The City and Surrounding Hills
The countryside around Belfast has had its own literary influence
There is no such thing as a ‘Belfast writer’ and no stereotype of how a Belfast writer produces writing. Individual writers respond in individual ways to the environment that they find themselves in. However, those who have come from Belfast, or chosen to live here, or found themselves here by accident, have been shaped and changed by the city in ways that are clear to readers.
The first image that comes from a reading of Belfast literature is that of the city and its surrounding hills. Writers are taken with the nature of Belfast’s setting and have responded to it in poetry and prose. An incomer, the Monaghan-born Michael McLaverty , captured the city’s natural environment in his 1939 novel Call My Brother Back:
‘At the top of the mountain, they lay in the heather and gazed at Belfast spread out in the flat hollow below them, its lean mill chimneys stretched above the haze of smoke. Rows of red-bricked houses radiated on all sides and above them rose blocks of factories with many of their windows catching the sunlight … Their eyes ranged over the whole city to the low ridge of the Castlereagh Hills, netted with lovely fields and skimming cloud shadows, the blue U-shaped Lough, covered with yachts as small as paper boats, and steamers moving up towards the docks where the gantries stood like poised aeroplanes.’
Belfast’s history, as it has been written, is characterised by three clear themes: liberal beginnings, industrial development and sectarian strife.
These themes are reflected in the literature of the city. However, the country that the city has grown into has also been held up to be an escape, a hinterland of the city’s rural roots. The character of Colm MacNeill in Call My Brother Back has by the end of the novel found himself with both father and brother dead, and another brother emigrated to England.
He takes a tram to the end of the line, to Cave Hill, where MacNeill finds ‘all this beauty, all these quiet places flowed into his heart and filled him with a tired-torn joy’. The country becomes a hiding place from the strife-torn city. As St John Greene Irvine, the east Belfast born playwright, biographer and novelist wrote:
‘We were industrialised, and yet we had the country practically on our doorsteps. I remember fields and hedges almost the whole length of the Albertbridge Road from the Methodist Church at Templemore Avenue to the Newtownards Avenue to the Newtownards Road … I remember when you could smell the country in Castlereagh Street, by the Beersbridge Road, smell the mingled odours of the whin blossoms … the lovely smells of Down, full of turf smoke.'