The Belfast Group
A staggering roll-call of stellar talent
Philip Hobsbaum, who arrived in Belfast in 1963 to lecture in English at Queen’s University, played a tremendously important role in encouraging a new generation of writers.
In his previous posts in Cambridge and London, Hobsbaum had organised a writers’ group that brought students, university staff and writers from the local community together to present work and offer criticism.
On his arrival in Northern Ireland, he arranged a Belfast version. The roll call of writers is staggering and included Seamus Heaney, Bernard MacLaverty, Derek Mahon, John Boyd, James Simmons, Norman Dugdale, John Bond, Stewart Parker, Paul Smyth, Arthur Terry, Joan Watton, Marie Devlin, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Iris Bull, Edna Longley, John Irvine, Michael Longley, Frank Ormsby and Michael Allen, to give just a taste of the writers involved.
The first meeting of the Belfast Group was hosted by Hobsbaum and his wife Hannah at 4 Fitzwilliam Street. The format was simple. Each writer whose work was to be featured that week passed Hobsbaum a selection of new work that would then be passed to Cilla Craig, the English Department secretary, who with the help of Hannah Hobsbaum would distribute the ‘Group sheets’ around the invited participants.
The Group would then meet and discuss the work at 8 o’clock on the following Tuesday.
After Hobsbaum's departure for Glasgow in 1966, the Group continued to meet under the direction of Seamus Heaney. Later Arthur Terry and Michael Allen shared this organisational role with Heaney, and the Group moved variously between the Heaneys’ home on Ashley Avenue to a nearby pub on the Lisburn Road, the Four in Hand.
The format of the meetings remained unchanged, though at some point coffee was replaced by pints.
Hobsbaum insisted on the approach of close textual analysis in dealing with each writer’s work that led to a greater seriousness in the writing that was produced. Jack Pakenham, now an internationally renowned artist, recalls ‘woe to any unsuspecting poet who could not stand over every single word written.’
Some of the writers identified with the Group have now rejected the idea that their writing was shaped by the activities of Hobsbaum’s collection of writers, but it is clear that the gatherings had an enormous effect on the self-confidence of those who took part.
Each writer may have chosen their own path but at the very least the Belfast Group proved that there were like-minded people within the city who took writing seriously. In a city that has often driven writers away from its confines due to a seeming indifference to literature, the Belfast Group gave validity to a writer’s life, and much of the activity during the 1960s and 1970s drew from this statement of intent.