History, Travel, UK, Uncategorized

Running Away from Newtownards

We’ve been having an unsettled week here in Northern Ireland. The house we booked for December turned out to have an intractable internet problem so we’ve been living hotel rooms for a week. It’s not an ideal situation given the new “70% more infectious” strain of Covid and mind-boggling Christmas crowds. But, after months of practice, we’ve developed a reasonable system: huddle in the room as much as possible, exercise on little-used roads, shop hurriedly at off-peak hours, wash hands regularly, and hope for the best.

The first hotel we tried was in Newtownards (rhymes with ‘cute canards’), a small city about 20 km east of Belfast. The town is a dank collection of brown-brick and pebble-dash houses, spiky churches, thrift stores and bookmakers. It smells of coal smoke and God’s disapproval. Looming over it all is Scrabo Tower, a Victorian folly that looks like a good place to keep flying monkeys. Built to commemorate Carles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry, who owned land in the area, it is so distinctive that it is commonly used as a symbolic image of Newtownards.

Our hotel was strategically placed between a large shopping center and the hospital, so you could contract the disease and have it diagnosed in a few hours. I’m only half joking. There were things I saw that made my hair stand on end. Next door, for example, was a popular restaurant where locals were hastening to have their festive gatherings before the next lockdown on December 26. In the nearby supermarket, a large number of customers weren’t wearing masks. One of these was an elderly lady who pointedly hugged a man who was also in bare face. They chuckled and patted each other on the back in a congratulatory manner. In a gas station a couple of blocks away neither of the attendants were wearing masks and none of the customers bothered.

All of this baffling laissez faire was setting our nerves on edge. To top it all off, the hotel’s internet connection was terrible, so it seems we’d taken a big risk for no reason. I decided to burn off the guilt and stress with a run in the countryside.

Newtownards’ main street is called Regent Street. I put my mask on and headed past a handsome church that was crowded with keening gulls, a hospital’s ‘covid hub’, a row of closed-up shops, the town hall and a few banks and shops. On this particular day there was a Christmas market in the town square. OK, it was outdoors but it still increased the pressure in my skull. To be honest, though, with the scarcity of light and warmth at this time of year I can see why people cling so rabidly to the thought of it.

At the end of Regent Street, when traffic had thinned, I took off my mask and trotted right past a bunch of brown-brick apartment blocks. These were decorated with posters. One was thanking the NHS, with the blue sky and rainbow motif. Another was declaring that the area was the jurisdiction of the Ulster Defence Association, the loyalist paramilitary group proscribed as a terrorist organization in 1992.

Nearby was a pub sporting the slogan #saveourpubs, an initiative urging the UK government to provide more support to the hospitality industry that has been brought to its knees in the last year.

Turning right and then left, I found myself on the road skirting the north-eastern shore of Strangford Lough, the largest sea inlet in the United Kingdom. At the time, the tide was out. There was still plenty of birdlife, though. I couldn’t see any curlews but there were plenty of turnstones, brent geese and oystercatchers.

On the landward side there were a few little clusters of houses. I saw some sheep of a variety I’d not seen before. John, who sees sheep simply as sheep, says I’m excessively sheep conscious being from New Zealand but they looked really different to me. After some research, I have concluded they are Scottish Blackface Sheep, a hardy and pretty breed. One tiny filling station offered an interesting assortment of temptations: Crisps, Sweets, Ices, all brands of TYRES and Dunbar standard POTATOES. There was also a disused malting factory. This area, the Ards, was known for its malting barley and used to supply Guinness and Bushmills Distillery (Old Bushmills Distillery Old Bushmills Distillery – Wikipedia is still a popular tourist destination).

Rounding a bend, I noticed parachutes in the sky and realized that several people were parasurfing in the lough. The cold weather doesn’t seem to stop the watersports around here.

At this point I was getting near Mt. Stewart, a nineteenth-century house and garden with an interesting history. It was formed by the Stewart family whose ancestor had won land for his participation in the Williamite War in Ireland (1689-91). Late in the eighteenth century Alexander Stewart (1699-1781) acquired a huge fortune from his cousin and brother-in-law Robert Cowan, who’d amassed it during his term as Governor of Bombay. Thanks to these riches, Alexander bought up a lot of land and used some of the loot to build a big house near Newtownards that he called first Mount Pleasant, then Mount Stewart.

Alexander’s son Robert became a Member of Parliament and was admitted into the peerage, eventually becoming the first Marchess of Londonderry.

