John Hewitt Spring and Summer Schools

Malachi O'Doherty remembers the man and his legacy

When I first started going to the John Hewitt Summer School, it was based at the old catholic boarding school at Garron tower near Carnlough. One of the pleasures was the mischief of doubling up with your partner on a grim little bed, in a cell that generations of homesick or conscientious boys had hardened themselves to the quasi-monastic life on. 

The focus of the summer school was the Glens of Antrim, territory that the young poet John Hewitt had celebrated in his writing. I think, at that time, there was a conscientious endeavour to celebrate Hewitt as a poet who had risen above sectarianism, though whether indeed he had done was still under discussion. Both in the Glens and in Coventry, where he worked much of his life, he exercised an outsider's curiosity about the Catholic Irish and their strange ways. 

Though clearly a liberal intellectual, Hewitt was in danger of being preserved as a protestant writer, an opposition to the prejudice that the best literature that was coming out of Northern Ireland was from the nationalist and catholic tradition. This simply wasn't true, though some unionists succumbed to the fear that it might be, and that the nationalist case might be authenticated by an indigenous literature. 

Since the end of the Troubles (if that isn't a rash expression to use), there is less need for a tug-of-war over who owns Hewitt. 

My jaw dropped aghast, in those days when I saw the little parade around Garron tower, behind the Hewitt banner, which was unfortunately orange. The suggestion contained in this, that only a pipe and drum were missing, was surely accidental. 

But the Hewitt School was always the best of craic. A day of lectures and discussion should end in the pub, and the summer school tradition understood that. 

In recent years the John Hewitt Summer School has shifted to Armagh, to the little Market Place theatre. It brings a concentration of discussion and readings to the last week in July that is so vibrant and varied that many people appear content to make it their summer holiday. 

I have a regular slot there myself now as the chair of the closing debate on the Friday afternoon.
And there is also a continuing connection to the Glens with the John Hewitt Spring School in Carnlough, at the Londonderry Arms hotel. It will be staged again this coming weekend (April 18), with the same mix of discussion, of literature and art, and the retreat to the bar. 

The struggle to identify the Great Ulster Novel will be resumed on Saturday morning, and I will be pitching for Brian Moore's Emperor of Ice Cream against Sam Hanna Bell's December Bride and Seamus Deane's Reading in the Dark

I wouldn't fancy the job of chairing Brian Keenan and Polly Devlin in the evening session, after dinner (when drink will have been taken) and Brian will, no doubt, be meandering lyrically again. 

Some people go to the Hewitt schools, spring and summer, in part out of reverence for the memory of John Hewitt, while others enjoy them but take little interest in the man himself and his work. He is dead 20 years now and would probably find it incomprehensible that people gather twice yearly in his name and that there is even a pub named after him. 

I knew him as a quiet and withdrawn man, impeccably groomed, with a white goatee, puffing on his pipe. Something else that might puzzle him if he came back today would be having to enjoy that pipe outside in the rain. 

I knew him then in the way that everybody with any interest in readings and gatherings knew him, simply because he came to everything, and it is good that where writers and people interested in books meet to read and enjoy a pint, he should be spiritually present because, had he still feet to stand on, he would certainly be there physically.

For more details on the next John Hewitt Summer School visit www.johnhewittsociety.org.