The Belfast Literary Scene - A Personal Reflection

Highlights from poet and editor of Irish Pages, Chris Agee

This article appears as part of the Creative Belfast Showcase, which took place at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast during February 2006.

Unquestionably, Belfast now attracts global literary renown. Over the past four decades, poetry has been its foremost imaginative export. Michael Longley, Derek Mahon and the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney emerged in the sixties, shifting the centre of gravity in Irish poetry firmly Northwards. Subsequent poetic generations have thrown up talents no less distinguished and distinct: Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian, Ciaran Carson, Frank Ormsby, Tom Paulin, Gerald Dawe and Sinead Morrissey.

But Belfast fiction too, if internationally less known, has its own roster of recent achievement, from Brian Moore, to Bernard McLaverty, to Glenn Patterson. 'Writers from elsewhere' long resident in the city, such as the Auschwitz survivor Helen Lewis or the poet Padraic Fiacc from Manhattan, have also made notable literary contributions.

And if literature must necessarily begin and end with the individual writer and reader, it can also be fostered and sustained by institutions and organizations. With these, both long-standing and newer, Belfast is increasingly well-furnished.

The Linen Hall Library, founded in 1792, and the oldest subscription library in the British Isles, not only possesses an unrivalled collection of Irish writings, but continues to be an important venue for readings and book launches, with its impeccably non-sectarian ethos having served throughout the Troubles as 'a breathing hole in the ice-cap that is closing over us.' (Sam Hanna Bell).

The newly-established Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, at Queen’s University, has become one of the city’s main venues for readings,especially by British poets.

Founded in 2002, and edited in Belfast, Irish Pages: A Journal of Contemporary Writing, is now one of the foremost literary periodicals in these islands.

Between the Lines, Belfast’s annual literary festival at the Crescent Arts Centre, has gone from strength to strength each March.

The inimitable Irish-language cultural centre, Culturlann Mhac Adaim-ÓFiaich, on the Falls Road, has evolved into a vibrant space for the non-sectarian promotion of the language and its literature. Blackstaff Press and Lagan Press continue in the hard slog of publishing and selling new writing.

And let us not forget that old literary warhorse, the best-stocked shop for good books in Belfast, The Bookshop at Queen’s, without which literary Belfast would be seriously impoverished. The American writer Susan Sontag once remarked: 'Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be descried as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.'

Understood in this historic light, the best of Belfast writing will continue to embody - as it did throughout the Troubles - this responsiveness to the preconditions of a more flourishing civic life.

By Chris Agee
Poet and Editor of Irish Pages