Robert’s eldest son (also named Robert) was later to become infamous as Viscount Castlereagh. In the 1790s, when he was busy putting down the Irish rebellion, Robert Jr. got mad at one Reverend James Porter of Greyabbey, author of a satire titled Billy Bluff and ‘Squire Firebrand, or, A Sample of the Times that poked fun at the Irish aristocracy. Robert Stewart senior occasionally appeared as a character called Lord Mount-Mumble. In 1797, after the French fleet was prevented from landing in Ireland to help drive the British out of Ireland, Reverend Porter delivered a sermon that argued only the British government, not the Irish people had been threatened by the French invasion: “it is in consequence of our connexion with England–some people call this connexion subjection.” Porter was finally arrested for robbing a postboy carrying an official military dispatch. His wife walked with her seven children in the pouring rain to Mount Stewart to plead for clemency. This was denied. Porter was hanged in Greyabbey, suspended from a temporary scaffold set up outside his own church, in full ecclesiastical dress. Porter’s son, who was 12 years old at the time, said that Lord Londonderry had ordered all his tenants to attend the hanging, as a lesson to them all.

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry

Castlereagh had a hand in some of the major events of the early nineteenth century. He lobbied for the Act of Union (1801), which brought Ireland under direct control of Westminster and squashed the promise of Catholic emancipation; he was one of the architects of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15); he and an apologist for the infamous Peterloo Massacre (1819), in which cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000 peaceful people who had gathered to demand reform of parliamentary representation. And he was charged with supporting the Pains and Penalties Bill of 1820 , whose sole aim was to help the king to divorce his detested wife Queen Caroline. The public vastly preferred Caroline, considering the king a libertine and horribly mean. After a trial in which Caroline was publicly humiliated, she was finally stripped of her title but the public wasn’t happy about it.

The king presented parliament with two green bags full of ‘evidence’ showing the Queen was adulterous. This cartoon suggests a bag of his indiscretions would be a bit bigger.

At the age of 57, Castlereagh had some kind of breakdown and committed suicide by cutting his own throat. Lord Byron wrote a memorable eulogy:

Oh, Castlereagh! Thou art a patriot now;
Cato died for his country, so didst thou:
He perished rather than see Rome enslaved,
Thou cuttest thy throat that England might be saved!
So Castlereagh has cut his throat! - the worst
of this is, that his own was not the first.
So he has cut his throat at last! He? Who?
The man who cut his country's long ago.

Following the death of the childless Castlereagh, Mount Stewart passed to Charles William Stewart, 1st Baron Stewart, for whom the abovementioned Scrabo Tower was built. His second wife was the fantastically wealthy heiress Frances Vane, whose father stipulated in his last will and testament that anyone who married his daughter should take her surname. He obliged and became Charles Vane, 3rd Marquess of Londonderry. The owner of several coalmines, he led opposition to the Mines and Collieries Act of 1842, which wanted to raise the age of child laborers to ten:

“With respect to the age at which males should be admitted into mines, the members of this association have unanimously agreed to fix it at eight years… In the thin coal mines it is more especially requisite that boys, varying in age from eight to fourteen, should be employed; as the underground roads could not be made of sufficient height for taller persons without incurring an outlay so great as to render the working of such mines unprofitable”

Himself (c) National Trust, Mount Stewart; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In 1845, at the height of the Irish Famine, he was one of the richest men in the United Kingdom. Many Irish landowners were moved to mitigate the suffering of their tenants; he and his wife donated exactly £30 to the local relief fund. At about the same time, they spent £150,000 renovating Mount Stewart.

Nineteenth-century McMansion

I’d hoped to be able to jog up to the top to get a picture of the view of Mount Stewart, which is now managed by the National Trust. Unfortunately, the footpath stopped and so did I, reluctant to run on the busy road. Instead, I turned around and got another view of the tower dedicated to Charles, a real blot on the landscape.

Travel, UK, Uncategorized

Picturing the Coastal Path

For the past few weeks we’ve been doing a lot of walking around the town of Bangor (N.I.) and its attendant bays. One of our favorite routes is the ‘Coastal Path’, a trail that extends along County Down’s scenic shore. Today John and I took a final walk along it before we move to another town tomorrow.

We started from Bangor and headed to the marina. The square outside the marina and a promenade are something like the equivalent of an Italian piazza. There is a big Christmas tree set up there (firmly anchored with ropes to fend off the sea wind), a clock tower and plenty of benches. It’s a popular place for people to walk, friends sipping takeaway coffee and chatting or mothers pushing strollers or couples walking their dog. There isn’t a lot of boating activity at the moment, most of the boats are sitting quietly in their docks.

