Glenn Patterson is a Belfast-born novelist and screenwriter, and Director of the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast.
His eighth novel, The Mill For Grinding Old People Young, was Belfast’s first ‘One City One Book’ choice in 2012. In this article, he examines how Belfast’s environment and history have made it one of Europe’s key literary cities.
Belfast's literary roots
Belfast is, historically speaking, a young city.The first charter was awarded just over four hundred years ago, in 1613. At the beginning of the 19th century the population was still only 20,000, but by the century’s end this had risen to almost half a million, and Belfast had been transformed from a busy market town to a major industrial centre. The changes that occurred in these years did much to shape not just the character of the city, but also the development of a distinctive – and distinguished – Belfast literature.
The melancholy lough
James Owen Hannay, born in Belfast in 1865, combined a lifetime’s service as an Anglican minister with a prolific output as a novelist, under the pseudonym George A Birmingham. One of his best-known novels, Red Hand of Ulster, published in 1912, sheds light on the political and religious tensions – sometimes outright strife – that increased as Belfast’s population grew, tensions that were perhaps exacerbated by the city’s physical setting. Belfast is hemmed in by mountains to the west and east and, to the north, by water, in the form of Belfast Lough (an Irish word for a lake): ‘the melancholy lough’ as poet Louis MacNeice, born in the city in 1907, referred to it.
MacNeice’s Belfast is a dreary place, ‘veneered with the grime of Glasgow… a city built on mud’, and it must have seemed to him growing up that even the place-names were tainted. The highest hills to the western side of the city are known as Black Mountain and Divis, a name derived from the Irish for black. Adjoining them, Cave Hill is a recurrent feature of Belfast narratives. (I plead guilty to having sent a couple of characters of my own up there in The Mill For Grinding Old People Young.)
Known locally as Napoleon’s Nose, it is supposed to resemble the French Emperor in profile and – you’ll never get the resemblance without this crucial piece of information – lying on his back.
Inspiring world class literature
Jonathan Swift was a young clergyman in a church along the Lough shore when he was writing the now world-famous Gulliver’s Travels. Belfast people will tell you that he got the idea for his protagonist Lemuel Gulliver while contemplating Cave Hill as he rode into town to see the daughter of a wealthy merchant, whom he hoped to marry.
On the eastern rim of the city the gentler Craigantlet Hills are said to have inspired CS Lewis (born nearby) in his portrayal of Narnia for his fantasy novels Chronicles of Narnia. Like Louis MacNeice and many other middle-class boys of that era, Lewis left Belfast for boarding school in England while still very young and never again returned for any length of time.
The Shipyard Poet
In contrast, Thomas Carnduff, born in 1886, spent his entire life in the city. A writer for stage and radio in later years, Carnduff earned the nickname ‘The Shipyard Poet’ after the publication of his first book, Songs of the Shipyard, in 1924. More than any other industry, it was shipbuilding that put Belfast on the world map (and, yes, I do have to say the word Titanic here). The workforce was overwhelmingly Protestant and in 1959 another ‘shipyard’ playwright Sam Thompson wrote a play called Over the Bridge, which dealt with anti-Catholic feeling head-on, and which became a cause of controversy when the trustees of the Ulster Group Theatre, where the play was to be produced, withdrew it from their programme.
Over the Bridge was eventually staged in early 1960 – in Dublin and London as well as Belfast – and was brought to an even wider audience the following year when it was adapted for British television.
As the 1960s progressed, a remarkable generation of younger writers began to find its voice with poets very much at the fore. Seamus Heaney had come to Belfast from Bellaghy in 1957 to take up a place at Queen’s University. He formed a particularly close friendship with fellow poets Michael Longley and Derek Mahon, cemented in a trip the three made together to Louis MacNeice’s grave, memorialised in Mahon’s In Carrowdore Churchyard, a poem that credits MacNeice with ‘Rinsing the choked mud, keeping the colours new.’
Seamus Heaney’s first job was at St Thomas’s Secondary School, whose principal was the novelist and short-story writer Michael McLaverty. His near namesake Bernard MacLaverty – who has arguably earned even greater renown for his short stories and novels – began writing in the same Queen’s writing group that Heaney had belonged to. Playwright Stewart Parker was another member. Coming up only a few years behind them were three equally stellar poets: Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian, and Paul Muldoon.
Muldoon, like Heaney, initially came to the city to study. Short-story writer and playwright Anne Devlin made the opposite journey, out of her native Belfast to the University of Ulster on the north Antrim coast. While there, she took part in a civil rights march, which came under attack from counterdemonstrators and some members of the police (an experience that she worked into her play After Easter).
It was 1969 and political violence had returned to Northern Ireland. 'The Troubles' were to dominate Belfast for much of the last three decades of the twentieth century. Working class neighbourhoods were divided by inaptly named ‘peace walls’, the streets within often declaring their allegiances – Irish or British – with flags and paramilitary murals.
These were dangerous times, when a word out of place could be enough to get you shot, where whatever you say, say nothing (the title of a Seamus Heaney poem from his 1975 collection North) was the mantra.
Ciaran Carson took this idea of language itself under stress to its logical conclusion in his 1987 poem, Belfast Confetti:
Suddenly as the riot squad moved in it was raining
Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type.
His 1989 volume – also called Belfast Confetti – even featured an illustration of an exploding typewriter on the cover. It is perhaps unsurprising that in an effort to ‘piece together the exploded fragments’ – to quote from another Carson poem (Hamlet) – Belfast writers again took to the hills.
‘It is only late at night,’ writes Robert McLiam Wilson in his third novel Eureka Street (1996), ‘if you stand up high, that you can see the city as one thing, as a single phenomenon… And from anywhere you stand, from anywhere you look, the streets glitter like jewels, like small strings of stars.’
This same passage references the fact that, beneath the pavements, much of Belfast city centre is mud reclaimed from the Lough – ‘land that simply wasn’t there two hundred years ago’. Our muddy origins, like our mountains, are something of a motif, but whereas in times past they symbolised a lack of stability, they appear in more recent writing to contribute to an appreciation of the shifting, transient nature of things, the sudden wondrous alignment of disparate elements that the city at its best can achieve. In Lucy Caldwell’s novel All the Beggars Riding (2013) the narrator, Lara, experiences just such a moment on her first visit as an adult to Belfast – her father’s birthplace. ‘I thought, incredulous: I hadn’t known – who could? – that it would be so beautiful. I felt… lit up inside.’
Or to put it another, slightly more jaded way, as playwright Owen McCafferty does (with a humour as black as Divis) in his 2012 play Quietly,
‘For thirty-odd years this was a fucked up place – blah blah blah – now it’s not such a fucked up place – it’s the love-in capital of Europe.’
And tomorrow it will be something else again.
And Belfast – as its 400-year history suggests – will again produce the poets, playwrights and novelists to tell that new story.
(An hour after typing that last sentence I heard that Stephen Sexton, a young poet at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University, had won the UK’s National Poetry Competition: tomorrow starts here…)