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Northman: John Hewitt (1907-87)An Irish writer, his world, and his times$

W. J. McCormack

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780198739821

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198739821.001.0001

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Daybreak; or, I Solve the Irish Problem

Daybreak; or, I Solve the Irish Problem

(p.244) Break for Text IV Daybreak; or, I Solve the Irish Problem
Northman: John Hewitt (1907-87)

W. J. McCormack

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

These final pages examine two late and unusual items by John Hewitt—an unpublished quasi-fictional prose piece (‘I Solve the Irish Problem’) and a short story (‘Daybreak’) published under a pseudonym. From the first we can distil his final estimate of Irish Protestantism in its once liberal form: this is a kind of dream-fantasy in which he can admit some respect for a middle-of-the-road politics. The second involves characters whose names require adjustment due to their half resemblance to names within Hewitt’s family circle. Each piece attempts a fiction of resolved completion, but only through the medium of non-realism. Hewitt’s limited success with his more renowned inheritors is noted, and the challenge which he mounts to theories of identity is offered as a decent alternative.

Keywords:   John Hewitt, prose, short story, fantasy, Protestantism, non-realism

Answer: A collideoscape!

James Joyce, 1939

Among Hewitt’s late papers is an undated typescript (with some alterations) oddly titled, ‘I Solve the Irish Problem’. Any hint of pride is immediately dispelled—‘I had a dream. I solved the Irish problem. But I must not claim any credit personally since the solution was borne in on me by a succession of Irish patriots who appeared before me.’ Use of the term ‘patriot’ in the 1970s was, in many eyes, monopolized by those least qualified to distribute it as a reward; or, it was an old-fashioned term, reserved for the long dead. Care, therefore, should be taken when interpreting Hewitt’s meaning. As if to emphasize the point, the narrator admits that he did not recognize the first apparition until he ‘solemnly uttered these words: ESSE EST PERCEPI’. Finally identifying the eighteenth-century philosopher George Berkeley (1685–1753), he proceeds to account for the succession of advisers, employing a species of golf-club idiom—‘it dawned on me … none other than … all very interesting … that’s really bad …’ It would be rash to conclude that the narrator is Hewitt in any simple sense.

He and Berkeley click when the bishop wittily observes, ‘indubitably you see me, therefore I exist’ and announces that all the succeeding figures in the dream are Irish Protestants, ‘though sadly I must qualify this statement: while they all come of good Protestant stock two of them switched to Rome … as a consequence they hav’nt joined us in Heaven: they are in Purgatory’. The full list of apparitions is:

  • George Berkeley (1685–1753)

  • Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)

  • Henry Grattan (1746–1820)

  • Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763–98) and Edward FitzGerald

  • (1763–98)—appearing together

  • Robert Emmet (1778–1803)

  • Isaac Butt (1813–79)

  • Thomas Davis (1814–45)

  • John Mitchell [sic] (1815–75)

  • James Stephens (1825–1901)

  • C. S. Parnell (1846–91)

  • Edward Carson (1854–1935)

  • (p.245) Horace Plunkett (1854–1932)

  • Douglas Hyde (1860–1949)

  • Roger Casement (1864–1916)

  • W. B. Yeats (1865–1939)

  • Robert Erskine Childers (1870–1922)

  • Countess Markievicz (1868–1927) and Maude [sic] Gonne  (1865–1953)—appearing together

Towards the close of ‘I Solve the Irish Problem’, the narrator remarks ‘Sixteen Irish patriots appeared before me, all Protestants … four of them met an untimely end.’ These numbers would need adjustment if historical veracity were the objective: the list contained eighteen names, and five of those named died violent deaths.1 The verbal exchanges between the dreamer and the apparition are, in most of these cases, unremarkable, leaving aside words of advice to be noted in due course.