Beyond the marina is a a children’s amusement ground called Pickie Funpark. It’s been closed until today, its giant swan-shaped paddleboats lined up neatly, waiting, looking on as giant local gulls used the pond as a bird bath.

Around the corner from that is Skipping Stone Beach. This is a sheltered area popular with swimmers, even now (bear in mind that it’s mid-December and that we are on the 54th parallel north, the same latitude as Quebec and Sakhalin).

Skipping Stone Beach

At the first bend in the path, the landscape becomes a bit wilder. We stopped to look at a plaque sponsored by the local Rotary Club that showed the direction and distance of landmarks such as the Mull of Kintyre, Carrickfergus Castle and Belfast.

Down below us on the rocks and on the sea itself, we saw a number of birds–eiders, gulls, oyster catchers and crows. In the last few weeks we’ve also seen guillemots, kittiwakes, gulls, turnstones and cormorants. In the fields nearby there are pheasants, Irish magpies and wagtails. Locals tell us that the local otter population is doing exceptionally well this year, though the bad thing about that is that they eat tern eggs, so the local tern colony isn’t doing so well. Today we were lucky to see three new kinds of birds: a yellow wagtail, a dunlin and a vagrant ring-necked duck (vagrant because these are native to the Americas but occasionally wander over here).

Picture taken from Bird Watch Ireland

There was also a lot of shipping interest. Every day we see the Stena line ferry, a handsome white boat that crosses over from Scotland to Belfast. There were also two or three container ships waiting to get to Belfast Lough. And closer to home there was a little sailing ship and the lobster boat that does the daily rounds dropping off and picking up traps.

Down the hill, a noticeboard told us we were in Smelt Mill Bay, named for an old lead smeltmill whose powerful bellows were powered by a big waterwheel. Understandably perhaps, there was very little mention of the mill and much more about Saint Columbanus, an impressive monk who lived in the sixth century. He is the first person in literature to have described himself as being Irish. In those days, Bangor Abbey was considered the Light of the World and produced many missionaries including Columbanus. In 590, when the monk was about 40, he set out to sea in a currach with 12 monks intent on travelling to the continent and spreading his monastic light over there. He and his friends established several monasteries in France. Columbanus eventually expired in a monastery in Bobbio, Italy, where the abbey still stands.

A little way along is one of the two new wastewater pumping stations under construction. Along the walls around the construction site, a group called Seaside Revival has put up boards that illuminate aspects of local history with captioned photographs.

In the real world, despite of the lead-smelting history and the not-yet-completed wastewater pumping station, there were a few of hardy swimmers splashing about in the water with their day-glo buoyancy devices, the sound of their chatter and laughter filling the bay.

Further along, everything got wild again. The rocks were covered with grass that John named ‘Viking grass’ because it reminded him of photographs of old Viking settlements in Labrador, Canada.

Further along is Bangor Castle, which is now used as the offices for the local council. It looks like more of a mansion than a castle. Like a lot of places in Northern Ireland, it would make a great setting for a murder mystery.

Last week I was lucky to catch a spectacular sunset in this spot, when the clouds went bright pink. I’m convinced that the intensity of the color was directly related to the coldness of the day. Just as the sun was setting, about 300 crows started croaking and flying around. They then went to roost on some nearby trees, almost one per twig. As they settled down they made a different sound, squeakier and softer as if they were saying goodnight to one another.

Something about the cold air and sea wind was tiring and a warm house seemed even more beckoning than usual. So we turned around and retraced our steps, spurred on by dreams of lunch.

Travel, UK

Walking to the Shop in Bangor, NI

For a couple of weeks now we’ve been in the seaside town of Bangor, Northern Ireland. The winter weather here is not infrequently ‘manky’, a word that The Free Dictionary defines as ‘dirty, filthy, or bad’, and it has been particularly so this weekend. Wind at high speeds, rain at high volume, rough seas, anemic sun and the early encroachment of deepest darkness all create the atmosphere of a grossly unsubtle horror film. The wind is especially dramatic near the marina, where it produces various spooky FX on the masts and ropes and other yacht paraphernalia—clanking, howling, whirring. It puts the gulls in a bad mood, too. They’ve been mewling, keening and caterwauling like banshees.

Aside from the sound effects, there’s a wealth of visual interest—the movements of the tide, the activities of various species of bird and the parade of people and dogs along the esplanade. The other day, for example, I saw a man on a bicycle pulled by six huskies in tight formation. Was he training for the Iditarod? I asked myself.

