Bit Part in the Big Picture

Poet Gerald Dawe traces his family to an unlikely Belfast

My great grandfather was a devout unionist called William Bailey Chartres. Of emigrant origin, with a young widowed mother and a younger brother to look after, he lived in Belfast in the late decades of the 19th and early decades of the 20th century.

I wrote a couple of poems about this man and then he disappeared on me, so to speak. As one door shut, another opened. Following the strange tales of family names like any genealogical root-searcher, I discovered that the Huguenot William Bailey Chartres had married my great grandmother, Mary Jane Quartz.

Both had met in North Belfast, in a district of mixed religious and ethnic origins, the kind of district that seemingly did not exist in the north, never mind Belfast. Mary’s story began to take over and demand its own form of commemoration - a subversive presence.

When I wrote the first poem to her, ‘Middle Names’, another one came hot on its heels, called ‘Quartz’ - the title her maiden name. The poem tells a familiar emigrant story, apocryphal in part I have no doubt, but one which moves from the austerity and masculinity of the patriarchal order which had defined the public face of the north for almost two centuries to the vulnerable hope of a courageous female in the midst of huge personal change.

Without laying too much freight on the slight shoulders of the poem, ‘Quartz’ meant for me an imaginative movement away from history to a personal voice, from power play to a yearning to live, imagining a different kind of cultural reality, by actually inhabiting none, albeit with that dash of the apocryphal.

Maybe from these hidden, un-canonical sources a common culture can emerge, or resurface, out of which differences of background will be genuinely celebrated rather than locked away as an idiosyncratic bit-part in the big picture.

For Katrina Goldstone

So there is something I want to know
great-grandmother, reclining on whichever
foreign shore or ambrosial meadow,
taking a second look at the old place -
the valiant village, the provincial district,
the back-breaking hill-climb to the apartment,
the quiet evening square in this country town
or that frontier post, down by the coastal resort
of some famous lake, say, with roman baths,
or a minority language - I want to know
who your grand dame was, or paterfamilias,
disembarking in a draughty shed, thinking
Liverpool or Belfast was really New York,
blinking in the greyish light of a noisy dawn,
looking out for a rooming house, or decent hotel,
putting one foot in front of the other,
taking the first right and walking, walking,
past the shipping offices and custom houses,
the rattling trams and carters and mill girls,
the steep factories and squat churches till the hills
converge upon this three-storied terrace
with the curtains drawn, the bell-pull shining,
and you pull the bell-pull and in whatever
English you’d learned you stepped in.