Louis MacNeice

Representing Belfast to the world

The poet Louis MacNeice was born at Brookhill Avenue, Belfast, on September 12, 1907, though is most frequently associated with 1930s London or the County Antrim town of Carrickfergus.

His father was rector of Trinity Church on nearby Clifton Street between 1903 and 1908. While the city receives no mention in MacNeice’s ‘unfinished autobiography’, The Strings are False, Belfast is present at a number of crucial moments in his poetry. A 1931 poem speaks of the city:

Down there at the end of the melancholy lough
Against the lurid sky over the stained water
Where hammers clang murderously on the girders
Like crucifixes the gantries stand.

In MacNeice’s greatest poem 'Autumn Journal', Belfast is depicted as ‘A city built upon mud’, a dangerous, violent place set in the ‘limbo’ of its semi-industrialised hinterland. ‘Belfast between the mountains and the gantries’ evoked for MacNeice, ‘…the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams'.

The poem ‘Valediction’ also sees:

Belfast, devout and profane and hard,
Built on reclaimed mud, hammers playing in the shipyard,
Time punched with holes like a steel sheet, time
Hardening the faces.

These visions of an industrial, politically-riven city constitute only a small element of MacNeice’s work, but have been disproportionately influential on the work of later Northern Irish poets and on Belfast’s presentation to the wider world.

Further Reading

Collected Poems (1979) and The Strings are False (1965) by Louis MacNeice.