It all began with Seamus

It can sometimes seem that Northern Irish writing began with Seamus Heaney, especially if you grow up in Northern Ireland.

I went to school in Enniskillen, then did an English degree at Queen’s University, Belfast, but the only local writer I studied was Heaney. At the time it did not strike me as odd that, apparently, no-one from Northern Ireland had published a book until the 1960s. Many years later I came across a plaque commemorating a writer called Shan Bullock in the grounds of a Fermanagh hotel. I was intrigued by this evidence that there had been a novelist living within a few miles of where I grew up a century before and, after reading his work, I founded a small publisher, called Turnpike Books, to publish new editions of this forgotten writer and to build a series of books that will showcase other, undeservedly, forgotten writers from the north.

Northern writers made their own contribution to the Irish literary revival while depicting the northern character, its stony pride and austere self-reliance, as distinct from that of the ‘Irish’. St John Ervine, Belfast’s best-known writer of the time, wrote (in the Irish Times) that in the event of Home Rule an independent Ireland would be led by the industry and drive of northeners. This self-consciousness, and identification, as ‘northern’ Irish writers is stressed by St John Ervine and Fermanagh’s Shan Bullock. Their work was regarded as much a part of the literary revival as anything produced by Yeats, Bullock was described in 1901 by the New York Times as “one of the leaders in the modern Celtic literary movement”, but both had been out of print for decades. Could paperback editions of their work help a new generation to discover and re-assess these writers?

Although Shan Bullock’s final (and finest) novel The Loughsiders was originally published in 1924 its first paperback edition was published only two years ago as Turnpike’s debut publication. The Loughsiders is the story of Richard Jebb, a dour farmer who manipulates the lives of a neighbouring family to get control of their farm. Bullock captures the comedy of country life and the frustrations of small farmers as faithfully as does Thomas Hardy. Yet Bullock’s intention as a writer is that once described by Seamus Heaney: “one perceptible function of poetry is to write a place into existence.” Bullock wrote Fermanagh into existence, his characters speak in a Fermanagh accent while the tragedies of their lives are shaped by their stubborn Northern Irish character and its intractable morality. Bullock’s portrayals of the life of small communities living along the shore of Lough Erne are set in the 1880s but are remarkably prescient portrayals of the conflicts and tensions that have dominated Northern Irish politics since the creation of the state, especially in his short stories (which are also, proudly, published by Turnpike under the title The Awkward Squads).

Bullock’s contemporary St John Ervine was Northern Ireland’s most prominent literary figure, as a playwright, journalist and novelist, into the 1950s. Several of his plays have recently been performed in Belfast and London but his novels had been out of print for decades. Ervine was born in 1883 in Ballymacarret, east Belfast, and he came to literary prominence with his first play, ‘Mixed Marriage’ (a dissection of sectarianism) when it was produced by the Abbey Theatre in 1911. It became one of the Abbey’s most profitable plays and Ervine went on to play a key role in the early history of the theatre, he (and his wife) acted on its stage while Ervine also served as a controversial general manager of the Abbey.

A new edition of Ervine’s novel The Wayward Man will introduce Ervine’s awareness of the contradictions of the Northern Irish personality. The poet Damian Smyth has described The Wayward Man as “the Great Belfast Novel,” it vividly describes a divided city that undermines individuality while nurturing an unbreakable strength of character. Robert Dunwoody, a restless spirit, escapes from the life his mother has planned for him (marriage, a job in one of her shops and stifling conformity) to follow the harsher life of a merchant seaman. On returning to Belfast Dunwoody is, for a time, trapped into the life he had earlier rejected. St John Ervine manages to reveal the rarely seen romantic side of a Belfast man, a character who yearns for adventure beyond Ireland and a life beyond meeting responsibilities imposed on him.

A similar sense of liberation is the keynote of Turnpike Book’s latest book, Janet McNeill’s The Small Widow. Janet McNeill was born in Dublin and grew up in England but spent most of her adult life in Lisburn, just outside Belfast. She brought up a family before beginning to write in the 1950s, children’s books, plays and novels that are defined by an ironic wit and a, sometimes, uncomfortable acknowledgement of the disillusions of middle age. Janet McNeill’s writing is built on an elegant intelligence and dominated by the honesty of her account of the emotional conflicts of family life.

In The Small Widow Julia must build a new life after her husband’s death, but discovers that her relationship with her friends and her children has changed. First published in 1967 (the Turnpike Books’ edition is its first paperback publication), The Small Widow prefigures later feminist writing in asking what identity Julia has when she is no longer a wife and a mother whose children no longer need her. McNeill’s clear-sighted accounts of family life are a joy to read, with a humour that can be as bleak as that of Samuel Beckett.

Turnpike Books has existed for only two years, and there still remain a considerable number of notable Northern Irish writers to publish (with a new edition of Benedict Kiely’s Proxopera, the most humane literary reaction to the violence of the Troubles, to be published next year). There is a tradition, and history, of literature that lies behind the emergence of Seamus Heaney (Michael Longley, Paul Muldoon, Glenn Patterson) and its rediscovery can have wider consequences. Northern Ireland’s most famous writer said, speaking about W.B. Yeats, when accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature: “the local work of poets and dramatists had been as important to the transformation of his native place and times as the ambushes of guerrilla armies.”