Turnstones clustered on a rock, facing the wind

One of the things we like to do is go to through downtown Bangor to the ASDA supermarket and see what all is going on.

This is the Covid-19 era, of course, so the hustle and bustle is subdued. Most of the shops are closed, some of them permanently, unfortunately, with plenty of boarded up doors, emptied interiors and dusty lightless windows. Other establishments are all dealing in their own way with restrictions. For the past couple of weeks Northern Ireland has banned indoor and outdoor seating in restaurants and cafes. Other shops have posted mask requirements and a few are even restricting the number of customers in the store. These restrictions are due to be relaxed this Friday, which is a little worrying seeing that local hospitals are already operating at 101% capacity.

We’ve made the trip enough times by now that we’ve picked up a bit of trivia about the area, including the names of famous sons and daughters of Bangor from days of yore. The very street we live on, Seacliff Road, was home to LAM Priestly, pen name of author and suffragette Elizabeth McCracken who wrote The Feminine in Fiction and once invited Sylvia Pankhurst to Belfast as part of a campaign to support equal pay for women doing work for the Great War. Just a few blocks away is the former residence (marked with a plaque) of the artist Colin Middleton (1910-1983).

Sea Wall (1966) by Colin Middleton
© The artist’s estate. Photo credit:
Herbert Art Gallery & Museum;

Colin Middleton’s house is very close to a fancy cafe and deli named Guillemot, a bird that looks like something halfway between an auk and a cormorant but is known locally as the Bangor Penguin. We still haven’t seen one here, though they are eagerly anticipated here after their moulting season in Belfast Lough. This place does an excellent espresso and almost daily there is a gaggle of people clustered in the rainy street waiting for the waitress to come out and take orders or to bring them their paper cup of coping.

Opposite the cafe is the ‘Long Hole’, which seems to have originally been a little sheltered harbor for small boats in the early twentieth century. Nowadays it’s an excellent place for dogs to jump in and fetch tennis balls, expending plenty of energy while their accompanying humans sip coffee and take in the sea view. This Long Hole is next door to Eisenhower Pier, which, yes, is named after that Eisenhower. General Dwight D. stood on this pier in May 1944, inspecting ships as the Allies prepared to storm Normandy. It was known simply as North Pier until 2005, when Mary Eisenhower (the former president’s granddaughter) came to Bangor for a renaming ceremony.

The Long Hole, and houses lined up along Seacliff Drive
The marina

Very near the pier is an old stone tower that was built in 1639 to serve as a Customs House by James Hamilton, 1st Viscount Claneboyne (1560-1644), one of the first landowners in Ulster to bring workers over from Scotland a few years before the Plantations began. Hamilton was a beneficiary of the Nine Years War. It is the oldest building to have been in constant use in Northern Ireland.

Moving inland, we pass establishments that have been closed for several months: The Salty Dog, The Rabbit Room, The Royal, Brian’s Fish and Chips and others. Funland seems to be open still. I’m not sure what goes on in there and nor am I completely convinced that it’s really fun. There’s also a mural of John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten with a subversion of his famous quote, “Anger is an energy.”

To the left is a little park with a clock tower, benches and pigeons. On non-rainy days it’s full of people sipping coffee, chatting and wandering aimlessly. There is a little fountain there and signs to something called Pickie Fun Park, which is apparently a big attraction for families. Crossing the road, we come to the main commercial cluster, heading up the hill past a few cafes and bakeries, a TJ Maxx, a bank and some goodwill stores.

A restaurant cleaning its chairs and tables in preparation for the reopening

One of my favorite things is a display window for a local art collective. I quite like some of the artwork on display, especially the bust of the nurse taking off (or putting on?) her scrubs. Unfortunately it has since been removed from the window and I didn’t see the sculptor’s name. But Jane Irving does a good rhino!

By this time we are about halfway up the hill and veering here and there to keep the requisite two metres between ourselves and other pedestrians, who are generally queuing up outside stores or ATMs. At the top of the hill we reach a large church, the First Bangor Presbyterian Church, completed in 1880, though a Presbyterian congregation has worshipped in the town since 1623.

Then it’s just a short walk across the street and we are at our destination, ASDA. Time to gel-blitz hands and grab groceries!

