Home Words

The Public Record Office celebrate the life and work of poet, activist and mentor John Hewitt

The current exhibition at the Public Record Office (PRONI) in Belfast's Titanic Quarter, which runs until the end of July 2014, aims to celebrate and illustrate the life of one of Northern Ireland's most talented, and perhaps under appreciated, poets: John Hewitt.

In contrast to its neighbouring big budget tourist attractions, the Odyssey and Titanic Belfast, PRONI is a much more modest building, and John Hewitt: Home Words is similarly pared down throughout – basic text cards share Hewitt's life and lyrics, without a gimmick in sight.

The exhibition begins at Hewitt's birth on Belfast's Cliftonpark Avenue in 1907 and traces the beginnings of his literary interest whilst a sixth former at Methodist College. The notes of his schoolboy jotter reveal a young poet richly influenced by Blake and Yeats.

Hewitt's passion for writing took off as he began his BA in English at Queen's University in 1924, during which time he also flirted with a number of radical political causes and wrote for trade union and socialist publications.

In 1930, Hewitt graduated from his English degree and undertook training to become a teacher at Stranmillis College. The exhibition features a number of letters and photographs from this time (including the main image, which shows Hewitt with his wife, Roberta), as well as paintings completed later in life.

Hewitt wrote voraciously over the course of his literary career and read deeply into the history of Ulster poetry. He chose the literature of 19th century Antrim as the basis of his Masters degree project, Ulster Poets 1800-1870, and published his first collection of poems, No Rebel Word, in 1948.

His body of work engages with the complex relationship between Ulster people and their country, landscape and fellow countrymen. 'Overture for an Ulster Literature' is a battle cry for his nation in its fight to be listened to. As Hewitt writes, 'we are a little people, but we will be heard'.

His powerful poem 'Neither An Elegy Nor A Manifesto' reflects on the barbed pain of the Northern Irish conflict – Hewitt's enduring influence was evident when the poem was chosen to be read out at the site of the Omagh bomb on the tenth anniversary of the atrocity:

'Remember, for your memory is a cruel web
from thorn to thorn across
a hedge of dead bramble,
heavy with pathetic atomies.'

Hewitt was appointed Queen's University's first writer in residence from 1976-79. The exhibition tells us that this cemented him as 'a leading figure of Ulster's cultural life… a 'father-figure' to the new generation of Northern Irish poets', which included the likes of Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley, among others.


Indeed, the bright talents that followed Hewitt have perhaps obscured the poet over time, as many have struggled to look beyond the dazzling glare of Heaney and his contemporaries. Yet Hewitt laid down many of the foundations of Ulster poetry and established a respect for the dialect and its traditions which the next generation of household names were then able to take as granted.

John Hewitt: Home Words reminds us that whilst Northern Irish subsequently produced many giants of literature, they stand so tall partly because they stand on the shoulders of John Hewitt.

As you might expect of an exhibition housed at PRONI, John Hewitt: Home Words is rich in information, sources and citations. In this way, it serves as a rather eloquent archive outlining the main themes, events and inspirations that influenced Hewitt over a long and distinguished career in the arts.

The seasoned Hewitt fan will not go away dizzy with shocking revelations. Rather, this exhibition's real power lies in inspiring the casual visitor to go forward and read more of Hewitt's work by introducing them to some of the major publications by one of Ulster's greatest writers.

John Hewitt Home Words runs at PRONI, Belfast until July 31.