The 1960s Revival
A period of literary rejuvenation
In the late 1950s and early 60s a torpor hung over Belfast.
As Derek Mahon wrote later:
‘If a coathanger knocked in a wardrobe/That was a great event.’
Writers from Belfast who enjoyed worldwide success tended to live abroad, appearing fleetingly in the city for a drink and a catch-up. Those who stayed felt that they were working against the wind.
But there was something growing in the city. The play Over The Bridge had caused huge controversy in establishment circles but had been warmly received by the public. And a political culture was being created which looked to the streets of Paris and campuses of the USA for inspiration.
Jazz and Rhythm and Blues were filtering into the city, and clubs such as Sammy Houston’s and The Maritime Club saw a singular Belfast culture of beat music solidify in the face of the showband epidemic in the rest of Ireland. Folk music too came into vogue, with clubs across the west and north of the city filling up with young people.
With the inaugural Belfast Festival being held in 1962, cultural activity was on the rise in a way that 1950s Belfast could not have imagined. The Festival brought many international artists to the city, including Ravi Shankar.
The fact that a master of Eastern music could be seen in our dusty city seemed to many people to herald a new birth. In many ways Belfast felt like a younger city. Increased affluence meant the younger generation was able to spend as never before.
Records and books were part of the waft and weave of what it meant to be young. The Belfast Festival recognised a movement in the city, publishing a series of pamphlets that highlighted the younger poets.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the 1960s saw a younger generation of poets and writers arrive in the city and grow to adulthood there. These writers sought new ways of looking at the life around them and enlivened the cityscape with new imagery.
They also began to analyse the city and open up new avenues of enquiry. These were the writers who saw clearly the city’s problems and were unafraid to write about them. Writers such as Derek Mahon who wrote of Belfast in his first official volume, Night-Crossing, in 1968 in a new and honest way.
Mahon recognised the incongruity of the city’s dark streets being placed within the romantic setting of the surrounding hills:
‘We could all be saved by keeping an eye on the hill,
At the top of every street, for there it is -
Eternally, if irrelevantly, visible’
Other poets included Michael Longley, who wrote his first collection in 1969, No Continuing City. Longley has remained one of the city’s strongest voices, with a knack of creating jarring images that halt the reader mid track.
This was also the period that the Co Derry poet Seamus Heaney was living in Belfast, working at St Joseph’s School and coming under the wing of Michael McLaverty and Philip Hobsbaum. Heaney has written sparingly of the city, with his Belfast poems being mostly clustered in his collection Wintering Out.
A cataclysm, however, was waiting in the wings. This extraordinary group of writers were in prime position to observe the civil rights campaign of the late 1960s, the Government’s attempts to suppress it, and the devastating early years of the Troubles – a challenge which they would all, in their own way, attempt to overcome.