Some inclusions and exclusions deserve comment. Carson, whom Hewitt heartily disliked (though he attended the funeral), earns his place by virtue of having a strikingly distinctive notion of Irish patriotism, based on attachment to Britain. Plunkett represents the other side of the paradox, a practical leader of the Irish Cooperative Movement whose other leader was G. W. Russell, publisher of Hewitt’s first printed poem. Plunkett, though born in England and educated at Eton and Oxford, was a member of the Norman-Irish aristocratic Dunsany line. The inclusion of Stephens, if it was grounded in supposed Protestantism in childhood, was mistaken: the Kilkenny-born founder of Fenianism may have been confused in Hewitt’s mind with the poet James Stephens (1880–1950), raised a pauper Protestant. Only two Ulster-born individuals feature—Butt (Donegal) and Mitchel (Londonderry), whereas Henry Joy McCracken and Jemmy Hope among United Irishmen had earned Hewitt’s extended celebration. Among other northern likely names one might mention Russell and Bulmer Hobson (1883–1969). No visual artists feature.

The advice given by the apparitions, intended to advance the possibility of a United Ireland, varied considerably. Swift observed ‘I was right to blame the English Government for much of Ireland’s ills in my time but it would be very wrong of me to do so now. Please pass on that message on to the foolish Brits-out-agitators.’ Grattan said ‘My message to you is that if you must have two separate governments let there be more thought for the religious minority in each [state,] and the first step forward in solving the Northern Ireland problem will be reasonable power sharing.’ Pressed to explain how the United Irishmen’s ideals might be renewed, Fitzgerald and Tone chorused ‘Join the Alliance Party’. Stephens made a lengthy speech, citing the Diet of Speyer (1529) and denouncing Provos and Stickies as unworthy of the Fenian legacy.2 Casement regretted that he could find no helpful advice to offer. Markievicz and Gonne recited their activities, (p.246) nothing more. Childers spoke against harbouring bitterness. The apparitions fade away, and the narrator recovers consciousness. ‘When is it ever going to end? … The only way we will ever break the Republican and Loyalist shells of ignorance and terrorism is for all history in the Catholic schools to be taught by Orangemen and all history in the Protestant schools to be taught by Republicans for at least a generation.’

None of this advice could be classified under a socialist heading. The Alliance Party (founded in April 1970), governmental power-sharing, and a modest degree of integrated education amounted to a liberal agenda of no great ambition.3 Furthermore, the document omits all reference to nationalism and regionalism, one a bugbear and the other a panacea in Hewitt’s thinking for much of the mid-century. As an implicit critique of Northern Ireland’s politics in the very early 1980s, the implied programme stands well off from An Ulster Reckoning (1970) with its sharp delineation of living individuals, not historical icons. Certainly, no rebel word could be detected in the distant utopian solution hinted at.

Another of Hewitt’s most intriguing late publications is a short story appearing in the Autumn/Winter 1980 issue of Threshold of which he was guest editor; that is almost six years before publication of the two poems just examined in Chapter 10. Editorial modesty may have prompted him to revive the pseudonym, Richard Telford, last used in The Irish Democrat of 1937. This, though his last published fiction, was by no means his last word. His reputation and his new audience ensured that Blackstaff Press was happy to publish further collections of poems—Mosaic (1981), Loose Ends (1983), Freehold and Other Poems (1986), together with the revised version of The Day of the Corncrake (1984; 1st ed. 1969).

Hewitt was unused to this ready access to public print, and his substantial output included a few poems which, in the astringent past, he might have left among the insatiable notebooks. As several subtitles among the rapidly published volumes indicate, a high degree of retrospection was at work, either in the form of reminiscence (‘a Belfast Boyhood’) or in the (re-)publication of earlier material. The most significant instance of the latter comes with Freehold and Other Poems, where the title piece (originally published in Lagan, 1946) frames some newer material, with ‘The Bloody Brae’ (written 1936) closing the frame. In relation to the story ‘Daybreak’, now to be examined, one should note how Richard/Robert Telford Hewitt is once again celebrated in the second section of ‘Freehold’. The poet’s last collection gathers in and reissues the longest of his filial tributes. Against what outsiders might think the unchallengeable evidence—the devotion of his (p.247) son, popularity as a teacher, long commitment to colleagues through the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, and some public impact as a broadcaster and writer—Hewitt Senior is fondly commemorated both as ‘the lonely heart’, and ‘the greatest man of all the men I love’, in a reprise of lines published forty years earlier, a year after the old man’s death. Loneliness and love are scarifying namesakes, even with the passage of decades.