Running, Travel, UK

Rounding the Ards Peninsula

This week we moved to an apartment by the sea in Bangor, Northern Ireland (i.e. not Wales or Maine). The first thing we noticed is the high concentration of luxury cars in the area. In a ten-minute walk I saw two Ferraris, a Mini convertible, a Maserati SUV and several Audis, BMWs and Mercedes. It’s not that I’m interested in cars, either, it’s just quite a big change from the city, where if a family owns a car at all it tends to be a pretty nondescript vehicle.

Though only 12 miles from Belfast, Bangor is in another sense very far away. There are no more brick row-houses decorated with moss and creeping damp, no more Union Jacks and political banners, no more Strongbow beer and bookies. Here the houses are painted primary colors and decorated with tasteful fake-antique signs. The dogs are groomed and dressed in quilted coats. There’s even a gift shop on the main street called Boodle and Doodle (or something like that) selling cutesy items like silver cork-holders and signs making a claim for ‘Poshest House in Bangor’.

Our front window is large and everyone who passes by on the promenade can (and does) look in, but the obverse of that is we have a great view. From the sofa we can see across Belfast Lough all the way to Carrickfergus, the town of the eponymous song, which boasts its own Norman Castle. Throughout the day, depending on the angle and intensity of the sun, the lough adjusts its colour from aquamarine to turquoise to slate. Skirting the coast, sharp rocks stick up, slick with brine and decorated with the occasional vein of quartz. Gulls hover, bob on the sea or roost on the rocks depending on their mood and little fluff-bellied shore birds poke about among the rocks. They’re some kind of small sandpiper, maybe little stints or red knots, which cluster together and seem almost invisible against the rocks.

Yesterday I went for my first run in the area, not knowing exactly what I’d see but ready to be socked with a heavy dose of negative ions. It was about 8 degrees Celsius and blowing a gale, so I put on my woollen hat and raincoat and hoped for the best. Almost immediately I was glad I did because the immersion of senses

Looking out to the Irish Sea

About half a mile along the road I got to Ballyholme Bay, site of a small yacht club and also a popular place to swim . Although it’s most popular in the summer, there are a few groups that swim all year round and the local Baptist church even dips its new recruits here when the time comes to baptise a member. Today there was no one swimming that I could see, but there were plenty of dog walkers. At the far end of the curve of the bay was a stretch of sandy beach, covered with slippery kelp that smelled fresh and salty, reminding me of the New Zealand beaches I used to walk on in the weekends. On one side of the beach was a rocky wall artfully constructed with giant flintheads on top.

Where the sandy stretched stopped there was a stile leading to a wild muddy path. A sign enjoining dog walkers to restrain their dogs suggested that it was a public access path so I decided to see where it led. The coast here was very pretty, with grass growing right to the shore, the black rocks patched with bright yellow lichen and the invisible birds whose presence I didn’t guess until I heard their warning cry, occasioned by my feet slopping through the mud.

Retreating from the coast I found the path went through a tunnel of gorse, another reminder of New Zealand. A native European plant, some early settlers brought it to New Zealand to use it as a wind-breaking hedges. Unfortunately it did a little bit too well in that fragile island ecosystem and has long been considered a pest there.


Rounding the bend, I found myself in Groomsport, whose name in Irish is Port an Ghiolla Ghruama (Port of the Gloomy Servant). Intriguingly, it may have once been a Viking settlement as pieces of jewelry have been found in the area. Groomsport has its own little bay and on a clear day you can see Scotland across the sea. As I jogged past the little park by the shore, I saw a man making his way slowly along the path as his dog scampered around with an orange ball in its mouth.

At this point I decided it was time to go back to Bangor but I didn’t want to get my feet cold and muddy again so instead of returning around the coast I took the road, which luckily had a sidewalk. I have had some regrettable experiences on Irish roads that have nothing in the way of a verge so that once I had to climb a tree to get out of the way to avoid traffic. This road was unexpectedly pretty and I had one of those great moments that come to you when you stumble on something beautiful. Now that it is November, the trees are either yellow or bare and either way they look very striking.

Euphoria assisted by downward slope

After this it got pretty suburban and I didn’t take many pictures. To make a long story short, I ended up back in Bangor in a high wind ready for a hot beverage.

History, Modern, Poetry, Reviews, UK

MacNeice in Ireland: A Prism of Delight and Pain

Until recently, I knew three things about Louis MacNeice (1907-1963): that he was from Ireland, that he was friends with Auden and that he wrote “The Sunlight on the Garden” . Then last year our friend Gabriel gave us a copy of Autumn Journal (1940), a long poem written in the months leading up to the outbreak of World War Two. It’s a book that sketches History as it is experienced personally, in real time, in a dance of daily impressions, emotions, opinions, memories, hopes and doubts. Although it’s written in quatrains, it easily conveys the sense of genuine internal dialogue. He questions the use of being an “impresario of the ancient Greeks” at a college; he decides it’s right to vote in a by-election; he fondly remembers a holiday in Spain; he regrets the loss of his wife. The book provides intimate access to Louis MacNeice’s mental reality.

