The Exiles

The 30s and 40s saw many of the most talented writers leave Belfast

Brian Moore, who became one of the city’s most successful novelists, left for Canadian shores and later the USA.

Louis MacNeice was more often seen in London and Cambridge.

WR Rodgers lived in London and decamped to California later in life.

George Birmingham spent most of his life in the south of Ireland and England.

Jack Higgins, who as 'Henry Patterson', was brought up in the Markets area of Belfast and went on to become one of the world’s most successful thriller writers, left at the age of 15. The violence and turmoil he witnessed in 1940s Belfast has been an enduring influence on his work.

St John Ervine left for England, wound up in Dublin and lived the majority of his life in Sussex.

CS Lewis never returned to live in Belfast after his departure for boarding school at age eight.

Brian MooreAll of these writers, however, kept a link with their native city. MacNeice, Ervine and Rodgers were constant visitors, mysterious figures who blew into town much to the excitement of those who had stayed. Some of those who left had a less than flattering view of their native city.

Brian Moore, for example, in books such as The Emperor of Ice-Cream and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne paints a city in which it constantly rains and people douse their depression with drink.

CS Lewis, however, idolised his east Belfast childhood, remembering with sparkling language the city of his birth, in particular the view from Cave Hill over Belfast Lough as one of those of ‘Great contrast which have bitten deeply in my mind – Nifliehm and Asgard, Briatin and Logres … air and ether, the low world and the high.’

It is possible that the hills surrounding Belfast became the template for the imaginary world of Narnia in some of the most successful and well-loved novels of the 20th century.

This generation of writers who left the city to find their fortune elsewhere was lamented by those left behind. There were, however, still plenty of literary shoots poking through the rain-sodden mud. Sam Hanna Bell was writing intriguing novels such as The Hollow Ball and the well-known December Bride.

Jack HigginsThe Ulster Group Theatre had inherited the mantle of the writers’ theatre from the Ulster Literary Theatre in 1940, and was home to many writers who carefully, and often with humour, plotted the uneasy soul of the city. Jack Loudon, Joe Tomelty, Patricia O’Connor and Ruddick Millar were a few of the Group writers who saw their work performed constantly throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Plays such as Arty, Highly Efficient and A Lock of the General’s Hair took subjects such as class, gender, love and working life and reflected them through the prism of farce, situation comedy and tragedy.

Around this time, organisations such as the Belfast Branch of PEN (the international writers’ union) and the Belfast Writers Club began to see writers band together. Many unsung heroes worked tirelessly to improve the financial and social lot of the writer.

Belfast even had what purported to be a literary hotspot in Campbell’s Café, situated in Donegall Square, overlooking the City Hall.