencil. A reference to a girl’s breast, for example, was strafed on sight.

 

Brendan Behan’s ‘Borstal Boy’ proved difficult to decipher, because of the continuous line of blue from beginning to end. But I managed. And progressed to an early novel by Brian Moore, ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’, then to Frank O’Connor, Sean Ó Faoláin, Liam O’Flaherty, Benedict Kiely, Samuel Beckett.

 

What an introduction for an 18-year-old to the great literature that was barred to everyone else. Charlie eventually tired of coming down to let me browse, and just handed me the key whenever I wanted it. So I regularly spent my lunchtime down there in the bowels of iniquity, blissfully browsing through my private library.

 

By 1967 the inanity of censorship was being highlighted and criticised. The then Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan, Senior, amended the legislation to limit a ban to 12 years. Suddenly all the great works of literature that had been banned over decades were released from captivity and were available in the bookshops.

 

Because so many great writers had been banned, there was a perception that it was a badge of honour to have been numbered among them. Twenty years later I met McGahern in person and became friends. And I put that point to him. From his reaction, I knew I had touched a sore spot. He told me that being banned hurt at the time, hurt deeply. Obviously the wound was still raw, even after twenty years of literary success.

 

After five years in the Department of Justice, I was moving on too. But it was with a heavy heart that I bade farewell to that wonderful archive of forbidden literature that formed my mind. I often wondered afterwards what happened to those sad volumes marked out for ignominy in unforgiving blue. Did they end up in a furnace somewhere in a final incineration of all our national sin?

 

Civilisation and Culture – Incompatible Bedfellows?

This is a talk I gave at the World Philosophical Forum in Athens on 1 October, 2014

 

The road to world civilisation and global citizenship seems to get bumpier with every passing year. The appetite of the human race for atrocity, cruelty, violence, exploitation, shows no sign of abating, despite the vastly improved access to education, information, and culture. Because the atrocities of the Second World War were so thoroughly illuminated, analysed, and condemned, we thought we would never see anything like that happen again. Then came Rwanda, and Srebrenica, and 9/11. We have been left scratching our heads in disbelief, in a state of total incomprehension. And since then the human race has lurched from crisis to crisis, from atrocity to atrocity.

We have always addressed this conundrum by focusing on war and what happens in war. Perhaps there might be a greater dividend from focusing on peace and what should happen in peace. What is peace anyway? The absence of violence? An intermission between wars? Maybe that is where the problem starts. We view peace in negative terms. – In situations where democracy does not operate, the recommended strategy is even called ‘non-violent’ protest.

We obviously need to re-define peace and re-adjust our thinking from a negative conceptualisation to a positive one. Would it help if we wrote it with an upper case P, made it a proper noun, Peace? Then our children could ask, ‘What did you do in the Peace, Daddy?’ And war could be re-defined as a disruption, as a break-down, of the Peace.

But to achieve that we would have to develop an ideology for Peace, a creed to which people could dedicate themselves and their lives with the kind of fervour that has been witnessed heretofore only when nations have gone to war. And at this we can only smile ruefully, because creeds and ideologies have been central to the problem of war. So we have to think more radically than before, beat our heads on some of the old stone walls of the mind that have never been challenged.

It might be self-defeating to frame our blueprint for a better world around the concept of Peace since the concept will inevitably be defined in relation to its opposite and will be limited as a result. So let us try the very positive concept of Civilisation instead. And we need to start by clarifying the relationship between Culture and Civilisation. There is an assumption that Culture, achievement and participation in the arts, etc, holds the key to a more peaceful and civilised future. Indeed the two concepts civilised and cultured are almost identical in the public consciousness. If, for example, we take up a book called ‘Greek Civilisation’, inevitably we will be treated to a presentation of the outstanding artistic and intellectual achievements of that country at a particular period in its history. But should the book not then be titled instead, ‘Greek Culture’? If Civilisation is to be defined in relation to how society is structured and organised, and if it is judged on how well or ill that structure benefits the least privileged members of that society, then periods of great Cultural achievement can rate very poorly in terms of Civilisation. For example, Greek cultural achievement was enabled by slavery and exploitation; during their Golden Age women were treated little better than their animals; so full marks to Greece for Cultural achievement, but for Civilisation we must reflect before delivering even relative accolades.

