Northern Irish Literature 1

From provincial poets and rhyming weavers to Victorian writing and the national revival

Provincial poets and rhyming weavers

As Gaelic culture receded before the political and cultural forces of plantation, literature in Ulster was largely a matter of theological controversy and self-consciously provincial verse. Colonial writers looked to London or to a lesser extent Dublin for their stylistic models, and treatment of local topics was rare. Perhaps the earliest indigenous literature of the post-plantation period is to be found in the work of the ‘rhyming weavers’.

In the late 18th century these informally educated handloom weavers published verse via a system that depended on individual subscriptions to the costs of printing. They dealt with landscape, work, local life and conventional themes both in English and, more vividly, the Scots dialect of Antrim and Down.

The best known of these figures, James Orr of Ballycarry, fought in the 1798 rising in Antrim, and looked back on the affair with sardonic disappointment:

The camp’s brak up, ower braes and bogs,
The patriots seek their sections;
Arms, ammunition, bread bags, brogues
Lie strewed in all directions.
And some, alas, wha feared to face
Auld fogies, or e’en women,
They swore in pride, as yet untried
They yet wad face the yeomen
Some other day. 

Victorian writing and the national revival

Nineteenth century writers from the north of Ireland looked to Dublin for models and for their own reputation. Contemporaries of Wordsworth and Coleridge, minor literary figures like William Drennan and the Rev WH Drummond remained wedded to the Augustan style of earlier generations of English poets. Samuel Ferguson, posthumous portrait by Sarah Parser after a photograph, reproduced by kind permission of the Royal Irish Academy (c) RIA

However, like romantics elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, Samuel Ferguson, born in Belfast in 1810, drew on Irish legend and poetry. An antiquarian and important figure in Dublin public life, Ferguson was acknowledged by Yeats as one of the forerunners to the Gaelic Revival.

William Allingham (from County Donegal but briefly customs officer in Coleraine) knew the Brownings, DG Rossetti and other late-romantic literary figures. Like Ferguson and most other writers from the north he found it necessary to conduct his literary career outside Ulster.

The most influential of the Ulster writers involved in the Revival was unquestionably George Russell (‘AE’). Born in Lurgan in 1867, this poet, painter and mystic was a friend and collaborator of Yeats and an important influence on many more minor writers.