The 'Little' Magazines
A range of publications that have helped to keep literature alive in the city
The debate over the nature of literature in Belfast and its surrounding environs has been most fiercely argued within the pages of the many literary periodicals published in the city.
The first of these was published in 1741 by Henry Joy (publisher of The Belfast Newsletter), entitled The Publick Register or The Weekly Register. This was a London-based magazine, which Joy reprinted for the good people of Belfast.
As opposed to the usual advertisements for syphilis cures and lottery tickets, this carried adverts for recently published books. That Joy was able to print 20 editions of the periodical seems to show an interest in literature within the early city.
The first periodical to print on Irish matters was The Microscope or The Minute Observer. Published by Joseph Smyth in High Street, the magazine ran for 21 issues and was the first to contemplate literary works published in the city.
Anonymous local poets contributed and essays on local writers were penned, including ‘Memoirs of Farquar’ on the Derry-born playwright. Articles opposing slavery began to appear later in the magazine’s lifetime, and William Drennan, the United Irishman, contributed a piece rejecting the incoming Act of Union.
The first half of the 19th century saw an upsurge in the publishing of these types of magazine, including The Belfast Monthly Magazine, The Belfast Literary Journal (which published a poem by the Weaver poet James Orr entitled ‘Man Was Made to Smile’), the intriguingly-titled The Literary and Mathematical Asylum, The Rushlight, The Belfast Magazine, The Ulster Magazine, The New Belfast Magazine, and The Belfast Penny Journal (‘Interesting to all – Offensive to None’).
One of the most interesting periodicals of this time was Francis Davis, The Belfast Man’s Journal published between January 5 and March 23, 1850. This was the first self-consciously working class literature printed in Belfast. The first editorial makes this plea:
‘The working classes of Belfast, have more than once or twice possessed the opportunity of supporting a native literary periodical; but for some reason ye have ever been the last to receive, and the first to decline, any or every thing of the stamp…’
Francis Davis lasted only 12 issues, but is intriguing in that in 1850 the working classes, who were swelling the numbers of the city, were considered an audience at all. This was to be the last working class periodical printed until Portlight in the later years of the 20th century.
The later half of the 19th century was a barren time for periodicals, until the publication of Ulad and The Shan Van Vocht between 1896 and 1905. Shan Van Vocht was effectively a political vehicle for the views of Alice Milligan and Anna Johnston.
Interested in exploring and memorialising the 100th anniversary of the 1798 uprising, the magazine is remarkable for having been edited, published and administered by two women, at a time in which women were still denied the vote.
Literary historian Tom Clyde recognises that the magazine had an almost slavish devotion to the national mood of celebration of 1798, and only rarely acknowledged that a modern Belfast was in existence.
In contrast, Ulad was a self-conscious attempt to create a regionalist identity in the north of Ireland. The magazine of the Ulster Literary Theatre (ULT), Ulad was keen to make a case for a difference between the north of Ireland and the southern Celtic Revival led by WB Yeats.
‘This Ulster has its own way of things’ read the opening sentence of the opening editorial, and the content mixed poetry, cultural criticism and the timeless illustrations of the Belfast writer and artist Joseph Campbell.
The magazine also printed plays, including the seminal The Enthusiast by Lewis Purcell, now widely recognised as the play that created a particular Northern style of drama that would be developed by the ULT amongst others over the next 100 years.
The pre-Second World War periodicals published in the city were anaemic affairs, with little to distinguish them – The Ulster Review, The Northman (which became The New Northman and then The Northman again), and The Ulster Freelance (published by the Belfast Writers Club). These were all short-lived affairs, barely scraping past three or four issues.
Two later magazines, however, Rann and Lagan, distinguished themselves and had a lasting influence on the development of literature in Belfast and Northern Ireland. Although both had their origins in Lisburn, their sphere of influence was very much Belfast’s literary scene.
As Nicholas Allen has commented, ‘Belfast found her voice in Lagan’. John Boyd, Sam Hanna Bell and Bob Davidson edited Lagan and not only promoted John Hewitt’s regionalist agenda but also reflected John Boyd’s interest in the international.
They published only four issues but the breadth of material was ground-breaking and collected together for a purpose – to argue that writing from this part of the world was singular and worth taking seriously.
Rann, edited by Barbara Hunter and Roy McFadden, was a serious journal, which attempted in its 20 issues to give voice to the new generation of poets, with a limited nod to the regionalist identity of Lagan.
Roy McFadden, at the end of Rann’s existence gave voice to the wearied editor of many Belfast magazines: ‘I explained that tiredness, not need of cash or an increased circulation, had convinced us that five years had been a brave innings: that enough was enough.’
Threshold, the magazine of the Lyric Players Theatre, ran irregularly from 1957-1990 as and when finances allowed the theatre to publish. Its high points were probably after the theatre had moved from the suburban house of its founder (the O’Malleys) to its existing site in Stranmillis.
At this point the newer generation of poets, as opposed to the 1930s generation, began to dominate and the magazine responded to the growing civil unrest in society at the time. Threshold continued until 1990.
A short-lived example of the drive of one writer to stamp his mark on the Belfast literary scene was Interest, whose 20-odd issues were edited by Stewart Parker in the 1960s.
By far one of the most successful of the post-war magazines was The Honest Ulsterman. The Ulsterman lasted for a total of 107 issues, and is one of the best examples of a literary magazine the city has produced.
Begun by the iconoclastic poet James Simmons, the magazine moved from its original base in Portrush to Belfast in 1969, a year after its initial creation.
The first phase saw the magazine subtitled ‘A Handbook of Revolution’ and the early issues reflect James Simmons’ revolutionary tendencies. Such a furore was caused by his manifesto that the then RUC visited the printers of the magazine in 1968.
Simmons, however, was keen to point out later that he meant: ‘The revolutionary process inside a man sometimes produced by literature, making him see the world afresh.’
Simmons was succeeded as editor by Michael Foley, who was then succeeded by Frank Ormsby, poet and head of English at RBAI. The Honest Ulsterman then entered a golden age of critical analysis of literature, coupled with the early writings of writers of the calibre of Bernard MacLaverty, Medbh McGuckian, Edna Longley and Ciaran Carson to name but a few.
Frank Ormsby was editor for the next twenty years, and his contribution to the vitality of the literature scene in the north of Ireland cannot be overstated.
One of the most interesting but less well-known periodicals was printed during the 1980s – Gown Literary Supplement. Printed irregularly from 1972 to 1990 from Queen’s, the supplement was extremely patchy, publishing whenever there was an upsurge of interested poets at the university.
Gown had an international flavour, influenced by the early editions of The Honest Ulsterman and an interest in the American beat poetry scene.
Other magazines to have contributed to the literature scene in Belfast include Fortnight which, while its emphasis has been on political analysis, has also printed and ruminated upon the literary state of the city.
The Belfast Review, edited by the poet and playwright Damian Gorman, and The Linen Hall Review, published from the Library, attempted to create a populist literary magazine with a less intimidating take on the literary scene here.
Most recently Irish Pages, also publishing from the Linen Hall, has taken up the mantle.
These ‘little’ magazines have allowed writers to produce work in an atmosphere of acceptance and have shone light on new writing from many poets and short-story writers. The dedication involved in the production of these magazines has been immense, and those who have given their time to promote the culture of writing in Belfast deserve our thanks.