Peter Geoghegan takes the scenic route through the lough and its writers. Click Play Audio to listen to a podcast on Literary Strangford
What do Michael Longley, Sir John Betjeman, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Seamus Heaney and Robert Browning have in common? Of course, all are among the most important poets writing in the English language, but it’s not that... Still not got it? Then I’ll tell you: each, in some way, found inspiration by the majestic shores of Strangford Lough.
Strangford’s rich literary history may not receive the same recognition as Belfast’s or Derry’s but a new map and guide looks set to change all that. Launched last week, Literary Strangford is a celebration of the area and its writers: along the trail you’ll see the two-up, two-down Joseph Tomelty was born in, the bucolic townland where Michael McLaverty spent his summers and much more besides.
‘Literary Strangford is the first map and guide celebrating Strangford Lough’s literary connections,' explains Lynn Gilmore from Strangford Lough Management Advisory Committee. ‘We’ve been going out to the community and asking them to share their knowledge of the writers connected to the lough.’
From this research a reading list and individual biographies for each of the writers associated with the area was drawn up, as well as an easy-to-use literary map of the entire lough. ‘We are trying to increase people’s knowledge of the area in new and innovative ways,’ Gilmore continues.
Literary Strangford is part of Tune O’ the Tide, a Heritage Lottery funded programme which was initiated by the Strangford Lough Management Advisory Committee to encourage residents and tourists to engage with the diverse heritage of one of Northern Ireland’s most beautiful areas. Even if literature isn’t your passion, with new initiatives exploring the archaeology and geology of the area, as well as its marine biology, there is something for everyone.
For Gilmore, though, discovering more about the writers connected to Strangford has been a real eye-opener: ‘You just don’t realise such literary big-hitters had an intimate connection to the area which you know and love. But when you look out at Strangford lough you can really see why they were inspired,’ she says on an unseasonably sunny afternoon in Portaferry, birthplace of Joseph Tomelty.
Strangford may have stimulated the creative juices of some of the best in the business, but the trail also sheds light on many of the area’s less famous writers. Take Molly Campbell, a local farmer’s wife whose memoir As Luck Would Have It, published in 1948, has long been out of print but was rediscovered during the project.
Campbell’s realistic depiction of the hardships and pleasures of farming life along Strangford’s drumlins is as fascinating as its discovery was fortuitous. ‘A lady from Portaferry came forward with this book and said she had been given it by a man from Bushmills who had a book about Portaferry, and she had a book about Bushmills. So they swapped books,’ explains Cathie McKimm, a researcher for Literary Strangford.
As Luck Would Have It was unearthed during one of the many information evenings that were held in libraries and arts centres around the lough. McKimm believes that such dedicated community involvement has been crucial to the success of Literary Strangford.
‘We gathered information from all across the local community,’ she remarks. ‘We wanted to find all the references to the local area but there were too many books for just two researchers. So we enlisted readers. We had maybe 50 or 60 people locally reading books, reviewing them and noting all the references in them.’
McKimm’s method proved remarkably successful – though some writers, notably the poet and playwright Damian Smyth, posed particular problems for reviewers.
‘His work is so immersed in the local area,’ McKimm says of Smyth. ‘We asked one lady to review Downpatrick Races and she ended up basically copying out the whole book and giving it back to us because everything referenced the local area.’
Strangford lough and its surrounding area is, it seems, inspiring today's writers just as it did generations past. Literary Strangford is a great way to navigate through this rich history, but more than that it has brought literature to life for the area’s residents.
‘The local people have really, really enjoyed this project,’ comments McKimm. ‘I really believe that there is going to be a lot more people reading local artists and texts as a result of it.’
Photographs above appear courtesy of Bernie Brown. To find out more about Literary Strangford and to download a bibliography and reading list visit www.strangfordlough.org.