In mitigation, Hewitt’s long-practised awareness of slow time offers pointers towards understanding. The poles we find slow time slung between are several—eternity and human life, history and the present, various histories ranging from the tundra to the rantings of Paisley and the booming Provisionals or, more compactly, from the Celtic saints to the ‘planters’. Landscape is its name and its pseudonym, identity, and cunning alibi. Every ‘now’ requires more than one ‘here’, otherwise we have nothing but the unrelated self. Edwin Muir’s Variations on a Time Theme (1934) suggests affinities; perhaps even constitutes an influence.4 Muir’s Orkney, isolated physically and all-but monolithic in its religious culture, stood in extreme contrast to Hewitt’s birthplace, industrialized and divided along sectarian fault lines. Hewitt’s socialism was always a heroic-desperate mediation between a community (Catholic, Protestant, English, Irish) he could never quite join and an individualism he despised (or feared). He remained concerned about European politics and, shortly before his death, discussed Antonio Gramsci and the prospects for socialism in Italy.5

What if the determinants (e.g. ‘witless fate’ or ‘lucky debt’) had not applied, or could be suspended, or were never more than fantasies? ‘Daybreak’, the last short story which Hewitt published, toys with this possibility to deliver a happy, if humdrum ending for the narrator. Though duly listed in Tom Clyde’s bibliography of the prose, it is only one of Hewitt’s fictions to have evaded critical notice. Threshold No. 31 allowed him to play several roles between (or under) one set of covers. He was the guest editor, supplying a prose editorial; with ‘Variations on a Theme’ he was also a contributing poet; and, in some oblique or inverted manner, he was Richard Telford, author of ‘Daybreak’, courtesy of the self-same guest editor who modestly acknowledged the assistance of John Boyd and Diane Hyde.

The first-person narrator remains nameless, almost to the end of the story. He is however just once or twice addressed as ‘Andy’ by the central figure whose own name is first given as G. V. King. The narrator is a shop-keeper, who prospers to the point where he runs a network of Transprovincial Stores. At the time of the action, Andy had a small business in a West of Ireland town, holding on to it ‘until the setting up of the two Governments in Ireland, after which he concentrated on the branches established in the North’. In the lives of John Hewitt and Robert Telford Hewitt, a shopkeeper called Andy [Millar] married Peggy Black.6

(p.248) The association of biographical datum and fictional detail may seem strained, and worse is to come. The central character is gradually named as George Valentine King, a painter successful in youth, born near Ballymena in County Antrim, and ‘about my own age’ (the narrator discloses.) The two become friends in the little western town, to which G. V. (as Andy prefers to call him) has retired early with his Hungarian wife. In the kaleidoscope, G.V. might look like a king’s name (George the Fifth), and indeed G. V.’s surname is King. On the other side of the kaleidoscope, Andy’s (not G.V.’s) wife is named Mary. On the assumption, reasonable but as yet unproven, that the widower Hewitt read his late wife’s journal and noted the anguish of 1953 at the time of Old Queen Mary’s death, the story ‘Daybreak’ can be read as fictional or fantastic autobiography, thriving without determinants. Read in this light, its conclusion is that life as one’s own father might have been preferable to an enforced self-hood, painting might have given a greater degree of companionship than writing. The realization of unavoidable necessity is a kind of freedom. Is this the only utopia available to the disillusioned man of the left?7

