Literary Belfast Walking Tour

From the Linen Hall Library to Writers' Square

Following the success of the Linen Hall Library's literary tours, CultureNorthernIreland brings you the virtual version.

This ‘tour’ in prose is designed to provide a snapshot of the literary heritage of central Belfast. The city’s portrayal in print, as you would expect, is mixed. A representative image comes from the work of Belfast poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), who wrote in Zoo that his conception of Belfast ‘demanded that it should always be grey, wet, repellent and its inhabitants dour, rude and callous’.

Born in Belfast to an ecclesiastical family, MacNeice is often referred to as part of the ‘thirties generation’ of British poets, with contemporaries including WH Auden and Stephen Spender. Thankfully his version of Belfast is not shared by other writers who portray the city as a vibrant place, flawed but alive with plenty of character.

Begin the literary trail in the Linen Hall Library, in the city centre, opposite City Hall. This historic library has been a haven for many of the city’s most prominent writers, including Tom Paulin, poet, critic and acerbic cultural commentator, who portrays the Linen Hall as a kind of sanctuary, writing of the ‘style and discipline’ ingrained in ‘that eighteenth century, reasoned library’ in his poem ‘To The Linen Hall’.

Outside the side entrance of the library is Fountain Street, the setting for a chapter in the novel Eureka Street by the Belfast writer Robert McLiam Wilson, recently named as one of Granta magazine’s best British writers. The novel is a blackly comic look at 1990s Belfast during the embryonic peace process. However, midway through the novel Wilson describes the carnage caused by a bomb detonating in Fountain Street during a busy weekday lunchtime, focusing on a young insurance clerk named Rosemary Daye who, entering a shop outside Queen’s Arcade as the blast occurs, ‘stopped existing’.

Leaving Fountain Street, cross Wellington Place and walk along Upper Queen Street and Brunswick Street to Amelia Street, from where you can see the Europa Hotel and the famous Crown bar. Due to its proximity to the old Great Northern Railway station and the nearby travellers’ hotels, Amelia Street was once at the heart of Belfast’s red light district. This fact is commemorated by well known poet Frank Ormsby in ‘Amelia Street’ which describes the area as ‘the sum of lasting miseries’.

Walk back to the rear of City Hall to find 5-6 Donegall Square South. This is now a bank, but the former International Hotel hosted the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association in January 1967, just before the outbreak of the Troubles. Glenn Patterson, one of Ireland’s most renowned novelists and a resident of Belfast, captured this era and the atmosphere of the old hotel in his novel The International, which recalls life in the city through the eyes of the teenage hotel barman Danny Hamilton.

Cross Donegall Square, entering the public lawns at the front of City Hall. This ornate building is the centrepiece of the city. It was completed in 1906 having been originally commissioned in 1888. As the first building visitors focus on, the City Hall often comes to symbolise something of what they feel about the city. EM Forster, the great English writer of such classics as A Passage to India, A Room with a View and Howard’s End, often visited Belfast to stay with the local novelist Forrest Reid, and collected some impressions in his 1936 volume Abinger Harvest. Wryly referring to political tensions, he described City Hall as ‘a costly Renaissance pile, which shouts, “Dublin can’t beat me” from all its pediments and domes, but it does not succeed in saying anything else’. More positively, Kate O’Brien, the Irish novelist, contrasted the ‘unappealing’ aspect of the building with the ‘unheeding grace’ of Belfast’s people in her travelogue My Ireland.

Move to the front gates of City Hall facing Donegall Place. Local writers have also depicted City Hall and its environs. One of the best depictions of the area appears in The Red Hand of Ulster, a satirical novel about the Home Rule crisis in the early twentieth century, penned by George Birmingham, the pseudonym of Protestant nationalist and clergyman, the Rev James Owen Hannay. At one point in the novel, an English visitor to the city watches a riotous crowd assemble in Donegall Place, and fears for ‘some of the best shops in the town …’ which ‘…lie on either side of this street.’

Marks and Spencer department store is across the road on your right. When this store came to the city in the late 1960s, it was regarded as a sign of hope that more national investment would flood into Belfast and came to symbolise a cherished ‘normality’ throughout the Troubles. However, it was not immune to other events, a fact reflected in a passage in Seamus Heaney’s Preoccupations. Heaney is now one of the most famous English language poets in the world and was awarded the Nobel prize in 1995. He is more often associated with Derry, but taught at Queen’s University in Belfast in the 1970s. In Preoccupations he recalls ‘the perils of the department stores,’ which were a frequent target for incendiary bombs, and writes of being caught in a bomb scare while paying for pyjamas in Marks and Spencer.

Walk along Donegall Place to Castle Place at the Junction with Royal Avenue. This is one of the oldest parts of the city and is the backdrop of a pivotal scene in Brian Moore’s famous novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, the story of a friendless woman in 1950s Belfast. The novel was produced as a film starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins, although, incongruously, it was shot in Dublin. Brian Moore was born in Belfast and wrote a number of novels set in the city. However, he emigrated in his twenties, becoming a successful screenwriter and novelist in the United States. In one passage in Judith Hearne, JP Madden, recently returned to the city, attempts to have a day out in Belfast, but is disillusioned by the drab places he encounters and ‘when the bus deposited him at Castle Junction, he turned towards a public house,’ probably Kelly’s Cellars just behind Primark.

Walk along Royal Avenue to Castle Court shopping centre, then go through the centre to Smithfield market, across the road from the back entrance to the centre. Smithfield is now rather unattractive and dilapidated but dates as a market from 1780. Until relatively recently, it was famous for its secondhand book stalls, and therefore assumes an almost mythical status in work by some local writers. In ‘The Rag Trade’ by Michael Longley, the market becomes a metaphor for a relationship. Ciaran Carson also commemorates the area in his poem ‘Smithfield Market.’ Carson is currently the director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University.

Return to Royal Avenue, and walk via North Street to Writers’ Square, facing St Anne’s Cathedral. Under the arch at Writers’ Square, the first quotation you will see is from the work of the poet John Hewitt, freethinker and socialist. Hewitt maintained a lifelong commitment to articulating a distinctive Northern Irish regional culture in his work, and his quest is commemorated in the John Hewitt Summer School in Armagh. From Writers’ Square you can glimpse the attractive facade of Belfast Central Library, fondly remembered by Hewitt’s poem ‘Reading’ as a ‘red-brick haven.’ The John Hewitt bar is less than 100m away, along North Street towards the city centre.

For further information on the literary tour, or to book tickets for forthcoming events, contact the Linen Hall Library on +44 (0) 28 9032 1707 or log on to www.linenhall.com.

Further Reading
The International (1999) by Glenn Patterson; Eureka Street (1996) by Robert McLiam Wilson; The Collected Poems of John Hewitt (1991) edited by Frank Ormsby; The Irish for No (1987) by Ciaran Carson; Poems 1963-1983 (1985) by Michael Longley; Preoccupations (1984) by Seamus Heaney; Liberty Tree (1983) by Tom Paulin; The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1965) by Brian Moore; My Ireland (1962) by Kate O’Brien; Abinger Harvest (1936) by EM Forster; The Red Hand of Ulster (1912) by George Birmingham.

Robbie Meredith 

Consult the Linen Hall Library catalogue.