Portrait of Louis MacNeice by his lover Nancy Sharp

Now that I’ve lived in Belfast for a few months and have read his Selected Poems (edited by Belfast poet Michael Longley), another aspect of MacNeice has crystallized for me, and that the importance of his Irishness in his poetry. It’s a topic that has irritated critics on both sides of the Irish Sea, partly because he evades categorization and is maddeningly ambivalent about his loyalties. Once when asked where he lived, he replied jokingly that he had “a foot in both graves”.  Historically, English critics have almost accepted him as an honorary Englishman, being Auden’s pal, while Irish critics view his membership as a fellow national as problematic. The fact is, though, that Louis MacNeice is an Irishman: he was born to parents originally from western Ireland and he spent the first nine years of his life in the North East, in Carrickfergus and Belfast:

I was born in Belfast between the mountain and the gantries
         To the hooting of lost sirens and the clang of trams:
Thence to Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
         Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
          The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scotch Quarter was a line of residential houses
          But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt.
“Like crucifixes the gantries stand” in “Belfast”

At nine, he left the country and spent the rest of his life in England (minus a brief teaching stint in the USA) but he never stopped writing about his childhood in Ireland. While it is tempting to read his childhood poems (“Autobiography” and “Carrickfergus”) simply as lyrics to his youth, or therapeutic examinations of formative trauma, they are also subtle but serious reflections on the turbulent history and politics of the country of his birth. Just as the overlay of internal experience on shared historical reality is a feature of Autumn Journal, his Irish poems are enriched by their historical context; they are snapshots of a figure in a particular time and place. MacNeice’s ideal poet, remember, is “a reader of the newspapers”, “informed in economics” and “actively interested in politics” (Modern Poetry [1938]).

What’s more, the uncomfortable ambivalence that characterizes all of MacNeice’s poetry, his insistence on the essential and dynamic variety, a world where things are “incorrigibly plural” may partly be the effect of growing up in a country that constantly pulls in two opposite directions:

And if the world were black or white entirely
        And all of the charts were plain
Instead of a mad weir of tigerish waters,
         A prism of delight and pain,

We might be surer where we wished to go
        Or again we might be merely
Bored but in brute reality there is no
        Road that is right entirely.

What is most immediately striking about MacNeice’s attitude to his childhood home is a sense of disconnection. It seems, in spite of the vividness of his memories, that the north never felt like home to him, even when he was in it. In “Carrick Revisited” (1945) he describes it as an accidental ‘interlude’.

Torn before birth from where my father’s dwelt,
Schooled from the age of ten in a foreign voice,
Yet neither western Ireland nor southern England
Cancels this interlude; what chance misspelt
May never now be righted by any choice.

Whatever then my inherited or acquired
Affinities, such remains my childhood’s frame
Like a belated rock in the red Antrim clay
That cannot at this era change its pitch or name—
And the pre-natal mountain is far away.
“Carrick Revisited”

This disconnection is built into the history of Ulster itself. Originally Irish, like MacNeice, it is has not been fully Irish nor quite English for a long time. The events that created this state (the Plantations, the Battle of the Boyne, Partition, as you like) “may never now be righted by any choice” even in 2020.

The Norman castle at Carrickfergus

Louis’ father John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942) was a rector for the anglican Church of Ireland, and he would later become a bishop. John MacNeice was a man of conscience who sought interfaith cooperation and peace. In 1912, for example, he supported Home Rule and refused to sign the Ulster Covenant, a brave (though hopeless) stance, considering the Ulster Volunteer Force was founded that very year and marched the streets in their thousands against ‘Rome Rule’.  In 1936, when officiating at the funeral of Sir Edward Carson (the architect of Irish Partition), John MacNeice refused to allow the Union Jack to hang over Carson’s tomb. (Interesting side note: Carson was also the prosecutor whose cross-examination of Oscar Wilde put the latter in gaol for homosexuality).

