A Literary Tour of South Belfast
A virtual tour of south Belfast’s literary history
This trail is designed to provide a snapshot of the literary heritage of south Belfast, specifically the area around Queen’s University and the Lisburn, Malone and Stranmillis roads. Rather than the city ‘devout and profane and hard’, as Louis MacNeice portrays Belfast in Valediction, this area is more often characterised as ‘the Paris part of Belfast.’
This idealistic depiction appears in a poem by the Belfast poet Padraic Fiacc, entitled Intimate Letter 1973 from the collection Ruined Pages. Faicc, born in 1924, is an iconoclastic local poet with a vivid past, and his poetry has been praised and damned in equal measure. His comparison of Belfast to Paris is, of course, somewhat ironic, although south Belfast, especially the area around Queen’s University, has often been viewed as the city’s ‘cultural quarter.’
Begin the literary trail at the top of Fitzwilliam Street, outside the Workers’ Educational Association building. It was at this location in the 1960s, in a small top floor flat, that Professor Philip Hobsbaum, a lecturer at Queen’s, began to gather a collective of young literary enthusiasts. The Belfast ‘Group’, as it came to be known, included at various times, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, James Simmons and Stewart Parker, all of whom became prominent writers. They met at Hobsbaum’s flat on Monday nights to, in words from Longley’s Options, produce ‘with the vowels and the consonants/My life of make believe.’
Walk to the Lisburn Road, turn left and proceed until you come to Ashley Avenue, on your right. 16 Ashley Avenue was where Seamus Heaney lived for the majority of his time in Belfast (1957-1972). The original house has since been demolished, but Heaney, awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1995 and one of the foremost English language poets in the world, lived in a flat here while lecturing in the school of English at Queen’s. It was during this period that Heaney’s writing began to flourish, prompted by membership of the ‘Group.’ He recalled of this period in an essay in Preoccupations, ‘the regular coffee and biscuits, the irregular booze, the boisterous literary legislation.’
Walk from the Lisburn Road to the Malone Road, finding the headquarters of the Arts Council at 77 Malone Road. This building is now known as MacNeice House in honour of Belfast poet Louis MacNeice, whose father, a Church of Ireland bishop, once lived here. MacNeice’s most famous poem Snow was reputedly written at this location, where ‘the great bay window was/Spawning snow and pink roses against it.’
Prior to becoming offices, MacNeice House was a residence for Catholic women attending Queen’s University and was known as Aquinas Hall. This aspect of its history is recalled by the Pulitzer prize-winning Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon, whose poem, History, recalls sneaking into Aquinas Hall to visit a girlfriend in ‘the room where MacNeice wrote ‘Snow,’/Or the room where they say he wrote ‘Snow).
Walk back along the Malone Road towards the university to Elmwood Avenue. 30 Elmwood Avenue, since demolished, was where Philip Larkin lived during his time as a librarian at Queen’s. Larkin, one of the most prominent British poets of the 20th century, spent the early 1950s in Belfast and seemed to enjoy the experience, despite revealing in a letter, written in 1950 and published in Letters of Philip Larkin (1992), that his job consisted of ‘sitting at a desk in an unspeakably-hideous ecclesiastical-style library and pretending in a variety of not very convincing ways to be earning my salary.’
Go back along Elmwood Avenue to the front of Queen’s University. Many prominent writers have been connected to the university as students or lecturers. Helen Waddell is primarily remembered as a brilliant scholar of medieval literature, but her novel Peter Abelard, published in 1933 and based on the Heloise and Abelard love tragedy, ran to over 30 editions. She is also notable as one of the first female graduates of the University, gaining a first in English in 1910. The literary atmosphere at Queen’s is now maintained by the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, based on University Road, where some of the North’s finest writers, including Ciaran Carson, Glenn Patterson and Medbh McGuckian, hold teaching posts.
Cross the road again. Beside the Students’ Union is a small row of two storey terraces. These now house administrative offices, but one is the former home of the satirical novelist George Birmingham, the pseudonym of the Rev James Owen Hannay, a Protestant nationalist and clergyman. His best known work is The Red Hand of Ulster, a 1912 novel casting a wry look at the Home Rule political crisis of the early twentieth century.
Walk down University Road towards the city centre, entering Mount Charles via the pedestrian gate beside the Open University building. Mount Charles has two significant literary connections. 20 Mount Charles was the childhood home of the Belfast novelist Forrest Reid, best remembered for his autobiographical volumes Apostate, published in 1926, and Private Road, published in 1946. Apostate contains a delicious account of a childhood visit to the Palm House in nearby Botanic Gardens. In later life, Reid settled in east Belfast, and was a close friend of the renowned English novelist EM Forster.
The street has been altered since Reid lived here in the late nineteenth century, but 18 Mount Charles was the birthplace and childhood home of the poet John Hewitt. A poet, freethinker and socialist, Hewitt maintained a lifelong commitment to articulating a distinctive and outward looking Northern Irish identity in his work. He was deputy director of the Ulster Museum in Botanic Gardens for many years, but his political beliefs arguably prevented his promotion to director. Hewitt was also the writer in residence at Queen’s University in the late 70s, and his spirit of enquiry, as exemplified in poems such as The Irish Dimension, is commemorated in the John Hewitt Summer School, now held in Armagh every summer.
There are also a number of bars in the University area with literary connections, including Ryan’s on the Lisburn Road, formerly The Four in Hand, which hosted some irregular meetings of the Group. The Wellington Park Hotel, The Eglantine Inn, The Fly and Lavery’s have also appeared in poems and novels by Ciaran Carson, Brian Moore, and Philip Hobsbaum among others.
Ruined Pages (1994) by Padraic Faicc; The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985 (1992) edited by Anthony Thwaite; The collected poems of John Hewitt (1991) edited by Frank Ormsby; Poems 1963-1983 (1985) by Michael Longley; Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (1984) by Seamus Heaney; Quoof (1983) by Paul Muldoon; Collected Poems 1925-1948 (1962) by Louis MacNeice; Private Road (1946) and Apostate (1926) by Forrest Reid; Peter Abelard (1933) by Helen Waddell; The Red Hand of Ulster (1912) by George Birmingham.