Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Louis MacNeice - Born In Belfast Between The Mountains And The Gantries

Louis MacNeice, Blair Mayne, Northern Ireland

Within only a few miles distance of each other in County Down in Northern Ireland lie the last resting places of an extraordinary European warrior and an acclaimed national poet - both of whom died prematurely in the middle part of the last century.

In the graveyard of Movilla Abbey in Newtownards is the family tomb of Special Air Services founder, rugby international and proto-type hellraiser Blair Mayne who died in a drink-related car crash in December 1955 at the age of only 41 and whose failure to be awarded a Victoria Cross is a matter of considerable military controversy to this day. The biography of Mayne by Martin Dillon and the late Ulster Unionist politician Roy Bradford concludes:

He sleeps within the ruined walls of a thirteenth-century abbey in County Down, but the high company of heroes will forever be his Valhalla.

Several miles away at Carrowdore Churchyard - also in close proximity to Strangford Lough on the Ards Peninsula - is where the poet Louis MacNeice is buried with his mother. MacNeice died in December 1963 at the age of 55 having contracted viral pneumonia from working in inclement weather during the making of his final radio play.

MacNeice was born in Brookhill Avenue in North Belfast right beside my former school. This is situated among the Cliftonville, Oldpark and Antrim Road districts mentioned in my earlier post about the Jewish community there and indeed close to the former homes of Israeli President Chaim Herzog and actor Harry Towb - all extremely troubled and dangerous areas during the civil unrest of the Seventies.

A contemporary and friend of W H Auden and Stephen Spender, MacNeice's poetry was critical of bourgeois society and modern life in general. Subject matter would range from love to the approach of war and from place and travel to childhood - the latter including one particularly haunting tableau of Christmas past:

and as if through coloured glasses
we remember our childhood's thrill
waking in the morning to the rustling of paper
the eiderdown heaped in a hill
of logs and dogs and bears and bricks and apples
and the feeling that Christmas Day was a coral island in time
where we land and eat our lotus but we can never stay

Although resident for most of his life in England as an academic and writer it is Louis MacNeice's poetry about his homeland that I find particularly striking in its analytical regard - be that with reference to his Planter heritage in Ulster as discussed in Carrickfergus or his excoriation of the non-belligerence of Eire during the Second World War in Neutrality wherein he berates "the neutral island in the heart of man".

However it is the sixteenth canto of Autumn Journal in which MacNeice's vitriol against the vagaries of Irish history and culture ranges in truly kaleidoscopic fashion - the power and passion made even more extraordinary by the time of its publication in 1939 when the partition of Ireland had politically and socially solidified to granite permanence - and would become moreso with Northern Ireland involvement in the subsequent global conflict.

The canto incorporates references to IRA assassins, Roger Casement and Maud Gonne alongside the voodoo of the Orange bands in Belfast's York Street, Kathleen ni Houlihan and King Billy.

To the nationalists of a free Ireland:

Griffith, Connolly, Collins, where have they brought us?
Ourselves alone! Let the round tower stand aloof
in a world of bursting mortar!
Let the school children fumble their sums
in a half-dead language;
Let the censor be busy on the books; pull down the Georgian slums;
Let the games be played in Gaelic

As for the Northern Ireland Unionists in Belfast:

A city built upon mud;
Free speech nipped in the bud,
The minority always guilty;
Why should I want to go back
To you, Ireland, my Ireland?

This section of Autumn Journal - mostly remembered for the phrase "Put up what flag you like, it is too late to save your soul with bunting" - ends with the labelling of Mother Ireland as a bore and a bitch and the admonition:

She gives her children neither sense nor money
who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue
and a faggot of useless memories

In a period of time where senses of hostility and antipathy between the peoples of Ireland are blending out into history itself as opposed to bleeding into it, the scope and content of this section of Autumn Journal has retained every bit of its invective power over sixty years after its creation.

MacNeice, alike James Joyce, held impassioned feelings about the political, cultural and religious divisions of his homeland. But the affection he held for Ireland was undeniable. His sense of belonging and connectivity to Ireland may have been problematical and complex but his physical presence there today - alike with George Best who was also originally buried beside his mother - speaks volumes in terms of emotional resolve and closure.

The poet's poet whose profound and unique literary talent was forged upon the geographical and cultural streetscapes and landscapes of Belfast, Ulster, Ireland and Britain. Those murderous fractures amongst the people of these islands which commenced so shortly after his death being so utterly heartbreaking in the sheer scale of unadulterated and bewildering pointlessness.


  1. Thanks for providing information about two great people.

  2. Many thanks for the feedback Dave...they are indeed both hugely fascinating figures within modern Irish history - SB