Freehold and Other Poems was Hewitt’s last collection, published in 1986. Though it shares the now established practice of recycling material from the past, it displays a greater sense of organization than preceding volumes. The title poem may partner Conacre (1943) in that both terms relate to modes of holding land, but ‘Freehold’ (first published complete in Lagan, 1946) relies on a notion of freedom which is challenged in the even older piece which closes the volume. ‘The Bloody Brae’, with its prolonged emergence into print, deserved some prefatory lines which conclude with the essential relationship between John Hill and Bridget Magee ‘for she was papist, he a protestant. / Four decades on, the heartbreak’s relevant.’ Whether in the Lyric Theatre or Threshold (both 1957), or in the Blackstaff collection (1986), relevance must seem a euphemism. Hewitt had little opportunity to reflect on intimate relations between the two versions (broadly defined) of Christianity practised (not to perfection) in Northern Ireland. In the Glens, he and Roberta mixed affably with their Catholic neighbours, exchanging hospitality and gifts, over two decades. When, in 1980, John Turnly was murdered (the tombstone reads ‘assassinated’) a few miles down the Antrim coast, the killers were his ‘fellow Protestants’. In May 1986, Margaret Caulfield was murdered by her ‘fellow Protestants’. (One thinks of Swift’s bitter—indeed sectarian—jibe that any talk of (p.249) ‘Brother Protestants’ reminds him the rat is ‘our fellow creature’.) This latter killing in part prompted Hewitt to write ‘The Mortal Place’, though it came too late for inclusion in Freehold and Other Poems. It is a striking feature of ‘The Mortal Place’ that it contrives to ground the killings it notes in streets known to the poet from early childhood.

The book also contains ‘Hesitant Memorial’, the poet’s gesture of commemoration towards Dorothy Roberts. In the title poem he goes back even further, to call up once again the spirit of his father. The second section ‘The Lonely Heart’ pays tribute to him—through him, ‘I have understood / just how the meek, the merciful, the good / possess the kingdom …’. If this is the kingdom of God, it is an internal one, not of this world nor of any church. Between ‘Freehold’ and its parental tribute and ‘The Bloody Brae’ with its relentless interrogation of personal guilt, Margaret Caulfield and Dorothy Roberts are not the only human figures. Two poems, ‘Tryst’ and ‘Age and Youth’, venture beyond the exclusive zone of a mono-faith population. In the first, the speaker and a companion walking in an unfrequented lane come unexpectedly upon a couple ‘standing face-to-face’. The scene might be ‘minor Preraphaelite’, except that the two are ‘a handsome tall young priest and a young nun’. The incident, if actual incident there had been, belonged to the Hewitts’ years at Cushendall, spent in a cottage owned by the local convent.

‘Age and Youth’ is less sweet. It might be classified among Hewitt’s ugly pieces. The scene is a railway carriage which the speaker shares with two nuns. He inclines to think of them as ‘circumscribed by edict of the Vatican’, but then proceeds to note:

  • Age drifting towards a death long overdue,
  • Youth ebbing as all urge to live withdrew,
  • while, paradoxically, the ancient one
  • had slithered back to childhood’s innocence
  • with slack-held beads, there sagged, with no defence
  • from time’s brusque thrust, her faint companion.8

While the poem is only one of many which deal with the rough indignity of old age and hurrying death, it is remarkable in Hewitt’s canon as a study of Catholic women—somewhat picturesque the merchants of unpleasant facts might imply, but complexly ‘ugly’ in the knotted syntax allowing a sighting of youth in the old, but not indulging it.

Hewitt maintained his judicious public interventions even in old age. In 1982, he supported the case brought by Jeff Dudgeon to the European Court of Human Rights seeking decriminalization of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland, when none of the established political parties would ‘open their bakes’.9 On May Day 1985, he formally inaugurated the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre. (p.250) After the eclipse of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, as far back as 1971, and the split in Unionism which partly resulted from that collapse, Hewitt’s politics had abjured party identification. When Paul Bew showed him one of the several jointly authored books which emerged from the non-nationalist Belfast Left, he observed, ‘I always knew there was something wrong about James Connolly’, whom he had celebrated in early poems.10 Quite what Hewitt ‘always knew’ remains—as with many busy thoughtful and long-lived people—a challenge. A more painful admission had come in 1980 when, in an interview with a Dublin-based journal, he conceded that he had no evidence whatsoever to suggest that poetry had made any difference at all to the situation in Northern Ireland.11 Had Auden been right all along?

