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Ulster Polyphony

Gerald Dawe

A North Light: Twenty-five years in a Municipal Art Gallery, by John Hewitt (eds Frank Ferguson and Kathryn White), Four Courts Press, 272 pp, €24.95, ISBN: 978-1846823640

The differing critical perspectives on how “the North” of Ireland is known, described and/or defined – the Six Counties, the North, Northern Ireland, Ulster, the north of Ireland, the Province, and so on – used to once bother people much more than it does today. The notion of “Northern Poetry” and “Northern Poets” that sits inside these geographical and cultural parameters has been tracked at great length by several leading critics and proponents since the publication thirty-five years ago of Frank Ormsby’s anthology, Poets from the North of Ireland (1979).

In effect, the history of poetry from that part of Ireland has, in the main, been dated from the mid-1960s, with much less public and indeed scholarly attention being given, until fairly recently, to the earlier generations, such as (shall we call them?) the Hewitt Generation of the 1930s and 40s.

Many of these writers – Robert Greacen, Roy McFadden, George Buchanan, George Reavey, Charles Donnelly – lived fascinating lives, sometimes based in Ireland, sometimes elsewhere – in London, or Coventry, New York or Paris. All of them inhabited a rich and diverse literary world. They travelled; they set up art galleries, poetry presses and magazines. They carried with them the distinctive accents of this place, inflected with the nuances and expectations, assumptions and experiences of their lives elsewhere. Their poems and journalism, their professional “careers” and political interests make a great story out of the literary mainstreams of mid-twentieth century cosmopolitan culture, a culture from which they were often too rigidly interpreted as being outsiders. Far from it.

In John Hewitt’s A North Light we have a valuable and timely insight into some of their lives and livelihoods, from Ireland of the 1930s to that of the mid-1950s and his departure from Belfast to take up a post as art director of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry. Hewitt was in effect leaving the official North, a region ‑ to quote his memorable phrase, “forever shuffling, cap in hand, to the Ministries in Whitehall, begging for alms” – a practice that was “partly an expression of the ruling clique’s inferiority complex”.

This book, edited with meticulous care by Frank Ferguson and Kathryn White, clearly shows Hewitt himself as a much-travelled, well-read, enthusiastic art lover with an independent spirit and sense of dissent that brings some surprise in its wake. Here he recounts, as a twenty-two-year-old, a trip to Paris in 1929. After listing the various paintings and sculptures he has seen and noted his (at times arch) responses, he continues, perhaps surprisingly:

[Jacob] Epstein’s flying Assyrian Memorial to Oscar Wilde, I sought for in Pere Lachaise, but for the sake of the man whose De Profundis was my prose model just then.

It is interesting to note that in the same year – 1929 – in Paris, Samuel Beckett would met George Reavey and mark the beginnings of a relationship that would include the establishing of Europa Press.

Reavey’s pioneering collaboration with such leading figures in the modernist movement based in the city – from Picasso to Beckett ‑ tells its own story: his work with the British Council in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, his life in London, New York and elsewhere since leaving Cambridge behind. A North Light reveals a parallel openness to experience that characterises this generation of northern Irish writers in defiance of the jaded and somewhat self-regarding historical caricatures of northern literary culture as “dour” and introverted.

Think of the young radical intellectual poet Charles Donnelly, originally from Tyrone, living his short life – killed in Spain during the civil war in 1937; or the troubled emigrant world of Padraic Fiacc, ninety years of age in April this year, divided as much between Belfast and New York as between gender roles and cultural identities; or think of the peerless Jimmy Kennedy, one of the great lyricists of the twentieth century. One begins to see the extent and scale of difference that lies behind the extensive and internationally recognised generation which would emerge in the North in the mid-1960s. And there are of course many others, some better known, others almost entirely forgotten.

As Frank Ormsby remarked back in 1979:

[George] Buchanan and [Louis] MacNeice were sons of clergymen and their scepticism and vitality of response to the world are partly at least reactions against this background. The same may be said of the poetry of WR Rodgers, who was himself a Presbyterian minister for eleven years.

