Conference and Poetry Reading


Room to Rhyme: Poetry and Crisis, 1968-1998.

Linen Hall Library, Belfast, 23rd May 2018.

Plenary Address: Edna Longley

Evening Reading: Michael Longley, Alan Gillis and Colette Bryce.

The Linen Hall Library, Belfast and the University of Reading invite you to a one-day conference to mark 50 years since the NI Arts Council-funded Room to Rhyme tour, when Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney and Davy Hammond brought poetry and song to a society on the brink of thirty years of conflict. The conference aims to generate new perspectives on Northern Irish poetry by attending to its historical and institutional contexts, and to intervene in ongoing debates about the relationship between poetry and politics.

The conference and reading are free but please register to ensure a place:

Registration 9.30 – 10.00

Panel I 10.00 – 11.30.

Steven Matthews (Reading): Writing the Province: David Jones, John Montague, Seamus Heaney.

Florence Impens (Manchester): ‘The Watchman’s War’: Classical Poems in the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’

Fran Brearton (Queen’s): Coming of Age: Longley’s Dedications


Panel II 11.45 – 1.15

Connal Parr (Northumbria): Field Day: The South African Connection.

Shane Murphy (Aberdeen): ‘Truly Far-Fetched’: Intertextuality and the Poetry of Witness.

W. J. McCormack: North Ventures South: John Hewitt and Austin Clarke

Lunch 1.15 – 2.15

Panel III 2.15 – 3.45

Michael Parker (Oxford Brookes): Recognition Scenes: Seamus Heaney’s ‘Glanmore Revisited’, Looking Back, Up and Ahead’.

Conor Carville (Reading): Yeats in Belfast: Poetry and Crisis 1971-1972

Heather Clark (Marlboro): The Belfast Group: A Reconsideration


Plenary Address 4.00-5.00

Edna Longley (Queen’s):  ‘Making Room, Northern Irish Poetry since the 1960s’

6.00 Evening Reading

Michael Longley, Alan Gillis and Colette Bryce.


List of Abstracts


Fran Brearton: Coming of Age: Longley’s Dedications


In the dedicatory poem for his first collection, No Continuing City (1969), Michael Longley writes of a ‘Coming of age’ that reverberates both in the private and public spheres, and which is also an implicit response to the political upheavals in Northern Ireland in 1968-9. Through consideration of dedications, and dedicatory poems, and drawing on archival letters and manuscripts, this paper traces some of the aesthetic and political developments of Longley and his contemporaries from the 1960s into the 1970s .


Conor Carville: Yeats in Belfast.


Between 1971 and 1972 Seamus Heaney’s writing was produced within a complex network of institutions and individuals both in and out of Northern Ireland. This paper examines Heaney’s ambivalent attitudes towards this network, which included the BBC, the Arts Council, and the newly formed Ministry for Community Relations and Community Relations Commission. I will pay close attention to the development of Heaney’s aesthetics in this period of severe unrest, with particular reference to ‘Yeats in Belfast’ a poem which he intended to appear in what became North, but which was never published.


Heather Clarke: “The Belfast Group: A Reconsideration”


In 1962, the British critic Philip Hobsbaum arrived in Belfast to take up a teaching position in the English Department at Queen’s University. He came with an impressive array of literary connections. At Cambridge, he had studied with F. R. Leavis, edited the literary magazine delta, and befriended Ted Hughes. Later, in London, he chaired a weekly writing group, dubbed “the Group,” whose members included Edward Lucie-Smith, Alan Brownjohn, George MacBeth, Ted Hughes, Peter Redgrove, David Wevill and Peter Porter, among others. These were some of the most prominent young poets and critics in England; such contacts would prove valuable when Hobsbaum convened another writing group in Belfast, where he assembled equally talented, if less confident, young writers. This “Belfast Group” was a crucial launching pad for many Belfast poets, notably Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon. The Belfast Group became not just a place for fellowship, support and critique, but a non-sectarian space in a city where language was closely guarded. In this paper, I will give a broad overview of the Belfast Group’s origins and significance, and reconsider the influence of Philip Hobsbaum’s London literary network—particularly Al Alvarez and Ted Hughes—upon Belfast poetry in the 1960s.