The same assessment would be true of other Golden Ages. Who would choose to go back and live as one of the poorest citizens during the Renaissance? Or to haul the stones to build the Pyramids? Ireland’s Golden Age was the period from the 6th to the 11th Centuries when its monasteries preserved and developed classical and biblical learning, patronised and nurtured the arts in metal and stone, in calligraphy and the illumination of manuscripts. During these so-called Dark Ages in Northern Europe, Ireland preserved the light of learning – it was almost a national endeavour – and, when the region settled down after the Barbarian Invasions, Irish monks carried and promoted that learning from Iceland through Europe down to the very gates of Rome. It was dubbed the Island of Saints and Scholars. Our Cultural achievement was extraordinary, but if our Civilisation were subjected to a stress test by modern standards, it would not have rated so highly. For example, women and slaves were part of the currency with which chieftains paid their dues to their superior lords, and raiding cattle from their neighbours seems to have been the favourite pastime of the less-culturally-engaged men.

This reflection shows that there has been very little correlation between Culture and Civilisation in the past, and that often Culture has flourished at the expense of Civilisation. Often too Culture has been developed for the aggrandisement of despots, and has been used as a screen to mask their atrocities. What are the implications of this? Does it put paid to our hopes that Culture will lead the way to a better world? Let us reflect on this next. Is it the case that atrocities have been committed typically by people who have never been exposed to the arts, whose spirits have not been refined by an appreciation of music, painting, poetry? Again recent past experience has shown the opposite – that the perpetrators of crimes against humanity have proved often to be lovers of classical music, painting, have even professed to be poets.

Clearly the thrust of my argument is that a flowering of Culture does not necessarily result in a flowering of Civilisation. But I go further than that: I suggest that by its very nature Culture is the antithesis of Civilisation, and that an understanding of this is an essential quantum leap required for the creation of a better world.

Culture and every cultural act is a private, personal, individual pursuit; Civilisation must be the opposite, a universal pursuit. There is nothing more individualistic than the creation and promotion of a work of art. The artist weaves from the sensibilities of his own individual soul, from his personal life-experience, and, in relation to his creation, he has all the protective instincts of a mother of a new-born child. And like a jealous mother, he sees only the good in his own creation, and only the bad in rival creations. Whether it is brilliant or mediocre by objective standards is immaterial – to him his work of art is the expression of something unique, something which he sees as important. And no matter how rational a person he may be otherwise, in relation to his own art he will be irrationally protective – and irrationally offended or hurt by criticism or ridicule. This is true of individual artistic creation, but it is true also of any more extensive cultural artifice created by a society, a tribe, or a whole nation. As an artist I want to assert that there is nothing askew in such a phenomenon, that it is normal, and exactly as it should be.

Religions, national mythologies, folk traditions, etc, by their nature all belong to the Culture category. They are collective creations but that does not make them universal. Like folk music or traditional dance they evolve over generations as an expression of the character, emotions, sentiments, aspirations of a particular group whether tribal, geographical, or simply like-minded. And their followers can derive enormous satisfaction and security from the sense of identity that is so provided. The problems emerge from the incompatibility and typical rivalry of competing cultural ideologies. The Cultural manifestation which we call religion is the single most formidable obstacle to the creation of a peaceful world. Religion has caused more bloodshed, more wars and hostility than any other factor of human experience. The cause lies in its militant individualism: ‘my religion is true, therefore all other religions are false and must be suppressed’.

What we have to pose as the antithesis to Culture is Civilisation. It is a positive concept, and connotes aspiration. What is required for the creation and nurture of Civilisation is the very opposite of what is required for the nurturing of Culture: from the start the thrust of the project must be universal rather than individual. Participation in the project should offer anonymity rather than fame. And the end product will be free of ‘character’ – it will not be tainted by local colour, the evidence of any creator’s hand, or the limitations of individual creeds or philosophies. How else can it be universally acceptable! How different from a work of art!

If the initial objectives of a global Civilisation were kept at a basic level, almost at the self-evident, they could provide enough of common interest to be beyond dispute. Who would contest that freedom from hunger is a universal goal to which everyone should aspire? Or the provision of a safe and happy environment for all children? The abolition of war as an option for sorting out political problems? In defining the aims of Civilisation the most basic requirements may be self-evident but some fundamental principles of Civilisation will inevitably create Cultural opposition. For example, if we say that a basic tenet of Civilisation is that all people are equal, and must be treated so, irrespective of gender, race, colour, religion, etc, we can see an immediate clash with the main religions that have traditionally insisted on a subordinate role for women. In such a case which should prevail, Culture or Civilisation? It is my absolute contention that Civilisation must take precedence.

