In the wrong lane – a memory of Ben Kiely

A   small confession. I was home in Ireland from New York in September. All things told, it was a busy time. But on every occasion of coming home in the past I have tried to get in touch with my favourite Irish writer, Ben Kiely. 


I'd go by bus, or foot, or bicycle, or taxi, to his house on the Morehampton Road. He or his partner Frances would open the door and take me in, even unannounced. Ben had been important to me since a young age when I first read his short stories, which are amongst the finest of the 20th Century. For the past 20 years he has been one of my literary heroes. 

This time around, though, I was working far too hard at being busy. I had promised myself that I would drop in and say hello, but in the end I only had about an hour-and-a-half before I went to the airport. Small matter. I drove a rental car into Donnybrook and pulled up outside 119 Morehampton Road. It was a wet, grey day and the air felt pushed down. I was looking for a parking space but there was none. A cop car came up behind me. Its lights flashed. I gave them a wave and moved on, thinking: “Right, Ben, I'll be back.” 

Small memories returned. The way he'd sit in the front room of his house amid the books and the notepads. The pour of whiskey against the tumbler. The manner in which he'd bend his head into a song. The marvel of how he told stories: discursive, allusive, funny, wild. Walking along through Donnybrook with his cane in his hand, the rattle of bottles in the shopping bag. The way of his laughter. More stories than any man in Ireland. The songs he called up from distant times. 

Up near Baggot Street I turned the car around. Still no parking spots.  Time was running thin. I wanted to give him a book. If the worst came to the worst I'd just park the car and say hello, drop the book off. But he was sick and how could I just say a quick hello? Hellos were never quick with Ben. Sometimes they went on for days. There were stories of Irish writers who would go on the tear with Ben and a week later they would wake up in the place they were supposed to be a week before, and a better week they'd never had.

I did an illegal turn down near the shops in Donnybrook. A woman in a brand-new Merc gave me the middle finger. I blew her a kiss and she didn't laugh. I reversed again and corrected. I slowly crawled up the street. 

Still no parking. A bus behind me blared. I was in, it seems, the wrong lane. I would have blared my horn if I was behind me too. In life we seem to want to split our feathers and leave both halves in flight. To hell with it. I pulled the car up onto the pavement and hit the hazard lights. If nothing else, I'd just drop the book through the letterbox. Again, the cops pulled up behind me. This time a ban garda got out and told me with a distinct lack of ceremony that I'd better move or else. 

“Just a moment,” I said. 

“No moment,” she replied. 

I hopped in the car and took the next turn left. Well, fuck that. I'd see Ben no matter what. Again, I searched for a parking spot. The streets were clogged and apparently I needed some sort of disc.     

I was in that charged-up state now that I would find a spot around every corner. But each turn led from one to the other. They were all, it seemed, one-way. There was no going back. I began to feel the emigrants' panic. These were streets I used to know. This is the song of the returned man. Nothing was the same. It was sad and useless, but I was the one who hadn't given it enough time to see one of my old friends. I grew more and more desperate, charging down streets, looking for the right turn. The miles clicked up on the car until eventually I was up beyond Milltown and caught in a traffic jam for the M50 motorway. 

My confession: I sat in the traffic jam and had a fair idea that Ben would die. He had survived a long time and he had given his readers and friends an inordinate amount of pleasure, but here I was, stuck in a modern traffic jam, and only this story to tell, a book of mine in the front seat, a novel, signed to him, ungiven. Someone behind me beeped again. I was home and I didn't recognise where I sat. I saw the sign for the airport. I turned that way. 

Ben Kiely passed in February. He was, quite simply, one of the greatest Irish writers ever. He could make something of any story, even a traffic jam. He is missed. He is heard. Read him. He sings of where we were.