Florence Impens: The Watchman’s War: Classical Poems in the Northern Irish Troubles


Why would ancient texts be of any use in helping us to apprehend a complex conflict like the Troubles? How could those narratives from times past be relevant to readers caught in a civil war? Classical poems have been on the receiving end of accusations of escapism, and yet some of the best-known literary texts related to the Troubles have their source in ancient Greece. The paper examines what made classical rewritings like Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy and Michael Longley’s ‘Ceasefire’ so successful, and reads them within the broader context of the Northern Irish reception of the classics after 1968. Offering new perspectives on a key aspect of the literature of the Troubles, it explores the complex and evolving relationship of art and politics in the province.


Steven Matthews: Writing the Province: David Jones, John Montague, Seamus Heaney’


The ‘re-emergence’ of the work of the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones in journal special issues of the later 1960s and early 1970s reminded writers of the difficult consonances between poetry and territory, between historical artifact and modern crisis. This paper will consider the renewed presence of Jones’s work in contemporary writing from Northern Ireland at that point, focusing particularly upon the archaeological, communal, and ritual tropes manifest in Montague’s and Heaney’s work of the period.


W. J. McCormack: North Ventures South: John Hewitt and Austin Clarke 


This paper will explore the poets Austin Clarke and John Hewitt on their own merits.  Also among his concerns the speaker hopes to scotch the persistent rumour that Hewitt was antagonistic towards Catholics.


Shane Murphy: ‘Truly Far-fetched’: Intertextuality and the Poetry of Witness


Allen Feldman notes in Archives of the Insensible that ‘[o]ur public culture is rife with enumeration debates over collective violence, by which hierarchies of horror are established with the rhetoric of quantification’; such discussions, he argues, ‘appear to bring an often reassuring rationality to the cultural management of the memory of violence’. Yet Northern Irish poets, in their urge to be ‘responsible’ and respond to socio-political violence, did not adopt this ‘actuarial’ function: they were not the keepers of tallies or of old scores that had to be settled. Instead, with an eye to the uncountable – the wounds which were not visible and the traumatic after-maths [sic] – their work often used quotation and translation to achieve the requisite, enabling distance to both bear witness to and formally mimic the haunting, ruptures of trauma. Looking at poems by Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson, this paper examines some of the different strategies used by the poets to mediate conflict.


Michael Parker: Seamus  Heaney’s ‘Glanmore Revisited’ Sequence


The ‘Glanmore Revisited’ sequence in Seeing Things (1991) has to date not received the close critical attention it deserves. Its seven sonnets highlight important moments in the life the Heaney family shared between August 1972- November 1976 in a cottage in Co Wicklow, and shuttle between that period and the late 1980s when they took possession as owners. The purchase of the property provided the poet with the work-space he desperately needed. By freeing him from constant demands on his time in Dublin, he told Dennis O’Driscoll, it ‘saved my writing life’ (Stepping Stones 326).


Although the poems seem rooted in the personal and domestic, they not surprisingly bear traces of the changing political atmosphere between 1988 and 1990 when they were composed, and so affinities with Heaney’s The Cure at Troy, his adaptation of Sophocles. Allusions to Homer, and references to wounds, scars,  anguish, depression, disassociation, transgression are countered by positive images of birth, dawn-song, stirrings, healings, openness. Significantly, on one early draft of the sequence’s most lauded poem, ‘Skylight’, the poet has scribbled and circled the phrase ‘New possibilities’, which may well be indicative, as Marilynn Richtarik has suggested, of a consciousness that Northern Ireland might at last be on the brink of a better future.


Connal Parr: Field Day and Apartheid


This paper discusses Irish and South African cultural overlaps from the 1960s to the 1990s, focusing especially on Field Day Theatre Company. In 1983 Field Day produced their first non-Irish, non-Brian Friel-written/adapted play: Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena, carefully chose to exemplify certain political parallels. Though the more polemical comparisons over the years centre on fatuous labels of Northern Ireland as an ‘Apartheid Orange state’, there were genuine politico-cultural links between Ireland and South Africa, embodied by the flamboyant figure of Kader Asmal (1934–2011), who brought together a vibrant scene of trade unionists, Left activists, artists, and future Taoisigh and Irish Presidents to form the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. Seamus Heaney was particularly prominent, even going so far as to attend the famous pickets of Dunnes Stores led by worker Mary Manning (who refused to handle South African goods in July 1984). This paper also considers the more general poetic/cultural engagement of the Irish literary world with South Africa and the anti-Apartheid movement, for instance through Siobhan McKenna, who addressed the United Nations on the subject in March 1982.