Northern Ireland exploded onto the contemporary poetry scene with the generation that came to poetic maturity in the late 60s and early 1970s: Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon. These three were closely followed by another talented triumvirate: Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson and Medbh McGuckian. This list of six poets boasts three TS Eliot award winners (Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson), one Nobel Prize for Literature (Seamus Heaney), one Pulitzer Prize (Paul Muldoon) as well as numerous other poetic accolades, from the Queen’s Medal for Poetry (Michael Longley) to the Irish Times Aer Lingus Award (Ciaran Carson). For a population of just one and half million, Northern Ireland is uncannily adept at producing poetry giants.
Apart from poetry, Northern Ireland is also famous for its ‘Troubles’ – the conflict that erupted out of the Civil Rights movement in 1969 and which came to an uneasy truce with the Good Friday Agreement less than a decade ago. And however simplistic it may be to align the poetic flowering with the violence endemic to Northern Irish society, there is no doubt that the great works of the poets mentioned above are actively engaged with questions of identity, language, protest, and grief – exacerbated and complicated by war. From Heaney’s bitter political desolation in North, to Derek Mahon’s ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, to Paul Muldoon’s ‘Gathering Mushrooms’, Ciaran Carson’s ‘Belfast Confetti’ and Michael Longley’s heartbreaking laments for the dead, the most extraordinary poems of our canon have been born directly of extraordinary times.
Times, thankfully, have changed, if not as much as we would have hoped, (the promise of our devolved assembly has yet to be fulfilled because our politicians refuse to speak to one another). Meanwhile Northern Ireland continues to produce poets. The ‘next generation’ is thriving. Leontia Flynn was the winner of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection for These Days, a book which was also shortlisted for the Whitbread; Colette Bryce won the National Poetry Competition for her poem ‘The Full Indian Rope Trick’, while her collection of the same name was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize 2004; Alan Gillis’s Somebody Somewhere was shortlisted for the Irish Times poetry prize for best Irish collection and was the recipient of the Rupert and Eithne Strong award, also in 2004; Nick Laird’s To a Fault, published by Faber and Faber in 2005, was shortlisted for both the Guardian first book award and for the Forward Prize for First Collection.
No doubt as I write this, academics are researching theses on the characteristics of post-ceasefire Northern Irish poetry – perhaps concerning the emergence of more women, amongst other things. Refreshingly, many of the new works do not concern themselves with sectarian violence at all. The older generation seems to have proved far more of an inspiration than a hindrance to those poets following in their footsteps, while the new poetry still manages to reflect, in its very copiousness, the nature of our evolving horizons.
I have opted to showcase the work of two poets who, in contrast to most poets mentioned above, are not widely known beyond Northern Ireland, and who I believe ought to be more widely known. Both Martin Mooney and Jean Bleakney are currently published by Lagan Press, a Belfast-based poetry house, supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.