John Hewitt died on 27 June 1987 in what the Irish Times described as ‘his family home’. Deirdre Todhunter, a favourite niece, spoke of sudden death without any long or prevailing illness. Michael Longley lamented the passing of ‘a father figure’. Ciaran McKeown, once a leader of the Peace People and by 1987 active in the Lyric Theatre management, shrewdly recognized someone who ‘was able to risk non-conformity to his own tradition, without falling helplessly into another’. To thwart a ritual of conformity popular among all Irish traditions, Hewitt had expressly forbidden the holding of any funeral ceremony. His body was left to Queen’s University for medical research.12 The news reached Coventry. The stalwart of Herbert Gallery committees, Ian Hollick wrote to Keith Millar several times in July 1987, mourning ‘a gentle, kind, gifted and wonderful man’ adding, in the second letter, ‘in a strange way it is a comfort to know of the last few days of John Hewitt … I’m glad that he was still enjoying life to the end’.13

The Lyric Theatre mounted a tribute to their late director on 5 July 1987, with three hundred people in attendance. Others found other ways around the prohibition, using the approaching eightieth birthday (28 October) for a variety of events, including the reshowing on BBC 1 of ‘I Found Myself Alone’, a documentary premiered in 1978. In a folding commemorative card, Tom Paulin described Hewitt as ‘an internationalist who loved his native province’. Jimmy Simmons picked up the implications of a body given to science: ‘Your work is alive and kicking / in our heads and hearts. / After a life of service / your body is spare parts.’

The Arts Council, which had been planning birthday celebrations long before Hewitt’s death, sponsored an exhibition of paintings which he and Roberta had collected. Not everyone was bowled over. The critic Brian McAvera acknowledged a much-loved poet though not perhaps a very interesting art historian, going on to complain—‘not an abstract in sight’ among the pictures on show; instead he thought of himself on a gentle trawl through rural Ireland. This was, of course, a (p.251) borderline dispute, the border lying between contemporary art practice (video, installation, and enduring abstraction) and the well-established genres of landscape, street-scene, and the human figure. Nevertheless, McAvera noted the presence of three important pictures—David Bomberg’s ‘Self Portrait’, L. S. Lowry’s ‘Cherry Ripe’, and Stanley Spencer’s ‘Portrait of Daphne’—none of these artists being Irish.14

One week short of what would have been his eightieth birthday, a gathering took place in the Lagan Social Club, Friendly Street, Belfast, to honour ‘John Hewitt Poet Socialist Dissenter’, augmented with ‘an appreciation by Seamus Heaney, published by the Belfast Workers’ Festival Committee’.15 It was, however, the younger Dublin-born poet Eavan Boland who synthesized the apparent contradictions in Hewitt’s aesthetic. Eschewing the usual tribal name calling, she defined him as the voice and conscience of ‘a fragmented culture’, fragmentation being (as I understand her argument) a more terrifying and disorientating modern condition than the binary oppositions of Catholic and Protestant, Planter and Gael. His subjects were linked (but hardly in any supportive way); they were historical isolation and private loneliness. As an exacting stylist, she could proceed further in characterizing him as ‘by no means an exciting technician’. His craft often was conservative and old-fashioned.16 Yet, he had accepted James Simmons’s verdict on Out of My Time—‘lack of consistent style is Hewitt’s style’—declaring this ‘an estimate I do not dispute’.17

Northern poets were warmer but perhaps less critical—Derek Mahon is a mild exception. Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley (Edna’s husband), and Mahon were all in their thirties, with Montague and Simmons standing behind them as elders of a decidedly youthful kind. Each and all had welcomed Hewitt, conscious that their own breakthrough into widely circulating publication had been much easier than his. His father-figure-hood was important for them, partly because the only alternative, Louis MacNeice, had died in 1963 when Northern Ireland seemed beyond change. MacNeice had moved through the gradations of English public school, Oxford, a spell in America, and the BBC’s London circle. Hewitt’s very different course provided a closer parenting for young poets brought up through the A-Level system (as Heaney has recorded) and Irish universities north or south.18 And he had returned at a crucial moment, when inchoate fragmentation was swept up in the brush-and-pan of sectarian conflict.