What I want to emphasise is that Civilisation must be constructed from first principles, and then Culture must fall into line. At the moment Culture is accorded pre-eminence and Civilisation is perceived as what can be negotiated through compromise and the finding of common denominators between cultures. Multi-cultural societies are envisaged as the blueprint for future peace and harmony. It sounds better than it is in reality. In Britain, one of the most tolerant of countries, they are looking to ‘Faith Schools’, for example, as a foundation block of a multi-cultural society. But ‘faith schools’ are exactly what caused the polarisation of communities in Northern Ireland. Churches were given control of schools so children grew up as Catholics or Protestants, never encountering someone from the opposite ghetto. And everyone knows the consequences of that. Even though a ‘Peace Process’ has been in development for twenty years now, there are still obstacles to be overcome, and these are almost exclusively due to cultural animosity.

If we accord Civilisation precedence over Culture, will it lead to a philistine or characterless global society? My contention is that it can and should do the opposite. Just as Civilisation needs to discard the shackles of Culture in order to flourish, so Culture, freed from the inappropriate responsibility of creating world peace and harmony, should acquire wings and soar to new heights. Once the ground-rules of Civilisation are established, accepted, and implemented, then every society can and should nurture its own individual culture, can promote its arts and artists, can develop and practise its own spiritual beliefs. Culture can become the leavening agent it should be in every society instead of the poison it has become.

If we can keep Culture and Civilisation separate and distinct, then the objectives of both can be achieved to the betterment of the human race and of our planet. But we must keep them distinct. Over the entry gate to all the assemblies where Civilisation is being forged by citizens of the world there should be a notice: Please leave your Culture at the door, and collect it on your way home.

 

 

 

 

 

Cautionary Tale

An old bear would come into the village at the beginning of winter and settle down in a warm corner behind the bake-house wall. There he would sleep the cold months away contentedly with a smile on his face. The villagers passing by would glance at the bear and be cheered by his smiling countenance. Until one day a young girl came, looked at the bear, and said, ‘I bet he is not as cuddly and happy as he appears. I bet he is dangerous’. So she poked him with a stick. The bear waved it off without opening his eyes. She poked him again. Again he waved it off, still smiling, as if he were ridding himself of a bothersome fly. So she poked harder until he woke up. When he opened his eyes, and saw the young girl poking him, he flew into a rage and chased her down the street. The last words she was heard to utter, before he sunk his teeth into her windpipe, were, ‘I kept telling everyone he was dangerous, and no one believed me’.

My Christmas Turkey

Roof

My Christmas Turkey

I hesitated
couldn’t bring the hatchet down
on his scrawny neck. The pause
was fatal. Off he flew
to the refuge of the roof
and became a thing of steel.

Facing the bitter wind
he shows his arse
to the sheltering world
seeks only the full blast
of bitterness, to challenge it.

I probably could fell him
with a well-aimed cast
of the hatchet.
But what the hell
he has his sense of direction
has he not
knows what he wants to do?

I will feast instead
upon his voids and shadows
upon his absence
upon his spunky enterprise.

 

Bulgarian Translation by Valentin Krustev –

Моят коледен пуяк

Поколебах се.
Не можех да стоваря брадвичката
върху дръгливата му шия. Този миг
бе съдбоносен. Той литна,
намери си убежище на покрива
и се превърна в нещо от стомана.
С лице срещу безмилостния вятър,
обърнал задник
на заслонилия го свят,
той търси само яростната сприя
на мъката – да се опълчи срещу нея.
Аз вероятно бих могъл да го съборя
със точно мятане
на брадвичката.
Но, дявол да го вземе,
той има свое чувство за посока,
нали така,
той си знае какво желае и какво да прави?
А аз пък ще се насладя
на неговите прорези и сенки
на неговата липса,
на храбрия му подвиг.

—Джак Харт

Benedict Kiely aka Patrick Lagan

Benedict Kiely

Broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, on 20 October, 2013

Listen to it on the RTE Podcasts:

 http://www.rte.ie/radio1/podcast/podcast_sundaymiscellany.xml

 

 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.