While John MacNeice was personally on the side of interfaith cooperation, he must have been aware that the Church of Ireland owed its existence to the repression of the country’s Catholic majority. It was the church of English colonists, for centuries the only church acceptable to the Crown (in spite of its dearth of adherents). In 1704, for example, the Test Act restricted public office to members of the Church of Ireland, a law that remained in place until 1829.  And from the 16th to the 19th centuries, all Irish regardless of their true faith, were compelled to pay a tithe to the Church of Ireland, a practice that only ended after the Tithe War (1830-1836) .

 “Carrickfergus”, an apparently simple poem about MacNeice’s childhood, implies this history, the jarring juxtapositions and sad complexities of a society shaped by colonial interests:

I was the rector’s son, born to the anglican order,
Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

Patrons of St. Nicholas’ Parish Church where Louis’ father preached, the Chichesters had a huge amount to do with the poverty of the Catholic population. Sir Arthur Chichester (1563-1625) arrived in Ireland to assist Elizabeth I in the Nine Years War, a conflict that started when Irish Gaelic earls Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell rebelled against English rule. In 1600, Chichester was appointed head of the English garrison at Carrickfergus and he immediately resorted to scorched-earth tactics in the area not only to deprive O’Neill’s army of food but also to starve and murder local civilians. In his own description of the campaign, he boasted, “I burned along the lough within four miles of Dungannon and killed one hundred people, sparing none, of what quality, age or sex so ever, besides many burned to death; we kill man, woman and child, horse, beast and whatsoever we find…” It sounds as if he was pleased with himself and indeed he was handsomely rewarded for his service; under James I, Chichester was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland. He served in this role from 1605 to 1616, during which time he oversaw widespread persecution of Catholics and engineered the Plantation of Ulster, uprooting Catholics and awarding their land to wealthy Scottish and English landowners. Biographer David Lloyd (1635-1692) praised him for being “effectually assistant, first to plough and break up that barbarous nation by conquest, and then to sow it with seeds of civilty.”

Portrait of a Psycho (c) Belfast Harbour Commissioners; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When he arrived in Ireland, Chichester had been on the verge of bankruptcy; by the time he was removed from Irish affairs, he held title to 100,000 acres of land.  MacNeice’s ironic “their portion sure” conceivably refers to Chichester’s “cut” rather than to any special nook in Heaven.

Louis MacNeice’s parents are seen dimly. His father is always shown in his official capacity, an anglican churchman, and his mother Elizabeth (Lily) a soft ghost. The poem “Autobiography” describes her with painful vagueness, “My mother wore a yellow dress, / Gently, gently, gentleness.”. Sadly, Lily contracted uterine cancer when Louis was still very young. After a hysterectomy she fell into a bout of depression and left their home for a psychiatric facility in Dublin. A year later, she contracted tuberculosis and died. MacNeice writes simply, “When I was five the black dreams came; / Nothing after was quite the same.” (“Autobiography”).

It is perhaps stretching a point to say that “Autobiography” is a political poem, but it is still a notable coincidence that two things of historic significance happened in 1914 so that “Nothing after was quite the same”. The first was the “black dream” of World War One, a bloody debacle that caused a whole generation to lose its taste for war. The second was an amendment to the Home Rule Act that would exclude Ulster counties from impending Home Rule, effectively cutting the country in two. The amendment was powerfully argued for by Sir Edward Carson, the Irish Unionist and first signatory to the Ulster Covenant of 1912, which had vowed to resist Home Rule using “all means necessary.” Before this Home Rule Act was put into law, the Great War started but Partition was now practically certain: Northern Ireland would be separated, traumatically, from its motherland.


MacNeice dramatizes the building conflict between Unionists and Catholics mainly through details caught by a child’s eye, snatches of conversation gleaned from the domestic circle. “The Gardener” from Novelettes is the portrait of a gardener “With a finch in a cage and a framed/ certificate of admission/Into the Orange order” who becomes increasingly senile and decrepit until he can no longer even attend the Twelfth of July parades:

At ten o’clock or later
You could hear him mowing the lawn,
The mower moving forward,
And backward, forward and backward
For he moved while standing still;
He was not quite up to the job.
The Orange Parade of 1920

In “Belfast” he glimpses wretched Catholic women briefly and feels a mixture of pity and shame:

In the porch of the chapel before the garish Virgin
A shawled factory-woman as if shipwrecked there
Lies a bunch of limbs glimpsed in the cave of gloom
By us who walk in the street so buoyantly and glib.
Belfast Linen mill 1918
And in Autumn Journal (Canto xvi) he recalls an atmosphere of fear heightened by rumour and ignorance:

And I remember, when I was little, the fear
Bandied among the servants
That Casement would land at the pier
With a sword and a horde of rebels;
And how we used to expect, at a later date,
When the wind blew from the west, the noise of shooting
Starting in the evening at eight
In Belfast in the York Street district
(Autumn Journal canto xvi)

This vignette evokes two incidents related to the future Irish Civil War: the gun running of Roger Casement and the bloody Belfast riots of 1920-22.