(p.252) Frank Ormsby summarized Hewitt’s problem as ‘the tensions and paradoxes of a particular fragmented culture’.19 No one would deny this. It may be helpful to look beyond the particular case, to the world beyond Northern Ireland. This considerable expanse should not be assumed unfragmented, culturally, socially, or economically. Northern Ireland was in several profound ways shaped by the Great War to which it contributed dearly. The much commented-upon silence of returned veterans, the shell-shocked, the amputees, the blind and halt from mustard-gas attacks was an immeasurable fracture into which were poured the consolations of religious solidarity (for some) and the phoney wholeness of ethnic nationalism (for others.)20

How do we find John Hewitt at the end of these biographical enquiries? Roy McFadden recalled a non-literary, chilling, and yet deeply humane exchange. ‘Towards the end … he said to me, perhaps sentimentally, perhaps with the wisdom of hindsight: “Having children is best.” And a little later, ‘I said that once round was enough. He nodded.’21 Evidence could be cited to prove that Hewitt’s manner in personal exchanges was often abrupt, as on his first encounter with that ‘practical friend’, John Montague. Roberta’s journal presents a man willingly absorbed in his business, whether Muse or Museum. A man who wrote millions of words in notebooks, letters, reports, magazines, and books had little time for small talk. Yet in the competitive forum of Cushendall, its pubs and farm kitchens, he was warmly received. He was also generous, assisting younger writers such as Robert Greacen and Derrick Birley, and supporting a succession of little magazines, Rann, Lagan, Threshold. His advocacy of John Luke’s art sometimes outstripped his private judgement. His bequest to the Ulster Museum included five works by Basil Blackshaw, three by T. P. Flanagan, four by Mercy Hunter (wife of George McCann), seven by John Luke, three by W. J. McClughin, four by Colin Middleton, one by Paul Mosse, and one by Daniel O’Neill—all exhibited at Hillsborough.

Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) sets up one extreme in these enquiries, with the assumed relations of the Hewitts, père et fils, bidding fair to occupy decent space at the other extreme exemplifying mutual support, concurrence in thought, interests, and values. But what if one were to question John Hewitt’s relationship with Richard Telford Hewitt? There is no reason to suspect concealed emotions of the hostile kind nurtured by Louis MacNeice. Yet the very number of poems invoking the beloved father suggests an unresolved concern and recurrent failure ever to comprehend its full complexity. If not hostility, what? Guilt? Envy? A sense of superiority, unearned but undeniable?

(p.253) Freud basically regarded belief in God as the longing for a father untouched by Oedipal rivalry. Hewitt never quite resolved his attitude towards religion, except to deny the Ulster churches any claim on his allegiance or on his body-in-death. The sustained commemoration of his earthly father was disturbed only by R. T. Hewitt’s lapse into mental incoherence in the months before he died in 1945, a god that failed rather than a God that Died. These uneasy exchanges had their political register in the 1930s, when pacifism and opposition to fascism overlapped in mutually compromising ways. The Hewitts were stalwarts of the Belfast Peace League, and Bishop MacNeice was an advocate of internationalist politics, the League of Nations, etc. But the Hewitts also supported the Republican cause in Spain, and John worked with the veteran Frank Ryan on The Irish Democrat. Domestically, the paper’s politics certainly required the Rebel Word; even if the IRA had split on the issues of socialist and nationalist priorities.

Pursued with forensic zeal, these details could be arranged to resemble a duplicitous persona, one who played up to the Rebel Word and then abjured it, rather like the ghostly Home Ruler MacNeice Senior, but moving in the opposite direction. Any such arraignment would, however, depend on a simplistic notion of the self, and a grossly simplistic notion of how poetry relates to and derogates from the authorial self. The sonnet from 1941, beginning ‘Among the many selves that throng my flesh …’ should not be discarded. Nor the undated ‘Sentences that begin with “I” imply / an absence …’ The rival zealotries of Louis-MacNeicians and the British and Irish Communist Organisation amount to a zero sum, allowing for a more nuanced and less frantic assessment of a poet whose thought and practice (after an apprenticeship under the Great Depression) advised recognition of politics as a sustained and ever changing relationship between the non-political and the political. This seeming paradox can be explored in a reading of ‘The Colony’.

