Iconic Figures of the 20th Century
Leading literary lights
The post-First World War generation of writers are best represented by John Hewitt, probably the most influential of Northern Irish poets.
Hewitt, born in 1907, was a complex character who for many years worked in the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery until overlooked for promotion, possibly for his socialist politics. He and his wife Roberta then decamped to Coventry where he lived until 1972. Retiring to Belfast, he became an iconic figure for the new generation of poets that had come to prominence in his absence.
Hewitt was a poet who blended a love of the Ulster countryside with an awareness of the modern realities of Belfast life. He helped define the nature of Ulster Protestant identity by arguing that the work of the settler community in shaping the environment and nature of Belfast and Ulster gave them equal ownership with the native people.
Hewitt and John Boyd were both as one in feeling that Belfast ‘offered the writer no inspiration’ and both pushed forward the notion that the city could and should have an identity as a literary centre.
In addition to his own poetry, Hewitt furthered this agenda by publishing Rhyming Weavers and Other Country Poets of Antrim and Down in 1974, a study of a largely forgotten group of poets who had written peasant verse in the nineteenth century. While Belfast was busy manufacturing rope and ships, poets such as James Orr, Samuel Thomson and David Herbison were creating a vibrant local culture, writing in the ‘lively tongue’ of Ulster-Scots.
These poets had, in the main, been dismissed from history as too uncultured to be part of any literature, but Hewitt saw the line that ran from their poetry to his own and made it his aim to ensure they weren’t forgotten. His triumphant return to Belfast was crowned when he became the first writer, and only so far, to be made a Freeman of the city in 1981.
The early part of the 20th century saw novels becoming an important part of the Belfast literature, with Forrest Reid writing pastoral works about boyhood loss and innocence. Reid was an important figure on the literary scene across the British Isles and maintained a lifelong relationship with EM Forster.
At the other extreme, FL Green, an Englishman who settled in Belfast, wrote the seminal novel Odd Man Out, a thriller with dark overtones that tells the story of a dying IRA man shot in a raid and wandering around the city. This was transformed into a film noir by director Carol Reed, starring James Mason and Belfast’s own acting star Joseph Tomelty.
Originally born in Portaferry, Tomelty was perhaps the best-known playwright of the war years in the north of Ireland. Much of his notoriety was acquired through The McCooeys, a radio serial about Belfast working-class life that Tomelty wrote for seven years.
Tomelty had a gift for tapping into the consciousness of Belfast life and his plays Right Again, Barnum, All Souls Night and Is the Priest at Home? were produced by the Ulster Group Theatre during the 1940s and 1950s. He also wrote The Apprentice and Red is the Port Light, novels that cemented his place as one of the key local writers in the city.
Perhaps the most influential of the novelists who sprang up at this time was Michael McLaverty, who would publish during the years of the Second World War three novels, Call My Brother Back, Lost Fields and In This Thy Day, whose unaffected prose style specialises in coolly observing the life of country people come to the city.
One critic described McLaverty’s writing as ‘single-minded and elemental as a mountain stream’. McLaverty was Seamus Heaney’s school principal in the latter’s early years as a teacher, and had a commanding influence on Heaney’s attitude towards writing.
Another novelist from this time is Stephen Gilbert. Born in 1912, he worked as a journalist until taking up his father’s business as a wholesale seed and tea merchant. His early writing was influenced heavily by the fantasy boyhood landscape of his friend Forrest Reid.
Gilbert broke through with his wartime novel Bombadier based on his experiences as a gunner in the Second World War. His last novel Ratman’s Notebooks was his most successful book, being the terrifying tale of the friendship between a young man and a family of rats. The novel was internationally successful and was made into a film in which Michael Jackson sang the theme tune.