Roger Casement

In the lead up to the Easter Rising, Irish Nationalist Sir Roger Casement arranged for shipment of guns from the German government, for delivery in April 1916. The weapons were carried in a Norwegian vessel Aud-Norge, while Casement and his comrades travelled to Ireland in a German U-boat. The British managed to scuttle Aud before it landed but the U-boat put Casement ashore at Banna Strand, 21 April 1916 (three days before the Easter Rising). He was discovered there and arrested on charges of high treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. His was a cause célèbre due to his fame as a humanitarian activist in the Congo and Peru, for which he had been knighted in 1911. The British Government used (possibly forged) diaries detailing his homosexual liaisons to dissuade supporters from advocating clemency. Despite high-profile intercessors and a United States Senate appeal against the death sentence, he was hanged on 3 August 1916.

Gun-running at that time was something of a national sport. In April 1914, in the Larne gun-running, Major Frederick H. Crawford and Captain Wilfrid Spender had managed to smuggle almost 25,000 rifles and between 3 and 5 million rounds of ammunition from the German Empire for the use of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Shipments landed in Larne, Donaghadee and Bangor with no police intervention. The Howth gun-running incident  occurred that same year, in July, when 1,500 Mauser rifles were delivered to Irish Volunteers from a private yacht in broad daylight. Scottish troops intervened ineffectually and, when baited by the crowd, attacked the protesters with rifle fire and bayonets, killing four civilians and wounding 30 more.

As for the “shooting in the York Street district”, even if MacNeice cannot have personally witnessed it since he was at school in England, it suggests the “carnival of terrorism”  that rocked the city between 1920 and 1922 and claimed the lives of at least 455 people, 58% of them Catholic–in a city where Catholics were only 25% of the population. The Irish Government estimated that 50,000 Catholics left the north permanently in response to violence and intimidation in this period . Neither the British Government nor the local Unionist leadership made any effort to reinstate these displaced people:

When my silent terror cried;
Nobody, nobody replied.

Checking the roll call of the dead, 1920

Inevitably, there are echoes and tributes in MacNeice, to Yeats and Joyce. In Ulysses, Stephen Daedalus utters that famous statement of despair, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Canto XVI of MacNeice’s Autumn Journal follows directly from that thought:

Nightmare leaves fatigue:
We envy men of action
Who sleep and wake, murder and intrigue
Without being doubtful, without being haunted.

This canto, as well as “Valediction” (1934), is one of MacNeice’s most direct comments on his attitude to Ireland. Both poems express a reluctant connection and an agonizing frustration with its problems. In “Valediction” he burns his bridges with the Old Country in a somewhat priggishly elegiac tone:

…being ordinary too I must in course discuss
What we mean to Ireland or Ireland to us;
I have to observe milestone and curio
The beaten buried gold of an old king’s bravado,
Falsetto antiquities, I have to gesture,
Take part in, or renounce, each imposture;
Therefore I resign, goodbye, the chequered and the quiet hills
The gaudily-striped Atlantic, the linen-mills
That swallow the shawled file, the black moor where half
A turf-stake stands like a ruined cenotaph;

Canto xvi of Autumn Journal is comparatively unhinged, an exhilarating philippic that lashes out against all of it:

I hate your grandiose airs,
Your sob-stuff, your laugh and your swagger,
Your assumption that everyone cares
Who is the king of your castle.
Castles are out of date,
The tide flows round the children’s sandy fancy;
Put up what flag you like, it is too late
To save your soul with bunting.
Odi atque amo:
Shall we cut this name on trees with a rusty dagger?

Brian Boru, legendary King of Munster

The quote from from Catullus 85 (“I hate and I love. How can I do that you might ask./I don’t know, but I feel it and I am tortured.”) exposes this is as a love poem: Catullus’ extensive cursing of Lesbia was only a sign of his wounded love, and MacNeice’s rage is belied by exhausted admissions and entreaties:

Such was my country and I thought I was well
Out of it, educated and domiciled in England,
Though yet her name keeps ringing like a bell
In an underwater belfry.

 “Why should I want to go back/ To you, Ireland, my Ireland?” he asks, and the question answers itself but ultimately solves nothing.