Belfast life and its changing nature

Belfast life and its changing nature
A City Imagined: Belfast Soulscapes

by Gerald Dawe (Merrion Press, €19.95)

Joe Carroll

Gerald Dawe grew up in pre-Troubles sectarian Belfast, and this slim book is his third attempt to re-capture what today can seem a magical time when poetry and music were flourishing on narrow streets.

As Dawe took his first steps as a poet, he was inspired by how famous predecessors could wring poetry out of a Belfast that to outsiders was identified with shipbuilding and linen mills. Louis McNeice, Seamus Heany, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Ciaran Carson and a particular mentor, not so well known, Padraic Fiacc.

The Belfast novels of Brian Moore, especially The Emperor of Ice Cream, fascinated him while a young Ivan Morrison’s music was spreading its hold as young Dawe played with a short-lived band called the Trolls.

He sums up those golden days: “A vibrant life spread throughout that generation in 1967 and maybe there was an awareness that something new was breaking through and that we didn’t need to worry or complain about ‘where’ you were ‘from’, what school you went to, in order to sort and file under Protestant, Catholic, Jew, dissenter, unionist, nationalist, orange, green… I don’t think it mattered then, not to us. Later, unquestionably; but not then, no. We had a ball, no matter what anyone says.”

Compared with the freedom he could roam around Belfast streets at that time, the “peace walls” of today appal him. He is doubtful if the cultural diversity of that time can ever be retrieved. Yet he finds that “The revival of Irish as a spoken language throughout nationalist Belfast is truly amazing.” From being “an underground and repressed language in twentieth –century Belfast, spoken Irish is now a dynamic and empowering mark of cultural identity for nationalists”.

When Ireland, north and south, joined the EEC in 1973, it was “an opening of our minds as well; no longer being obsessed with England”. A year later 22-year-old Gerald Dawe, went on a scholarship to Galway to study and later teach in UCG as it was called then. He later combined writing poetry with a professorship of English in Trinity College where his office was the room in which Oscar Wilde was born – the house was down Westland Row, with a plaque on the wall.

But “The Belfast I had left behind no longer exists except in people’s minds and memories”. Especially his.

(The earlier volumes, In Another World: Van Morrison and Belfast (€12.95), and Looking Through You: Northern Chronicles (€16.95) are still available.)