Gerald Dawe was a City Boy

Apart from the Belfast Group and the Northern Poets

In the Belfast I knew growing up the place of 'literature' seemed to be very much on the leafy margins. Where we lived in north Belfast, there was so far as I could tell, no writers.

Then, one morning I saw a man in a very dapper trench coat with a large briefcase standing in the bus queue and recognised his face from a photograph in The Belfast Telegraph. My mother confirmed the rumour that he (Jack Wilson was his name) was a writer - of novels - and lived in a flat just up from our own house.

He kept to himself and I had heard nothing about him until relatively recently when I discovered that he had died in 1997 at the age of 60. His novels had been very well received when they were first published in the sixties.

Back then I did not read Irish writers. At school, it was Keats and Shakespeare. At home, however, there were those anthologies, like the infamous Palgrave and lesser-known Albatross in which my grandmother had earmarked poems (mostly Yeats, as it happens) for her pupils to recite in her elocution classes. An activity let me say, at which I balked. But by the time of her early death in 1960, I was on the move cross-town, to Orangefield.

There had been a tradition of staging plays at school, including a marvellous production of Molière's Tartuffe, directed by Mr. Horner (I still can't bring myself to call him anything else), starring Ronnie Bunting, son of Major Bunting, and subsequently a leading republican socialist murdered by loyalist paramilitaries. And there was that dramatised version of Milton's Paradise Lost, featuring amongst others, Brian Keenan, future author of An Evil Cradling, the international best selling memoir of his years as a hostage in Beirut.

Also the street-songs and urban ballads of Belfast, preserved in class by David Hammond, echoed along the corridors. And there were dances ('hops') on Saturday nights where Van Morrison, one time Orangefield boy, had played. Music meant as much as writing. In fact it probably meant more, much more, and as for poetry?

Much has understandably been made of the generation of northern poets who published first and second collections in the early and mid Sixties, in particular those associated with Queen's University and/or who had attended Philip Hobsbaum's writing workshops - Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Stewart Parker, among others. This 'group', supplemented by a younger generation of Queens's students in the 1970s - Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Frank Ormsby, and Medbh McGuckian - would become identified worldwide by the late 1970s as the 'Northern Poets'.

But like many aspiring poets of the time who did not attend Queens I reckon the first time I heard of there being a 'Belfast Group' was when I was well gone from the city and living in Galway. Which is not to say that individual names of the Group were unfamiliar, far from it. In or around 1967 the head prefect at Orangefield gave a special class on Seamus Heaney's Death of a Naturalist and we all sat around being very cool when he quoted from the title poem:

Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.

For city-boys that was a bit of a culture shock. But whatever poetry was read during the 1960s in the Belfast I knew, it wasn't Irish. In 1967, I bought WH Auden: The Penguin Poets, selected by the author, and as I've previously noted, our school text was the mind-bending Faber Book of Modern Verse, edited by Michael Roberts.

By the way, the only Irish representation in the 1965 reprint of that anthology which was used in classrooms up and down the length of Northern Ireland (and the UK) was Yeats and Louis MacNeice. While in A. Alvarez's New Poetry, again very popular at the time, there was not one Irish poet in the entire anthology! Which goes to show not just how things were before the Northern Irish impact, but also says something about the scale of the achievement thereafter.

Whatever we read was more likely to come from America and England than from Ireland and it had to compete with the weekly order of NME (New Musical Express) and Melody Maker. When 'Ireland' came into view, it was traditional music, rather than the poetry of the Group. Indeed, as a student at NUU, as it was then called, the contemporary Irish poets, John Montague and Thomas Kinsella, James Simmons and Derek Mahon had a clearer presence.

By 1972 the political warning systems were moving to full alert - the year that Derek Mahon's Lives appeared. In that slimmest of slim volumes the non-Groupie seemed to get it dead-right from the perspective of a twenty year old student living on the chastening north east coast:

Spring lights the country: from a thous-
and dusty corners, house by house,
from under beds and vacuum cleaners,
empty Kosangas containers,
bread bins, car seats, crates of stout,
the first flies cry to be let out;
to cruise a kitchen, find a door
and die clean in the open air [.]

In time other names were added to the seedbed of 'The Group" and before long an extended poetic family came into critical being called the Northern Poets, underpinned by Frank Ormsby's era-defining anthology, Poets from the North of Ireland (1979/new ed. 1990). It's probably true to say that without the originating idea of the 'Group', the notion of Northern Poetry would be less pedagogically convincing.

But the unique development should be seen more as an extraordinary moment of literary achievement and historical coincidence, than as an example of some kind of inherent cultural identity waiting to happen. That kind of historical determinism strikes me as folly.

The books of poems tell as much: if one considers, for instance, the imaginative differences which distinguish, say, Michael Longley's poetry from Seamus Heaney's, or Derek Mahon's. There is, too, the temporary loss to view of Stewart Parker or the amnesia surrounding the role that Padraic Fiacc played in his Glengormley home, encouraging many local and visiting poets and prose-writers during the late 1950s and early 1960s. And before him, John Hewitt, Roy McFadden, Sam Hanna Bell, John Boyd, Robert Greacen, W R Rodgers and so on. That complex literary and social history has yet to be written, along with the necessary critical discriminations, of course.

But for a teenager, living in the middle of a vibrant sixties provincial city called Belfast, all this awareness was for the future, which of course is actually here and now. The poems I wrote back then were about nothing much but a young man seeking refuge in 'language', only to discover that there is no such place.

The poems were written in the attic bedroom of a quiet, tall, terrace house, full of women of various different backgrounds and the voices, of course, always the voices. It was a house on a main road with its back to the Cave Hill, looking out over Brantwood, Grove Park, Seaview, the Shore Road and the Lough, and the amber lights of the city - landscapes and interiors, unknown histories in very many ways, that slowly asserted themselves the further I went away from them.


Belfast-born poet, Gerald Dawe has published six collections of poetry including The Lundys Letter, Sunday School, The Morning Train and Lake Geneva. He is a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin where he lectures in English and directs the graduate writing programme.