Writers on Writers
Poet Martin Mooney and playwright Martin Lynch discuss their influences at the Linen Hall Library
The only downside to these two carefully-composed presentations by contemporary authors on the Belfast writers who inspired them – part of the Linen Hall Library's inaugural Writers on Writers Festival – is the relatively limited attendance that each receives. Perhaps this is due to the time of day; both start around the 6pm mark. Dinner time, in other words.
Martin Mooney is here to discuss the underrated poet, Roy McFadden (1921–99). One of Mooney's reasons for reclaiming McFadden is because, as he puts it, the late poet seemed ‘ultimately aware of, and reinforced by, his own limitations’. His detail and devotion to the ‘small-scale, domestic and nostalgic expressions’ lead Mooney to consider his life and work.
Essentially, Mooney argues, ‘If the poet lives long enough and doesn’t burn his books and bridges, it’ll lead to self-knowledge of one kind or another.’ But McFadden’s poems also centre on people and diversely so, from Paul Robeson to Brendan Behan – ‘The air he breathes was public breath; / Headlines awaited his demise’ – to his visits to the painter Jack B Yeats at Fitzwilliam Square.
Mooney concedes that McFadden was not a virtuoso craftsman but that we ‘have much to gain by listening to the minor voices’, as well as much to lose ‘by constructing frameworks of branding and honouring’ based on the more famous poetic voices. He also touches on McFadden’s often turbulent relationship with another Ulster poet, John Hewitt.
McFadden may have passed over Hewitt’s ‘pedestrian kind of Leftism’ and ignored its internationalism, but this was symptomatic of his rejection of all groups – a dismissal of Red as well as Green and Orange tribes. Critically, Mooney notes in the discussion afterwards that McFadden, unlike Hewitt, missed the vibrant Left climate of the 1930s, which followed the Great Depression.
Prior, however, to the emergence of the 1960s crop – Heaney, Longley, Mahon et al – McFadden and Hewitt toiled in a scene with no indigenous publishers or critical infrastructure whatsoever, both eventually coming to be regarded as ‘strange creatures emerging from the undergrowth who’d been there all along but hadn’t really shown themselves’.
Later, McFadden was not one to turn away from the turmoil that overtook Northern Ireland, as his strong sense of location fused with the raging conflict in a poem like ‘Stranmillis Road’: 'No leaves scuttling but / Flags like stench in the air.'
A key theme to emerge is how the writer balances his creative faculty with earning, which is where Mooney’s talk takes on more universal dimensions. ‘The demands of the day job – mental, physical, spiritual – can make the poetic act difficult and the poetic career impossible,' he observes.
The subsequent suggestion that McFadden’s long gap of 24 years between his post-war poetry and the publication of the 1971 collection The Garryowen is a direct result of the way many Northern Irish poets – and writers in general – ‘could not live on the slender proceeds of publication’, finding themselves ‘more or less silenced in mid-career’.
There is enough evidence, Mooney deduces, ‘to suggest that something fragile in our local cultural infrastructure needs our attention before we congratulate ourselves too enthusiastically on our local literature’. Most writers try to force their way in to the universities, already bursting, for financial breathing space.
There are other options: legendary poet Padraic Fiacc, for example, was a hotel porter. Some – like the estimable individual delivering this talk – join the civil service (a common ‘profession’ for the Irish writer, in fact). Others linger on the dole.
But how much respect does the city of Belfast offer its writers when it essentially suggests that writing is not ‘work’ and that they must do other ‘real jobs’ to accommodate the rest of life’s demands, asks Mooney?
The playwright Sam Thompson (1916–65) agreed that in Northern Ireland 'a writer is not accepted as part of the community. If you are a writer and you speak your mind, you’re a danger here.’ For Martin Lynch, another Belfast playwright with a personal affinity for his subject, the talk on Thompson the following day is in many ways the triumphant homecoming.
When Lynch adapted Thompsons Over the Bridge in 2010 – for a Belfast audience in need of the reminder – the recovery was still taking place. People were not talking enough about this self-proclaimed ‘Queen’s Man’ (Queen’s Island that is, not Queen’s University).
But nowadays the playwright of the shipyard engine shop has a spanking new bridge named after him in east Belfast, flavour of the month even in the estimation of a DUP First Minister beaming away at its unveiling.
Extracts from Over the Bridge are ably performed as part of Lynch's presentation by two actors (Jimmy Doran and Richard Clements), but Lynch’s presence here is central – though he emerged from the opposing community, with his honest-to-God, working-class, anti-sectarian humour, he is still the closest thing the city has yet seen to Thompson.
Lynch rattles through the latter’s early upbringing off the Albertbridge Road, as a painter at Harland & Wolff, during the formative ‘Hungry Thirties’. The critical meeting between Thompson and novelist and BBC producer Sam Hanna Bell in the Elbow Room Bar – Bell told him to write it all down – is pinpointed before Lynch pays tribute to the original director of the play, the late Jimmy Ellis.
Without Ellis, Lynch is adamant, Thompson’s success – 42,000 were estimated to have seen Over the Bridge during its original 1960 run – would never have occurred. ‘One without the other wouldn’t have worked. They were two pugnacious shits. They weren’t afraid of a fight.'
Lynch speaks of how Thompson’s play made him aware of the ‘nature of mobs and how they behave. How the lowest common denominator – the lowest thought – becomes the top thought and everybody abides by it.' Lynch says this as someone who witnessed ‘men behaving in all kinds of ways’ when Belfast exploded in 1969.
He is not the first to point out the symbolic resonance of Thompson’s early passing, when, in a loss that the Protestant working-class could ill afford, he ‘fell dead on the desk of the Northern Ireland Labour Party’ at its Waring Street office in February 1965.
Lynch sheds some new light on his 2010 revival of Over the Bridge, of the involvement of UDA men as mob extras – including one who had served time for threatening the journalist, Roger Cook. He describes how a working-class community group from east Belfast who came to see the play were completely on the side of protagonist Davey Mitchell against the bigotry of some Loyalists in the shipyard.
‘They identified with goodness,' Lynch recalls, echoing lines from the play’s final scene: ‘Most men are good: it’s the system that makes men behave badly.'
Lynch finally pays tribute to how Thompson changed everything by merely showing sectarianism in all its blunt nastiness. ‘After that,' he insists, ‘it allowed everyone else to confront it.' Back in 1960, Over the Bridge ‘was like a big fire on the top of a mountain telling us all what was coming’.
Thompson’s language remains the idiom of the street, now lacking the clatter of the all-pervasive Yard. But that which unites both writers evoked by their fellow writers who understand them so well is the city itself, reflected in McFadden’s ‘Belfast’: 'For we are not deceived by paving stones / Or solid miracles of brick and steel.'
Visit the Linen Hall Library website for information on forthcoming events.