We're delighted by present an extract from A City Imagined - Belfast Soulscapes, the new memoir by Gerald Dawe, published by Merrion Press

A City Imagined is a paean to the city of Belfast and its writers. Written in his highly regarded wry and lyrical style, Dawe's memoir sketches the outlines of his life as he starts to understand the city in which he was born, before embracing some of the local writers whose early work had such an influential part in nudging him in the direction of writing – poets, in the main, whose first books were read with the enthusiasm of a young man beguiled by the language and music of poetry.


As a young man, busy finding a voice and working out his place in the world of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the 'Troubles' were a shattering reality check on what had been allowed to fester under the surface of Northern society: the sectarian division of a provincial society which since its inception was based upon inequality as two power blocs traded off their separate control of economic and educational opportunity and thereby sought to maintain the status quo. In his collection North (1979), Seamus Heaney looked squarely at what we had become, the damage done by complacent authority as much as the emotional and cultural problems of resolving imaginatively what could be done, what sway could be effected, what harm removed by the poet’s voice amidst all the accusingly ugly and bloody recriminations and arguments of social division and sectarian bile.

In ‘Exposure’, the last poem in North, I found an emotional measure with which I could identify as much as argue with myself over its implications, as life away from the North was hesitant and bilocated. Like so much in Heaney’s work, the poem was reassuring: 'I am neither internee nor informer; /An inner e´migre´, grown long-haired /And thoughtful; a wood-kerne// Escaped from the massacre, /Taking protective colouring /From bole and bark, feeling /Every wind that blows.'

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A City Imagined - Gerard Dawe talks to RTÉ Arena

The ‘rain’ that in the opening stanza of ‘Exposure’ comes down through the alders, with ‘its low conducive voices’ muttering ‘about let-downs and erosions’, vividly captures the disturbance of the time, particularly the awkward, almost anti-poetical language of the ‘diamond absolutes’. Poetry, Heaney suggests, is its own terrain wherein ambiguity, difference, fluidity and unpredictable things happen. Under pressure of the politics of the time – blame and the shameful acts of violence – it was hard during the mid-1970s to think beyond the immediate, which is what the penultimate name on my rollcall achieved.

Through perseverance, in the teeth of personal ill health, and with a deft tragi-comic touch, Stewart Parker’s plays, particularly his masterpiece Pentecost (1987), resound with the civic history of Belfast. The red-brick soulscape that defined much of what the city is, even to this day, is Parker’s backdrop. The industrial past, the gardens and yards, the attitudes and lifestyle, the life experience of a terraced world of side street and alleyway, the light and the shade, the urban dream within the surrounding countryside, are all heralded in Parker’s drama. And in Pentecost he writes a great hymn to the unfolding of hope in the face of what had once been a bleak present, while circling back to love amidst war-torn Belfast during and after the Blitz and towards the present. Parker’s characters live their brief stage life in the small terrace house, the setting for Pentecost, since it is the symbolic setting for much of Belfast city’s history. Marion asks: 'So why should Lily Matthews’ home and hearth be less special than Lord Castlereagh’s or the Earl of Enniskillen’s? A whole way of life, a whole culture, the only difference being, that this home speaks for a far greater community of experience in this country than some transplanted feeble-minded aristocrat’s ever could, have you looked at it, properly?’

It was Derry-based Jennifer Johnston, in her intensely lyrical early novels – The Captain and the Kings, The Gates and How Many Miles to Babylon? – who re- integrated the ‘Anglo-Irish’ experience and the First World War into contemporary Ireland; an achievement all the more significant given the increasingly deadly pressure of the Troubles throughout the 1970s so memorably narrated in Johnston’s powerful Shadows on Our Skin.

Thirty years of the Troubles reached, surprisingly enough, a stand-off between two dominant political and religious groups. Yet the geopolitical fault lines of the city, which Parker’s Pentecost elegises with such dramatic effect, are drawn even tighter today than they were when I was growing up in the upper northside of the city. That side of town used to be distinguished as ‘mixed’. Not only did Protestants and Catholics live side by side, but there was also a significant Jewish minority and a varied community of sects and post-war refugees. The cultural diversity we hear so much about these days was a living, if unexpressed, reality in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It died in the cut and thrust of the early riots, and throughout the intimidation, bombing and assassination campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s the landscape had literally changed and the living diversity was destroyed or gone underground.

A City Imagined - Belfast Soulscapes by Gerald Dawe (published by Merrion Press) is out now.