Bangor Literary Tour

Kenneth Irvine traverses the 'Cradle of Modern Irish Literature' with poetry, song and not a few tenuous links

As the founding father of the Aspects Irish Literature Festival, Kenneth Irvine is an apt choice to lead a leisurely stroll around hosting town Bangor to celebrate its belletristic heritage.

However, as the half-dozen wannabe wayfarers in attendance meet up at North Down Museum, Irvine is quick to point out that this is less a ‘literary walk’ and more of a gentle wander exploring the history of the town. Could it be that Bangor isn’t rated all that highly in the annals of Northern Ireland’s literary history?

Quite the contrary, according to Irvine, as he kicks off the tour in the courtyard café of the museum. After detailing some of Bangor’s story – from its earliest beginnings as an abbey, to the home of ‘first great European’, St Columbanus – Irvine refers to Bangor’s status among scholars as the ‘Cradle Of Modern Irish Literature’.

He argues that ‘if it hadn’t been for Bangor, there wouldn’t be Irish literature… or it least it would have come a lot later’. A lofty claim indeed.

Irvine is softly spoken but pleasant to listen to, especially as he waxes lyrical about early Irish mythology. Unfortunately for us, some of the café patrons appear to disagree and no matter how hard I strain my ears, I find it difficult to hear over their talk of buggies, car seats and ‘whether it would be better to be eaten by a tiger or a shark’. A valid question and no mistake, but time for our walking troupe to move on.

Next stop is the police station around the corner, overlooking the hulking Translink building below. The literary significance of the latter is obvious – the Railway Station has welcomed countless visitors to the town since the original building’s construction in 1865, and the train as a motif is, of course, an endless source of inspiration to poets and novelists alike.

In keeping with the theme, Irvine recalls a modern example specific to Bangor, Moyra Donaldson’s ‘Seeing The Demolition Of Bangor Railway Station’. In this piece, Donaldson re-lives the demise of the old building (which was resurrected in 2001), where her dad once had an office. 'They’re knocking down my father!' she writes, recalling the ‘piss-smelling’ station with equal parts fondness and revulsion.

Sadly the literary connection to the police station is more of a stretch, and amounts to little more than the fact that former RUC chief constable Sir Jack Hermon once served there; he wrote an autobiography, Holding the Line, in 1997. Time to get moving again, this time down one of the best-known streets in the town" Dufferin Avenue.

Here Irvine regales us with a smattering of local history regarding the lineage of the famous Dufferin family (currently at home in Clandeboye Estate) and their influence over the local landscape. Most notable and relevant is Lord Dufferin’s nearby ode to his mother, Helen Selina Blackwood, Helen’s Tower. Erected in 1861, it famously inspired Browning and Tennyson, with the latter writing a poem specifically about the building.

It is a pleasure to stand and consider this much-loved landmark awhile by a row of pastel-hued houses, but sadly the other factoids Irvine recalls are again rather tenuous. Frederick Forsyth name-checking the nearby Railwayview Street in a novel doesn’t particularly capture my imagination, and I am glad to pick up the pace once again and head for the shore.

It is extremely difficult not to have thoughts leaning towards the literary as we survey the marina, the lapping of the lough mingling with the chiming of a boats’ rigging as it rattles in the gentle breeze. After aptly tearing through the sing-song nursery rhyme ‘The Bangor Boat’s Away’, Irvine makes a pertinent point about how the seafront ‘lends itself to poets commemorating small things’.

He then reads from a Michael Longley piece in which the esteemed Belfast poet remembers school trips to the shore, and looking out over the ‘old, grey, smelly beach’. I’m sure he meant it as a compliment.

Sadly we don’t hear much more in the way of literature inspired by the shore (a shame, as it is a rich quarry to be mined). Time is getting on and we head back towards base.

We stop off at the McKee Clock en route for a quick chat about John Hewitt’s ‘whole raft of sonnets’ about Bangor, before heading up Main Street to Bangor 1st Presbyterian. Here Irvine talks about long-time friend of Aspects, crime writer, screenwriter and Bangor’s darling son, Colin Bateman.

We are shocked to learn of Bateman’s uncharacteristic shyness during his first appearance at the festival in 1995, and I am also somewhat shocked to hear Irvine talk about Bateman working in Newtownards before successfully ‘escaping’ to Bangor. ‘And why wouldn’t he?’ Irvine adds. As an Ardsman myself, it would be all too easy to take offence, but thankfully the soothing sounds of the sea is still fresh in my mind...

As we approach the final furlong back to the museum, I feel suitably refreshed. It has been a strange couple of hours, filled with genuinely interesting tales, enjoyable readings and continually inspiring mythologies mixed with numerous tenuous links and some slightly spurious facts.

Ultimately, I’m still not convinced that Bangor is the ‘Cradle Of Modern Irish Literature’, but this annual tour is a good excuse to take a very nice stroll by the sea and, damn it, that’s good enough for me. 

Read a review of war correspondent Martin Bell in conversation at Aspects Irish Literature Festival 2014.