On the question of his regionalism, Heather Clark has assembled evidence to persuade us that Hewitt did not succeed in convincing his literary successors. Seamus Heaney, though deeply appreciative of all that Hewitt’s poetry had contributed to his own development, felt that the doctrine had failed to reconcile the two traditions; that it had been ‘slightly Nelson-eyed … more capable of seeing over the water than over the border’. Derek Mahon, a long-term resident of Dublin, London, and then Kinsale, asked somewhat petulantly, ‘Why couldn’t his region be Ireland?’ Paul Muldoon called ‘The Colony’ a powerful political poem, yet complained that its dialogism allowed Hewitt ‘to say what would otherwise be unsaid, or unsayable’—for example, ‘they breed like flies’.22 Some of these observations are vulnerable to rebuke—after all, Hewitt knew southern Ireland well, at first hand, and at a time when it was no bed of roses (though, arguably, of rosaries.) Muldoon does not pause to consider if the challenge of ‘The Colony’ was not to confront the murmurers of anti-Catholic prejudice with the same words in cold print. Clark is surely right to conclude that ‘ultimately, regionalism could not accommodate the (p.254) increasingly grim realities of life in Northern Ireland, for how could the region open up a conciliatory space when that very space was contested?’23 The best of Hewitt’s late poems attempt to deal with this impasse, even to the point of (once) invoking Baudelaire. It was too late for the political situation to be ameliorated through culture, too late for a near-octogenarian to learn a new trade.

At the time of his death, John Hewitt’s name appeared frequently in the newspapers. Various tributes to the poet have already been cited. There was also the Catholic martyr John Hewitt (d.1588), the football player (Aberdeen centre forward; later managed Dundalk), John Hewitt the Downing Street official, John Hewitt the rugby player (Ulster centre), John Hewitt father-in-law of the poet Adrian Mitchell, and John Hewitt the actor (Joe Keller in ‘All My Sons’ at the Belfast Civic).24 We may have to deal with one more, in the Appends. From among these quick figures, the dead namesake moved on to the Elysian Fields, or into the gentle shades, beyond the determinants of loneliness, prolixity, reticence, disappointment, and the Troubles. I have heard his gruff laughter several times during the writing-up of his lifelong achievement.


(1) The five are Tone (self-inflicted), Fitzgerald, Emmet, Casement, and Childers.

(2) ‘Stickies’ was a nickname given to the left-wing Official IRA, when the Provisional IRA was set up in January 1970.

(3) There is no evidence that JH joined, or more loosely affiliated with, the Alliance Party, apart from a few of its leaflets preserved (with others issued by the Northern Ireland Labour Party) in UU, Hewitt, Box 20. In 1984, the Irish Times published an angry letter from Ms D. A. Freer (of Belfast) castigating the editor for his ‘green miasma (very slightly tinged with the palest of pale pinks)’. Her few positive comments were reserved for the Alliance Party, and she concluded ‘I have written with great passion … I make no apology for I am writing of what our Ulster poet, John Hewitt, once defined as the task of true democracy, the keeping of the people “in good heart”.’ Irish Times, 11 August 1984, p. 17. Ms Freer misquotes JH who, in ‘Neither an Elegy nor a Manifesto’ had written ‘Patriotism has to do with keeping / the country in good heart …’ The poem first appeared in the June 1972 issue of Alliance; the Newspaper of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

(4) Republished in Edwin Muir, Collected Poems (London: Faber, 1963), pp. 37–53.

(5) John Boyd, The Middle of My Journey (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1990), p. 199.

(6) The sliding of personal names from one ‘referent’ to another—in this case from Andy Millar to a Hewitt-narrator—is not entirely without parallel in the Belfast circle. The sculptor George McCann published several short stories; in ‘Journey to China’, the first-person narrator refers to his wife as Sophie, adding that this is ‘not her right name’. McCann’s wife was Mercy, not a name easily used in fiction, and in any case facticity was not the writer’s primary objective; Sophie, however, was the name of Jim Stewart’s wife. To complicate things Mercy Hunter had travelled to China in her youth. In a small way, these details suggest a peculiar difficulty in establishing a thoroughly fictive world from amidst the limited resources of a coterie where the Protestant suspicion of literary invention (creativity) exercised a continuing if mellowed influence. For a description of the McCann story, see R and B Rowan’s Catalogue 81 (2011), item 233.

