Representations of Belfast in Poetry

'A city build upon mud, a culture built upon profit'

For many years poets have found inspiration in Belfast as an industrial centre, as a backdrop for religious intolerance, and as a labyrinth where meaning and truth constant evading definition. Belfast is a city that constantly generates new versions of itself, and always evades what is easily defined and labelled.

Louis MacNeice and John Hewitt
Poets born in Belfast often take a sternly unsentimental view of their city of origin. Louis MacNeice observes the industrial city with unflinching detail in section XVI of his classic Autumn Journal, and summed up the economic and sectarian history of Belfast: ‘A city built upon mud;/A culture built upon profit;/Free speech nipped in the bud…’

In Valediction he succinctly describes the city’s complex and divisive culture: ‘see Belfast, devout and profane and hard,/Built on reclaimed mud, hammers playing in the shipyard’. Although resisting bland political formulations, MacNeice was quick to document unemployment and inequality in these and other poems with an unrivalled clarity and venom.

John Hewitt was similarly both harsh and ambivalent, examining the tension between the countryside and the city, between tradition and modernity in the ‘betraying violent city/irremediably home’. This was a grimy, over-industrialised setting, but he remained thankful for, ‘… the hill at hand familiar …’

With Kites in Spring, we find Hewitt happily engaged in remembering his childhood in the ‘river-straddling, hill-rimmed town,’ admitting that the city, for all its troubles, had provided him with continual inspiration. The loving recollections of Cliftonpark Avenue and surrounds are never rose-tinted or mawkish, but chart his growing connection with the world and his attempts to describe what he witnessed in his writing.

Both poets were politically minded and railed against the narrow sectarian conflict that scarred the city and the country as a whole. Their poetry helped point the way to a more open and tolerant Belfast, a place that MacNeice might describe as, ‘irredeemably plural.

Shifting city
For Ciaran Carson Belfast is mutable, shifting, a place that no map can hope to accurately describe. In Belfast Confetti, the city is continually dissected, revised and reworked, not the static and enclosed place it may appear on the surface.

For Carson, the city is in constant flux and can never hope to be ‘finished’. As with many Northern Irish poets, there is a great joy in the names and histories of the streets, a desire to uncover the linguistic root of the places that can often be taken for granted. Belfast becomes a labyrinth where streets disappear, and security buildings do not appear on maps, but exist in the minds of the population where, ‘The city is the map of the city.’

Carson is a poet who never flinches from documenting the devastation of random murders and bombs, but is equally committed to detailing the life of the community, the rich intermingling, the humour and the music that continue despite the violence. For Carson, Belfast can act against those who may want to impose a single vision as it continually evolves and rewrites itself: ‘And the streets are a bad photostat grey: the ink comes off on your hand/With so many foldings and unfoldings, whole segments of the map have fallen off.’

Place names
Many poets concentrate their imaginative powers on particular areas of the city, which they constantly revisit in their work. For Paul Muldoon in History, the Malone Road is significant as the place where MacNeice composed his earlier poem, Snow, in the residence of his bishop father.

For Derek Mahon, the suburbs proved to be more fertile ground, charting the post-war redevelopment and the rapid changes this brought. Most famously he describes in Spring in Belfast how, ‘We could all be saved by keeping an eye on the hill/At the top of every street …’

Tom Paulin spent much of his childhood on the Ormeau Road, and it figures in his poetry as a strange sanctuary from the bitter conflict. He is continually hopeful of finding in the city the enlightenment ideals and intellectual inquiry first initiated by the United Irishmen.

Michael Longley finds in the quiet streets of Belfast a comforting normalcy in the ordinary lives of the community, his humane eye always coupled with a quiet anger at the savage and pointless murders.

The Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney has only occasionally visited the city in his work, most notably for Linen Town in the Wintering Out collection, where Belfast is viewed as a place of lost ideals, and the day of Henry Joy McCracken’s execution is: ‘ …one of the last afternoons/of reasonable light.’

These writers, along with Padraic Fiacc and James Simmons, see place, identity and religion as interlocked, and seek to examine its complexity and richness, the many layers of meaning that co-exist.

These, and other poets, have helped redefine what Belfast is and what it can be, exploring the hidden complexities and uncovering a rich beauty that may not be immediately apparent. Whether it is Hewitt finding inspiration in the natural setting or Carson’s intellectual delight in the shifting boundaries, this is a city whose physical beauty and character has been the catalyst for great poetry.

There is a repeated examination of how geography affects relationships, and how areas can appear and disappear, how certain names are encoded with tribal meaning that is instinctively understood. Belfast is a city of change and possibility, and its poets have tried to transcend ancestral and tribal conflict, while examining what makes Belfast so strange and unique.

Gavin Carville

Further reading
Collected Poems (1999) by Derek Mahon; Selected Poems (1993) by Tom Paulin; Collected Poems (1991) by John Hewitt; Belfast Confetti (1989) by Ciaran Carson; Poems 1963-1983 (1985) by Michael Longley; Why Brownlee Left (1980) by Paul Muldoon; Collected Poems (1979) by Louis MacNeice; Wintering Out (1972) by Seamus Heaney; Autumn Journal (1938) by Louis MacNeice.