Buchanan, who had a significant career as a journalist with the London Times, was of Scottish planter descent. Hewitt explored the religious, linguistic, civic and cultural roots of this planter culture in Northern Ireland. Clearly these local inheritances sit alongside the cosmopolitan in a productive line of critical exchange and artistic dialogue; not as a matter of one or the other, which is exactly what Hewitt’s A North Light reveals, as Arthur Armstrong (artist, 1924-1996) metaphorically rubs shoulders with Paul Cézanne.

There are of course critical absences that follow in the wake of A North Light. Where are the women poets to whom Hewitt refers, such as Meta Mayne Reid? (By the time the new edition of Poets from the North of Ireland appeared in 1990, only one woman’s name had been added – that of Medbh McGuckian, who would in effect open up the canon to a new generation.)

There has also been a growing understanding in more recent years of further poetic territories which inhabited the geographical and cultural space, such as poetry in Irish by poets from Northern Ireland, while the nature of Ulster-Scots and its linguistic and cultural role has become increasingly more acknowledged.

As John Hewitt’s account of his times suggests, it is important to read all these “local” influences, mini-histories and experiences and to do so alongside all the other ambitions and contexts that crucially flowed in and out of what had been – even in the difficult period of the 1930s, the dark days of the 40s, the economic crises of the 50s – a hybrid culture. It was just that no one was “letting on”.

The dominant public culture, divided along sectarian lines and fraught with official deference to opposing ideologies, power structures, class hierarchies, led many, such as the poet Robert Greacen and several of the significant visual artists of the time, including Nevill Johnson, to simply move on.

The critical mass which gathered around Belfast by the mid-1960s saw an extraordinary achievement recognised world-wide, with poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. And we should not take for granted the significance of that achievement. The younger “group” of poets – Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon, Frank Ormsby, Tom Paulin – has now been joined by a further group, of whom Leontia Flynn, Sinead Morrissey, Nick Laird and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn come to mind.

Nothing comes from nothing. It is the past that lies behind this powerful development. Though at times it feels like it, and sounds like it, the North is not frozen in time. Perhaps too much time has been spent identifying Ulster with a place, or versions of one place, and not enough time spent decoupling, or deterritorialising the culture and asking other questions about how attitudes have been formed there and why, rather than seeking to find or maintain some monolithic truth.

There has been and there needs to be wider recognition of the flux and change in fortunes that characterised northern society as much as those features – often but not exclusively, the more negative – which remain the same. In a sense literature has been the weathervane, or, changing metaphor, at the forefront, of altering images. While it is rooted in “the north” it is important to recognise that the place, and “northernness” are variable; created out of many varieties of cultural expression: not one thing.

This multifariousness of knowledge and experience is traced out like a palimpsest in A North Light. From Irish Gaelic to Ulster Scots, from the cultural influences of English, American and European art and literature, Hewitt’s account anticipates the widely acknowledged achievements of Louis MacNeice, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon. The particular popular, indeed, populist roots of northern culture to the (at times) spiky tensions within Irish literary culture are all here, like reverberations from the past.

In 1955 Hewitt returned to Dublin for a viewing of what was the latest Jack B Yeats exhibition. He had been less than enamoured with some of Yeats’s paintings but, as he says himself, “making my report in the Belfast Telegraph, I set out my recantation with some relief” and continues:

The overwhelming effect is of richness of imagination, of human heartedness, of marvellous colour, and the masterly manipulation of a highly personal style. With my sceptical northern nature, it has taken me a long time to come to terms with the Yeats enchantment: now I have to admit that the man is a magician.

Hewitt’s “sceptical northern nature” is worth a study by itself. Framed with all the visual art of Europe, Britain and Ireland that he knew, he could move from “enchantment” with Jack Yeats to the ballads of the Rhyming Weavers.

Hewitt’s poetry and prose, including this the most important account of his professional life as a curator and poet, justifies the claim made by Frank Ormsby and Michael Longley, editors of his Selected Poems, that Hewitt was the forerunner, “the prophetic predecessor of the so-called Ulster Renaissance”.

A North Light tells of the strains and stresses of the Hewitt Generation, but also, most effectively, corroborates what Seamus Heaney saw in Hewitt’s poetry as “those accurate, painful quests towards self-knowledge” at their most exposed and vulnerable.


Gerald Dawe’s Selected Poems was published by The Gallery Press in 2012. The Stoic Man: Poetry Memoirs is due from Lagan Press later this year.



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