(7) The conviction that ‘the only person who never disappointed [John Hewitt] was his father and this relationship is beautifully explored in many poems’, raises rather than dissolves the issue. Geraldine Watts adopts a more revealing perspective when she declares R. T. Hewitt as someone whom the poet could eventually ‘see in himself’. G. Watts, ‘Utility Clashes with Emotion’, Fortnight (1989), Hewitt Supplement, p. v.

(8) Ormsby, p. 392.

(9) See Jeff Dudgeon in the Belfast Telegraph, 29 July 2011.

(10) Personal communication from Paul Bew to the author.

(11) See Timothy Kearney, ‘Beyond the Planter and the Gael: Interview with John Hewitt and John Montague on Northern Poetry and the Troubles’, Crane Bag 4, no. 2 (1980–81), pp. 85–92.

(12) Irish Times, 30 June 1987, p. 5. See also Ciaran McKeown, ‘John Hewitt; Appreciation’, Belfast News-Letter, 29 June 1987, and ‘John Hewitt, Committee Man’, Threshold 38 (Winter 1986/87), pp. 42–3.

(13) Private collection, Ian Hollick to Keith Millar, 3 July and 14 July 1987.

(14) ‘Hewitt Memorial Show in Belfast’, Irish Times, 9 November 1987, p. 14. See also A Poet’s Pictures; a Selection of the Works of Art Collected by John Hewitt (1907–1987) (Hillsborough: Shambles Art Gallery, 1987). The Hillsborough exhibition did not include work by Bomberg, Lowry, or Spencer, but non-Irish artists included Thomas Sturge Moore (English), Leonid Pasternak (Russian), and Peter Peri (Hungarian). These are not great names, but they disrupt the impression of unrelieved Ulster landscape and portraiture.

(15) An invitation card is preserved among the Roy McFadden Papers in QUB.

(16) Irish Times, 30 June 1987, p. 8.

(17) See Poetry Society Bulletin, Christmas 1976.

(18) See the first chapter of Michael Parker, Seamus Heaney; the Making of a Poet (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993) for an extensive investigation of this dimension to Heaney’s progress. The 1947 Northern Ireland Education Act brought pupils such as Seamus Deane and Heaney into Catholic grammar schools which had previously little concern with the lower classes.

(19) Ormsby, p. lxiii.

(20) Walter Benjamin’s reflections on the Great War offer a broader perspective; see in particular ‘Experience and Poverty’, in Benjamin, Selected Writings vol 2 1927–1934, trans. Rodney Livingstone et al. (Cambridge Mass.: Belnap Press, 1999), pp. 731–6; and ‘The Storyteller; Reflections on the Work of Nikolai Leskov’, in Benjamin, Illuminations, edited with an introduction by Hannah Arendt; trans. Harry Zohn (London: Cape, 1970), pp. 83–109.

(21) ‘A Poet Wholly Independent of Fashionable Expectations’ (anonymous obituary for Roy McFadden), Irish Times, 25 September 1999, p. 18. The remark about having children is best echoes Sophocles, ‘not to have lived is best’.

(22) Heather Clark, The Ulster Renaissance: Poetry in Belfast 1962–1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 126–7. The remark attributed to Mahon was never uttered by him in public, but recorded by an interviewer who chose (or agreed) to omit it.

(23) Clark, The Ulster Renaissance, p. 127.

(24) In September 1926, John Hewitt ‘a young man residing in the Kilmore district of Lurgan’ (County Armagh), together with a Portadown knacker (one who boils dead horses for their glue content) named McNeice, were charged with larceny. ‘Hewitt was discharged, and McNeice was returned for trial.’ Irish Times, 28 September 1926, p. 3.