Contemporary Poets from Northern Ireland

A general introduction to contemporary poets from Northern Ireland

The Nobel Laureate

Northern Ireland has the distinction of having produced a Nobel Laureate in Seamus Heaney, a poet whose considerable body of work is widely read and celebrated around the world. From his earliest work during his time at Queen’s University, Belfast, it was clear that Derry born Heaney had achieved a distinctive and original voice, capable of great insight and poignancy, drawing on his abundant ‘word horde’. Through the years he has steadily produced works that are unrivalled in contemporary poetry.

Published in 1966, Death Of A Naturalist was a stunning debut, describing his rural upbringing in lush and sensual language. It was a near faultless first collection. From this auspicious beginning, Heaney has continued to produce startling and inventive work, including dark meditations on the violence inflicted on the lives of ordinary people, in collections such as Field Work and North.

Heaney has also produced subtle translations of Beowulf and Antigone, and been instrumental in the promotion of poetry and educational causes. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.


Heaney’s fellow Northern Irish poets include Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon and Derek Mahon. Each of these poets have highly distinctive and unusual voices, sustaining long and productive writing lives without losing drive or originality. Muldoon revels in word play and puzzles, exemplified brilliantly in the verbal pyrotechnics of Quoof, and the long filmic narrative of ‘The More A Man Has, The More A Man Wants.’

Longley is fascinated by nature, violence and mythology, and his poem, Ceasefire from The Ghost Orchid, meditates on the movement towards peace and reconciliation.

Mahon’s early poems are among some of the finest evocations of the city of Belfast, while his A Disused Shed In Wexford is considered to be one of the best poems produced in the last 50 years.

Less formal, but still as distinctive, is Padraic Fiacc. His work is frenetic, funny and wise, filled with a wounded but undaunted spirit. This is best captured in his By The Black Stream collection, a consistently fascinating work that remains fresh and distinctive today.

A passionate ambassador for Northern Irish poetry, Frank Ormsby has created witty and insightful poems such as A Store Of Candles and The Ghost Train, filled with evocative and finely realised details of his childhood in Fermanagh.  Ormsby has edited key anthologies that offer broad and accessible gateways into Northern Irish poetry, most notably with the essential A Rage for Order.

Tom Paulin was born in Belfast, and has repeatedly returned in his poetry to the streets that helped forge his political consciousness. These themes and ideas of longing and exile appear most prominently in his Fivemiletown collection.

As well as being one of our foremost literary critics, Seamus Deane is a playful and moving poet. His Rumours collection was justly celebrated, describing his hometown of Derry with unflinching detail, as in his Booker short-listed novel Reading In The Dark.

Ciaran Carson has made writing about Belfast his own. His collections, Belfast Confetti and The Irish For No, are fantastical dissections of the city and its surrounding geography. Carson is fascinated with the known and unknown histories of place, and the subtle way in which religion, geography and violence mingle together in the imaginations of the people. Witty, accessible, and constantly challenging, Carson has become a central figure in Irish poetry. He has also written a series of strange and disturbing novels including Shamrock Tea and his memoir, The Star Factory.

New and Emerging Voices

While the poets already mentioned have already built up impressive bodies of work, a new generation of writers are emerging. Sinead Morrissey has produced two startling collections and has won the Patrick Kavanagh Award for Poetry. She was also short-listed for the prestigious TS Eliot Award. Morrissey’s debut, There Was Fire In Vancouver was a personal account of her childhood in Belfast mixed with acute political observation, managing to both moving and very funny. This was followed by Between Here and There, featuring poems concerning loss and migration, and encompassing parts of the world as remote as Japan and New Zealand.

Jean Bleakney is a wry and affectionate writer creating fresh and vibrant poems. She has produced two excellent collections, The Ripple Tank Experiment and The Poet’s Ivy, documenting simple domestic situations with thrill and compassion. These Days, by Gregory Award winner Leontia Flynn, marked the arrival of a funny and striking new poet whose work has a taut contemporary feel. Gearoid MacLochlainn has fashioned a unique collection of Irish language poems that have musicality and range, notably his Sruth Teangacha/Stream of Tongues. These writers, along with Chris Agee, Frank Sewell, Moyra Donaldson, Matt Kirkham and Howard Wright, continue to add their voices to the field, and ensure that Northern Irish poetry has a strong and important future.

Further Reading
These Days (2004) by Leontia Flynn; First Light (2003) by Chris Agee; In The Chair (2002) by John Brown; Sruth Teangacha/Stream of Tongues (2002) by Gearoid MacLochlainn; Poems 1968 – 1998 (2001) by Paul Muldoon; The Ripple Tank Experiment (2000) by Jean Bleakney; Collected Poems (1998) by Derek Mahon; Opened Ground (1998) by Seamus Heaney; Selected Poems (1997) by Medbh McGuckian; There Was Fire In Vancouver (1996) by Sinead Morrissey; The Ghost Orchid (1995) by Michael Longley; Selected Poems 1972 – 1990 (1993) by Tom Paulin; A Rage For Order (1992) edited by Frank Ormsby; Belfast Confetti (1989) by Ciaran Carson; The Selected Padraic Fiacc (1979) by Padraic Fiacc; Rumours (1977) by Seamus Deane; A Store Of Candles (1977) by Frank Ormsby.

© Gavin Carville 2004